In “Captive Audience,” Lucas Mann explores the nature and appeal of reality television while also turning his attention to his marriage and the ways in which the shared viewing may shape or reflect aspects of his relationship with his wife. Mann’s approach to his topic is fascinating, and at times unsettling.
In this e-interview, Mann, a graduate of the University of Iowa’s Nonfiction Writing Program reveals the origins of the book, the challenges inherent in writing it, and his thoughts on the ways in which the word “captive” might apply to reality TV participants and viewers alike.
Q: How the idea for the book — blending a consideration of reality TV with an exploration of your marriage — arise?
A: I’ve had a vague urge to try to engage sincerely and emotionally with reality TV on the page for a while. There was actually a sort of genesis moment that occurred in Iowa City, right before I moved away. I was at a reading given by a really brilliant novelist, and one of the audience comments was that his latest book, set in present-day America, bore few markers to remind the reader of that. It could have existed at any time — it was timeless, a goal so often thrown around for literature.
So there was this conversation about timelessness and not wanting to burden or cheapen literature with these petty, topical stamps that would mean nothing to a future reader. The author said something to the effect of, “I mean, I wouldn’t want to read a novel about Britney Spears having a breakdown on TV,” and I just thought, Oh I would. I was writing other things at the time, but something about saddling a narrative with all of this really time-specific, mundane, “low” baggage, and still trying to get at real, honest, lived depth through that frame, stuck in my head as an appealing challenge.
The marriage aspect grew organically when I started trying to capture the experience of watching reality TV. I realized that the act of watching these shows was almost always a shared experience, and I got interested in the ways that the scene on screen bleeds into and becomes part of the lived scene. My wife and I shared this thing. The act of watching these emotions on screen was a huge part of the cohabitating intimacy that we shared with one another. That permeable relationship between lived experience and textual analysis felt really exciting to explore; it became the heart of the piece, and so these weird love letters to my wife began to take shape, rooting the act of trying to understand the watching in the act of trying to understand our story together.
Q: The book offers up your relationship as a sort of reality show on the page. What were the technical challenges of that approach — and what were the personal challenges?
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A: I knew pretty early on that I only wanted to write about reality TV in a way that skewed as far away as possible from more traditional cultural criticism — analyzing a text from a safe, all-knowing perch, the enlightened observer telling people what a show means to the culture. It’s so easy to write off reality TV and its stars, but I thought if I was going to try to analyze the effects of their work, it was only right to try to meet them at the particularly vulnerable emotional register of their performance.
I began this book right around the publication of my second book, “Lord Fear,” which was about my brother’s heroin overdose and its ramifications within my family. I was having the very bizarre, disturbing sensation of simultaneously being horrified that I’d put this stuff out there but also wishing it was getting more attention. So I was really thinking about the strange act of making one’s own dramas public, the appeals and consequences of that act, particularly making it one’s profession. I felt a natural parallel happening when considering these shows, while also continuing to make a spectacle of my own life, and wondering what compels anyone, myself included, to do this. From a technical level, this really helped me to write the book, I think — it felt really natural and emotionally potent to write about the shows and then bounce over to the show of my life. They fed into each other, ratcheted up the stakes.
Personally, it was way more challenging. I’ve been saying periodically that I should scrap this project, that it’s not worth it, every other day for like three years. I made sure that my wife had the chance to look over the whole manuscript twice, and we talked a lot about it. She’s brilliant, and an actress, so these ideas of art making, ambition, performance — they’re a part of our conversations anyway. When she first read the book, I think there was a sense of violation. We talked about what worked and what didn’t, what felt invasive and why. Obviously, anything she wanted gone was gone. But she told me to keep writing. By the final draft, she said she was excited to see it out in the world. She said it felt like us. That made me happy.
Q: I’ve been thinking about the word “captive,” which is evocative of more than the simple phrase “captive audience.” To what degree are those who participate in — and those who watch — reality programming captives, and to what? Are there other ways you think about the word in this context?
A: I think the tension of the questions you bring up undergirds the whole experience of watching reality TV. So much of watching is wondering, sometimes out loud, Why are they doing this? And we never know, but the shows invite us to speculate, and then that speculation has to turn, in some way, internal — would I do that? And also why can’t I look away from someone doing that?
I think the sense of captivity shifts depending on the show. On a show like “Intervention” or “My 600 Pound Life,” there’s the feeling of the participants being held captive by these ingrained narratives of addiction and compulsion, the desperation to find help somewhere. That’s really uncomfortable but also really potent to watch. Then with a show like (“Keeping Up with) the Kardashians,” even though the stars are so much more empowered, there’s still the sense of their captivity to the success that these shows have provided. Do they feel trapped? How much does the attention wear on them? How often do they wonder, in the odd private moment, if the attention is worth it? Would they know how to be with the cameras gone? And then, again, the questioning becomes internal — would I be able to stop watching them? Am I trapped in watching this particular type of spectacle? Have they trapped me, as I’m sitting here wondering about their captivity?
Q: How did your experience in the UI Nonfiction Writing Program shape you as writer or contribute to your craft?
A: The NWP shaped my writing in ways that might be too enormous to properly express. Perhaps the most lingering effect is a sense of permission and freedom while writing. It’s easy to see non-fiction as defined in static, constricting ways. I arrived at Iowa with that in mind. I was coming out of the journalism world, and so everything was rigid — memoir means this, reporting means this, this is your very specific responsibility to the reader, this is what a piece should look like. At Iowa, I got steeped in a very extensive history of people just experimenting, playing around with weird ways to get at what they thought and felt and were curious about. That sense of freedom, particularly in form, and in blending reportage, memoir, and criticism in whatever way feels new or necessary to me, has been a huge animating force in everything I’ve written. And of course, some of my best friends were my classmates and are now some of my favorite writers. That resource of community is the thing I’m most grateful for in my career.
Q: What are you working on now?
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A: I’m working on my first novel. I think it’s a pretty internal, essayistic novel, centering around a mother and son in an old house in Providence, R.I., where I live. It’s been exciting to try something completely new, and also discover the ways in which it doesn’t feel that new. But check back with me in a few years; maybe this is a terrible idea.