Told from multiple perspectives, journalist and author Samantha Allen’s fiction debut Patricia Wants to Cuddle centers around women competing on The Catch, a Bachelor-type show. The final four contestants occupy different levels of competitiveness to get the titular Catch, Jeremy Blackstone; Renee struggles with her sexuality, Amanda is there to up her “Glamstapix” followers, and Lilah-Mae is there to change the perception of devout Christians on reality television.
The narrative is interspersed with a behind-the-scenes look at the currently filming The Catch, with CatchChat.com forums where fans discuss recent updates on the show, or one woman’s blog to find her sister who recently vanished in Otters Island, where the show takes place. It’s clear Allen wonders about what happens in the off-camera moments; the production and film crew are given ample perspective and plot.
Things take a turn, though, with a creature named Patricia, who wants to protect the island from visitors, especially a noisy crew filming a low-brow reality competition show. What was once a look into influencer culture and wavering identities becomes a full-on slasher romp, fueled by one determined Lady Sasquatch.
We had a chance to catch up with Samantha Allen about her visions for reality television, capitalism and social media influencing, and the crafting of a story.
I loved this book because I’m totally obsessed with reality TV; Survivor is my favorite show ever. I’ve never seen The Bachelor, but was this show (or any other reality TV shows) the idea behind the book?
It’s definitely inspired by The Bachelor, Survivor, Love Island, Too Hot to Handle, more recently. I’d say reality dating shows are the heaviest influences, but I’m also a big Survivor-head. I thought the most recent season was really really good. I feel like Survivor, too, over the past five years, from Zeke Smith[‘s coming out as trans] to the present season, has been a really interesting window in the heart of American culture on social issues. I think you can learn more about American society from a Survivor tribal council than you can from focus groups and New York Times reporting from diners and that kind of thing. Reality TV is just this fascinating window into our cultural consciousness.
I also thought that the CatchChat.com forums were so clever. Not only do we see audience reaction and discussion, but it’s all based on rumors as the show is filming. I’m guilty of this too — I looked at the Survivor 43 cast that’s filming right now.
Do you spoil yourself on Survivor?
Not the placements. For me, if it’s not an All-Stars season, why not know who they are? I never wanna know who wins before the season airs, because it’s not fun. But I like seeing who they are. Do you spoil yourself?
I spoil myself on any reality TV show where spoilers are available. Because to me, it’s more about the process than who wins. Once the artifice of it has been stripped away a little bit… I mean, Survivor preserves some feeling of unpredictability because there’s legitimate physical challenges that determine how far you go in the game and the social gameplay is really thrilling to watch. I feel like dating shows are more heavily produced and edited, and so to me, it feels like watching a multi-part TV/movie with non-professionally trained actors. Sometimes I just wanna Google and see how it ends.
But yeah, the CatchChat.com sections for me were a reflection of Reddit fan culture around reality TV. Kind of a tribute to how in-depth fans get with these shows, but also, from a craft perspective, it was an easy way to move all the exposition somewhere it wouldn’t clutter up the storytelling. Because I could talk about who the contestants are, what their backgrounds are and their ages, instead of being, like, ‘Renee Irons is a ___-year old former HR rep.’ You can have the fans talk about that on the fan forum.
And also it was important to establish, in-universe, The Catch is a huge universal temple, which is sometimes hard to do when you’re inventing a property and expecting the reader to take it seriously. I thought, ‘Why not show people talking about it?’
The Final Four women currently on the show — Amanda, Vanessa, Renee, and Lilah-Mae — all have such different personalities. What was the process in crafting this group of women?
Certainly there are archetypes you would see on contemporary reality TV. For me, it was like taking every contestant on every dating show I’ve ever seen and putting them all into a blender and seeing what dominant themes emerge. It was really important for me to explore religion and Christianity with Lilah-Mae, because I feel like that’s often unspoken. Even on Survivor, I feel like it’s the unspoken background of a lot of contestants. You know, they do tend to be fairly religious, a lot of folks who compete on American reality TV shows.
With Renee, I was exploring queerness and race; Vanessa was kind of my ‘pick-me girl’ — is that Gen Z slang I’m learning? And then Amanda is my portal into the way in which under late capitalism, social media has been like a profit engine. I think if you want to make money from it, it requires you to sell your entire life to ‘influencing.’ Each contestant gave me a path into exploring a different aspect into modern life and modern media culture.
So we start off with a pretty normal concept, a look at a popular dating show, then quickly turns into a slasher swayed by the presence of a Lady Sasquatch. It reminded me of one of my favorite normal books that quickly converted after an intense change, A Touch of Jen. Was your idea always to introduce this twist, or did this come later in the planning?
I love the Jen comparison — and fact-check me on this, but I believe my cover was by the same illustrator for A Touch of Jen, Richard A. Chance.
But it was a horror concept from the start. I love reality dating shows and I love horror movies. It was probably five years ago that I got the idea to combine them. My wife and I were like, ‘We should do it as a screenplay!’ And that idea faded into the backdrop. I think at the time, it was also, ‘Let’s have a human killer, have it be more similar in tone to Scream.’ And then, years later, when I revisited the idea and took it up as a book project, it just seemed like I wanted to go bigger with it. I wanted it to be big and bold and campy and gory. It was definitely influenced by watching Halloween movies and Friday the 13th movies, slasher DNA, all the way down. I wasn’t quite as into slashers when I got into the idea. It’s sort of been incubated in Jason’s lake a little bit, in Crystal Lake.
To me, I kind of love the idea of the book throwing people a curveball partway through. I’ve seen a lot of early reactions of people saying, ‘This is bonkers,’ or ‘bananas,’ or ‘unhinged,’ and it’s like, ‘God, it made you feel something!’ For better or for worse, it grabs you by the shoulders and says, ‘This is happening. Are you on board with it?’ I think I love that feeling and getting that reaction from a reader. I feel like so much stuff can be boiled down to, ‘Oh, this book is this plus this.’ I love how complicated the equation is for Patricia. It’s unreal plus Friday the 13th plus cryptage plus lore and all that kind of stuff.
With all the Glamstapix promotion, the carefully curated selves, and the sometimes apathetic host Dex Derickson, the book seems to tell people, ‘Look how silly this all is!’ about reality TV and identity on the internet. Was this something you set out to do?
Yeah. I feel like I have of sense that, not the social media era coming to a close, but there’s certainly been a lot of conversation about the influencer bubble bursting, or creator burnout, that sort of thing. I feel like at one time, people thought this was exciting, you can go on social media and build a brand, and your life can just be to live your life, aspirationally, and isn’t that cool and unique and new? For a time, it can feel that way, but capital comes for everything. And it just eventually turns people into glorified infomercial spokespeople. That life isn’t necessarily fun.
So for me, it’s sort of my take on this dystopian moment of the ways in which we squeeze money or personal worth or profitability out of social media. And we’re all complicit in this system, you know, as a writer, it matters to publishers whether you have a social media following or not. No one’s immune to the realities of this, but this book is kind of a way of condemning that culture.
To me, one of the throughlines of the book, with Renee’s character especially, is to point out the artifice of social media isn’t necessarily that much different from the artifice of white collar professional life in the United States. Some staggering percentage of people in white collar jobs feel like their work is essentially meaningless; it doesn’t need to exist.
For me, the book is my way of grappling with how artificial and alienating how all of modern life feels, and imagining what it would be like to escape that, even if that escape looks brutal and visceral and gory.
This is your fiction debut — how was the process different from your nonfiction or journalist work like Real Queer America?
It was certainly more challenging. It’s much easier to write when it’s real people with real things that have happened to them that you can relay.
This is really nitpicky, but I found that the hardest thing with writing fiction is moving people around. Like, doing the blocking and choreography. If someone is standing here, and they need to get across the mountaintop, or into the cave — how much you have to physically move people around like a chess board and how much print space that can take up if you’re not tracking it elegantly. Just some basics, I think were tricky to figure out, but once I had the characters in my head as fully realized people, it felt almost as easy as reporting on them, because I felt like I knew who they were and how they’d react and what they’d say in certain situations.
I’m always interested in the behind-the-scenes of writing a book — much like how it seems you are with reality TV. What was your go-to writing process, which musicians did you put on, did you go anywhere to write?
I wrote the book on an iPad with a keyboard; it was easier to look at the revision on a laptop — I realized how constrained it felt. I worked late at night from midnight to 4 a.m. and I write in bursts. I do my other work on a more normal timeframe, but when it comes to something like a book, I need a total lack of distraction. I need everyone to be asleep, basically, for me to be able to think clearly. And that can be frustrating, because it definitely restricts the usable time.
I feel almost reverse athletic about it, where I need to be in the zone, not too thirsty, not too hungry, not too sleepy, and then I can write for two hours before something happens and I need to be snapped out of it. But I go quickly in that time, so that’s the trade-off for me. Very concentrated weird bursts and random weekends where I’ll write 10,000 words or something, but then a lot of dead time and waiting for my moment to strike, or the stars to align.
After Patricia is published later this month, what are your future plans? A new book or project that you’re working on coming up on the horizon?
I’m hoping it does well enough to work on another fiction book; I have an idea for a romantic thriller that I can’t super expand on yet. It’s there and I feel like I can see it in my head in that way, which for me is the turning point in writing a book — when can you see it, and imagine it in its final shape in your head even when you haven’t written it yet? Once you get that, to me, writing can feel like fill-in-the-blanks, once you know how you want it to make someone feel and what beats you want it to hit. So I feel like I’m there with that, and just waiting to see if Patricia flops or soars before pitching it around.
Patricia Wants to Cuddle is on sale June 28th, 2022.