With ‘The Old Place’, Bobby Finger comes out from behind the microphone

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Bobby Finger isn’t used to doing press alone. The 36-year-old D’Hanis, Texas native is no stranger to media attention. It was profiled in the likes of the Guardian and the New Yorkerstill with Lindsey Weber, co-host of her popular celebrity gossip podcast Who? Weekly. And after more than a decade working as a cultural writer with signatures in vanity lounge, New Yorkand the New York Times, among many others (including Texas monthly), God knows he himself conducted many interviews. But now Bobby Finger is throwing himself into promoting his first novel, The old place, about a retiree in a small town in Texas with lots of skeletons in her closet. This time, Finger – and only Finger – is “the talent”.

“You’re a star! You’re becoming a ‘who’!” I told Bobby during our hour-long zoom, referring to the class of D-list celebrities his podcast is dedicated to.

“Never!” he replied, with a gleeful laugh familiar to those who listen to the more than three hours of audio he and Weber release each week. “I never would. Nope part of me wants that.

Finger didn’t exactly set out to be a faintly famous podcaster, or a novelist, or even a journalist, for that matter. Raised in D’Hanis (a town fifty miles west of San Antonio, with a current population of 785), he was a voracious consumer of popular culture. He graduated from the University of Texas Radio, Television, and Film program and took a job as a copywriter for an advertising agency. “I was very surprised by the fact that Mad Men the culture still existed,” he says, engaging in his habit of describing something through the prism of a popular, beloved piece of art. He did the complete opposite of what most writers do these days, leaving the world of advertising for journalism, and spent a few years as an editor at the Jezebel website. In 2016, he and his good friend Lindsey Weber decided to take their love of dumb celebrity news and turn it into a podcast called Who? Weekly, offering “everything you need to know about celebrities you don’t know”. They developed a simple but brilliant taxonomy of celebrities (you’re either a “who” – Haylie Duff – a “them” – Matthew McConaughey – or, God forbid, a “no” – me) and made love jokes about British singer Rita Ora (“dozens of people want to know” what she does). Propelled by Weber and Finger’s charming relationship, the podcast quickly garnered a legion of dedicated fans, earning enough ad revenue to allow Weber and Finger to quit their jobs and hire an editorial assistant.

“Two non-famous friends turn jokes into profit” are the things podcast dreams are made of, and even Finger is still surprised that it happened. “I never thought we would make money out of it. It was just a fun hobby,” he says. “I feel very, very lucky.”

The old place, Finger’s next novel (GP Putnam’s Sons, September 20), was also something Finger would probably have called “just a fun pastime.” In fact, it started as a script. “I wrote a lot of screenplays in my spare time. That’s what I learned in college. It’s what we love to do,” says Finger. One such storyline was set in a small town in Texas and followed a newly retired teacher with some secrets. “I felt good to have finished it, but I didn’t know what to do with it,” he recalls. She happened to tell another friend about it, she read it, and her only comment was that it should be a book. “At the time, I was kind of like, ‘That’s . . . not a commentary,'” Finger jokes, again with a big laugh. He’d never considered himself a fiction writer.” I read a lot, but I was like, ‘That’s a bridge too far.’ But, with more free time during the COVID-19 pandemic, he started working on the project every day, eventually sending a query letter to an agent he met on Twitter. In late 2021 , editor-turned-journalist-turned-podcaster Bobby Finger had completed a manuscript and a book deal.

The listeners of Who? Weeklyon which Finger regularly reveals his encyclopedic knowledge of Daddy’s Girls episodes, won’t be surprised to learn that its first foray into creative literature has a protagonist in her 60s. The narrative centers on Mary Alice Roth, a newly retired longtime teacher in a small Texas town called Billington, a fictional replacement for Finger’s hometown. Mary Alice is the crank of the town, but she leads a quiet, if not entirely peaceful life. Each day begins with coffee and a chat on the porch with her friend and neighbor, Ellie. The highlight of his year is hosting the Labor Day weekend picnic and choosing which victim will cook the most grueling dish: potato salad. But there is a darkness beneath Mary Alice’s quaint existence. Ellie and Mary Alice have tragically lost their sons, and details emerge that Mary Alice would never admit to anyone, not even herself. It’s a subtle, sweet tale of homosexuality and authenticity, especially poignant when set in rural, conservative Texas.

Finger brand spirit is everywhere The old place; his characters are ironic and the prose is sharp. But the novel is sweet and slow, and I don’t say that pejoratively. The buried truths of Mary Alice’s past take their time to come out, and the book resolves without much transformation or even fixed solution to the problems in the characters’ lives. On the contrary, the characters end up understanding each other better, and perhaps loving each other a little more. “I love books about small towns, small communities where people just find a way to get by and be happy,” Finger told me. And that’s exactly what he wrote.

The old placewhich does not mention Haylie Duff at all, may seem far removed from Finger’s Who? Weekly gets worse, but I see a clear line through. Many people thumb their noses at frivolous celebrity gossip, but Finger and Weber leaned heavily into that interest, and it paid off. A whole army of listeners, myself included, like to take a serious interest in the so-called low art. The same could easily be said of stories centered around little old ladies or storylines in which the pinnacle of drama is fundraising for the church.

There is an element of self-soothing in all of Finger’s work. Wholigans, as they are known, regularly cite the podcast as a beam of light in an otherwise bleak news cycle. The Old Place, written during the most isolated months of the pandemic, is a story about people approaching the endgame of their lives and realizing there is still more to discover about themselves and those they love. It’s the same kind of storytelling that helped Bobby Finger ease his own anxieties about aging, isolation, and death. And it can serve the same purpose for readers. The sweet and sad book examines life’s problems but does not pretend to solve them. Those looking to escape the perpetual stress of their modern lives can do so by hearing about Haylie Duff professional relationship with the canning industry— or reading about stress-induced potato salad from the fictional life of Mary Alice Roth.

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