These past two months or so, I’ve had the immense pleasure of working with Dana Diehl on her chapbook, TV Girls, which was selected by Chen Chen of the winner of New Delta Review‘s 2017-18 Chapbook Contest. At once a celebration and interrogation of reality television and its conventions, TV Girls goes beyond the pristine décor of The Fantasy Suite and into the mess of reality at its realest, its slippages and contradictions, its levity and fangs. In writing that is truly high-definition, both lucid and rich with texture, Diehl takes a topic often known for exploitative nature and makes it the locus of an exercise in radical empathy. In this interview, Diehl and I speak about her love of reality television, the genre’s problems and the challenges and rewards of writing flash fiction.
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Justin Greene: The stories in TV Girls explore the fraught relationship between reality and reality television, how the stars must navigate the gazes of both the cameras and the audience. What is your relationship with your reality television and how has your spectatorship informed these stories?
Dana Diehl: I didn’t watch much reality television growing up. Even when reality television was really hitting its stride in the early 2000s, with shows like Survivor and Big Brother and American Idol, my family preferred sitcoms, Seinfeld reruns. I discovered reality TV almost by accident. Bored over summer break in high school, I flipped through basic cable and caught half an episode of Laguna Beach. Later, it was Rock of Love and America’s Next Top Model. I was intoxicated by the drama and the outrageousness of the cast members. In my everyday life, I was quiet and reserved, and they were anything but. I watched these shows in secret. I knew it wasn’t “good” TV. I knew it wasn’t something I should be enjoying.
Over time, my relationship with reality TV has evolved into a more social activity. In college, my friends and I went through a phase of watching episodes of Ghost Adventures every weekend. In grad school, my friends and I would gather to watch episodes of The Bachelor. These days, my friends and I meet up during the week to hang out with each other’s dogs and watch old episodes of Catfish. However, some of that old shame has stuck around. I love reality TV, even when it’s awful. I love reality TV despite itself. I think this project was partially born out of wanting to understand why. Why do I enjoy it so much? Has watching reality TV shaped me into who I am, even in some small way? Is there anything I can learn from reality TV? What does the reality TV I enjoy say about me?
JG: Were there any particular themes or questions you set out to explore in writing TV Girls?
DD: Throughout the project, I’ve been interested in the roles that women play in reality TV. In The Bachelor, we see the same tropes season after season: the crazy girl, the mother, the cool girl, the manipulative seductress, the girl with the tragic backstory. In the narrative of the show, women are allowed to be complex, but only to a degree. They have to be complex in a way that can be explained in ten minutes and resolved by the end of the season. I’m critical of this simplification of human experience, and yet, as a viewer, it is sometimes comforting to watch. In real life, our experiences often seem confusing and random, but reality TV gives us a version of reality that has a narrative, has meaning. In my stories, I wanted to push back against this sense of comfort I feel. I wanted to challenge these tropes.
JG: Who, both writers and non-writers, influenced the creation of TV Girls? Whose work is yours in conversation with?
DD: So many! Roxane Gay, Kate Zambreno, Jeanette Winterson, Megan Mayhew Bergman (specifically her collection, Almost Famous Women). I also highly recommend Megan Giddings’ work. A few years ago, early into this project, we were both in a holiday issue of Barrelhouse, for which we were asked to write a prompt for another, randomly-assigned, writer. I gave Megan this prompt: “Write a story with the plot of a made-for-TV ABC Family holiday special.” I had Holiday in Handcuffs in mind, and amazingly that’s what she wrote about. I also have to give a shout-out to my classmates from the Arizona State Creative Writing MFA program. I wrote most of these stories while still in school, and I was especially influenced by my peers, Sam Martone and Heath Wilcock. I’m really grateful to have had them in my workshops because they were writing strange, nontraditional, pop-culture inspired work and seemed to be having so much fun doing it. I was inspired to be more playful with my own writing.
Concerning non-writers. I’ve been inspired by Paul F. Tompkins and his portrayal of the Cake Boss on Comedy Bang! Bang! Also, Arden Myrin and her podcast, Will You Accept this Rose? I listen to it religiously during Bachelor season. And finally, three TV shows that have influenced my work are Burning Love, The Hotwives of Orlando, and Bajillion Dollar Propertie$. They are all, as you might guess from the titles, spoofs of reality TV series. They’re hilarious and I highly recommend everyone check them out.
JG: One of the most compelling things many of your characters demonstrate is a high degree of reflexivity, how they, as the sister wives say, “know all the answers [they]’ll have to give” when it’s camera time. But, of course, it’s never just a simple performance: they grapple with questions of disingenuousness and authenticity, navigating both what is expected of them and their inner thoughts and desires. What was the process of getting to know these characters? How did you go about depicting their fluid shifts in performance?
DD: When I’m watching reality TV, I know that I’m watching a version of reality that is contrived and manipulated. Part of the fun is waiting for the moments that feel genuine, the moments when the cast member forgets they’re being filmed. These were the moments I tried to write into. I love The Bachelor’s blooper reel, because it gives us access to the moments when things are truly spontaneous. For instance, in the middle of a confessional, part of the set falls behind them. Or a bee flies into their eye. And for a second, they’re real people. They don’t feel like characters anymore.
I also got to know the characters by figuring out what we might have in common. I definitely don’t have the experience of being a famous child dancer (I was kicked out of ballet class when I was three for being too free-spirited), but I can relate to the feeling of acting the opposite of how I feel. I can relate to the feeling of restraining myself.
JG: Formally, something especially remarkable about this collection is its brevity. Also, how you both manage to conjure a wide array of pop culture locales — from right outside the Fantasy Suite to Sia’s “Elastic Heart” music video, for instance — rendering them both warped and idiosyncratic in this limited space? Do you impose limits upon yourself and, if so, how do you see them functioning?
DD: It felt important to keep these stories short and succinct to mimic the TV that inspired them. The editors of reality shows sometimes have hundreds of hours of footage that they need to carve down into twenty to forty-minute narratives. I wanted my process to parallel that.
Writing in a limited space didn’t feel like a limit, though. When I write flash fiction, I actually feel more confident experimenting and taking risks, because I don’t have to sustain it for very long. It also frees me up from more traditional storytelling techniques, and I can focus more on language and specificity. This project is very different from the stories I usually write, and I think the brevity of the stories is at least partially to thank.
JG: The title of the collection, TV Girls, seems largely self-explanatory: these are stories that largely focus on women and girls on (reality) television. But, within this umbrella, we see great variance in these stories. For instance, “Child Star” explores the sexualization of young girls in media, and “Conjoined” interrogates both the problematic perception of disability-as-spectacle and the (also problematic) erasure of positional differences, the too-neat “you’re just like anyone else” ideology, that saturates liberal thought. How do you think gender intersects with other axes in the context of media spectatorship and performance? And, more broadly, how do you think contemporary media affects the (self-) perceptions of women and girls?
DD: This is such a big and complex question that I barely feel qualified to answer, but I’ll try! I have this theory that reality television’s categorization of women into easily digested “roles” parallels what we see in our real-world culture. When I was a teenager, I remember feeling a lot of confusion and insecurity over who I was. I wanted to act genuinely, but I wasn’t sure what “genuine” meant for me. I had this idea that I had to fit into a certain “type,” but there was no type that seemed to fit me. I looked to television and movies, but I couldn’t find many examples of girls who were several things at once, like I seemed to be.
I also wonder about how the media affects women’s relationships. Reality television pits women against each other. It shows us as competitors — for social status, for a man’s affection, for fame. Only one woman wins. As spectators, we are invited to judge women without consequence. In shows like The Bachelor, women who are confident in their sexuality and use it to get the lead’s attention are often turned into villains. And we, the viewers, participate.
I don’t want to completely demonize media. Reality television has brought me a lot of joy, sometimes even comfort. Media has made me feel less alone. But I think it’s important to be a critical spectator.
Dana Diehl is the author of Our Dreams Might Align (2016), which is now available in rerelease from Splice UK. She earned her BA in Creative Writing at Susquehanna University and her MFA in Fiction at Arizona State University. Her work has appeared in Passages North, Necessary Fiction, North American Review, and elsewhere. She lives in Tucson, Arizona.
Justin Greene is a second-year MFA candidate at Louisiana State University. He is the editor in chief of New Delta Review and co-organizer of the Underpass Reading Series.