A Conversation with John Kenney about Talk to Me

From New Yorker contributor and the Thurber Prize-winning author of Truth in Advertising comes a wry yet tenderhearted look at how one man's public fall from grace leads him back to his family, and back to the man he used to be. Imagine that the worst moment of your life is caught on tape and goes viral.


Photo by © Rick Knief

From New Yorker contributor and the Thurber Prize-winning author of Truth in Advertising comes a wry yet tenderhearted look at how one man's public fall from grace leads him back to his family, and back to the man he used to be. Imagine that the worst moment of your life is caught on tape and goes viral. What if it became your legacy. How would you react? But the novel is more than a story about the media—it is a tender look at family, marriage, and the passing of an era.

The publishers at Putnam sat down with the author to discuss social media, family dynamics, and hope for the future.

How would you compare TALK TO ME to your acclaimed first novel, Truth in Advertising?

John Kenney: They are very different books. Truth in Advertising is, I think, much more autobiographical. Emotionally inept copywriter, on the cusp of 40, with a complex family history. It’s fiction, to be sure, but I drew a lot on my experiences. TALK TO ME is very different as it’s so completely out of my realm; the world of news, wealth, bad marriage, his fraught relationship with an adult daughter. Where I think the books are similar is in their heroes. Both men are deeply flawed, struggle with demons, emotion, deep loss from the past. I like people for whom almost everything is taken away. I admire them. I admire their strength in trying and overcoming. Even if it’s in small ways. The invisible heroism of people we see every day.

Like Finbar Dolan in Truth in Advertising, Ted Grayson in TALK TO ME is lost and lonely and doesn’t seem to have a clue why. Is this a worsening problem or has the internet and social media simply made it more visible?

John Kenney: Smarter minds than mine have grappled with that. Notably, Jaron Lanier, a pioneer in virtual reality. His most recent book, Ten Arguments For Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now is fascinating. On the other hand you have a big thinker like Kevin Kelly, co-founder of Wired Magazine, who reminds us that the Internet is only about 5,000 days old. The tsunami of cruelty and meanness and drivel that is produced each day is what interested me for TALK TO ME. It’s middle school on crack cocaine out there. So I liked playing in that space. The speed of life in the digital age. The lack of pause, thoughtfulness. The need not just to be right, but to be superior, louder, meaner. That said, I think it’s too easy to say that social media is this way or this way. I think it’s too big, too far-reaching, too world-redefining. Also, I don’t have a Facebook page so what the hell do I know. I’m fascinated by what it could be. Right now, I feel like it’s an adolescent that just wants to scream whatever enters its mind, sure of its own rightness. I’m interested to see what it grows up into.

In TALK TO ME, Ted Grayson is a successful news anchor who becomes a pariah after his profanity-laced tirade is caught on video and posted on social media. Any idea of where to start pushing back on the loss of civility?

John Kenney: Not a fucking clue. Sorry. The immediacy of social media, of the ability to act, react, say whatever you want and have it up and out to the world, is such a radically different force. Reflection, pause, consideration. Not so vogue anymore. I saw a story recently about a man on NJ Transit. He filmed a guy shaving on the train. Went viral. The reaction largely negative, cruel, taunting. Turns out the man was homeless, struggling. He was going to his brother’s house for a stay and didn’t want to show up looking disheveled. Why do we think we have context simply by seeing a photo, a clip, a quote? It’s so easy to vent spleen on a Tweet. Harder to do so in person, face to face. We speak differently to another human being than we do to a keyboard. But more and more we live on keyboards.

The novel weaves a powerful personal story of redemption with a number of red-hot issues right now, like the ongoing assault on truth and the meteoric rise of the #metoo movement. Which came first in crafting this novel—Ted’s personal implosion or the broader societal issues?

John Kenney: The former, by far. The issues Ted faces in book and what’s going on today are coincidence. My interest was the relationship between a father and a daughter. I have a daughter and a son. Having a daughter, though, is a new experience for me. I have five brothers, no sisters. I went to an all-boys high school. I get boys. Girls are a different thing. My daughter is a force of nature, one of the most amazing people I have ever met. I got to thinking about people I know who don’t have good relationships with their parents. Could that ever happen to me? And so, as I do most nights at around 3:30am, I lay awake and took a stroll down those dark, winding roads of the soul, the kind that leave you hoping for the sunrise. Too much?

Ted’s fall from grace taps into the recent media focus on public downfalls, including those of major media figures. Did you have anyone in particular in mind when you created/wrote this character? How might Ted’s story relate to those similar stories?

John Kenney: I wrote the story before all of these downfalls happened. Ted was fully formed. In my mind he was simply one of those squared fellows I grew up watching. A familiar face. A trusted face. Grace under pressure. That sort of thing. But it’s all a mask, of course. The fakeness of nightly news. The sanitation of it all. As for how Ted’s story might compare, I simply can’t imagine the shattering pain these men’s actions have inflicted on their own families (and, of course, the victims and their families).

Do you think the media was too harsh on those real life figures like Ted? Should we show them more empathy?

John Kenney: So I think Ted is a very different character than the parade of men who’ve fallen. I drew Ted as someone who had a temper and said awful things. I steered way clear of sexual transgression. I also don’t think I’m the right person to answer that question. I’m a white male. I have never been put in a situation where someone more powerful than myself took advantage of me sexually. I can’t imagine the horror of that. The trauma. I would ask the victims. I have a wife and a daughter. I don’t know that I would find much forgiveness for the likes of the men who have fallen over the last year or so. Read the offenses, the lists of names, dozens of women. Lives altered horribly. These are, to my mind, despicable characters who used power and fame to abuse people weaker than themselves. And were enabled by others. Too harsh? I’m Irish.

TALK TO ME offers an insider’s look at the passing of an era with respect to network news programming. What are your thoughts on what’s happening to news reporting today?

John Kenney: Incredibly heartened. The Trump era has reawakened the giants of serious reporting, The New York Times and The Washington Post. It’s emboldened CNN and MSNBC. People like William Kristol are vital sources of intelligent thought and writing.

More broadly, how does your personal background inform this book? Did you have to do any special research for it? Do you feel a particular affinity with any of the characters?

John Kenney: I was for many years a news junkie. Especially print. I still read the Times in print form every day. I studied journalism in college and wanted, for a time, to be a journalist. The world is really interesting to me. My oldest brother – one of the most influential people in my life – was a reporter and later an editor at The Boston Globe. I am fond of the characters. I hope that doesn’t sound strange. I like their wounded natures. I am partial to Murray, Ted’s long-time news writer. Deep down he is a sweet, lonely man.

What do you hope readers take away from your story?

John Kenney: Hope that relationships can be mended. Hope that we can be kinder to each other. Also I hope they buy it in hardcover…

At its heart, Talk to Me is a tender father-daughter story and a cautionary tale about what actually matters when all seems lost. It is a sharply observed, darkly funny, and ultimately warm story about a man who wakes up too late to the mess he's made of his life... and about our capacity for forgiveness and empathy.

Read an Excerpt of Talk to Me, or request an eGalley on Edelweiss or NetGalley.

Click for the full Book Club Kit for Talk to Me.



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