Lucas Mann is interested in everything. Sincerely. His first book Class A followed a minor league baseball team in rural Iowa but was really a mediation on small-town Americana. His second book was an in-depth exploration of who exactly his charismatic and ambitious brother was before a heroin overdose killed him. Now, he’s written about his relationship with his wife and how sharing an interest in reality television brought them closer together.
Captive Audience is a loosely structured set of essays that move between time and location and seeks connection and meaning in our lives. Mann has always had a keen eye for what makes people tick and now he turns it inward to explore his own desires. All of his books, regardless of subject matter, have an undeniable wit underlining his writing, and this love letter of a book is no different.
The Millions: Captive Audience tracks your relationship with your wife and reality TV over the course of numerous years. How did you know this was going to be a book?
Lucas Mann: I didn’t. There was a vague idea in mind about writing a book about watching reality TV. It was almost a challenge to set for myself to write about something I’m very interested in. This was sort of my white whale. A lot of the watching was just reruns we happened to be watching when I knew I was writing the book and some of it was just memories of scenes that were stuck in my mind. Later on, if that scene was sticking in the narrative I could go back to find it. I debated between going out and finding shows that fit my cultural criticism narrative or just using these things that happened to pop up in my life. I went with the latter.
TM: What is it about reality TV that made it become your white whale?
LM: The origin story was that when I was still in graduate school in Iowa, an award-winning author did a reading and one of the compliments from the audience was about how it took place in modern times, but could take place in any time because it felt so detached from the modern. The writer said you want your writing to be timeless. He put out an example of not wanting to read a novel about Britney Spears breaking down on TV or something. I was in the audience saying how I totally want to read that novel.
I wanted to write about these things that were so culturally relevant, but how they interact with your own personal narrative. When I looked at it in my own life I looked at how much shared time and meaningful time with my wife has this actually taken up. People say this sort of TV doesn’t resonate, but if it didn’t resonate, then what the hell was I doing?
TM: What do you think draws people to reality TV either as a real pleasure or a guilty pleasure?
LM: I feel like the book was a project the figure out that answer. One of the interesting things is the relationship between pleasure and guilty pleasure. How guilty pleasure is such an easy phrase for people to describe things while others like Chuck Klosterman have pushed against.
For me, a lot of the pleasure is in the guilt. It’s an active pleasure where you passively watch these things happen, but then also question what they are doing. Should I turn it off? Why do I remember this fact about this random person on this TV show? For a lot of people, you’re constantly negotiating what you’re doing and why you like this show. It feels easy to watch, but then, on the other hand, is complex.
Television has been elevated to an art form. You can watch 12 straight episodes of Westworld and feel like you’ve done something important. Whatever this low culture anxiety has been removed. However, reality TV still functions as this lowbrow piece of culture.
TM: For me, I was always hoity-toity with television and never watched anything. I moved in with my sister after not really being close as adults and she said they had to watch Kardashians on Sunday or whatever. Actually, I know it’s Sundays and I don’t know why I’m trying to hide the fact that I can tell you exactly what time it’s on. I ended up getting hooked after a few episodes and had to start keeping up with them because it felt like this endorphin high.
I mean, we have these hundreds or thousands of friends and followers on social media, but who is to say those people I never see in real life are as real as The Real Housewives or whomever?
LM: I think that’s true. Everyone has these relationships with how we get into these reality shows. When people asked me what I was writing about a lot of the reactions were unpleasant, but a few people would say how they don’t watch a lot of reality TV, but there would be this one show. Then they gave this very specific time stamp and a moment they can recall.
We always set the scene for these shows more than we would with other shows. Like, this was a moment in my life, my sister was there, wer’e in this apartment living together. Whether it starts as an explanation, it becomes part of the watching experience. That feels like an enormous part about how anyone talks about their favorite shows. From a writing standpoint, that’s really compelling. We can’t even talk about the show without setting the scene of how we watched it.
TM: It almost starts as a defense mechanism. “I understand Jersey Shore is whatever, but one time I came home while my male roommate was watching a marathon and we didn’t move from our couch the entire day.”
LM: You need to tell the story of it.
TM: I recently read in Psychology Today that more educated people—like PhD students—make up the majority of demographics watching reality because we crave drama as social creatures, but don’t necessarily want it in our lives.
LM: I just saw that. I think that’s part of it. Nothing emphasizes your stasis or boredom more than watching this over-the-top intensity in someone else’s life. Then it also stokes our intellect by constantly making us ask about the implications of what they do and how we would react.
TM: I find it so interesting that people pretend they don’t watch reality TV, but once you crack into one of the shows they love, the walls come down and everyone can rattle off four reality shows they love.
LM: Right. Then there is always a reason why they watch those shows and not others. When we bought our house a few years ago a realtor mentioned watching House Hunters or those other home buying and renovation shows. The realtor had to follow it up with something like, “…only because it’s so funny because they’re so staged.” That was their thing.
Even when I was interviewing reality producers they would say how they don’t watch the shows they produce in their own time because they like to watch people who are good at something because then it’s art and not gossip. There are always these ways we define footholds into things that are important to us.
TM: What are shows that you hold close to your heart after this entire experience?
LM: It’s weird. I spent all of my life caring about this topic and then researching it was exhausting and stressful. Like I did with baseball after Class A, I am entering a part in my life where I am less interested in reality TV. It’s weird timing. For this book, the things that were always on my mind were always things like Vanderpump Rules. Keeping Up with the Kardashians was interesting to dive into and then out of, then once you were in it again they were still there. They were incredibly compelling and exhausting to think about. I wrote about a lot of The Real Housewives franchises in my book. A lot of that has to do with the shared experiences of my wife and I. Those people came into our marriage for whatever reason.
TM: In the book you, mention loneliness, dissatisfaction, and incompleteness. Are those things you think draw people to being on reality TV?
LM: I think it’s impossible to know for different people. Part of watching is being invited to make these assumptions about that. For me, a lot of it is just thinking about that. There is an implied combination of wanting more than what I have now, but also the justification of wanting someone to see me searching for me. That’s the tension that is compelling to me. That’s how I imagine it happening at least on some level.
One of the things that drew me to write this, was looking at myself after Lord Fear came out where I though, “Holy shit, what did I just put out there about myself and the people I love?” as well as, “Why aren’t more people reading it?” That felt so strange and tense and hard to reconcile with myself. As I was trying to write again after that book thinking about this weird mechanism of self-revelation and then this desire to not be embarrassed in these relationships of things that are intimate enough that they become interesting enough to write about. Especially what you’re willing to give up of that intimacy.
TM: This book is subtitled “On Love and Reality TV” and I have talked a lot about reality TV because I’m single and hate love at the moment. But, this is also a love letter in a sense to your wife and your relationship. Why did you choose to frame it this way?
LM: I loved the idea from a craft standpoint it feels like everything I have written has had the pretense of something happening outside of myself and my personal response to that. I didn’t know if could go inside something. Also, in thinking about reality TV and how it was something I spent my time, it was always rooted in us—in my wife and I. It became part of this challenge because a) it’s hard to write about a happy relationship and then b) if I am trying to be really honest and do it essayistically, can I frame what I feel so genuine about with this background of shared time watching these things that may not be talked about or not valued. Then at the end, there is nothing to be learned; it was just shared time.
TM: With Lord Fear and then this book you play with the chronology of events. In an interview, you said how you think memory just works like that and not in a specific pattern. When you’re writing do you just write whatever and hope it makes sense later?
LM: Yeah, basically. This felt more freeform than anything I have ever written. Each of these three books has been a move away from a cohesive contained narrative. Class A had a season built into it. I could riff off of everything but I knew the scene would pick up with the team. Lord Fear had a chronological process of me interviewing people trying to figure out more about my brother. I could move around time a bit, but there was still that structure.
For Captive Audience, I told myself to take a leap on it and that there wasn’t going to be any structure to this. I had no idea how it was going to look or where it was going to end. It was just to follow this essayist train of thought. I liked the idea of writing these scenes that could be moved around thematically.
TM: You’ve written about a variety of topics in your first three books. Moving forward, what interests you?
LM: Right now, I am trying to write a novel for the first time. I don’t know. One of the weird things about the writing I’ve done, I shot myself in the foot by not finishing something and picking up and moving forward in that direction. At the end of every project, there was always an “oh shit’ moment. I think now after three books, there are larger ideas I am concerned with. Even though these books seem very different on the surface, there are these questions of performance, community, and connection.