Ahead of the audiobook release for his debut novel The Wig, The Bitch & The Meltdown, celebrity creative director Jay Manuel (of America’s Next Top Model fame) chatted with me about the hard but healthy work of writing a novel, and the joy of seeing it turned into audio.
*This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. Listen in full to the complete interview by playing the audio file above!*
Audiobooks.com: Can you start by telling us what the book is all about?
Jay: When I started writing this book, it was 2014. I did not know there was a pandemic around the corner, but I did want to create a world that was an escape, and it launched in the summer when everyone was at home so that was serendipity. [The book is] absolutely inspired by my life in the entertainment world and specifically my time on America’s Next Top Model. But I wanted to, out of the gate, let readers know that even if you’ve never watched an episode of America’s Next Top Model, you can absolutely enjoy this book.
The book is really written for two different readers. If someone just wants to simply be entertained while inhabiting this behind-the-scenes world of reality TV, great! It’s a lot of fun. It’s very fast-paced. But, it’s also written for those readers who want to dig deeper into the psychology of these characters and their archetypes — and really for that reader who has the courage to look in the mirror at themselves up close and personal.
Ultimately, my goal in writing is that I wanted to examine, in art form, some of the common themes and tropes of the entertainment industry. In my book, there are so many different characters, but these are human stories that hopefully shift the paradigm about how we think about power, authority, and relationships.
I really hit some very important core themes like, what is the cost of fame, and what happens when fame goes away? Why is there such acceptance around the abuse of power in the entertainment industry, and how do we deal with power struggles in general in the workplace? A core theme of 2020 was having these discussions around identity and race. I did really want to look and show how the entertainment industry deals with intersectionality and black women’s identities. These were things that were very important to me. It just came out at the right time for people to absorb a piece like this.
Audiobooks.com: A lot of people, when they first hear that you’ve come up with this book and what the loose plot is, wonder why you might have chosen fiction versus memoir. It sounds like there’s a lot more nuance that you were able to bring, and more creativity, by taking a fictionalized approach and drawing on your own experiences for it.
Jay: Absolutely. When the book released in August of 2020, I was doing several interviews and at the time people really pressed me, saying, “Well, this is really semi-autobiographical, right?”. Ultimately, this is a work of fiction. I wrote this piece with a very specific moment in mind in the book, which is this metafictional mechanism where I blur the lines. I break the fourth wall in a way where I wanted to jolt the reader — it almost is like a needle scratch moment — and [prompt] them to take their minds out of the book and examine the relationships around themselves. One of the best reactions I got from someone when they read it early on before the book was released was [that the book is] like the Black Mirror of the literary world because there’s this moment you don’t expect in the piece and it’s meant to be this moment of awakening. The book, as an overall theme, is a journey of awakening. That’s something that we can all relate to in terms of awakening to our true power, and who we are, and really examining those relationships around us, and realizing that often we seek external validation to help lift ourselves up. Ultimately, self-validation is the key to success. That was one of the core themes that I wanted to pull out of this piece of satire. I know most people are just expecting this really funny, or as they say, “spilling the tea, spilling the secrets” kind of book. But there really is a gravitas to the piece that I wanted people to at least feel.
Audiobooks.com: Was it really cathartic writing for you, touching on those heavy themes and working through them?
Jay: The entire writing process was so fascinating. When I decided to write this book — I’ll be very truthful — I thought, who am I to write a piece of fiction? Writing memoirs and non-fiction is probably a little bit easier than constructing an arc that has all of the right timing and pieces, hitting that midpoint reversal in the book, and building up to a climax. I just didn’t know that I was ready for something like that. So, I actually did all of this research and I wrote up the entire plot and the scenes that I needed, preparing myself to hand it off for someone else to write. When I was finished with that process, I shared it with a good friend who is a writer. She called me and said, “Would you just write the book? You’ve done all the work. You can do this. You’re a writer. You’re a natural storyteller. You just need to sit down and not be afraid of it.” Without her encouragement, I don’t think I would have done this. Ultimately, I think this was the type of piece I had to write myself for it to have a level of authenticity. So, it was cathartic, to answer your question. But to be really honest with you, once I was really digging in through these different drafts, the characters really took on their own personalities. When I was writing, I wasn’t thinking about some of the people they’re inspired by. The story really came into itself. I know a lot of people think the protagonist, Pablo Michaels, is me. He’s inspired by me, but he’s not me. There are things that Pablo does that I wouldn’t do. That’s the fun of writing fiction. As a writer, ultimately, if you’re truly honest with yourself, you’ll realize that there’s a piece of you in every character, and that’s the exciting part that I didn’t expect. You get to explore all these facets of your mind and personality that the world doesn’t see. That’s the interesting journey: to realize where your fears are, where your vulnerabilities are, and how the darker parts of your mind can end up on the page. Only you can own that. For me, that was the fascinating part of the process.
Audiobooks.com: I’ve often heard it described by authors that it’s like you’re giving birth to a thing that has a life of its own. It starts in your mind, but then it becomes something bigger than that. I’m wondering, did you veer off from your initial story plan? Did characters go in unexpected directions as this thing took on its own life?
Jay: If a writer is truly open to the process, the characters are going to take on a life of their own, and sometimes you can’t force things to happen just because you, the writer, want this scene to happen or this scene to happen. Things have to evolve. Sure enough, I mapped out the story, and things definitely changed, especially when I would do character passes. I would read sections of the book back to myself and really see if I’m being authentic to this character study. One of the scenes that a lot of people talk to me about is a chapter called “Meltdown,” which is inspired by the famous meltdown on America’s Next Top Model. There was a big change while I was writing that chapter because I just felt the characters going the way they needed to go. It was exciting for me because it just changed as I was typing. The writing process actually became — and I did not expect this — addicting, especially the last six months. I was probably writing about five or six days a week and I would get up early and run down to my desk. When I finally reached the point of the last draft, I had serious withdrawal. I did not expect this. I was just so used to getting up and living with this every day. When you are in that writing process, you’ve got all these ideas. Even if you’ve got notes written down, these things are kind of floating around you and any interruption could absolutely throw you off course.
Audiobooks.com: I wonder, as you were listening to your audiobook of The Wig, The Bitch & the Meltdown, did it change your perspective at all about the novel, hearing it brought to life by a narrator?
Jay: I went through so many different thoughts! This audiobook is coming out several months after my book released, so I’ve actually not read it in a few months. But, in listening to it, I didn’t realize I had the book completely memorized. I didn’t even follow along with the book. I just sat and listened to it, which was an interesting process on many fronts, because Daniel Henning, who is the narrator and performer, did a really great job at finding different voices for the different characters. So, for me, hearing his interpretation of the piece was great. I actually went back into some earlier drafts — this is something I’ve not talked about with anyone — when I originally wrote the book, I really wanted the piece to mirror the world that it takes place in. But, in my first draft, what I did was I started with the initial first chapter and then jumped ahead in time to the main story and then informed the reader through flashbacks. You met the characters in different ways. Ultimately, I’d taken the entire story apart at one point and put it in chronological order. So, when hearing this piece read to me, because I know the story really ramps up when that main story takes over, I was almost anxious to hear that part start. […] I wanted to hear how Daniel was going to interpret that, and he did a great job. It was fun just having the chance to sit back and hear someone else’s take on the whole piece.
Audiobooks.com: It definitely is a different experience, consuming audio versus print. We’re certainly advocates of it being often better. What do you think readers can gain from listening to the audiobooks that they might not necessarily get from reading in print?
Jay: Well, I think listening to an audiobook offers everyone an opportunity to kind of catch some of the more nuanced moments, which Daniel does a great job at. We always read things through our own lens. I tend to read into things and I love to look for the drama in the writing, but not everybody’s like that. So, again, I think Daniel does a great job at how he interpreted the piece. He knew what to hit and to really build to that big moment, that line-blurring fourth wall break moment towards the end of the book, and to move into the climax of the piece. So, what people can gain from listening to an audiobook is they’re getting a performance. [Daniel’s] an actor as well as a writer, so you’re getting more of a performance as opposed to just reading it yourself on the pages.
Audiobooks.com: What do you hope listeners will take away from the novel at its conclusion?
Jay: Ultimately, this is a story of awakening and that’s something that all of us go through in our lives, every person on this planet. We really have to awaken to our own power and self-validation. For me, there are so many different takeaways from looking at these characters because it really is a character piece. The best compliment that I’ve received from people has been […] that they did not expect the story that they got. It was full of heart and they found a lot of themselves in the piece. That’s a great compliment because we tend to gravitate towards stories that we know. So, I am encouraged that people are looking at what on the surface seems… The world itself is somewhat vapid. That’s a point that I make in the book. We’re talking about fashion reality programming. I mean, how deep can it be? But, behind the scenes, there are these flawed humans that are really struggling. Pablo, who we learned very early on — it’s in the second chapter so it’s not a big spoiler — that he’s adopted under a unique set of circumstances and he sets out to New York City to find himself. Keisha Kash, who is the antagonist and the supermodel host, ultimately becomes a mirror for him to see himself. And Keisha, who’s raised herself, was also abandoned in a different way. So the pressures of her life circumstances force her to forge a career where she becomes this diamond, and a flawed one. The reader gets to experience somewhat of a redemption story and a story of damaged people who learn how to survive. It becomes much more interesting beneath the surface.
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