Trivia contest lands Madison man in favorite author’s next novel

Jason Horowitz also wins chat with novelist David Mitchell
Jason Horowitz And David Mitchell
Madison's Jason Horowitz, left, and novelist David Mitchell. (Horowitz photo courtesy of Jason Horowitz; Mitchell photo by Ian Muttoo/courtesy of Flickr)

If Jason Horowitz is known in Madison outside his family, friends and colleagues at the University of Wisconsin­–Madison School of Medicine where he is a child psychologist, it’s likely through the folk-rock band The Whiskey Farm.

Horowitz, 44, who helped found the band in 2010, sings, plays guitar and writes many of its original songs, including the 2020 release, “In the Darkness,” which is about finding light in bleak times.

“I wrote it pre-Covid,” Horowitz says. “It feels more timely now.”

Yet Horowitz has an additional – and quite recent – claim to fame. Actually, it’s so recent it hasn’t happened yet.

But at some point in the future, the name Jason Horowitz will appear, perhaps as a saint, a sinner, or, more fittingly, a pizza delivery driver (more on that momentarily) in the next novel from the acclaimed English author David Mitchell.

Mitchell’s current novel, “Utopia Avenue,” was published in July, and while the cover story critique in the New York Times Book Review was mixed, the space it was accorded speaks to Mitchell’s prominence.

His intricate novels have confounded some while delighting many others, including Horowitz, who at the conclusion of the psychology internship program he runs at UW gives each graduate a copy of Mitchell’s novel, “The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet.”

“It’s my favorite book ever,” Horowitz says.

Earlier this summer – likely due to authors not physically touring during the pandemic – Mitchell and his publisher, Random House, announced the publication of “Utopia Avenue” would be celebrated with a trivia contest devoted to Mitchell’s work held virtually through 10 bookstores across the United States.

When Horowitz heard about it, he turned to his wife, Madison native Kerry Burke. “The one time we see a trivia contest from an author, it would just happen to be my favorite author of all time? I have to do this.”

Horowitz grew up in Milwaukee, and met Kerry at Camp Minikani, a summer camp near Menomonee Falls. They’ve lived in Madison since 2008 and have two kids, ages 10 and 6.

Camp Minikani also sparked Horowitz’s interest in guitar. “All the counselors I looked up to played guitar around the campfire,” he says. “The day I got my first contract to be a counselor, I promised myself I would learn to play guitar.”

The Whiskey Farm has won awards from the Madison Area Music Association. Their songs promote social justice and they often play to raise money for good causes. Horowitz also writes songs inspired by history, including “The Boys of Forest Hill”, about the Confederate soldiers buried at a Madison cemetery.

Of Mitchell’s books, Horowitz says, “His novels are so different and so broad in scope, but he creates this universe where characters from one novel might resurface in another.”

Since the characters can reappear, Horowitz decided to reread all of Mitchell’s novels in advance of the publication of “Utopia Avenue.” It made him uniquely prepared when the trivia contest was announced.

The contest had a preliminary round, through the 10 bookstores – Horowitz participated via a store in Knoxville – with the preliminary winners squaring off in the finals. The trivia questions were presented in a “Jeopardy”-style format, with the first to answer correctly scoring points.

Horowitz won his first-round competition, earning a seat in the final two weeks later.

Done via Zoom, David Mitchell was on the stream from his home in Ireland, providing commentary and backstory between questions.

“He was exactly how you would hope your favorite author would be,” Horowitz says. “He was gracious, thoughtful and interesting.”

The final’s first questions were so hard and answered so quickly by others that Horowitz thought his chances were doomed. “This is hopeless,” he told Kerry.

But in preparation, Horowitz had combed through the books for obscure references that would make great trivia. In the novel “Number9Dream” there was a hideous pizza recipe. Horowitz committed it to memory, and sure enough, it was a big-point question near the contest’s conclusion.

Horowitz nailed the ingredients: banana, quail eggs, scallops, octopus ink and triple chilis.

“That was the question that put me ahead at the end,” he says.

And he stayed ahead. “It was pretty exciting. My kids were in the other room watching the YouTube feed and cheering.”

Horowitz’s prize for winning is having his name given to a character in Mitchell’s next novel. But the real prize was getting 10 minutes at the end to chat by Zoom one-on-one with Mitchell.

Earlier, at the outset, all the contestants introduced themselves and Horowitz talked about how he gives his graduating students a copy of Mitchell’s “Thousand Autumns.”

“I’m really honored, Jason,” the author replied. “That’s lovely.”

Doug Moe is a Madison writer. Read his monthly column, Person of Interest, in Madison Magazine.