Carolyn Parkhurst really likes watching reality television. “There are so many different types,” says the best-selling author, rattling off a rapid-fire list of titles that she followed consistently while working on her new book, Lost and Found. “I think it’s very interesting to watch real people,” she says, “to see them going through these events that could seriously change their lives.”
Parkhurst understands the lives of reality-show contestants. Her first novel, 2003’s The Dogs of Babel, became an unexpected hit when the Today show selected it for its book club; Parkhurst suddenly found herself balancing book tours and TV appearances. After things calmed down, she couldn’t help but feel a bit camera-weary. “So much of being a writer is a solitary activity,” says the American University MFA, who was living in San Francisco when Dogs hit and has since returned to Glover Park with her husband and two children. “It was definitely weird to suddenly be placed in such public situations.”
Lost and Found follows a menagerie of characters—including a teenage daughter and her mother, a couple who’ve married after each went through an “ex-gay” program, and a fading starlet—as they come to terms with troubling issues from their past while competing in a globe-trotting reality show. It’s a novel about the destructive power of secrets—think Jane Eyre told through the lens of Joe Millionaire. “This show is evil, Abby,” shouts “recovering homosexual” Justin to his new wife during one of the novel’s climactic scenes. “It confuses people about what they really want. It corrupts….You have no idea how badly it corrupts.”
“People are so typecast on these shows—they fit into such strict categories,” says Parkhurst of her attraction to the pulpy dynamics of shows like The Apprentice. “I was interested in filling out the characters, looking through their TV personas into the complexity of each person’s life.” Most of the narrators were selected to correspond with a certain reality-show stereotype. The fading starlet trying to recover media exposure was an obvious choice. The ex-gay couple was a more symbolic one—an attempt to tap into American hysteria over gay marriage.
The characters’ qualified happy endings, too, reflect the writer’s ambivalence about her own good fortune: Soon she won’t have time to dwell on the sociopolitical intricacies of The Amazing Race as she takes on a book tour and, yes, more TV and radio appearances. “The first reviews of Dogs were dreadful. I am concerned whether people will like [Lost],” says Parkhurst, nervous about whether reality television is a subject substantive enough for another bestseller. “The last novel had so much gravity and sadness—that’s not so much a part of this one.”—Aaron Leitko