Welcome to Wednesday Writers! Today we’ll be taking another departure from romance as my guest blogger Thomas Allbaugh talks about how he came to write his debut book, Apocalypse TV, which Thomas describes as a literary mystery that moves toward satire.
Finding the Right Combination for a Fiction About a Reality TV Show
by Thomas Allbaugh
The premise for Apocalypse TV came from two different images: first, a scene I imagined of a character named Walter, an English professor, reflecting one night that he has never shot a gun; second, a religious reality show on BBC from ten years ago about people walking around England and trying to compel others to go to church.
That was it. Those two strands led me to tell the story of an English professor from a private American college who tries to be taken seriously on an American reality show.
As Sam Knight has observed, writing in the New Yorker last fall, we can learn a great deal about a culture by its reality shows. That the BBC would air a reality show about getting people into church says something significant. In contrast, American reality TV seems focused on talent, schemers, bachelorettes, winners, and survivors. Our dreams move us toward individual success and failure, not spiritual questions or ambitions.
I was interested in how “games” can take on realities of their own. Thinking about that old BBC production first got me onto the idea of writing about a religious reality show on which things go wrong. I should add that I don’t really watch reality shows myself.
But in the crossroads of these two notions, Walter’s story began to emerge—a man takes himself seriously in an increasingly trivial reality show production. Through about six revisions, the story ironies grew and deepened. Walter Terry begins naively thinking that in traveling across the country on this show, he will be taken seriously and be influential. Instead, the reality show engages in trivial matters. For starters, at the Plymouth Colony re-enactment site, the site of the Pilgrims’ first colony, Walter hopes to talk about grace and sin in the founding of this historical setting. Instead, the show producers have him involved in a trivial game that leads to real contention between him and his fellow show travelers. From that point on, the ironies deepen as bad things happen.
By Thomas Allbaugh
When a reality TV scout “discovers” Walter in a diner near the hospice where his father has been placed, his life has reached a low point. His father is dying, his college teaching career is under threat, and his life is adrift. The scout wants him for a reality show about religion. In a more self-assured period of his life, Walter would have rejected her offer, but now he wavers and allows himself to be drawn in. Maybe this is the jolt of energy his life needs. Maybe, if the show succeeds, his university will be so impressed that they’ll finally treat him with respect. Maybe the show will even be what the producers promise it will be, a serious inquiry into faith. Maybe he’ll become famous.
The show brings Walter attention, but for all the wrong reasons. He is misquoted, misinterpreted, misunderstood, and then shot after he has been dragged across the country in an increasingly frustrating and absurd series of challenges. Will his career and reputation survive the publish protests? Will his marriage survive the hints of affairs on the road? Will any kind of “reality” emerge to restore his self-respect?
Minutes before his sister texted that she had moved their father to a hospice, Walter Terry listened behind half-empty rows of chairs in the Haskins Room as the new writer-in-residence read from her work. It was an early draft, she had announced, and it concerned a bride-to-be hunting elk in Wyoming, a part of the country Walter had never seen. And it came to him with sudden finality: he could never write a great American novel; he had never shot a gun.
Nothing was more American. Faulkner, Hemingway certainly, both knew guns. And Walter had never felt one kick back and ruin his shoulder. He had never had the gunpowder residue spotting his hands, his face, and his clothes.
Those details? They came from TV.
The writer had to feel it, not just hear about it.
His colleague’s writing signaled that she knew guns, and Walter had never shot a beer can. He couldn’t tell a Smith and Wesson from a Remington. He wouldn’t know if they were names for handguns or rifles. Sure, he could Google them. But how many others wouldn’t have to?
Want to read more? You can find Apocalypse TV here.
About the Author:
Thomas Allbaugh is an associate professor of English at Azusa Pacific University, where he has taught Composition and Creative Writing since 2001. Currently, he lives in Southern California with his wife and their four children. Apocalypse TV is his first novel.