TV Columnist Michael Ausiello Knew Recording His Heartbreaking Memoir 'Spoiler Alert: The Hero Dies' Meant Not Sugarcoating A Single Thing
The TV news impresario opens up about celebrating the life and love of his husband Kit after his devastating death.By Abby WestJun 22, 2018 9:15 AM
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Michael Ausiello is no stranger to hard work. He first built a name for himself as a television columnist at TV Guide and Entertainment Weekly, before building powerhouse TV news website, TVLine.com. None of that prepared him for the biggest battle of his life—seeing his husband Kit through his fatal neuroendocrine cancer diagnosis, mourning his death, and then writing and recording a memoir chronicling their years together and their love. Michael spoke with Audible’s Abby West, a friend and former colleague, and shared how the book (which has now been optioned for a film) came together and what the recording wrung out of him. Listen in on their sometimes funny, sometimes emotional conversation.
Note: Text has been edited and may not match audio exactly.
Abby West: Hi, I’m Abby West, Audible editor, and a big fan of my guest here today, Michael Ausiello, author of Spoiler Alert: The Hero Dies.
Michael Ausiello: Hi, Abby.
AW: Hi. How are you?
Michael: Good to see you.
AW: Good to see you too. Michael and I worked together about 10 years ago. How crazy is that?
MA: Oh my God. We’re old.
AW: When we were both at Entertainment Weekly. And Michael since went on to found and become editor-in-chief of TVLine, which is a premier TV news and entertainment site. I keep doing that. I say entertainment because I feel like it covers a lot, but he does a lot of TV news and scoops, and it’s really for anyone obsessed with television. That is one of the go-to spots. Michael has really bared his soul in his memoir, talking about his husband, Kit. We’re going to get into that, but he’s going to tell us a little bit about his history leading up to writing this book and then recording this book, which is profound, and poignant, and will move anyone who listens to it and gets to know both Michael and Kit. Welcome, Michael.
MA: Thank you for having me.
AW: Happy to! So could you sort of tee up the book and tell us about Kit for people who have not read the book yet and don’t necessarily know the full premise?
MA: The story is my husband, Kit, was diagnosed with an incredibly serious form of neuroendocrine cancer about 13 years into our relationship, and a couple doctors told him he basically had a year to live. Much of the book documents that year—that last year of his life—and the ups and downs, and what it did for our relationship, and what it did for him personally, what it did for me personally. But then the book also flashes back throughout to the first year of our relationship. There are some parallels to what happened in year one to what happened in year 13, and we go back and forth a little bit. Throughout we also touch on some of the years in between, but mostly the book is structured about year one and year 13.
AW: It was a really smart interplay. How did it come to you to do that parallel? Did it feel natural as you started writing?
MA: It evolved. You know, I knew going in that it was going to go back and forth. Initially, I thought it was going to be every other chapter. It was going to be year one and then it was going to be year 13, and then we’re going to go back to year one. I just found that there was just too much. Too much happened in that last year. Too much important stuff happened that needed to get more of the focus, so that’s where I arrived at. It’s every couple chapters we journey back in time and get a little glimpse of Kit and Mike in the beginning.
“It’s hard to psych yourself up in the morning to write about some of the worst moments of your life, but I kept my mind focused on the big picture.”
AW: When did you start thinking about the book? We’ll get more into the content, but when did you start thinking about writing the book?
MA: When Simon & Schuster approached me and said, “Will you write a book?”
AW: That’s a good time.
MA: Yeah. That’s when I was like, “Hmm, I guess I’ll think about this now.” A couple months after Kit passed away, an editor at Simon & Schuster approached me because he had been reading my dispatches on Facebook. I’d been sort of chronicling Kit’s battle with cancer on Facebook to our friends and family. Some of the posts were lengthy. There’s humor in there, and some of them were pretty candid about the struggles that he was facing. Anyway, this editor, Rakesh, was reading the dispatches and was moved by them and thought that there might be a book in there somewhere, and approached me a couple months after Kit passed and asked if I would be interested.
AW: Did you balk at first, or did it feel right?
MA: I balked a little bit, only because I didn’t know if I had it in me. I didn’t know if I had the strength to dive back into this horrible year that I just went through, and also I didn’t know if practically speaking I had the time to do it. I have a full-time job, a demanding full-time job, so it would require me finding time—weekends mostly—to work on the book.
After I thought about all of that, the other piece of it was I knew it was an incredible opportunity. I knew people don’t get approached to write a book all the time. It’s not usually how it works, and it felt like an incredible honor and an incredible opportunity to tell this story. I felt deep down that there was a special story here to be told about Kit, about our relationship, not just the year he was sick but the 13 years that came before. That feeling of this is an opportunity I can’t pass up ultimately sort of won out any of the concerns I had about time and strength, and I said yes.
AW: How long did it take to write?
MA: 18 months. Initially, I was like, “Oh, I’ll have this done for you in eight months,” because part of me was thinking the sooner I write it, the sooner I get through it and can sort of get on with my life. I was very optimistic with the initial timeframe, then it kept getting pushed back when I just realized what a huge undertaking it was. Also, I was only writing on weekends, which drags the process out a little bit.
AW: Yeah. When you thought about doing the book, did you also think about the fact that you’re going to have to not only write the book and then promote the book and sort of live in this space for a couple of years, or did that realization happen afterwards, and how did that feel? Because now you have to talk to me about it, talk to a lot of people about it, and you’re really in the space for a while.
MA: I was going to be in the space regardless. You know, he was such a huge part of my life and the loss was so profound that it’s not like had this opportunity not come up I would just sort of be able to move on. I would be thinking about him constantly anyway. That said, this was a very immersive experience. I literally had to put myself back into our relationship, back into a lot of the painful moments from the past, from the year that he was sick, his death. Like some of the worst moments of my life, I had to immerse myself in them in order to write this story. I knew that that was going to be difficult, and it was. You know, it’s hard to psych yourself up in the morning to write about some of the worst moments of your life, but I kept my mind focused on the big picture and the good that the book could potentially do, and also the good it could potentially do me to have this experience.
AW: Now, you are a public personality. You are.
MA: That’s nice of you to say.
AW: Beloved by your fans and friends.
MA: All true. All true.
“I’m going to be honest and tell the whole story. I’m not going to sugarcoat it. I’m not going to sugarcoat me. I’m not going to sugarcoat Kit.”
AW: Yeah, all totally true. You’re public, but you’re not always so personally public as this book has led you to have to be. How was that? Did you have a conversation with yourself to say, “I have to reveal it all in order to make this authentic”?
MA: I had a conversation with myself that if I’m going to do this, I’m going to be honest and tell the whole story. I’m not going to sugarcoat it. I’m not going to sugarcoat me. I’m not going to sugarcoat Kit. I’m not going to sugarcoat our relationship. I found the process of just being completely honest about my own issues very freeing and liberating in writing the book. It was really nice to not give a shit what people thought, because I’m one of those people who worry what people think about me—probably too much and worry people will judge me, and I didn’t care when I was writing this book. I was just, “Let them judge me. I’m just going to put it all out there and be honest about who I am and let the chips fall where they may.” That was a really nice place to be.
AW: Still in that place when it comes to the world?
MA: Yeah. It’s slightly different now. I am still in that place. I absolutely still have no regrets about how candid I was, but it’s a different experience now as people are reading the book. They know a lot about me, way more about me than I probably know about them, and that’s a little awkward I think, especially like my brothers reading about some really intimate aspects of my sex life and friends of mine reading about body issues that I’ve had my whole life. It’s weird. It’s a weird spot to be in that now people know so much about me, but it’s also actually I think brought me closer to a lot of my friends and my family, and in some cases I think made them more comfortable to be more open with me.
AW: I think you handled the book the same way I think I’ve always seen you handle things, with a touch of humor at all times even in the roughest moments without detracting from the realness and the rawness of the emotion. That takes a deft touch.
MA: Thank you, yeah.
AW: Both on paper and in audio. So, tell us about the audiobook process for you.
AW: Why was it scary?
MA: I’d never done anything like that before, and I’m not a performer. I mean I perform for my friends and I like to think of myself as entertaining at times, but I’m not … there are professionals who do this for a living and do it well. I’m not one of those people, and I wasn’t sure if I would be able to do it justice. Also backing up a little bit, I wasn’t sure that there was even going to be an audiobook for the book. I knew I was writing a book, but it wasn’t until toward the end of the writing process that I found out that there was going to be an audiobook and that they wanted me to be the one to do it.
Of course, I agreed without even really giving it too much thought, because of course if there’s going to be an audiobook and they want me to do it, I’m going to do it. I’m not going to say no. It really wasn’t until I got into the studio and started that I realized what a huge undertaking it is emotionally and physically.
AW: Had you reread the book since you’d written it? Before going into the studio to record it?
MA: No. I had never read the book full from beginning to end. Most of my reading was a chapter at a time, because I wrote chapter by chapter, and then reread sections, and edited sections, but I never sat down and read the entire story from beginning to end. That was fraught for me, the idea of doing that at this stage, because what if I read it through and I was like, “Oh, this is not good. I want to change this. I want to change this. I cannot believe I … I need to take this out.”
AW: See, that’s the editor in you.
MA: Right, but it would have been too late in the process to make those kind of changes, so I was afraid that … I had been avoiding reading it from beginning to end for that reason, because I just felt like, “Well, what if it’s terrible?” Even though my editors and my book coach were giving me all really positive feedback—like everything everybody was telling me was great—but still part of me was not believing that and was thinking, “I’ll see for myself.” So I was concerned about reading it for the first time. I had a lot of anxiety about that, but I will say one of the most surprising things about it was how little I wanted to change as I was reading it and how pleased I was with it, which really surprised me because I am my worst critic about everything. Everything. The fact that I came out of that experience feeling good about the book I wrote was really one of the best gifts that that experience gave me.
MA: But the physical part of it was hard. Like I had never exerted my vocal cords to that extent before. A couple hours into the first session, my throat was hurting, and that surprised me. I was like, “Oh, my God. I can’t just do this constantly without there being any physical challenges.” It’s like I have to give myself a break. I have to take care of my voice. I’m a big Diet Coke drinker. And I found that Diet Coke is probably not the best thing to be drinking while you’re recording a book because you burp sometimes.
AW: There might be some gas.
MA: It might be a little gas, and there might be … you know, there’s something about the way it affected my throat, which just didn’t feel good. So I had to give up Diet Coke for all the days that I recorded the book, and I went to drinking iced tea. That was a big change.
AW: The sacrifice.
MA: I know, the sacrifices I made. By the second or third session, I felt like my throat adjusted to the demands of the job and it was fine, but it still took a little bit of a toll on my voice.
AW: Have you listened to the audiobook? [Editor note: This interview took place as the book launched.]
MA: No, I have not. I went in to do some pickups. There were a couple areas that we needed to tweak, so I went in for an hour and recorded some pickups. I briefly heard a snippet, and it startled me. First of all the quality was so good. I wasn’t used to that. You know, I’m used to hearing my voice on a tape recorder from when I’m interviewing an actor when I’m transcribing it back. The quality was so crisp and so clean, but it was jarring just to hear my voice. I was like, “Please shut that off.” That’s not to say I’m not going to listen to it ever. Just, I’m not ready quite yet.
AW: That’s understandable for sure. What was the first difficult passage for you in reading, difficult for whatever reason?
MA: The day we got married. When I talk about this in the book we’d been together for 13 years, but marriage was something we were just never interested in for a number of reasons. But when Kit was diagnosed with cancer, suddenly marriage became the most important thing to me and ultimately to him too. It became something like, “We need to do this. I want to be married to him. I want to go through this process—whatever it’s going to be—as his husband.” It was this crazy day, which I chronicle in the book, where we went from Sloan Kettering in the morning to City Hall in the afternoon, and recounting that day was the most emotionally difficult for me.
AW: You went someplace afterward right?
MA: We went back to our apartment. But what we did was we walked through the city. We did sort of a little bit of a tour of downtown Manhattan. We walked from City Hall to our apartment in the West Village, because it was an unseasonably comfortable winter day. Then we had a little get together at our apartment later that night. Anyway, that day and recounting the ceremony and our vows. Our vows—that was a little wrenching.
AW: Did you tear up there? Are there periods in the book where you’re full-on emotional?
MA: Yes. There are a couple periods where I’m not like a blubbering mess, but there are a couple periods where you can tell that I’m crying when I’m speaking. They didn’t stop me. They didn’t yell, “cut!” I trusted them that if it didn’t interfere with the book and that it worked that we would just keep going, and we did. There was one spot where we needed to stop just because my voice was cracking and people wouldn’t have been able to understand what I was saying, and that came later when—I believe—the night he died, when I was going through some of the passages there. They were like, “Let’s cut and give you a couple minutes to catch your breath and collect yourself and get your shit together.” Yeah, that made sense.
AW: Totally. So we work in entertainment. Calling them friends is a stretch, but you have a lot of celebrity friends.
MA: I have some famous friends. Yes, Abby.
AW: You may have some famous friends.
MA: Are we going to drop names now?
AW: Sure. I could drop a certain curly-haired wonder that is a fave of yours.
MA: Keri Russell.
AW: Keri Russell. You know, in the book you do talk about moments in which you’re dealing with your work life while your private life is so tumultuous, and stressful, and sad, and taking so much of your attention but you have to focus and do an interview and be the normal, upbeat, droll self that you are. Talk a little bit about what that was like and how it was putting this book out into the world, and then having to interact with some of these same people who now know more about you.
MA: My celebrity friends who are mentioned in the book, I made sure to get them all a copy in advance and I sent them a note and just said, “Hey, you’re in this. FYI, this was going on in my life when I interviewed you on that day.” That was extremely surreal and challenging for me on the days where I had to function as if everything was fine when in reality my world was falling apart. It was so early in the process that it wasn’t something I could really talk to people about because we didn’t know the full picture of what Kit’s illness was. We didn’t even know that it was in fact cancer in some of the instances I recount.
I talk about in the book how I had a set visit at The Americans on the day that Kit was going to one of his first appointments to find out why he was experiencing this discomfort. I was literally waiting to interview Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys on the set while I was staring at my phone also waiting for Kit to text me from the doctors. That was just a jarring sort of experience juggling those two things. Then interviewing Keri and Matthew and then not knowing what was going on, I don’t know if they picked up on anything, if they could tell that my mind was elsewhere, because I wasn’t fully present at all when I spoke to them. I did the best I could.
There’s another experience in the book where I had to interview Kristen Bell for the Veronica Mars movie, and this was after we found out that Kit’s condition was serious but still before we were comfortable telling anyone. No one at my work knew. Some of my family members knew, but that was about it. Kristen Bell comes into our offices, and I’m interviewing her on camera too. This wasn’t a situation where I was off camera like with Keri and Matthew where I just put a tape recorder down. There’s only so much that’s expected of me in that kind of interview, but when you’re on camera you have to be super present and on. Throughout the interview with Kristen, it was just like my mind was, again, just elsewhere. The interview was scheduled. It was for the Veronica Mars movie. It was a big deal. I debated saying no, but ultimately I went through with it.
”..words that I thought I knew, words that I had every confidence I knew how to pronounce. Then I’d come out with it and he’d have to stop. He’s like, “That’s actually not how you pronounce that.” A couple of them were really embarrassing.”
AW: Have you gotten any feedback or reactions from sending out the books?
MA: Yeah, all really positive.
AW: Surprised that you were going through that?
MA: Yeah, surprised and some said that, “I wish I had known because I would have given you a hug,” or something like that. The response has been really, really positive and people have just been really supportive, which has been nice.
AW: Yes. You’re kind of on the other side and being the talent now.
MA: Mm-hmm, It’s uncomfortable. It’s so weird. I love asking questions.
AW: I know you do.
MA: I love asking questions. It’s a completely different experience being on the other side. How am I doing?
AW: You’re doing great.
MA: You have to say that.
AW: No, I don’t. I could tell you.
MA: All right, yeah. You would. You would tell me.
AW: What is your biggest takeaway from recording the audiobook? I know you haven’t listened to it yet, but thinking about having people who thought they knew you already, have followed your career, or are fans of the site and your work. And there are a lot of people. I’ve seen the letters Ask Ausiello gets. They think they know you already, and now some of these people are going to have you in their ear. What does that feel like?
MA: I’m excited for them to get to know me better. A little nervous, but mostly I’m proud of the book. I’m proud of getting through the audiobook and doing what I think was a good job. I’m mostly excited for people to see different sides of me and to learn a little bit more about me and maybe even more than they want to know about me. I’m excited to hear from them and see what they thought.
AW: Did anything about this process make you want to write another book about anything?
MA: Mostly no. The thought of taking on a project like this again just seems like no, it’s too much work. Especially again having a full time job, it’s a lot. That said though, in the last couple months, I have started to think about other ideas I have for books, ideas that came up in the writing of this book, ideas I had before but I put aside because I didn’t think I could write a book. Now I know I can, so I’m thinking about it. I’m excited at the possibility of writing something that isn’t as serious. Even though there’s so much humor in this book, it’s obviously a very weighty subject. Some of the ideas I’m tossing around are a little lighter.
AW: Is there anything else we should know about this process from you?
MA: Yes. One thing I wanted to mention that I wanted to give a shout out to the engineer director who worked with me on this audiobook. Hold on. I want to make sure his name. It’s Tyler. I want to make sure I get the pronunciation of his last name right. Tyler Whitlatch. He was awesome by the way. It’s such an interesting experience. He’s a stranger when I walk in, and we have this really intimate experience over four sessions. This book, it’s a very intimate book. Here it’s just the two of us in a studio for four days, and I’m crying, and I’m talking about just some really private things.
He was just so wonderful, so compassionate just in terms of giving me time and space and letting me … he had tissues ready for me in the studio in case I needed them, and I needed them. After each session, he’d give me a hug. It was just really … that part of it, of the experience, was really kind of beautiful just forming this relationship with this total stranger, and he was wonderful. One of the great things about Tyler was he really did his research. I mean he read the book, but he also predicted potential landmines in the form of words that I might … can I say the F-word?
“The thought of someone else doing the audiobook would have been so wrong. Unless it was like a star, like a huge star like Brad Pitt was doing it. That probably might have felt right.”
AW: Go ahead.
MA: In the form of words that I could f—- up in the pronunciation of, words that I thought I knew, words that I had every confidence I knew how to pronounce. Then I’d come out with it and he’d have to stop. He’s like, “That’s actually not how you pronounce that.” A couple of them were really embarrassing, because they’re words that I should actually know how to pronounce. One of them was Downton Abbey’s “Dowager (‘dau̇-i-gər’) Countess.” Apparently it’s dowager (‘dau̇-i-jər’). I was not aware of this until I recorded my audiobook and was corrected, and there were a bunch of those. There were a bunch of those words, impressive 50 cent words, that I had in the book that I was like … thought I knew how to pronounce and I didn’t. That was humbling, and it was an education, and it was also really funny. It was really funny, and it made me really grateful to have someone like Tyler on the other side of the glass wall just looking out for me and having my back. Yeah, so that was something.
AW: Yeah. It is quite the process, and especially for people who think we know words.
AW: We do words all the time. I know that word—no.
MA: Yeah. Here’s the thing. Writing it and saying it, two different things.
AW: Totally different.
MA: Different experience, so a little bit of a learning curve there.
AW: I found it interesting reading your book again, because I knew you I read it in your voice to begin with, so it felt like you were writing it very conversationally to begin with. Did you find that when you read it that felt natural?
MA: Yes. Yeah, absolutely. It all felt natural, and I think that made the process of it a lot easier too. It’s like it was my voice on the paper, it was my voice literally, and it just felt completely organic. It felt right. Like the thought of someone else doing the audiobook would have been so wrong. Unless it was like a star, like a huge star like Brad Pitt was doing it. That probably might have felt right.
AW: It’s cool since you’d get your pick, right?
MA: Brad Pitt?
MA: No, no, no, no. Not Brad Pitt. I just threw out that name. I don’t know who it would be.
AW: In the movie adaptation of this book, the TV adaptation of the book, who would play Michael Ausiello?
MA: God, that’s a whole other can of worms. I was so glad that I did it and I can’t imagine anyone else doing the audiobook. It was perfect.
AW: Fantastic. Well Michael, thank you so much for coming out here and talking to us about the process and the book.
MA: Thank you for having me. It’s great to see you.