Sunday, September 25, 2022

Interview with Randee Dawn, author of Tune in Tomorrow: The Curious, Calamitous, Cockamamie Story of Starr Weatherby and the Greatest Mythic Reality Show Ever

Today it gives the Speculative Fiction Showcase great pleasure to interview Randee Dawn, whose debut novel Tune in Tomorrow: The Curious, Calamitous, Cockamamie Story of Starr Weatherby and the Greatest Mythic Reality Show Ever appeared on August 18th (Solaris).

What was the original spark for the novel that became Tune in Tomorrow?

I don't think I can point to one specific spark – it was more like a lot of rumbling underground that finally surfaced, because so much of the took is drawn from my experiences elsewhere. But if I had to pinpoint something, it was when I came up with a bunch of pitch ideas for possible text-based online games for Choice of Games. The one they liked, and wanted to see more of an outline was, was about an actress being hired on a soap opera. There was no fantasy element. After creating the game itself became too much of a challenge for me, I took the story and ran with it in a fantastical, silly direction – and here we are!

You’re a former editor at The Hollywood Reporter and Soap Opera Digest, and these days cover the world of show business for Variety, The Los Angeles Times, Emmy Magazine and An avid fan of Law and Order, you have appeared on the show, and have edited The Law & Order: SVU Unofficial Companion. Tell us about your experience - how has it influenced the writing of Tune in Tomorrow?

I love going behind the scenes to see how the sausage is made, and being on set with a show – whether soap or Law & Order is fantastically interesting to me. So the times I've been allowed to watch filming take place have been enormous learning experiences for me. I take in all the details, see how hard the crew works, see how different the sets and props look up close compared to when they're on camera, and I save all of that up for later. (For example, sets often look just a little bit smaller than they would be in real life, as if someone has taken a Xerox machine to the furniture and reproduced it at 85%. I'm not sure about the logic here, except that it makes the actors seem larger, and many actors on camera are of average or below average height.) Meanwhile, I've spoken to hundreds of creators and performers over the years who've directly and indirectly given me grist for the mill when it comes to creating characters and believable situations. Their personalities, the way they respond to being interviewed, publicists and their own wacky ways – it all goes into the hopper.

Soaps and reality TV have become two of the most successful contemporary television genres, with many different formats worldwide. What do you think about this phenomenal success and our endless thirst for the detail of ordinary as well as extraordinary lives?

We love the ongoing tale, the ones that never end (though they seem to) and give us endless dream fodder. Soaps are fantastical in their own ways – sometimes full-on like when they include possessions or underground cities – but mostly in the way they portray characters who over and over again go through incredible, horrible, amazing and terrifying experiences. Most of us, if we're lucky or unlucky, have far fewer of these experiences. So on the one hand, they're like us. On the other, they live the dream experiences we rarely get to see. They're aspirational, and mundane all at the same time. And let's face it: Most TV shows these days are forms of soap opera. Grey's Anatomy? Soap. Game of Thrones? Soap. They just tend to end after five or six or seven years (though Grey's is on something like season 18!).

Your protagonist, Starr Weatherby, finds herself starring in a particularly unusual docusoap. What can you tell us about the show Tune in Tomorrow and its audience?

Tune in Tomorrow (the show in the book) is a reality docusoap (as opposed to a competition series) created by mythical creatures, for mythical creatures, but starring humans. We (humans) love to make movies and TV shows about fantastical beings, magic and otherworlds. That's basic everyday life to mythical creatures. So I wondered: What would they watch on TV that would blow their minds if they could? Turns out, they're interested in the dumb little everyday things we live with – embezzelment! Adultery! Writing checks! Making coffee! The stuff of soaps and reality TV, in other words. And like human TV fans, sometimes they take it all a little too literally….

Who is Starr and how does she find herself in New York, being cast in Tune in Tomorrow?

Starr is an aspiring actor, originally from Maryland, who went to acting school in New York and then has been struggling to be noticed ever since. She's working at a diner when she overhears some customers talking about somebody they want to observe (it turns out to be her) and after some over-the-top Shakespeare and a spilled pot of coffee, she's handed a card to speak to an executive producer at Tune in Tomorrow

What can you tell us about the makers of the show and what do they want from Starr - and humans generally?

The makers of Tune in Tomorrow,  as Jason the executive producer once noted, want performers. Actors can be trained, but performers have to be born with it. They want someone who can roll with the punches and bounce back, especially after being confronted with creatures they've always been told were mythical. Starr is ready and willing at the drop of a hat to go as over the top as possible, which makes her a perfect addition to the show.

Why are mangoes important to Starr (and the story)?

Starr is "discovered" (though covertly) by Jason when she's doing an improv routine where the  prompts she's been given require her to be a singing mango. He loves this. Later on, when she finds out that this was her big breakthrough moment (it was also the moment she truly discovered she loved acting), she uses the mantra "be the mango" to shore up her courage and get herself to do hard or scary things.

Tune in Tomorrow has a great subtitle: The Curious, Calamitous, Cockamamie Story of Starr Weatherby and the Greatest Mythic Reality Show Ever. Together with the cover art, it draws us into the book. What made you decide to do that?

There was something innately hilarious – yet oddly formal – about creating an overly long, alliterative subtitle for the book. I've seen several other funny fantasy books (Good Omens; The Princess Bride) that also had overly long titles. I'm only sorry the full title couldn't fit on the book's cover! As for the art for the cover, I made some suggestions but largely it came to me fully developed. I love that it's loud and garish just like the book. No need for subtlety here!

What can you tell us about the people - human and otherwise - that Starr meets backstage at the show? Who are her friends - and foes? 

The book has a large cast of characters, but I'll talk about a couple of the most important: Jason is a faun who's the show's executive producer; he feels the show is a work of fae art on a scale with crop circles, and he loves Starr for her talent. Fiona is the show's longest-running actor and she's been playing her alter ego for so long she hears the character's voice in her head. She'll do anything to protect her role on the show – and she sees Starr as a potential spotlight stealer. A fan favorite seems to be Phil, the receptionist/security dragon who has "issues," but is there to protect the show, the show's old scripts, and Starr – in that order. And finally, there's Nico and Mav, two men who have eyes for Starr but express their ardor in very different ways. Nico's the show lothario, while Mav is more laid-back, almost too much so, and nearly gets friend-zoned.

There has been some great humorous fantasy in recent years, often with a serious kernel. How important is humour in the story?

I think you can enjoy the book and the story even if you don't "get" all the jokes – to me, they're more like tasty frosting over the cake. But overall, I hope people who read the book can picture some of the slapstick going on, and get a real chuckle out of it. It's meant to be frothy and lighthearted, which helps couch some of the more serious issues the story brings up about immortality, and what we owe our loyalty to.

Ellen Kushner, World Fantasy Award-winning author of Swordspoint, has said: "Randee Dawn has single-handedly created a glittering new genre: the Backstage Comedy Fantasy Romance — and I want more!" Will there be a sequel to Tune in Tomorrow?

I'd like to do one! Maybe not literally with these characters as a main focus, but I definitely have ideas about delving into the other entertainment mythics create for themselves. If the book sells well, I can leap right into that. Chapters have been written! If not, it may take a little longer. 

Your short fiction has appeared in numerous anthologies. What can you tell us about those, and how different is writing a novel to writing a short story?

A novel is a marathon. A short story is a sprint. Both can take a long time to perfect, or at least perfect enough to get them out into the world – but a novel requires a lot more juggling of ideas and characters in the air. Short stories are a lot of fun to write, and I think some of the ones I've written (and read) could be/could have been fleshed out into more of a novel – but sometimes you just have to listen to the story and let it tell you when it's done. 

What books do you enjoy reading, fiction or nonfiction?

Yes. All of them. Mostly fiction, mostly genre. Not so much literary. But I like a gripping tale with characters I can root for – less so prose that's self-conscious with characters who don't seem to do anything of note. I'm in the middle of Meg Elison's Number One Fan, which is a fast-paced thrill ride; earlier this year I read Michael McDowell's Blackwater, which was over 800 pages and still left me wanting more. 

How far are the words “write what you know” a straitjacket and how far a jumping off point for the fantastic imagination?

Great question. "Write what you know" is a mean thing to tell a young writer. It's not that they don't "know" anything, but in most cases their experiences – like my own – are pretty mundane, and they haven't been around long enough to really parse even those with depth and breadth. I understand a lot more about aging and living now that I've done both, far more than I did in my 20s. I've been an entertainment writer for a lot of years, but I didn't successfully process what all that knowledge means until just a few years ago. And I didn't feel free enough as a writer when I was younger to just let it all go – and be my own mango. Now, I think I get it. I also realize there's still so much to learn.

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About Randee Dawn:

Maryland-born Randee Dawn is now a Brooklyn-based entertainment journalist who scribbles about the glam world of entertainment by day, then spends her nights crafting wild worlds of fiction. She's a former editor at The Hollywood Reporter and Soap Opera Digest, and these days covers the wacky world of show business for Variety, The Los Angeles Times, Emmy Magazine and Dawn's obsessive love of all things Law & Order led her to appear in one episode and later co-author The Law & Order SVU: Unofficial Companion.  Her short fiction has appeared in numerous anthologies and online publications; she also dreams up trivia questions for BigBrain Games. Once a month she can be found hosting Rooftop Readings at Ample Hills Creamery in Brooklyn, and when not writing she's focused on her next travel destination, and hangs out with her wonderful, funny husband and fluffy Westie. She admits she reads way too many books and consumes far too many mangoes.

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