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Getting Real About Reality TV

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It's been seven years since Nicola Kraus and Emma McLaughlin hit the bestsellers lists with their novel, The Nanny Diaries. Two more books followed for the writing duo (Citizen Girl and Dedication) and now they have turned their attention to the world of reality TV in a novel for young adults called The Real Real.

The Nanny Diaries may have been dismissed by some as "mere" chick lit, but the novel offered a searing critique of the Manhattan elite through the lens of the childcare staff. Similarly, The Real Real is a coming-of-age high school romp for teenage readers with all the necessary ingredients such as broken hearts, broken friendships, love found, and friendships healed. At the same time, the book provides an intriguing critique of the world of reality television, highlighting the falseness, the corporate interests, and the problematic values it might instill in adolescent viewers.

Nicola and Emma kindly agreed to answer some questions about their new book, including why they chose to write about this topic for teenagers and whether they think reality TV shows are vehicles for corporate advertising.

As the title The Real Real suggests, your new novel is a behind-the-scenes look
at reality television. What drew you to this idea?

In a culture that has an epic daily demand for content we are fascinated with celebrities who have to slice off little bits of themselves for public consumption every time they have a project to promote. And then there are the people who have turned over their whole lives as the project. How do they stay sane? And what about reality TV is real? We especially wanted to suggest to teenage readers that these young women they want to emulate might not really exist.

The novel foregrounds the faleness and the general sham (including unabashed product placements) of reality TV. Did you do much research or talk to stars of reality television to get the inside scoop?

We have a lot of friends who work in that industry on the production end and they cannot emphasize enough how manufactured some of these shows are. There are scripts, there is dialogue, and the cameras are obstreperous. We have one producer friend who scoffs every time a reality star says about some on-camera blunder, "I forgot the cameras were there." "I have a search light in your face," she'll say. "There is no way that person forgot."

What's your take on the appeal of these shows?

We think one of the many reasons is, in a country so vast with myriad subcultures, it gives people isolated in one community a window on fellow Americans. Nicola watches a lot of HGTV, because, as an NYC apartment-dweller, she likes to try on buying a house with a yard and lake-view outside Austin. And she likes hearing directly from people living very different lives about their aspirations and obstacles. And it can be instructive.

Do you think these shows are primarily vehicles for corporations to sell the lifestyles which they highlight?

It depends on the demographic. For adults a show like "The Real Housewives" may seem to be selling lifestyle, but, because there is a wink between the producers and its audience at the expense of its cast, the show is really less aspirational than focused on making viewers feel better about their servant-free lives. However a show like "The Hills" is definitely about making teens crave the entire package, Lauren's (stylist-selected) dress, Lauren's (blown-out) hair, Lauren's (arranged by the Network) 'job', her whole fake life.

It's also worth mentioning the consumer synergy with reality TV that somehow they make seem organic. They can show 'real' people shopping in their 'favorite' stores, drinking their 'favorite' sportsdrink, in a way that scripted drama has a hard time pulling off gracefully. When Jill Zarin's condo is on the cover of Traditional Home, the magazine is promoted on the show, the show is promoted in the magazine and Zarin fabrics are promoted in both places. And somehow it feels to the audience that they're not being shilled to, but rather overhearing a shopping tip in the ladies' room. In the age of Tivo, it's advertising revenue's last hope.

What came first, the decision to write for young adults or the idea for the novel?

For years our agent told us there was over-lunch interest in us writing a YA novel, but we were very intimidated by the genre. The authors we read at that age, like Judy Blume and Lois Lowry, created such visceral, formative literary experiences for both of us that they loomed paralyzingly large. Funnily, we went to a YA bookshop a few months into writing The Real Real only to discover that all the books that had earned the honor of "face-out" display were the same books we read twenty years ago. So Judy Blume is still where the bar is set

Initially, when Emma, our resident reality TV expert, who brings an anthropological, sociological, psychological, media-savvy lens to her favorite pastime, came up with the idea of exploring what it really would be like to turn your high school life over to a reality show, we weren't sure how we wanted to tell the story. But then we thought if ever we were going to have an idea that would allow us to try writing for this age group, this is it.

You've written three adult fiction novels together, including The Nanny
Diaries
. Was your writing approach any different knowing that you were writing for a younger audience?

We didn't change anything about how we work, except to be sensitive to what is referred to in YA as "content" -- swearing and sex. Our last adult novel, Dedication, was half told in high school flashbacks, so we had already reminded ourselves that teenagers relate to each other and the word around them in a complex and intense way that shouldn't be "dumbed-down" or made saccharine in any way.

What was it like to revisit the teenage years, albeit in fiction?

Not a day has gone by when one of us doesn't say, "Not for a million dollars would I do it over." With Dedication what we wanted to evoke was that feeling of being trapped, when college looms tantalizingly close, but for now if your parents' marriage is imploding you have to come home to it every night. If the love of your life has a new girlfriend you have to stare at them eight hours a day. And, at the same time, you're on a countdown to being ripped away from everyone who loves and supports you.

Where The Real Real brought up intense memories for us was in the second half of the book, when Jessie has suddenly been catapulted into fame at a young age, with no coaching or support. We were twenty-seven when The Nanny Diaries was published and were completely blindsided by its journey. We were excited, but also terrified, because we were experienced enough as consumers to know that stories cycle. We could only be covered flatteringly for so long before some editor would need to run the opposite story. It was a great lesson to give the same interview over and over and watch it get twisted in so many different ways, based on what the journalist had come to get.