Caeli Wolfson Widger Talks 'Real Happy Family' and "Brain Escapism" Through Reality TV

The pages of Caeli Wolfson Widger's Real Happy Family (New Harvest) practically turn themselves.The messy drama of the Branch family will remind the reader of family dramas not from literature, but from that vacuous entertainment we hate to love: reality television.

And reality TV is a catalyst for the plot of Widger's new book. When teenaged party girl and aspiring actress Lorelei loses an opportunity for a role on a new reality television show, her pill-popping mom, Colleen, humiliates her by spewing a racist rant on live TV about the African woman who took Lorelei's spot. Lorelei flees to Reno with her boyfriend and starts to descend into meth addiction. Meanwhile, the rest of the Branch family is also self-destructing: Colleen's marriage is dissolving, her stepson is in Florida while his wife (also Lorelei's agent) is on a regimen of fertility drugs, and no one knows how to stitch this family back together. Colleen's masterful plan? Bring the whole crew into the spotlight on the reality show Real Happy Family and stage an intervention for Lorelei. Disaster, as you'll imagine, ensues.

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Widger examines the strange, invasive genre of reality TV and presents a family tree that's severely diseased and gnarled. It makes for page-flipping fiction and puts a wretch-inducing spotlight on Hollywood. We spoke with Widger about how her interest in reality TV and family drama sprouted into the project of this book:

BUSTLE: When did the story of this family first start brewing in your mind?

CAELI WOLFSON WIDGER: It started brewing shortly after I'd moved from Brooklyn to L.A. and felt like I'd landed on a different planet. I don't mean this in the typical LA is so shallow and materialistic and NYC is so substantial and thinky — I didn't feel negative or judgmental toward LA, but more fascinated in an anthropological way. The breezy countenances everyone seemed to wear, the ubiquitious vanity, the strange speech patterns (The "love you!"s tossed between people who barely knew each other, for example, how all women call everyone "honey" or "baby") flip flops and sparkly painted toes and perky boobs on all women, regardless of age, etc. The casual assumption by so many of the new moms I'd met that they'd take their young kids to auditions. The sense of possibility! Cliched as it sounds, I really felt it, gold-rush style, that maybe my then one-year-old, could become the new face of Baby Gap (we went to one audition and left after about eight minutes).

Around this time, I got pregnant with my second kid and bought an elliptical machine and began to watch reality TV while I exercised in the evening, because it pleasantly numbed my brain and passed the time quickly. Particularly The Hills and The Real Housewives series. I began to wonder about the backstories of these shiny, outwardly vacuous people who seemed to believe their ticket to fame and fortune was just ... being themselves. One night I watched Audrina Patridge's mom have a complete meltdown on TV because she thought Audrina had been slighted for something or other. And the next morning, when I sat down to write (I'd committed myself to 1,000 words a day no matter what), she was the first topic that came to mind, and I started writing about her. Eventually, she evolved into Colleen, and soon Colleen needed relationships (as well as complexity and compassion), so the other characters emerged from her. So I'd say my early observations of SoCal culture, combined with some reality TV personalities, were the initial triggers for the book. I wanted to try to get into the psychology of a place & type of people fundamentally different from (and fascinating to) me.

You say that reality TV numbed your brain, but did you get invested in the drama of these shows?

Numbing was probably the wrong word choice — it was more like brain escapism. I absolutely got invested in the dramas! Not so much in the actual plot lines, which were often very thin, but morseo in the dynamics between the people in the show. So much love-hate, loyalties turning on a dime, awkwardness, emotional train wreckage on camera, etc. I became interested in the subsurfaces of people who were so willing to out themselves on display — what were their motives? What were the discrepancies in their lives and personalities on- and off-camera?

How did these considerations translate into writing fiction and specifically these characters?

I'd say reality TV and the psychology of its players were the trigger. The very first section of the book I wrote back in 2011 was Colleen's meltdown at the Flo's Studio finale — but the translation onto my pages was much further-reaching. I'd begun thinking I had a great deal of distance from my subjects, and thinking I'd explore them as curiosities, but I ended up feeling much more connected to my characters — particularly Colleen and Robin — than I anticipated. This is the sneaky way fiction works: You set out to stay as far away from yourself as possible and up digging uncomfortably deep, and even revealing facets of yourself indirectly that you'd never be willing to expose in, say, a personal essay. Colleen's weight obsession, for example, and her chronic insecurity in a crowded room. Robin's conflicted entrepreneurialism (I've held down a day job as a self-employed headhunter for the past 10ish years). Darren's artistic purism but low ouput (I didn't really start writing seriously —daily and with discipline and purpose — until I was 35, despite identifying as a writer and refusing to cultivate a nonartistic career beyond the bare minimum) — I found parts of myself in these characters.

As I wrote deeper into these characters, reality TV shrunk to one component of the whole story, making room for more relational and less plot-driven threads, like Carl and Colleen's suffering marriage and of course the Colleen-Lorelei dynamic. Others, like Lorelei, Bundy and Marina, began as "types" I had superficially encountered but not really gotten to know in L.A. — the C-list wannabe actress, the A-list actress in my yoga class with her VeganSpirit bag, the earnest rocker in skinny jeans — and ended up on the page, hopefully with vitality and depth, because they were really fun perspectives for me to write. While the most serious parts of the book were the most absorbing (and often difficult) to write, I offset them by simply cracking myself up. L.A. is a pretty ridiculous place, and I wanted to convey some of this unique ridiculousness through some of my characters, particularly Toby, Marina and Mel.

I guess you could say that while reality TV was the specific inspiration for actually sitting down to write Real Happy Family (that, and turning 35 and freaking out over the prospect of dying without publishing a novel), what I really did was throw the whole of Los Angeles as I knew it into a stew pot and added a sprinkling of my own neurosis. And in the end, the meal was an amalgam of the things I found funniest and saddest about this mythical and mocked part of the country. But, as I tell my writing workshop students, an author's primary relationship to her characters cannot be one of bemusement or judgment (in my early drafts of Real Happy Family, it was). I think you have to find a part of yourself, however small, in your central characters and write into those parts — as fearlessly as possible. And then you'll have a good chance of your readers developing compassion for those characters — no matter how unlikable.

Image: Kris Widger