“Much of the story existed in the contrast.” In conversation with Kerry Howley
My theory about octagons is this: There is really only one octagon, and that one flickers in and out of existence over space and time, such that the very same octagon is summoned to consciousness over and over again. The fighters all know they have something to summon; why else the little bow at the cage door, the solemn straight-faced walk-out, the open-mouthed prayer as their brows are Vaseline-slathered. “Enter the octagon,” says the announcer, and suddenly it’s there. Except when it isn’t, for the theory also accounts for the fights that failed: the octagon neglects to show up. These are the fights we all leave disappointed, depressed, feeling vaguely dirty for having witnessed whatever we had just witnessed. The cruelty without the theater of. We know these fights by the way they fail to bring us outside of ourselves; rather, they drive us deeper in, make us quiet and sick and wondering whether our past ecstasies had been mere illusion.
And though I would not have put it in this way at the time, what I very much wanted to know in St. Louis was which were the elements that brought forth the octagon and which that kept it away, and how one kept the elements in sync such that the integrity of the spectacle might be best protected. I would have liked a spreadsheet or a bulleted memo to this effect.
–Excerpt from Thrown (Sarabande Books)
ANNE RASMUSSEN: Approaching the subject of mixed martial arts as an outsider, how did you decide which fighters to focus on and what were the biggest challenges in terms of getting and maintaining access to their lives—both in and out of the ring—over an extended period of time?
KERRY HOWLEY: Finding Sean was incredible luck on my part. He was present, and losing badly, at the very first set of fights I attended, and I sought him out afterwards. I interviewed quite a few fighters before I got to Erik, but once we had shared that first moment in his apartment—the one in which he spends a long time talking about the burrito—I stopped searching. I didn’t know at the time that Erik was headed for big things, and it wasn’t his talent that drew me in so much, although he was beautiful to watch. It was the fluidity with which he could tell his own story. He and his older brother, Keoni, share this gift.
So much of an immersive project like this involves sharing the downtime, the slow Sunday at someone’s place. Obviously, the vast majority of the time does not make it into the book. I sat in the gym and watched Erik’s team train. I squeezed between fighters in the car as we made our way to fights at county fairgrounds. I watched fighters watching fights on TV. Those years were given over to hanging out. It would have been excruciating had I not enjoyed their company. As it was, it just became a kind of social life that I forced myself into.
AR: It feels like you couldn’t have found a more perfectly contrasting pair of fighters to follow. Sean, though well-liked, is capable of being alone, while Erik requires a constant entourage (though friends cheerfully deem him a “psychopath”). Both face a critical juncture in their fighting careers: Sean has a chance to regain his former glory; Erik is on the cusp of making it big if he can separate himself from the community of home-grown fighters who taught him to fight. As you spend the next two years in their company their diverging paths allow for a much more detailed account of the world of cagefighting. Did you consider following any additional fighters during this time?
KH: I never considered following more than two fighters, but I did, at the outset, wonder whether two was too many. My instincts as a writer are always to cut, to streamline, and I worried that two separate narrative arcs might be inelegant. Over time I saw that much of the story existed in the contrast between the two.
AR: Some of the highest drama in Thrown occurs outside of the octagon. That moment when Erik violently betrays his brother’s trust before returning to Milwaukee to train felt epic, nearly tragic, in its inevitability. Erik seemed to feel a need to break free from Hard Drive, to choose between being a high profile fighter and a brother, though Keoni had certainly not demanded it. And Sean’s desire to bond with his infant son leads him into encounters with his ex (and professional bouts) that were hardly to his benefit, as a fighter or otherwise. As you became a part of these lives on a daily basis, was it difficult to remain a neutral observer and let the relationships play out as they did? How did you handle this?
KH: That’s interesting. I never thought of myself as a neutral observer, Kit even less so. I wasn’t concerned with preserving the integrity of the stories, but perhaps that’s because nothing I could ever say could change the course of these relationships. They run too deep. I was a stranger turned a friend and hanger-on; these were brothers, and the parents of a child.
The greater challenge was being thrown into this web of relationships and trying to find the emotional logic behind them. At the beginning, in Keoni’s gym, I just could not keep track of the fighters, could not remember names, and so much was lost on me. I remember feeling relieved when a couple of men took off their shirts to reveal tattoos of their own last names. That was helpful.
AR: I’d love it if you could talk a bit about your “fictional narrator,” Kit, whose declaration of self feels like a reproach to our knee-jerk tendency, when reading nonfiction (and some first-person fiction) to mentally sort what “actually happened” to the author from fictional details in the story. Did you begin writing Thrown with Kit in mind or did she emerge later in the process?
KH: Continental philosophy is undoubtedly the most illuminating lens through which to view mixed martial arts in this country. That’s not a case I had any interest in making outside of a comic work. Kit’s hyper-analytical naivety enabled that comedy. I was also writing, I suppose, in reaction to a kind of self-deprecating smallness I see in a lot of contemporary nonfiction. The material required a big, overconfident, impassioned voice. Kit came late in the process, after I understood enough of my own interest in the fighters to understand what kind of book I was writing.
AR: Thrown gives us not just an exploration of the world of cage fighting or an intimate portrait of two MMA fighters, but also the internal voice of a young academic/writer trying to define herself through her subject(s). You’ve created a fascinating triangle where the “character” controlling the narrative is entertainingly unreliable. Instead of fading into the background as she focuses on her subject, Kit breaks the fourth wall entirely, bringing her own philosophical readings, her biases and neuroses into the foreground of the narrative. How did you maintain that balance between the stories of the two fighters, Sean Huffman and Erik Koch, and that of their narrator (or as Kit would define it, “spacetaker”)?
KH: That is a generous question. In the midst of all the uncertainty of real life, Kit was an element of the story over which I had control. Erik could get hurt, Sean could quit, and Kit would keep reading Schopenhauer. You could say that Kit made balance possible.
AR: Is “spacetaker” a recognized role in the fighting community, or is this term coined by Kit, so eager to distinguish herself from the groupies, wannabe fighters, and other various hangers-on at the fringes of the fighter’s entourage?
KH: That’s Kit’s term. I wanted a language that wasn’t tied to athletes or celebrities.
AR: One of my favorite bits of dialogue occurs early in Thrown. As Kit and Sean are en route to his fight in St. Louis, Sean asks about the book she’s writing “about” him:
“Some kind of girl book?”
“I don’t think it will be a girl book,” I said.
It’s far from a girl book, but Thrown isn’t a typical sports narrative either. It marries journalism and academic theory and then rejects both forms in a deeply funny way. What sort of feedback did you get from your peers while working on Thrown? Did you encounter resistance to the choice of subject matter (as Kit does from her fellow academics)?
KH: That exchange stood out to me because it was so rare for the fighters to express any curiosity about what the hell I was doing. My status as a “writer” (and, I hope, friend) seemed explanation enough. As for resistance to the subject matter, I find that I am encountering that more, now, as the book reaches new audiences.
It is interesting to see what people do with their bodies when they say the word “cagefighting.” There are people who step backward and pull their heads in, chin against chest. There are people who step forward. I wonder if this is discussed in Lean In.
AR: I’m fascinated by that recoil response–which mimics the way we reflexively shy away from physical harm. I imagine some of the squeamishness stems from our cultural avoidance of any level of experienced physical pain. Though we sanction many violent sports like football, the padding and helmets and uniforms lend a pretense of safety to the proceedings. But those trappings also remove the actual players from our direct gaze, dehumanize them, in a way. Much of Kit’s philosophizing focuses on her pursuit of spectacle and a kind of stripped-down performance so primal that the spectator achieves a feeling of transcendence. But I wondered whether pain itself – as experienced and inflicted (by the fighters) or observed (by the spectators) enhances or detracts from the spectacle. Kit details the fighters’ concussions, scars, and intense body modification rituals (rapid weight loss and gain, for example), but Thrown feels largely silent on the topic of experienced (or perceived) physical pain. Why?
KH: On the question of “what does it feel like to be punched in the face?” I was assured, over and over, that in the midst of the fight, it is not experienced as pain. I realize that this may sound like male bravado, but the same men would tell me that they were paralyzed with fear for hours before a fight, or cried beforehand, or were scared to death of needles. Professional fighters don’t tend to have a driving need to safeguard your impression of their masculinity. They’ve got it covered.
I would push back against the idea that Thrown is silent about physical pain. Erik’s self-starvation, which occupies so much of the book, is a terrible kind of self-inflicted pain. Sean suffers when he denies himself water and causes his kidneys to shut down. The kinds of discomfort that most occupy the fighters are simply not those visible to the audience. It’s not the kick in the head. It’s the hunger and lactic acid and nagging, stomach-turning anxiety that lead to the fight and thus the opportunity to be kicked in the head.
AR: The critical response has been overwhelmingly positive. Thrown has been popping up on best-of-year lists from Time, Salon, and NPR, and was named a NYT Notable Book and Editor’s Choice, (though a few reviewers seem to have overlooked Thrown’s hybrid nature, viewing the fictional Kit’s biographical details and personal quirks as your own). As a debut author, how do you approach reviews? Do you read them all? Avoid reading them? Do you find the conversation helpful as you look toward future projects?
KH: I can’t read them, but there are good people in my life willing to read the nice parts to me. I was lucky to work with a small press that fought very hard to bring the book to reviewers and fortunate that some of those reviewers decided to write about it.
AR: In a book industry that seems increasingly obsessed with categorization and targeted marketing, was it challenging to find a publisher who would embrace and advocate for a hybrid, genre-defying literary exploration of cage fighting?
KH: The hybrid nature of the book was a huge issue for publishers. “Where in the bookstore would this book go?” they wanted to know. Absent the existence of independent presses willing to take a risk on something without an assigned shelf at Barnes and Noble, Thrown would still be hanging out in Google Docs.
AR: Finally, if it’s possible to narrow down, what qualities in writing (of any genre) are you most drawn to as a reader? Are there any particular titles that stand apart for you, and why?
KH: I’m drawn in by musicality, intelligence, wit, and a sense of play, all of which can be found in Joe Wenderoth’s If I Don’t Breathe How Do I Sleep. Looking ahead, I’m waiting for the world to discover Lina Maria Ferreira Cabeza-Vanegas, whose book-length essay Don’t Come Back is forthcoming from Sarabande in 2015.
Find a copy of Thrown on IndieBound.
Kerry Howley’s essays, reviews, and reportage have appeared in Harper’s, The New York Times Magazine, Slate, The Atlantic, The Wall Street Journal, Gulf Coast, Vice.com, and frequently in Bookforum. Her short story “Pretty Citadel” was published in The Paris Review in Fall of 2011. She holds an MFA from the University of Iowa, where she was admitted as an Arts Fellow and subsequently served as the 2012 Provost’s Visiting Writer in Nonfiction. Thrown, her book-length essay, is an account of three years spent in the company of mixed martial artists, narrated from the perspective of an excitable, semi-fictionalized graduate student named Kit.
Howley teaches creative writing at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, where she resides with a husband, son, and vizsla.