In 1989, Richard Schwadel and Brian Roberts wrote not a novel, but a novelty. "L.A. Shortcuts," a good-humored book full of maps and commuting tips, was their self-published collection of bypasses through a region synonymous with freeway gridlock.
Upon its release, the manual enjoyed a brief ride as the region's top-selling local guidebook. Then, as expected, sales slowed like the Santa Monica Freeway on a Friday afternoon.
That is, until Jan. 17, when a violent sneeze by Mother Nature worsened congestion like nothing before, sending motorists on a desperate hunt for ways to avoid it.
"Our orders increased about tenfold right after the quake," says Schwadel with a note of near-disbelief in his voice. "Literally the day after the earthquake we got a huge order from our distributor, and it's been incredible."
Adds Roberts, his equally amazed co-author: "We're pushing Jacqueline Susann off the front shelves again."
Interest was so high that Schwadel, a film editor by day, was invited to dispense commuting advice on the aptly titled radio show, "Which Way L.A.?"
With him was David (Dr. Roadmap) Rizzo, author of "Freeway Alternates," a similar handy-dandy guide to shortcuts around Southern California. Like Schwadel and Roberts, Rizzo logged an instant post-quake jump in demand for his book, as people clamored to unlock the secrets of back-door streets that Rizzo, a native Angeleno, has known "from birth."
Of course, it didn't hurt that retailers, smelling quick cash, yanked copies of "L.A. Shortcuts" and "Freeway Alternates" from local-interest shelves in the back of the store, propping them up on stands in their windows and on their counters. Glassy-eyed commuters whose mental health had collapsed with portions of the Santa Monica and Golden State freeways were easy prey.
"Seeing (the books) right there jogged their minds into thinking, 'Yeah, yeah, I need that,' " says Lisa McKim, an associate manager at Brentano's in Century City, who reports that sales of the two guides picked up significantly after the quake.
Now that both the Santa Monica and Golden State freeways have been restored sooner than expected, the market for the books may tail off. But that doesn't disappoint any of the three writers, whose guides were more personal obsessions than commercial ones.
Schwadel and Roberts, who met while working on a television show a decade ago, spent four years compiling, verifying and timing the 90 routes included in "L.A. Shortcuts," which has sold about 30,000 copies to date.
Many of the bypasses the co-authors stumbled onto themselves. Others they gleaned or wheedled from colleagues, cabbies and couriers, some of whom would sooner "give up their firstborn" than share their commuting secrets.
"Shortcuts are almost an unwritten folklore," says Schwadel, 38. "Everybody has their own route to get somewhere, and each person's route is the best."
Although the book hit the stands five years ago, Roberts and Schwadel say most of the shortcuts remain current. An informal test recently of several proved successful, except that the drives routinely took a minute or two longer than advertised.
Fed up with the Hollywood Freeway gridlock into Downtown Los Angeles? Try the "Golden Temple" bypass (each of the shortcuts has a name), avoiding the Four-Level Interchange by exiting the freeway a few miles west of Downtown and taking Temple into the city core.
Need to throttle across the San Fernando Valley floor? Then get a "Kick in the Oxnard," along Oxnard Street from White Oak Avenue, hooking up with Victory Boulevard all the way down to Valley Circle.
"Freeway Alternates," published in 1990, covers a wider swath of Southern California than just Los Angeles, listing 101 separate locations and directions on how to reach them. Many of the routes are quite complicated, involving up to 10 turns as you zigzag your way across a single page of "The Thomas Guide."
Rizzo, 43, discovered his shortcuts while crisscrossing the region as a foot doctor making house calls.
"I spent more time getting to a patient's house than treating a patient," he says. "I sat behind the wheel for hours and hours. It was Preparation H time."
A small mail-order business of selling shortcuts blossomed into writing the book, shooting a new video on how to avoid traffic jams and acting as a commuting consultant ("Dr. Roadmap") on a morning radio talk show. Now Rizzo has largely forsaken podiatry to work full-time in "transportation demand management."
But neither Rizzo nor Schwadel and Roberts can rely solely on book sales for their income, despite renewed interest in their guides since the Northridge earthquake.
Besides, the question must be asked: Wouldn't runaway success for their manuals and the shortcuts also bring about their downfall?
Roberts, 36, puts it into perspective. "We've sold 30,000 books, which is just a drop in the bucket in terms of the number of drivers every day. If we sold a million copies, maybe it would make a difference."