On “Meting Out Intimacy:” A Conversation with Lucas Mann

Interview conducted by: Ruby Al-Qasem

In Lucas Mann’s newest book, Captive Audience: On Love and Reality TV (2018), he writes, “Lately I can’t stand a narrator who isn’t confessing to something. I think that if it doesn’t feel, even just for a moment, like a secret joy or burden to unload, then why say it?” I recently had the pleasure of sitting down with Mann to discuss Captive Audience, the convergence (or contradiction) of vulnerability and artistry in the creative nonfiction genre, and what it means to be a writer and teacher in a time when performance and reality can sometimes seem indistinct.

As any reader of Mann’s books would expect, he’s thoughtful, whip-smart, open, and empathetic. We chatted for about half an hour, and although this interview has been edited for clarity and length, I’ve tried to honor his voice, and the intimacy he offered me.

Ruby Al-Qasem: I was reading your Chicago Review of Books interview with Pierce Smith, and you mentioned an “economy of authenticity.” In Captive Audience, you’re extending the conversation from reality TV, social media, and those kinds of performance to the attempts at authenticity and the necessary gaps in authenticity when we’re in a room with another person, even when it’s our spouse. What do you think is the effect that the reality TV phenomenon has had on creative nonfiction writing as a genre?

Lucas Mann: I do think that the book is trying to engage with parallels in conversations about memoir or creative nonfiction in general, and conversations about reality TV. But…one thing I think is really interesting is that it’s easy to malign the genres and therefore malign the practitioners of the genres, when often I think what is actually happening is the expectation that an audience is being led to have of the form or wants to have out of the form.

I feel like so many of what I have read and loved that are called “memoirs” succeed, for me, almost for the opposite reasons that they are billed to mean something to people. And so it almost feels like there are totally contradictory conversations being had between writers and readers, or writers and then publishers, being sold to the readers. And that’s really, really strange.

I think that there is such anxiety about creative nonfiction writing, and what it’s supposed to do, and how you should feel about doing it, and how you should feel about consuming it, that seems to be entirely taken from and informed by a larger cultural conversation about, you know, torture porn and grief porn and authenticity versus arts, and, “God, people nowadays just show you everything, and that’s supposed to be enough.” So it seems like it’s so hard to have a conversation about the genre or work in the genre without absorbing these anxieties and shames that seem to be coming from the larger context that the genre has been put into, or is working alongside of, so it’s really hard for me to separate those things. And I think that that kind of does a disservice to the genre. I think it’s very weird.

I’ve written three books that have to varying degrees been called memoirs, and it has been a conversation every time about whether or not I should want to saddle it with that [label], or I’ve had people say, like, not that it’s bad word, right? Not that it’s bad! And you know, I even make distinctions myself in ways that I’m embarrassed about. Like, yeah, it’s called a memoir. But it’s not, I mean, my stuff’s different, right? My stuff’s not like that. And to me, that does echo conversations that I’ve had with reality TV producers who call this stuff that they’re proud of “docuseries,” and try to make sure that you know that they are not engaging in the Kim Kardashian thing, even though the only reason why that thing might be financially successful was because it is billed as something within the realm of the Kim Kardashian thing. And all of those anxieties between how artful you want to be and whether or not that’s what anybody’s actually looking for…

RA: Thank you. Thanks for engaging with that. My question was messy.

LM: No, I think it’s a messy thing to talk about. And honestly, when I wrote this book [Captive Audience], a lot of it felt like coming out of frustrations about working in this genre. And both the personal toll that the kind of work takes on you, and then also how divorced that personal toll feels from a cultural conversation that doesn’t feel like it’s engaging with the work in the way that maybe people who do the work talk about the work, if that makes sense. And yeah, after Lord Fear came out, I was feeling this very bizarre combination of shame and guilt for putting myself and my family out there the way that I did, and then also irritation and resentment that I didn’t think the story that I had put out there was getting enough attention. And that felt gross and unpleasant in ways that I wanted to try to address in the writing [of Captive Audience], if not explicitly, at least, implicitly.

And it feels like maybe, because memoir can be so maligned, it feels like there’s either these two camps and writing about it: there’s this sort of things that we’ve all seen for years of just sort of like, you know, every year or so somebody in, like, The New Republic book pages, or some book pages, pretend as though they’re the first person to ever write a piece about the “scourge of memoirs.” And so there’s that well-documented shitting on memoirs thing, and then as a result, I feel like there’s a conversation—

RA: Did you say “a well document”?

LM: Yeah.

RA: Like a well drink?

LM: Oh, no, no, no, well-documented.

RA: I’m sorry, I misheard, and I was like, That’s brilliant!

LM: Oh, no, let’s make it that! Yeah.

RA: But you’re like, yes, this thing that exists on tap, right?

LM: Yeah! It’s there. It’s there for the pulling, right?

RA: Exactly.

LM: So that’s there. And then in response to that, it feels like among the community writers that I feel like I’m a part of, sometimes there’s this knee-jerk response of, like, overpraising the idea of personal writing or feeling too good about it, or feeling not complicated about the act at all. And so the conversation, to me, creates this pull that that doesn’t seem to express, like, all the fucking messiness and weirdness and contradiction of actually doing the thing which is what I find most interesting as a reader and a writer.

RA: Those stakes.

LM: Yeah. And how it’s not—I don’t feel bad about it, necessarily; I don’t feel good about it, necessarily; it’s that it’s that it’s a weird form, that, when it succeeds, I think succeeds because of some of the ickiness that you feel about it. And I do think that reality TV is similar in that way. And I wanted to at least try to acknowledge that tension in the writing somehow.

RA: Would you say, then, that our current culture of immersion into reality TV/social media self-performance is changing the way nonfiction writers write?

LM: That’s really interesting. That’s a good question and one I would be wary of answering like a stodgy asshole. I think, worst case scenario maybe, is that sometimes it feels like you read essays that have the sort of intensely intimate and emotional and perhaps over-the-top emotional register of a Facebook post, but somehow, none of the honesty? And I feel like that is not a great place to come from. I mean, I do worry, I guess, if the idea of expressing yourself and sort of strategically meting out intimacy through words is something that is so common and ubiquitous, that the idea of what you need to do for a good essay can be conflated or collapsed into that. And I think that maybe there’s a lot of emotional intimacy provided in various social media forms and in various forms of broadcasting yourself, but there’s not necessarily a lot of self-questioning.

I do think that part of what makes some essays successful, and some that I like, is the slowness of them, and the fact that you’re sort of turning back on yourself and thinking something over, and being willing to disagree with yourself, and being willing to go through a process that, even if it feels like immediate exposure on the page, has taken a lot of time to cook.

RA: This last question stems from a conversation I had with Jill Talbot last night. Captive Audience is particularly timely because of the political landscape we’re navigating these days. Can you talk about how you combat feeling exhausted in this political moment, as a thinking person in these times and as a writer of nonfiction?

LM: Yeah, that’s a great question, and not one I know how to answer. It seems like a very difficult time to write or make art of any kind. Often the tone of all private conversations I have with other writers is like, Ah, what the fuck? What does this even mean? Why the fuck does this matter?

I think it’s hard to remember that, for a lot of art, the job was never to respond immediately or correctly, to encapsulate a moment. And I feel like the most challenging thing, but when I feel okay about writing, are the moments when it’s like, this is something that is operating on a different time frame than my thinking brain is, as sort of a panicked political citizen. And it doesn’t mean that the world doesn’t influence that writing. But I think what’s hardest to get away from—but perhaps can be the most incapacitating—is to try to have the things that you write take the same exact pace as the world that you’re responding to.

And when I feel stuck, which is often, that feels like what’s happening, and it’s sometimes good to talk to other writers, and just be like, Hey, there’s a long con on this.

And honestly—and maybe this is a cop out—if there’s anything of concrete value that I do, it’s teaching. And writing feels both frivolous and necessary for me, but trying to separate the act of writing—which I love to do and feels good to do—from the act of trying to live in a decent and helpful way seems important.

Ruby Al-Qasem is a staffer for American Literary Review and teaches creative writing and freshman composition at the University of North Texas, where she’s completing her PhD. She’s published in the Baltimore Review and won first place in UNT’s University Writing Awards.