Interview with Lucas Mann: “I have a perverse fascination with famous polymaths and workaholics.”

Lucas Mann was born in New York City and received his MFA from the University of Iowa, where he was the Provost’s Visiting Writer in Nonfiction. His latest book is Captive Audience: On Love and Reality Television (Vintage, 2018). 

He is also the author of Lord Fear: A Memoir, which was named one of the best books of 2015 by The Miami Herald, Kirkus Reviews, Paper Magazine, Largehearted Boy, and, and Class A: Baseball in the Middle of Everywhere, which earned a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection and was named one of the best books of 2013 by The San Francisco Chronicle. 

His essays have appeared in Guernica, BuzzFeed, Slate, Barrelhouse, TriQuarterly, and The Kenyon Review, among others. He has received fellowships from The National Endowment for the Arts, the United States Artists Foundation, The Wesleyan Writers Conference, and The Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, He teaches creative writing at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth and lives in Providence, Rhode Island with his wife.

Hi Lucas, welcome to Famous Writing Routines, great to have you here with us today! Your latest book, Captive Audience: On Love and Reality Television, is a unique take on the topic of reality TV. What inspired you to write about this subject?

First off, I’m a fan. Or maybe I wouldn’t have self-identified as a fan, exactly, but I realized that I’d spent a lot of my life, from high school into adulthood, watching various reality shows, growing obsessed with some of them. I thought about how many shows my wife and I had watched over the years, and the way they served as the background for so much of our shared life.

I got really interested in the idea of thinking seriously about, maybe even defending, this form that is such a ubiquitous part of so many people’s lives, yet is always written off as a shallow, meaningless cultural presence. It didn’t feel that way to me, so I started by trying to understand why. Then, the idea of writing about my own intimate life and my marriage alongside this theoretically superficial subject became a really fun, surprising juxtaposition.

You received your MFA from the University of Iowa, where you were the Provost’s Visiting Writer in Nonfiction. How did your time at Iowa shape your writing style and approach to nonfiction?

 My time at Iowa was hugely formative, in particular because I was studying nonfiction there. The role of a nonfiction MFA is a really unique one, I think, because the genre remains under-studied and often not fully understood from a historical standpoint (though that is definitely changing). When I got to Iowa, I didn’t have much of a conception of the genre, other than being like, “okay a memoir is a personal story; journalism means going out and interviewing people.”

The beginning of the MFA felt more like an intensive literature course than anything else, going all the way back to Montaigne, Sei Shonagon — these foundational writers that I’d never heard of. And then I was exposed to the work of my classmates, who were really talented and working in really different modes and traditions, so people with long newspaper careers were workshopping with folks who were more influenced by poetry, and also those working on more traditional memoir projects.

As much as learning craft, I was absorbing a sense of possibility within the genre, and my own work. All of my books have, to different degrees, blended the personal with the journalistic with work that feels more like cultural criticism, and has fluctuated on a sliding scale between more straightforward narrative and experimental fragmentation — I wouldn’t have stumbled upon those various possibilities, or trusted myself to get weird with it, had I not been with these peers, in that place, taking the genre seriously.

Plus, there’s the whole practical aspect of the nonfiction MFA. If you’re interested in doing longform journalistic work, a funded nonfiction MFA is kind of the only avenue to do the old school legwork you want. I spent two years of my MFA on the road, cosplaying as a 60s New Journalist. I wouldn’t have had the time, space, or health insurance to even attempt the project that became my first book, CLASS A, if it wasn’t for the MFA.

Your book Lord Fear: A Memoir was named one of the best books of 2015 by several notable outlets, including The Miami Herald and What was the experience of writing and publishing a memoir like for you?

 Something that continues to surprise me is the huge discrepancy between the experience of writing a memoir and publishing one. I’ve done a lot of personal writing over the years and it never feels that personal when I do it. Maybe (probably) that sounds ridiculous, but I mean it. When I’m writing, it becomes an exercise in thought, collage, voice, style.

Lord Fear was about my brother’s heroin overdose, so enormously personal, but it became a book about understanding him, trying to figure out the best way to create a composite portrait of this enigmatic person in my life, including interviews with other people, scraps of his own writings, my memories, my fantasies about what might have happened. I wrote it over many years, through many different drafts — the project of understanding him on the page and finding a form to best tell a story like this became an experience for me.

I think if you’re going to do personal writing well, it must become an act of constant curiosity. So when you’re in it, you’re not thinking about real life, you’re thinking about how to create art out of a series of (sometimes conflicting) images. Maybe that’s a cop out, or maybe I couldn’t have written the book if I’d actually been thinking about the reality of my grief. Either way, when the book was published, the searching was over, the aliveness of trying to tell this story was replaced by the static reality of an official record that I’d put down, freezing a particular portrait of my brother forever in a reader’s mind.

The intensity of the shame I felt about that caught me by surprise. The book started getting good reviews, but within those reviews often the focus was on my brother as an unappealing character, and then sometimes they’d credit me for doing my best to make him sympathetic. So I’d be selfishly happy that someone liked my book, then instantly horrified that I was out here letting strangers judge my brother, airing all the dirty laundry. I still haven’t reconciled those two poles of the memoirist experience.

Writing about your own life, writing about others, trying to get it right — it’s always both an act of tribute and betrayal, generosity and selfishness, and in the end you give control over to the reader’s interpretation. You’ve got to be okay with that.

As someone who has received fellowships from various organizations, including The National Endowment for the Arts and the United States Artists Foundation, how has this support impacted your writing career?

It’s a combination of really obvious practical impact and then more emotional/personal impact. So, the main help, of course, is that the money gave me the chance to buy out some of my teaching responsibilities (I’m a full time professor), and either have way more time in a couple semesters to write or, in one case, force my way into a sabbatical that wasn’t otherwise scheduled. I mean, that’s the primary desire every writer has: a little more time to actually do the thing.

Then, on the emotional side, the validation was amazing, as soon as I got over the overwhelming imposter syndrome, or at least quieted that part of my brain down. It’s hard to look at your own work and convince yourself it means anything to anyone; it’s much easier, and more fun, to be in a room with really amazing people who inspire you and say, okay, someone at least thinks I’m their peer. The idea that literally anyone on earth might, for one moment, consider that to be true, was so galvanizing. It made me feel more gratitude than pride, and that, for me anyway, is a much more inspiring place to work from.

You have contributed to numerous literary magazines and websites, including Guernica, BuzzFeed, and Slate. How do you approach writing for different audiences and platforms?

Being a nonfiction writer, especially one without a particular beat, is a very strange experience. So many different modes of writing fall under the heading of an essay. For me, it breaks down on a scale — from absolute weirdo experimental/personal essay work that I like most but won’t have a huge audience, to subject I’m journalistically interested in and would love to have the chance to research, to op-ed that doesn’t feel like my style of writing but will be read by way more people than anything else I do.

In general, I’m always working in the first mode — that’s who I think I am, as a writer. Often, that’s what I’m thinking about for book projects, and literary magazine publications grow out of that primary creative instinct. Then, for the more longform journalistic pieces, sometimes those grow out of the same subjects/themes I’m thinking about in my book projects. It’ll be something that doesn’t quite fit with the voice or narrative of the book, but I’ll still want to explore it.

So, for example: I was writing about my brother’s overdose and was doing all this research into harm reduction that didn’t fit the book. I knew I found the subject important, so I shifted away from my family’s story and was able to find magazine funding to research and write about these doctors offering medication assisted treatment, while being harrassed by the DEA. Lastly, when I’ve written for Slate or The Washington Post, either an editor has reached out to me about a current event issue, or I’ve just had this flash of clarity like, hey something happened in the news that I might have something to say about.

What does a typical writing day look like for you? 

I’ve always had the best luck writing from late morning to early afternoon — pretty boring. These days, when I’m not teaching, I hang with my daughter in the morning and get her out the door. Then I frantically try to do any household chores or send any timely emails, so they’re not nagging on my mind. Then I like to go for a long walk — either to an old library about two miles away from me or, if it’s closed or if I think I might be editing (i.e. reading aloud to myself a lot), in an hour-long loop back home.

Usually around 10, when I can’t find any more excuses not to, I write. If I can get 3-4 hours in (with a lot of breaks and wandering around included), I feel good. If I’m at the library, I walk home, work out if I have time, and go pick my daughter up from school. Then I try not to think about writing at all until I have to do it again.

If you could have a conversation with any artist throughout history about their creative process, who would that be and why?

As a person with no skills beyond writing, and someone who quite enjoys being idle, I have a perverse fascination with famous polymaths and workaholics. So, maybe Chekhov? I’m just so curious about spending all day as a doctor, maybe failing to save a neighbor’s life or something, and then after all that being like, I must work on my stories! 

I’d love to know about the books you’re reading at the moment. What have been some of your favorite recent reads?

Right now, I’m reading the Tove Ditlevsen novel The Faces, which I came to after recently loving her series of rediscovered memoirs, The Copenhagen Trilogy. She’s probably the writer whose voice has dominated my reading consciousness for the past couple years. I also went on a belated Rachel Cusk kick recently. The two feel, in their brutal, unflinching domestic observations, linked for me.

What does your current workspace look like?

I’ve never been precious about where I write. Now, maybe more than ever, my home bears no real evidence that I’m a writer, other than books everywhere. I prefer to not work at home, to get out into some public space — maybe it’s fooling myself into thinking I’m going to a job in a conventional way. I have a little “office” at home, but to be honest it’s an empty desk, bare walls, and a Peloton. When I do write at home, I’m usually just in a comfy armchair with my laptop on my knees. When I finish, I store my laptop in the corner and pretend like it never happened.

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