In her debut work of nonfiction, Thrown, Kerry Howley infiltrates the world of mixed martial arts and the lives of two aspiring cage fighters: Erik “New Breed” Koch, a rising star, and Sean Huffman, ten years his senior, a fighter still living in a basement apartment in Davenport, Iowa.
Sarabande Books: One of our favorite lines from the book is, “I stand before you every bit as fictional as longitude and latitude.” How did distancing yourself, the writer, from the “I” that speaks to the readers affect the experience of writing your book?
Kerry Howley: The experience of ecstasy is that of standing outside oneself, so in that way a thrown voice seems appropriate. The material required a grander, perhaps antiquated voice distinct from the kind of self-deprecating “gee whiz” smallness I see in a lot of current nonfiction. A voice absurd in its pretensions and ambitions but, in its willingness to risk absurdity, able to touch on ideas as big as the Schopenhauerian sublime. Also, it’s supposed to be funny.
SB: There are moments when you make definitive choices to follow certain fighters. Were Sean and Erik the only fighters you followed? Was it because of their fighting ability or the philosophical potential?
KH: Sean was the first fighter I ever met. I interviewed maybe a dozen potential fighters before I settled on Erik. It was never about fighting potential. From the first, Sean made me laugh. I just loved being in his presence, and when you know you’re launching into a multi-year project, that matters. I was drawn to Erik’s intensity, which was nourished by his gift for talking about himself. I don’t mean that in a disparaging way; there are people who can tell you stories about their lives with an energizing fluidity, and Erik is one of them. His focus was disturbing in a way I thought necessary to the book’s success.
SB: How are Erik and Sean doing now? Do you keep in touch?
KH: Erik, his brother Keoni, and I keep in touch via social media. Keoni has married, and his gym has taken off. Erik has had a few tough fights, but he is very much still a UFC regular. Sean and I talk on the phone. He is fighting less but his family situation has improved.
SB: How did these particular men affect the way you chose to represent MMA fighting? Do you think it would be different if you had followed other fighters?
KH: I was extraordinarily lucky to find the fighters I found. Many of my favorite parts of the book—and the ones I found hardest to cut when it came time to condense—are simply straight transcriptions of Sean. At the same time, I want to emphasize that most of the fighters I met were thoughtful, intelligent people. These are men who chose to make a life out of a type of euphoric, artful encounter reviled by many if not most Americans. They’re not football players following a path their culture laid out for them.
SB: What were some of the reactions you received from professors or friends when you began tagging along to MMA fights? Any skepticism?
KH: Most people were supportive. They knew so little about it; was it real, or staged like the WWE? Was there training involved, or did drunk toothless rural folk launch themselves at one another at random? There were people who doubted such a thing could be interesting to read about, and people who pretty clearly thought I was detestably vulgar for finding value in a good fight. And these reactions, especially the negative ones, were all helpful to me as I was writing.