Bobby Finger isn’t used to doing press on his own. The 36-year-old D’Hanis, Texas, native isn’t exactly a stranger to media attention. He’s been profiled in the likes of the Guardian and the New Yorker, always with Lindsey Weber, the cohost of his popular celebrity gossip podcast Who? Weekly. And after a decade-plus working as a culture writer with bylines in Vanity Fair, New York, and the New York Times, among many others (including Texas Monthly), heaven knows he’s conducted plenty of interviews himself. But now Bobby Finger is embarking on promotion for his debut novel, The Old Place, about a retiree in a small Texas town with a lot 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 to which his podcast is dedicated.
“Never!” he replied, with a joyful cackle well known by those who listen to the three-plus hours of audio he and Weber release each week. “I would never. No part of me wants that.”
Finger didn’t exactly plan to be a mildly 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 ravenous consumer of popular culture. He got a degree from the University of Texas’s radio, television, and film program, and he took a job as a copywriter for an advertising firm. “I was very surprised by the fact that Mad Men culture still existed,” he says, engaging in his habit of describing something via the lens of a popular and beloved work of art. He did the complete opposite of what most writers do these days, leaving the ad world for journalism, and spent a few years as a staff writer at the website Jezebel. 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 the celebrities you don’t.” They developed a simple but brilliant taxonomy of celebrities (you’re either a “who”—Haylie Duff—a “them”—Matthew McConaughey—or, God forbid, a “nah”—me) and made loving jokes about British singer Rita Ora (“tens of people want to know” what she’s up to). Propelled by Weber and Finger’s charming rapport, the podcast quickly attracted a legion of devoted fans, which brought enough ad revenue to allow both Weber and Finger to quit their jobs and hire an editorial assistant.
“Two non-famous friends turn their banter into profit” is the stuff podcast dreams are made of, and even Finger is still surprised that it happened. “I never thought we’d make money off of it. It was just a fun hobby,” he says. “I feel very, very lucky.”
The Old Place, Finger’s upcoming novel (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, September 20), was also something Finger would likely have referred to as “just a fun hobby.” It actually started as a screenplay. “I’ve written plenty of screenplays in my spare time. It’s what I learned in college. It’s what I like doing,” Finger says. One of those screenplays was set in a small town in Texas and followed a newly retired schoolteacher with some secrets. “I felt good that I finished it, but I didn’t know what to do with it,” he recalls. He happened to mention it to another friend, 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 comment,’ ” Finger jokes, again with the great laugh. He’d never thought of himself as a fiction writer. “I read a lot, but I was like, ‘This is 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 had met on Twitter. By the end of 2021, copywriter turned journalist turned podcaster Bobby Finger had a finished a manuscript and a book deal.
Listeners of Who? Weekly, on which Finger regularly reveals his encyclopedic knowledge of Golden Girls episodes, won’t be surprised to learn that his first foray into creative literature has a sixtysomething female protagonist. The narrative centers on Mary Alice Roth, a newly retired longtime teacher in a small Texas town called Billington, a fictional stand-in for Finger’s hometown. Mary Alice is the town crank, but she leads a quiet—if not entirely peaceful—life. Each day begins with coffee and a front-porch chat with her friend and neighbor, Ellie. The highlight of her year is organizing the town’s Labor Day weekend picnic and picking which victim will make the most grueling dish: potato salad. But there’s a darkness underneath Mary Alice’s quaint existence. Both Ellie and Mary Alice tragically lost their sons, and details emerge that Mary Alice has never been willing to admit to anyone, not even herself. It’s a subtle, sweet narrative about queerness and authenticity, especially poignant when set in rural, conservative Texas.
Finger’s trademark wit is all over The Old Place; his characters are quippy and the prose is sharp. But the novel is soft and slow, and I don’t mean that derogatorily. The buried truths of Mary Alice’s past take their time to come out, and the book resolves without a big transformation or even a fixed solution to the problems in the characters’ lives. Rather, the characters end up understanding one another better, and perhaps loving themselves a little more. “I like books about small towns, little communities where people are just finding a way to get by and be happy,” Finger told me. And that’s exactly what he’s written.
The Old Place, which doesn’t mention Haylie Duff at all, might seem to some a far cry from Finger’s Who? Weekly empire, but I see a clear through line. Many people thumb their noses at frivolous celebrity gossip, but Finger and Weber leaned in hard to that interest, and it paid off. A whole army of listeners, myself included, like to give serious consideration to so-called low art. The same could easily be said about narratives that center little ol’ ladies, or plots in which the height of drama is a church fundraiser.
There’s an element of self-soothing in all of Finger’s work. Wholigans, as they’re known, regularly cite the podcast as a beam of light in an otherwise dark news cycle. The Old Place, written during the most isolated months of the pandemic, is a story about people nearing the final phase of their lives and realizing there’s still more to discover about themselves and those they love. It’s the same type of narrative that helped Bobby Finger ease his own anxieties about aging, isolation, and death. And it can serve the same purpose for readers. The gentle, sad book examines life’s problems but doesn’t purport to solve them. Those looking to escape the perpetual stress of their modern lives can do so by hearing about Haylie Duff’s professional relationship with the canned food industry—or by reading about the potato salad–induced stress of Mary Alice Roth’s fictional life.