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. 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.
To read Howley’s essay “Cold Water in Texas” and an exercise on writing dialogue, click here.
In the following interview, Howley discusses framing essays around comic dialogue, the challenge of describing fight scenes, and the kind of person who is attracted to mixed martial arts.
I’m really interested in the role and POV you assume in the piece (I’d call it an essay, but it’s partly fictionalized, yes?). There’s an interesting moment once you move out of the locker room and into the crowd. You write this:
In the way of any traveler, I ascribe every aberration to the jurisdiction. I have been to fights at bars and strip clubs and flyover state fairgrounds but never have I seen a barefoot ring girl — this one’s Vietnamese, in a bikini — and I’ve never seen an announcer cat-call a ring girl on his descent from the cage. “Texas,” I think.
It’s such an unexpected detail, and it suggests quite a bit of familiarity with the world of Mixed Martial Arts. How long did it take you to feel comfortable writing about a world that I’m assuming is pretty far outside your natural habitat?
It’s an essay, and semi-fictionalized in that the narrative voice is that of an imagined narrator named Kit. I probably felt comfortable well before comfort was justified. It took years for me to really understand the rhythms of those small fights, and longer to be able to write competently about them. That cat-calling of the ring girl is still surprising to me.
It would seem tempting to draw conclusions about certain parts of society based on their love and enjoyment of MMA fighting. Yet you seem to resist this. At the beginning of the essay, you mention that fight takes place in Cleveland, Texas, where 19 men were charged with sexually abusing an 11-year-old girl, a fact that seems important, yet you refrain from drawing the connection, writing, “I don’t know what to do with this information.” Was it difficult to avoid that kind of societal analysis? Or did you find that the complexity of the people involved precluded easy conclusions.
It was never tempting to conflate the kind of brutality on display among Cleveland’s rapists with the kind of artful, consensual violence I was witnessing at the fights. I think my book-length essay, Thrown, does have something to say about the kind of person who is drawn to MMA. The men I follow tend to be proud nonconformists given to the kind of cosmopolitan worldview you’d expect from a sport closely identified with Japan and Brazil.
I love the dialogue between the fighters as they’re trying to distract Charlie before the fight. It’s one of those rare moments when people are trying to be funny and succeeding and you seem to make a choice to get out of the way as a writer and let them talk. What was your approach to dialogue like this? Did you simply write it down as fast as possible and put it on the page? Or did you need to craft and revise the essay so that the dialogue would sound right?
Thank you. That was all recorded on my iPhone; I just transcribed what I took to be the best back-and-forth. I take such joy in bringing a funny voice to the page that I naturally frame essays around those moments. Part of editing the book involved purging a bunch of scenes I’d included—scenes much like the one you identify—that weren’t serving any purpose beyond amusement. I just felt like the reader had to know this hilarious thing the protagonist said about lawnmowers.
You have a natural ease in writing about the actual fight—the punches and kicks, the action of it. This is actually quite difficult to do. It’s easy to get lost in a choreography of fists and feet, as in those films where the camera is zoomed in so close to the person fighting that we can’t get a sense for the action as a whole. But you really manage to convey both the immediate sense of what is happening and the arc of the fight. How did you approach writing these scenes?
Great question. The reader is only going to tolerate so much description of bodies in motion, so you end up molding a fight into the simplest version of itself—a few key moments and a mood. There are going to be a lot of small movements lost between point A and point B, and in that way perhaps writing about fighting (or dancing, which presents the same challenges) is emblematic of essay writing as a whole. So much of the struggle is subtraction.
Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.