Tag Archives: Kerry Howley

An Interview with Kerry Howley

13 Nov
Kerry Howley traveled with MMA fighters for three years and wrote about the experience in her book-length essay THROWN.

Kerry Howley spent three years traveling and visiting with MMA fighters and wrote about the experience in her book-length essay Thrown.

Kerry Howley’s essays, reviews, and reportage have appeared in Harper’sThe New York Times MagazineSlateThe AtlanticThe Wall Street JournalGulf CoastVice.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.

Michael Noll

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?

Kerry Howley

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.

Michael Noll

In Thrown, Howley portrays the lives, battles, and worlds of two MMA fighters.

In Thrown, Howley portrays the lives, battles, and worlds of two MMA fighters from the perspective of a semi-fictionalized female graduate student.

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.

Kerry Howley

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.

Michael Noll

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?

Kerry Howley

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.

Michael Noll

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?

Kerry Howley

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.

November 2014

Michael Noll

Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

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How to Attribute and Describe Dialogue

11 Nov
Kerry Howley's "Cold Water in Texas" portrays the MMA fighter Charlie Ontiveros' attempt to fight in spite of a broken hand.

Kerry Howley’s “Cold Water in Texas” portrays the MMA fighter Charlie Ontiveros’ decision to enter a bout despite having a broken hand.

Here is my claim for the most difficult thing to do in writing: attribute and describe dialogue. The problem of who said what can seem impossible to solve. How often do you attribute a line of dialogue? Every line? Every other line? What words do you use? Only said? Screamed? How do the characters speak their lines? With dancing eyes? (Definitely not.) While looking intently or patiently at someone? (Preferably not.) And, what if the dialogue includes more than two people? What do you do then?

A great model for how to handle these problems can be found in Kerry Howley’s essay, “Cold Water in Texas.” The essay is an extension of her new book Thrown, about the three years she spent with a series of mixed martial arts fighters. The essay was published at Vice Magazine‘s Fightland, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

The essay begins in the locker room with MMA fighter Charlie Ontiveros and a roomful of others:

a reticent black 260-pound heavyweight champion wearing a hat that says “Jesus Didn’t Tap,” his extremely gregarious black 275-pound friend Chris in the same, a chubby Hispanic coach named Mando currently absorbed in the wrapping of Charlie’s hands, and lithe, lily-white 170-pound Charlie himself.

All of these men are trying to keep the mood light before the fight begins. Imagine the challenges of writing such a scene: at least three speakers, two with the same build and clothing, plus some cornermen and officials who haven’t even been named. If you’re writing this scene, how do you keep everyone straight? Watch how Howley does it:

The joke in the room is that when Derrick, the slow-to-speak 275-pound heavyweight who will tonight successfully defend his belt, has mounted you, the best way to get out of the situation is to come onto him.

“I just pinch his butt,” says Chris. “He jump right up and say, ‘Stop with that gay shit.’”

“I lick his ear,” someone offers.

“He talk so low you can’t hear him,” someone says of Derrick.

“He don’t talk low,” says Chris. “He talk sexy.”

“That’s some Barry White shit.”

“Some of us grew up eating animal crackers. Derrick grew up eating animals with crackers.”

Chris glides about the room as he speaks. “Do a split,” someone demands, and the 275-pound superheavyweight does a to-the-ground straddle worthy of a Texas cheerleader.

“I ain’t acting too colored,” he says, apropos of nothing in particular. “I just watched Django before I came here is all.”

Charlie is laughing so hard he is crying, wiping tears from his cheeks.

So, how does Howley handle multiple speakers? Only one of them is named: Chris. Why? Because he’s more or less directing the banter. The other speakers are lumped into the tag someone, which puts the emphasis not on the speaker but on the subject of the dialogue: Derrick.

In other words, Chris is leading a rapid-fire conversation about Derrick, and so the focus is on Chris and Derrick. Notice how Howley, as the writer, stays out of the dialogue except to clarify things. The first sentence explains what the men are talking about. There is no other description until Chris does the splits—so, the action accompanying the dialogue has been stripped down to the most interesting moment. Howley steps in again in the next line—”I ain’t acting too colored”—in order to clarify since the conversation has jumped topics. Finally, she directs our gaze to the purpose of all this banter: Charlie and his reaction.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s write dialogue with more than two characters using “Cold Water in Texas” by Kerry Howley as a model:

  1. Summarize the dialogue. Think about the purpose and direction of the conversation as a whole. (If it’s an extended, even story-length piece of dialogue like Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” summarize a section of dialogue.) Howley’s dialogue could be summarized this way: Chris tries to distract Charlie by leading a series of rapid-fire jokes about Derrick. Notice how the summary identifies a leader, a subject, a tone, and a purpose.
  2. Set up the subject of the dialogue with summary. A general rule for writing dialogue is to get to the good stuff as quickly as possible. One way to do that is to identify the good stuff and summarize what the reader needs to know in order to follow the dialogue. This is exactly what Howley does when she begins the dialogue by explaining the joke in the room—the thing that everyone is laughing about. So, tell the reader who is present and what they’re talking about. Then, write the dialogue.
  3. Identify only the character leading the dialogue. It’s almost never important to identify every speaker. If the readers understand the direction of the dialogue and who’s leading it, you can simply identify the leader’s words and use they or everyone for everything else that gets said. If you’re writing an argument, you can also divide the group into factions (men and women, kids and adults, etc) and identify the statements by faction rather than by individual.
  4. Describe only the most important or interesting action. If the only thing that a speaker does is look at the other speaker, then you probably don’t need any description; most people look at the person they’re talking to. If they’re not looking (if they’re driving, on the phone), then it can be useful to describe their actions more often. Usually, though, you can use one good description to describe the action in the scene as a whole. Howley does this by describing Chris generally (“glides about the room”) and then specifically (“does a to-the-ground straddle”). Compared to that moment, what else could be worth mentioning? The answer can be found in the final line: the reaction that the speaker is trying to get. In this case, Chris is trying to get Charlie to laugh, and the essay shows us that he succeeded. In your scene, what reaction is the speaker trying to get? Does he or she succeed? Give an answer with description.
  5. Clarify to help orient the reader. Dialogue doesn’t always move in a straight line; in fact, good dialogue often doesn’t move directly from Point A to Point B. When it switches subject or tone, it’s often necessary to cue the reader to the change by giving a brief description of what has changed. Howley does this when she writes that Chris has changed subject “apropos of nothing in particular.”

Once you summarize the dialogue and understand who is driving it forward and what their aim is, you may find it easier to identify who said what and how they said it.

Good luck!

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