Interviewed by Gardner Mounce
Let’s start off with a hardball question. When did you first start watching The Bachelor?
Oh, god. I think the first season I watched was Brad Womack’s first time around, ten or twelve years ago. He famously didn’t pick either of his top two, choosing instead to sit alone on the proposal pedestal staring at his unbestowed final rose. The Internet lost its mind—who did he think he was not to find love in six weeks? The humanity of it all hooked me. I’ve tried to quit many times since, but it never seems to take.
Are you a serious or an ironic fan? Or are those the same thing?
Neither answer would be entirely honest. I’m fascinated by my own fascination with the show, and by the fascination of others (including many people who are much smarter than me, and I say this only partially to exonerate myself from the shame). I’m interested in what this fascination would seem to suggest about Bachelor junkies and about our culture at large. The show seems like a harmless bit of fluff, but there’s darkness there. For one thing, I think it can be dangerous to allow ourselves to become too bewitched by such shallow amusements. We’re seeing this now on a grand scale. Bad things can happen when ridiculous TV personalities escape from their boxes, imagining they have earned their fame.
Which isn’t to say that I don’t watch the show with a wretched degree of emotional investment. I do. It’s like reading the same sad book over and over again, hoping that this time it will end differently, that these people will turn out to be good and make healthy choices. But the situation doesn’t allow for that. So it’s tragic.
Imagine that you’re a historian and the year is 4,000 AD and you’re writing a cultural analysis of The Bachelor and the society for whom it was made. What’s your thesis?
Something like: “While The Bachelor proved women were willing to be complicit in their own subjugation, The Bachelorette tried to put women in the driver’s seat, only to discover that female leads ended up playing den mother to lame bros who were more interested in baiting each other than in dating them. Inexplicably, women still watched.”
You mention in your cover letter that two sources of inspiration for this piece were the fairy tale “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” and The Bachelor, yet the piece is also indebted to hardboiled crime fiction. One of the things I admire about this story is how much you accomplish with your main character. He’s a spoof of the classic Philip Marlowe-type gumshoe PI, yet his complexity and the voice with which he’s written save him from feeling like a cheap piece of parody or a rip-off of other stoner mystery heroes like “Doc” of Inherent Vice. What were some of the challenges of writing him?
At first, I found myself getting too much pleasure out of poking fun at Rocco, which made the story a bit flat and jokey—well, even more jokey than it is now. But then he started doing and saying things that surprised me, things I found interesting and even poignant. I started to develop genuine feeling for him, and that’s when the story began to take shape. Counterintuitively, the connection I began to feel to Rocco allowed me to make him do and say still more outrageous things. I just had to hope his collection of characteristics would coalesce into something that felt credible to others. And I think the trick to making any satirical elements work here, in first person, was making him self-aware and eager to explain his way of thinking, but not so self-aware that he would necessarily understand what others would make of his behavior and thoughts.
I get the sense that one of the pleasures you get from writing is building a recurring joke into the storyline. Does writing these jokes get you through the early drafts? Or are they something you sprinkle into final drafts as a way of making the piece funnier overall? Do you ever find yourself getting carried away with a recurring joke?
My first reaction to this question was: there are recurring jokes in my writing? Which I suppose would indicate I don’t do this consciously. But yes, I guess I do find myself circling back to little details I’ve used earlier in a story that either feel significant or that just tickle me, transforming them and/or using them again, which sometimes allows me to grope my way into an organizing principle or theme. This story is probably the most carried away I’ve ever gotten with regard to jokes, but I hope to get more carried away in future.
The voice of this piece is so exactly, hilariously male. A certain type of male, at least. What was your process for entering that headspace and getting it onto the page?
Many voices competed for attention in my head when I started writing this story—friends, family members, ex-boyfriends, television characters, guys I knew in high school, politicians, and yes, even Bachelorette contestants. I let them all have a say until this particular voice seemed to rise out of nowhere and beat the rest of them up, and from then on I could just hear him yapping in my ear. I also spent some time considering some more absurd stories (Jesse Ball’s “Plainface” stands out) which gave me permission to set this voice free to drive the zany logic of the piece.
We receive many pieces about reality TV, toxic masculinity, and other hot topics, yet many are too on-the-nose to be enjoyable (i.e. “Clapter”). How do you rescue a story from that fate?
Of course, it always helps to complicate any critique, should there be a critique in the story at all. If the audience can tell exactly what kind of reaction they’re supposed to be having to a character or situation, perhaps that’s a sign that things are too easy. Within this particular story, mashing up different genre conventions—e.g. the traditionally feminine narratives of the fairy tale and the dating show “fairy tale” with the traditionally masculine narrative of the detective story—and exploring what rose to the surface allowed me to riff on “hot topics” instead of feeling like I was trying to drive home a particular point.