"The Complicit Audience: An Interview with Dana Diehl"

October 22, 2018

 

 

Dana Diehl is the author of Our Dreams Might Align (Splice UK, 2018) and The Classroom (Gold Wake Press, 2019). Her chapbook, TV Girls, won the 2017-2018 New Delta Review Chapbook Contest. Dana earned her MFA in Fiction at Arizona State University and her BA in Creative Writing at Susquehanna University. Her work has appeared in North American Review, Booth, Passages North, and elsewhere. She lives in Tucson.

 

Dana Diehl’s chapbook, TV Girls, recently released from New Delta Review, deftly challenges the conventions of what makes good and bad television. Yet, Diehl’s half-dozen stories do much more than consider our subjective understandings of quality. They collectively offer an honest and humorous critique of the problematic elements of reality television and illuminate an audience in conflict, a viewership that can’t stop watching.

 

Diehl’s stories thus avoid categorizing their subject matter as junk food. Instead, she finds the nutritional value in popular small-screen fixations and pushes the boundaries of how we engage with a manufactured and meticulously produced reality. Underneath it all, Diehl’s stories carry a burst of energy in their curiosity, the desire to learn more about human experiences.

 

Via email, I asked Diehl about her chapbook, the relationship between literature and television, and working on literary magazines.

 

To begin with perhaps my most important question, how do you feel about Colton being the new Bachelor?

 

Oh Colton. I am not very interested in watching him find love. I feel like the franchise has low-key tortured him so he’ll seem vulnerable and have a good backstory for The Bachelor, and I still don’t care. All of this being said, I will definitely be watching his season.

 

 

One thing I love about the title story in TV Girls is how it engages with The Bachelor without imposing judgment on the women who are selected for the show. The story, and really the entire chapbook, honestly engages with the way reality TV is constructed and how we play into its narratives, as opposed to writing it off as a guilty pleasure or dismissing those who participate. What's your relationship with reality TV? Can you talk a bit about the shows that inspired these stories?

 

My relationship with reality TV really started in college. On the weekends, my friends and I would watch Ghost Adventures in our dorm rooms and laugh at the dudes in tight T-shirts “provoking the spirits.” Then, I moved across the country for grad school. For the first time in my life I lived alone, time zones away from the people I cared about. I got into the habit of having reality TV playing on my laptop when I was in my apartment. The sound of conversation, the silly dramas, the simple stories, brought me comfort and made me feel a little less lonely, a little more in my body, during a time when I was feeling very displaced.

 

Shows that inspired my stories are The Bachelor, House Hunters, Cake Boss, Sister Wives, Joined for Life, and Dance Moms. Of these shows, Joined for Life and Dance Moms were hardest to write about. I’m not super familiar with either of them, because honestly, they’re hard for me to watch. Dance Moms is about the training and careers of young dancers, and Joined for Life is about conjoined sisters named Abby and Brittany. I’ve always felt a little gross watching these shows, like I might be contributing to the exploitation of children. On one hand, I see how shows like Joined for Life might help to shift perceptions of differently abled people, but it also feels wrong to put this pressure to educate the public on children.

 

So, part of me loves reality TV. But I also know that a lot of it is really problematic. For me, uncertainty is really important when I’m writing any story. I write towards what I don’t know, what I can’t figure out. And there’s a lot I can’t figure out about reality TV—what’s good, what’s bad, what’s empowering, what’s exploitative. I don’t know if I ever leave a story with an answer, but it feels important to explore these uncertainties.

 

 

To piggyback on that question, what television shows are your must-watch recommendations? 

 

This is not a reality TV show, but I highly recommend Joe Pera Talks With You on Adult Swim. It is incredibly nice and charming. Everyone should watch it.

 

If you want to watch a reality show, I recommend Terrace House on Netflix. It’s Japanese, so you have to be willing to read captions (if, like me, you don’t speak Japanese). The premise of the show is that six young people are sent to live in a house together while they pursue their dreams. It is the least dramatic show. Everyone supports each other and holds mini interventions when someone is getting lazy or sidetracked. I love it.

 

 

In the chapbook, TV Girls, Sister Wives, and Conjoined in particular all address women on television being reduced from individuals to a singular entity. You deftly navigate how television can attempt to erase women's personalities to appease a more simplistic narrative or create drama. Were you thinking about problematic gender roles in reality TV when writing these stories? 

 

Yes, absolutely. The Bachelor is the show I focus on the most when I think about gender roles in reality TV, because it has such a wildly huge audience and therefore might actually have the reach necessary to inspire change. Though we’ve seen The Bachelor make small, half-hearted attempts to fix some of its problems, the franchise continues to be pretty terrible at representing women of color and women of different shapes and sizes. It continues to romanticize a very heteronormative, traditional version of love in which our greatest accomplishment, the thing that will fix all of our problems, is finding a husband. The show also pits women against each other and encourages us to vilify women who express their sexuality or who don’t “play well” with others.

 

 

Another interesting aspect to this collection is the idea of a complicit and engaged audience. This is perhaps most notable in the title story, since it is told in the collective first-person, as if the audience is talking about how a season of The Bachelor often unfolds. How does audience fit into the equation when writing about TV? 

 

Watching reality TV is like looking at a reflection of ourselves, or of our society. Producers know what viewers want to see and what we will react to. Reality TV wouldn’t exist without us. Sometimes I think shows like The Bachelor bring out the worst in me. I find myself being manipulated by the storylines, judging the contestants more harshly than I ever would judge someone in “real life.” I start to think of the contestants as characters and not as real people. I wanted to call attention to that and reflect on the ways I’m complicit in the media that I find problematic.

 

 

TV Girls also addresses the production element of television in numerous smart ways. Whether reality TV, breaking news, or a prime-time sitcom, television relies on an overwhelming amount of writing and planning. As a fiction writer, what relationship for you exists between television and literature? Have you ever written or considered writing for television and film?

 

It would be a dream to work for a TV show, but unfortunately, I’m not sure I’m up for it. I don’t have enough confidence in my dialogue skills for that! I did once take a screenwriting class, and though it was one of my favorite classes ever, my screenplay was at best mediocre.

I think I will continue to be influenced by television, though. I love TV. I love going to the movies. Every now and then I watch something that makes me think, Wow, I wonder how that would work in prose? When I’m writing a scene, I usually see it like a movie in my head: establishing shot, close-up on an object, zoom in on character, fade to black.

 

 

Outside of TV Girls, you've published half a dozen or so collaborative stories with Melissa Goodrich. Can you talk a little bit about that collaboration? How do you and Melissa generate and revise your collaborative work?

 

I’m so happy to share that the book Melissa and I wrote together, The Classroom, will be released from Gold Wake press in early 2019. It was complete joy to write with Melissa. The project started in 2015. We were both teaching at the same primary school, both felt like we weren’t spending enough time writing. We started challenging each other to write little stories during the day that were inspired by the strange things we’d experienced as teachers. We had so much fun that we started exchanging stories. One of us would start, then pass it off as soon as we hit a wall. We’d keep passing it back and forth until one of us felt we’d found an ending. It was some of the most fun I’ve ever had writing.

 

 

You've also served as editor-in-chief of Hayden’s Ferry Review and The Susquehanna Review. What advice do you have for new writers trying to find their first publications in literary journals? What do most people not know about what goes into running a literary journal?

 

My advice is to submit often and to become familiar with the journals you submit to. I have an Excel page I’ve kept for years with a list of every place I’ve submitted. Most of my submissions result in rejections, and I think it’s important to become okay with that.

 

Working for literary journals has taught me to not take rejections so seriously. Journals get so many excellent submissions and can only publish a few. Your writing won’t, and shouldn’t, appeal to every editor and reader out there. My acceptance rate has gone up as I’ve gotten to know journals better. I try to submit to places that publish work similar to mine, and I pay attention to where my friends and favorite writers (some of whom are my friends!) publish for ideas.

 

 

To wrap up, what are you working on right now? Can you tell us a bit about your current projects?

 

Right now, I’m focusing on a few new flash fiction pieces and short stories. This year I finished a couple projects I’d been working on for a long time, so in some ways I feel like I’m back at square one. It’s a scary but exciting place to be.

Aram Mrjoian is an editor-at-large at the Chicago Review of Books, an interviews editor at the Southeast Review, and the assistant managing editor at TriQuarterly. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The Millions, Kenyon Review online, Longreads, Joyland, Colorado Review, and many other publications. He earned his MFA in creative writing at Northwestern University and is pursuing his PhD in fiction at Florida State University. Find his work at arammrjoian.com

 

 

 

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