Before there was a book, before there were characters, before Jennifer duBois sat down to write, there was a radio show.
And that radio show aired a segment on Jerry Springer.
A 2004 episode of “This American Life” tracked Springer’s peculiar career path, from politician to sensationalist talk show host. DuBois heard a rerun around 2012, and the concept of transformation — who we are, who we were, who we desperately wish we could become — wormed its way into her imagination and got her fictive juices flowing.
In April, duBois released her third novel, “The Spectators,” which is Lily Lit Club’s June pick. The book concerns itself with a fictionalized version of Springer, an elusive man named Matthew Miller who now hosts “The Mattie M Show.” When a deadly high school shooting dominates the news cycle, word gets out that the shooters are fans of Mattie M.’s trashy show, to the consternation of his staff.
Through the eyes of Cel, Mattie’s publicist, and Semi, his lover from the ’60s and ’70s, duBois unspools who Matthew was, and how he reinvented himself wholesale.
DuBois spoke with The Lily about crafting male characters, human complexity and the unfiltered writing advice she’d give her closest friends.
Responses have been lightly edited for length and clarity.
The Lily: This isn’t a single-note story, nor does it have a simple format. It’s complex, told from two distinct perspectives from different eras. How did you come up with the idea behind the book?
Jennifer duBois: So the original inspiration for the book was actually a “This American Life” episode that I heard, I think, back in 2012, and it was about the surprising backstory of Jerry Springer, who I hadn’t known was this beloved progressive politician in Cincinnati back in the ’70s, before he went on to become the Jerry Springer of trash TV fame. And so I was just really fascinated by that trajectory. Listening to this radio show kind of raised these questions that were essentially immediately novelistic to me. How does somebody change so profoundly over the course of a lifetime? And then what happens to someone if they want to change back, but it’s kind of too late?
TL: It seemed like you were having a ton of fun writing the character of Semi and his friends, Brookie, Stephen and Paulie. Was that the case?
JD: Yeah, they were a lot of fun. I think especially because they’re a very irreverent group. I really love writing dialogue and I think their dialogue, especially their group dialogue, was just great fun. There’s nothing more fun than writing characters who make fun of each other, you know, who kind of prey on each other’s vulnerabilities and know each other forward and backwards.
TL: Did you find it daunting or challenging to write about a group of gay men, the gay liberation movement and the AIDs crisis of the ’60s and ’70s?
JD: It was very challenging, of course from a research perspective and also just from a moral perspective. I write fiction that’s always beyond my experience in various ways. So I do believe in the right of the author to try to do that, but it’s also an incredibly daunting and humbling experience to know that you’re inhabiting this world you never lived in. The author Nam Le, he makes this distinction about getting it right versus doing it justice when you’re writing content beyond your lived experience.
I feel very close to my characters always, and I do write character up rather than theme down. So I would say that, with Semi, that voice felt like a very intuitive, kind of natural voice to write. I think from the level of characterization I felt very close to these men.
TL: When you were writing your male characters, did you find that you were conscious of trying to think about how men might speak, versus women?
JD: For some reason, I have always been really drawn to writing male points of view throughout my career. I think most of my point-of-view characters have been male and I think that it’s so interesting this question of writing across experience. I think when we talk about the complexities of that, often we’re talking about the complexities of writing in the voice or writing the experience of a more marginalized group. To me, writing a man feels very accessible and very on limit in general.
Of course, writing gay men then became more complicated. And I think one of the challenges that I hope I succeeded at was: You want to be really true to the spirit of the age and you also want to be careful not to compound stereotypes or really just to truck in cliches. As a creative writing professor, I really do believe that it all comes character up; if you can really try to inhabit the idiosyncratic consciousness of this particular individual, then you’re probably going to be able to subvert these kinds of tropes, because you’re really doing the rigorous work of thinking through who a very unique individual is.
TL: Why did you decide to set the present of your novel in the ’90s, rather than 2019?
JD: I was interested in the trash TV phenomenon and I was also really interested in some other specifically ‘90s phenomena, one being the moral panics of the ’90s, which I think played into the trash TV phenomenon some, you know, the satanic panic stuff. And I was also interested in that moment when school shootings were new enough and rare enough that we were really looking for cultural reasons behind them.
TL: Let’s talk a bit about language. You’ve got some meaty words in this book: “uxorial,” “triskelion,” “nacreous.” You seem to love words, which makes sense, given your profession. But can you tell me a bit about the choice to use words an average reader may have to look up?
JD: You know, I’ve learned my lesson. I’ve done this three times and people on Goodreads are always like, why are these words being used? And I’m going to stop it. But, for me, it’s because I have encountered these words somewhere, have been struck by it, struck by how alive they make the language, and then have been curious enough to sort of look it up and make it a part of my vocabulary. When I encounter words like that — and they’re usually words that I’ve encountered myself in Nabokov or David Foster Wallace or often male authors, who I don’t think get a lot of sh--, frankly, for using big words — I always find it exhilarating. And so I enjoy that as a reader. But it has come to my attention that most readers do not. [laughter]
TL: Long after readers have finished and digested “The Spectators,” what do you hope they remember?
JD: There’s this theme of self-reinvention in all the characters, and I think one of the central through lines is this idea that you just don’t know anybody’s whole story. You might think you have someone’s number, but you probably don’t fully. There’s always something about them that you don’t know, there’s always something about their backstory that’s going to surprise you, and I think the book comes from a place of humility about that, about snap judgments and the irreducible complexity of the individual.
TL: If you were giving advice on writing to your girlfriends after a couple glasses of wine — if you drink wine — what unfiltered bit of guidance would you share?
JD: I do think writing character first and thinking about point of view first is the most important craft advice that I could give anybody. Maybe a more sassy piece of advice is, if you’re bored, you’re boring everyone else. You’re going to read the damn thing more than anyone else is, so you kind of have to entertain yourself first, and if you find yourself checking out, it is a 100 percent guarantee that your readers will check out, too. So try to amuse yourself first.