How Nora Fussner Turned a Reality TV Job Into a Novel
The Author of The Invisible World on Her Life as a Logger
When I say that I used to work in reality television, that is, to quote the greatest filmed adaptation of a board game ever made, “both true and misleading.” The statement implies that I was present on wild shoots, ducking tossed glasses of wine or boom mics, hastily following angry subjects out of a room. In fact, I was never present at any shoot—I did the vast majority of the work in my Brooklyn apartment, sitting on the living room floor, my laptop on the coffee table, my left hand flying between keyboard and the remote to my roommate’s DVD player, hitting play, then pause, then typing. Play, pause, type, a stack of DVD-Rs that I picked up from the office on Friday afternoon ruining my weekend.
I worked as a logger, one of several freelance jobs I juggled while pursuing my MFA in fiction writing, transcribing unedited footage word for word, each “um” and “like” noted exactly, in fifteen-second chunks, so the editors could read through the transcripts and jump to the moment they wanted to use or even construct “frankenbites” of different sentences. It is impossible for me, even ten years later, to hear talking-head interviews and not notice them. The next time you’re watching an unscripted show with interviews, listen for a sentence intoned in a way that doesn’t sound natural, the voice rising or falling on the wrong word, especially if the shot cuts away from the interviewee at that moment.
Producers tried their hardest to get the best sound bite they could, crafting their questions to be ever more leading, all but feeding the subjects the lines they wanted. But people can be stubborn, even unconsciously. Sometimes the story we want to hear isn’t the one others want to tell. Thank god for edit bays.
When I started logging for The Haunted on A&E, I told my supervisor what a perfect fit the job was for me. “I love horror movies, and animals,” I said. He looked at me blankly. The Haunted, part of the glut of paranormal reality TV in the mid-aughts, was Animal Planet’s spooky offering, a show about people who believe the ghosts in their homes are affecting their pets. Dogs or cats behave strangely, alerting their owners to an otherworldly presence. In one case, a woman finds her horses have all been rearranged in their stables at night.
The show was definitely creepy and sort of silly—ghost monkeys in the attic of a store!—but I dreaded the actual work: long hours on the floor, my posture unforgivable, my only motivation to finish knowing that since I was paid a flat fee, the faster I knocked out the transcripts, the higher my “hourly” rate.Out of detritus, all the stuff that was irrelevant to the episode, a book started to take shape.
As much as I wanted to function as a conduit for the interviews—in the ears, out the hands—discrepancies between family members’ experiences took root in my brain. The seeds of a novel sprouted on that hand-me-down rug, a novel about a husband and wife who have very different views of their shared home.
I was also curious about everyone else on the scene—the show’s crew. How did they end up working on this project? Many of them, like me, were certainly there for the paycheck, but were any believers? Superstitious? During the evening shoots, often filmed in night vision, did any become genuinely afraid?
In one episode they interviewed a local fire chief for insight into the tragedy behind the house. He was tight-lipped, and his interview ended quickly—probably never made it into the episode—but something had made him show up, sit in the chair with the lights and cameras in his face, and answer questions, curt as he was. Perhaps he’d thought it would be easier than it turned out to be, and froze unexpectedly.
Or maybe someone had put him up to it. The neat story, the one that would make the final cut, was only half as interesting as all the other potential stories jostling against each other. Out of detritus, all the stuff that was irrelevant to the episode, a book started to take shape.
I worked for a post-production company, not a network, and could be shuffled between different projects depending on need. While some shows I worked for had some name recognition, nobody I talked to had heard of The Haunted, and that obscurity became a driving force in my novel. I imagined that the crew of the show yearned for television or film greatness the way I, in the midst of my MFA, yearned for literary greatness.
There was a minor hubbub in the poetry cohort one semester—two students showing up for workshop bruised and injured. The story was they’d gotten into a fist-fight the previous night at the bar. One student had declared something along the lines of, we poets are the truth-tellers of the world, to which another responded, you’re a very mediocre poet. They came to blows.
I felt, as I’m sure plenty of other literary and artistic types do, especially ones just starting out, that mediocrity was another form of failure. In my novel, everyone who works for the low-budget reality show imagines themselves better than their surroundings, fears that this may be the best that it gets.
The last project I worked on was something for Match.com. My supervisor had asked me if I could come into the office for a late-night shift, 7 p.m.-3 a.m., and work on their equipment, rather than e-mailing my transcripts after working from home. I arrived after most of the employees had left. The area was a long, narrow open-plan space, with a few glass-walled offices on the right.
I was struck, walking the space, how bland each office was. No one seemed to have family photos or personal knick-knacks on their desks. Posters on the walls featured the network’s resident psychic, who appeared on several of their shows. I didn’t understand the distance, the disengagement from the content of their work. I wanted to grab all their shoulders: Aren’t people so weird? And isn’t that weirdness something you want to prod at, see how deep it goes?
The footage I was transcribing turned out to be a first date. I listened and typed as a man and woman chatted in a restaurant, a camera set up on a nearby table. They were both divorced parents, and at a certain point came around to discussing how each had approached “the talk” with their pubescent kids.
The woman confessed that she couldn’t talk to her son about it. She told her date that she’d gone to Barnes & Noble, bought him a book, and left it under his mattress. When her son got home she said that there was something for him in his room, and to keep his door closed when he read it. The man confessed he had avoided the topic entirely with his son. The table lapsed into silence, and soon after they moved toward requesting the check.
I could have been, at the disclosure of this story, empathetic. But I was in my twenties, it was one in the morning, and I was disgusted. Disgusted that two people on a date—the goal of which is, for many people, sex, if not on this date then on some future one—could not speak openly with their own children about it. Disgusted with myself, alone in this room in midtown way too late on a Friday night, because I had opted to quit a very good job in order to write fiction, and this is how I was paying for it.
I don’t remember when exactly I learned that the date wasn’t even for some new, Match.com-sponsored dating show: it was for a commercial. At most, fifteen seconds of this hours-long encounter would make it on TV. All I knew, taking the subway home that night, was that I was done. With graduation looming, my supervisor had been dropping hints about bringing me on full-time. I was probably projecting, imagining that the people who worked on these shows wanted to be doing something else, but I knew that I did. To take a job that was so far removed from my degree would have been admitting failure almost immediately, at least per the naive, black-and-white thinking I was prone to then.
I’d like to end with some kind of connection between me and the interview subjects. Something along the lines of: a job is a job—we were all doing what we needed to, all trying to figure some things out about our choices. But as the freelance job went from “funny story at the bar” to novel-in-progress, I became more like production, using these people for my ends, reviewing the transcripts I so painfully typed for what was most interesting to me. At least the first time their experiences, their voices were used to tell a story someone else had control over, they got paid for it, or applied.Having access to all this raw material… allowed me to envision all sorts of other ways the story might unfold.
As much as my family might joke, at the conclusion of a hilarious anecdote, that the story would end up in my fiction one day, I’ve never been interested in what’s already happened, but more what could happen. My stories have always begun with, “what if…?” Having access to all this raw material—not just the interviews themselves but the chit-chat to get the subjects relaxed, the do-overs, the little frisson between a subject and producer as the questioning gets more pointed—allowed me to envision all sorts of other ways the story might unfold. Each person is a world unto themselves, and the briefest overlaps with our world contain the purest potential—the less we really know, the better.
Because the flipside of this approach is when we know too much, we may feel too much obligation to the truth of the story, too little room to play. The producers, the editors, everyone working in post-production had to shave away whatever didn’t fit neatly into their forty-two-minute episodes without concern.
The construction of a story requires distance—an ability to see the whole thing at once and know which parts could fit together. I felt so far away from that world, hunched over the coffee table in my Craigslist apartment, my poet roommate on his way back from hot yoga. So far away, in fact, that when I thought the novel had legs, I reached out to my former supervisor to ask if him if I could buy him a beer and ask a bunch of questions: I knew so little about the actual production process.
His reply was friendly, but he declined. He had moved to Connecticut, had a family, and didn’t want to linger in the city after work anymore. And he had never, I remembered, been that interested in talking about the job.
The Invisible World by Nora Fussner is available via Vintage.