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'The Spectators' heads back to the '90s for a tale of tabloid TV and change

Joe Gross
"The Spectators" by Jennifer DuBois

Jennifer DuBois lets out a very small sigh of, well, not defeat, exactly, but quiet, dry resignation.

“I think, in general, for writers, the internet is a problem,” she says. “Not only because it's really hard to write about meaningfully, even though we need to figure out how to do it and novelists en masse haven't done a superbly great job of it.

"But the existence of the internet also solves plotting issues and deflates various conflicts and misunderstandings before they start while inflating different ones. I'm always glad to avoid writing about the internet, because I don't know how to do it.”

We are discussing her excellent new novel, “The Spectators,” in which the internet does not play a part but feels like an oddly looming presence.

Much of the novel is set in 1993, with flashes backward to 1969, the ‘70s and the ‘80s. It involves a controversial talk show host, a school shooting and a group of gay men, all friends, moving from around the time of the Stonewall uprising until the early ‘90s hell of the (pre-triple-cocktail) AIDS crisis.

“The Spectators” comes out next month, and it is impossible not to be struck by how the internet has changed virtually everything with which this novel deals, from the nature of community to how a school shooting would be regarded to tabloid TV.

“I knew I wanted to write about the 1990s, and I was really interested in the sort of talk show TV, which, in a lot of ways, was a precursor to a lot of the instincts that we see playing out on the internet,” DuBois says. “I don't think it's a completely different cultural impulse, just the technology's different.”

In "The Spectators," Matthew Miller is a talk show host, known (when the novel opens) for a lowest-common-denominator trash TV talk show called “The Mattie M Show” in the mold of Jerry Springer or Morton Downey Jr. (Does anyone even remember the latter? I hope so. That show was visionary in its bonkers-ness.)

But Miller and his show weren’t always thus. “The Spectators” switches back and forth between Cel, a young publicist on “Mattie M,” and a man named Semi, who is Miller’s former lover during a life the deeply closeted Miller has left well behind.

When the participants in a school shooting reveal themselves to be fans of Miller’s show, everyone in his life has to reconsider their relationship to him.

DuBois says Springer was a definite influence on Miller, especially the talk show icon’s early years in politics in the 1970s and ‘80s.

Long story short: In 1971, Springer was elected to the Cincinnati city council. He had to resign in 1974 after paying a prostitute with a check and was promptly re-elected in ‘75, served as mayor and tried to run for governor in ‘82.

“He was a beloved figure and apparently had an almost Kennedyesque charisma,” DuBois says. “The earliest version of his show was much more like a Phil Donahue-type, issues-based thing that just became more and more outlandish and parodic and ghoulish.”

DuBois was fascinated with this arc, with how someone could go from being an idealistic, gifted young politician to becoming, well, Jerry Springer.

She also knew from the jump that “The Spectators” was going to cover a lot of time, with characters embodying different relationships Miller has with the world.

“Semi starts out really adoring and really idealizing Matthew, and he becomes incredibly, profoundly disillusioned with him over time,” DuBois says. “You know, both romantically and politically. Cel, on the other hand, knows Miller in a completely different way and starts out really despising her boss. Over time, I think she comes to a much more kind of complicated, nuanced understanding of him. Hopefully, by the end, the reader’s sense of Miller kind of meets in the middle.”

And the 1993 setting was chosen carefully.

“Sadly, it had to be early enough in the 1990s that a school shooting would be a major story,” DuBois says.

“It dominates the headlines for, like, a whole summer. Unfortunately, this sort of thing has become so commonplace that you had to go back in time quite a bit to a moment when it would have been such a shocking event. But I also needed a summer that was a little slower. I didn't want it to be like the O.J. (Simpson) summer (1994 and 1995) or, you know, in the center of a presidential election (1992 or 1996). It seemed like a good candidate for a year where this kind of happened."

DuBois laughs for a second. “But, you know, it's all made up.”



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Jennifer DuBois will speak and sign copies of “The Spectators” at 7 p.m. April 1 at BookPeople, 603 N. Lamar Blvd., as part of the Statesman Selects series. The reading portion is free and open to the public. Only books purchased at BookPeople are eligible for signing. Information: