Featured Authors, Interviews

Kerry Howley on THROWN

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. 

Featured Authors, Interviews

Twenty Questions with Arna Bontemps Hemenway

To celebrate the release of his short story collection, Elegy on Kinderklavier, during Sarabande's twentieth anniversary year, we played a game of Twenty Questions with author Arna Bontemps Hemenway. He was a great sport and shared his thoughts on everything from the best indie bookstores to the floating writers' colonies of 2034 to what single book must survive the apocalypse. Read on for this and more!

SB: Please summarize Elegy on Kinderklavier, in the form of an old-school SAT analogy.

ABH: Elegy on Kinderklavier : quality fiction :: analogies : truth

How did this project get its start—what was the germ?

I was really intimidated when I first came to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop; there were suddenly all these other writers around me, and most of them were a lot better than I was at the kind of writing I had been trying to do. So I thought, I have these stories to write for workshop, maybe I can try to do something a little different. The specific titular novella happened when the story of a family’s struggle with a particular kind of pediatric brain tumor combined with the story of a woman leaving her husband while their child was sick.

What’s the most daring thing you put into words while writing Elegy on Kinderklavier?

I don’t know about “daring”. I know I chose to be very honest about the real experiences in the stories I was telling, and that can be upsetting for some people. But, for me, it was always like, well, this is what violence in Iraq (or at home) is like, this is what a child dying of cancer is like, you know, in real life. I felt I had to be honest.

Do you write/edit to music? What’s your record of choice?

No, I actually write to an app that makes it sound like it’s always raining, because I love the rain. Occasionally I will use music to put me in the right emotional space for writing, in which case the composer Max Richter has been useful.

Do you write/edit to booze? What’s your drink of choice?

Due to a variety of reasons (stomach problems, being so old I get three day hangovers) I don’t really drink anymore. Back when I did, I never drank and wrote. A large reason for that was because I write very early in the morning.

Describe the moment you knew you would be a writer.

Everyone talks about being a kid and writing some story, but I’ll just be honest: when my M.F.A. thesis (a novel manuscript) failed miserably, then I got (rightfully) savaged in workshop, and finally I had a nervous breakdown, I stopped writing completely. Six months later, I started again, and thought, well if I can write after that, I guess I’m a writer. But, even now, on days when I don’t work, I feel like an impostor.

Do you have any quirky writing habits? Any lucky charms, rituals, tokens?

I am unbelievably, embarrassingly weird. I’m superstitious about absolutely everything. I have involved theories about the effect of the percentage of zoom in the window view for Word on the quality and feeling of what gets written in that document.

What was your favorite book when you were twenty years old?

One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, or possibly Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro.

What is your favorite word?

“L'esprit de l'escalier.” I know that’s cheating, but it’s worth it.

What author would you like to lock in your basement to write you a novel?

Mid-1990s Philip Roth. David Mitchell. Maybe Zadie Smith, although she’s so much smarter than me it seems like she would probably just convince me to let her go.

An ice-cream flavor is named after your book, what does it taste like?

Medicine. Ash.

What advice would you give to aspiring authors or someone working on their first manuscript?

Forget about agents, publishing, etcetera. Try to understand that the experience of writing itself day in and day out is the most (read: only) rewarding and enjoyable part.

What’s your research obsession right now? If you were to camp out for a week in the library, where would you pitch your tent?

I’m always going in many directions at once. Illegal desert crossings of the Mexico-US border. The 2008 financial crisis. The Troubles in Northern Ireland. An alternate-universe 2004 presidential election. Closeted Republican political operatives.

If not a writer, what would you be?

Homeless. Single. Sad. Just kidding, I’d be a lawyer.

Shout out to your favorite indie bookstore?

Prairie Lights in Iowa City, Iowa, The Raven in Lawrence, Kansas, or Joseph Beth in Cincinnati, OH and Lexington, KY are all wonderful, wonderful places.

What two authors would you like to see in a celebrity death match?

I would actually love to see the celebrity death match die a quiet death, personally. No offense.

What’s next for your writing? Anything at the tip of your pen?

I’ve been afflicted by a novel manuscript for a while now that I’m trying to finish. From time to time I remember a secret dream I have of publishing one book in every prose genre. Mostly though I’m just trying to write (on anything) every weekday morning.

What do the next 20 years hold for literature? Predict the literary climate in 2034.

In 2034, due to global warming, many novelists will have taken refuge together in a huge ocean-liner that floats the world-sea (meeting up with the library-liner to trade people/books every year). No critics allowed.

If only one book could survive the apocalypse, what should it be?

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell, easily.

Compose a haiku in honor of Sarabande’s twentieth anniversary:

Sarabande: a work
of love. Thanks for saving us
from the philistines.

Interviews, Writers on Teaching

Writers on Teaching: Kyle Minor

Our last installment of the education discussion from our 2013 Newsletter features Kyle Minor, author of Praying Drunk (2/14). A big thank you to all contributors who made this Spring issue possible!

SB: We’ve seen an influx of poets and prose writers obtaining their Creative Writing MFA and it’s worth asking again, can writing be taught? Beyond journal entries and tweets, how do you teach a student whose sole exposure to contemporary writing is popular or commercial offerings to write beyond entertainment?

KM: I had a few good teachers, and what they offered me was a kind of catalog of what other writers had already shown to be possible, and also a kind of analytical toolbox that enabled me to find new solutions to problems raised in my writing, including solutions different in some way from solutions other writers had found, by understanding how things were working at a technical level, and then hybridizing other solutions, or turning the logic that served some other thing inside-out, so it could serve my thing. They also helped save me time by showing me some ways of working that aren’t profitable, and they pointed me toward good stories and books I hadn’t read.

A person makes himself or herself into a writer, and it’s a lot easier if you have some good voices in your ear in the beginning.

As to the question of what the purpose of the writing is going to be, or what kind of writing it’s going to be, or what writing’s place in the culture is going to be, I think all of that belongs rightly to the individual writer, and there isn’t any one right answer. A good teacher probably knows that, too, although of course we all have our own prejudices and predilections, me included, and it doesn’t hurt anybody to be honest about what I think is good, and why I think it’s good.

In the same vein, why teach contemporary literature? Arguably, students often haven’t even had a fair exposure to Joyce, Stein, or Pound. How do you lay the foundation? How do you make the jump to DFW and Zadie Smith?

Read everything, I say.

Is there something then that you’re “looking” for in contemporary work before adding it to the syllabus? Certainly bias must come into play but how do you decide on just a few titles to teach for a few months? And what about the dreaded year-end review when you discover everyone hated the required short-story collection?

I try to offer a broad range of stylistic, structural, and technical approaches in the stories I choose to offer, because it gives us a chance to talk about the range of possibility implied by the choices. In all of these things, I hope to communicate, explicitly and implicitly, that freedom is advisable, and that technical knowledge and aptitude is one path toward freedom.

With student considerations in mind, would you say that mentoring relationships flourish in an academic community? That is professor-to-student mentoring as well as teacher-to-teacher.

There are as many answers to that question as there are academic communities, individuals within them, and relationships among those individuals. I have had a few good mentors, and I’ve also enjoyed helping others in the ways in which I was helped.

I think that the words academic and literary and genre and art, and so on, are words that are politically charged, and which don’t mean the same things to all the different people who use them. In general, I think that Zadie Smith was right when she declared that literature is a big tent, and that there is room for all sorts of circus acts beneath it. As a teacher, I’m hoping to find students who are chasing good work of whatever sort appeals to the student, and that no one will be limited by anything so small as some imported idea of what it means to be literary, even as I hope that all the work, whatever label might attach to it, will aspire to great power, whether that power is intellectual or aesthetic or emotional or historical or pure cane molasses sugar. 

Interviews, Featured Authors

"The Next Big Thing:" Kiki Petrosino Participates

Kiki Petrosino’s second poetry collection will be available this August, she’s responded to “The Next Big Thing” questionnaire–a self-interview project for poets about recent or upcoming work. We’ve posted her answers along with some tags for other poets also participating in the world wide web venture.

SB: Where did you begin generating ideas for Hymn for the Black Terrific?

KP: Re-reading Moby Dick, I encountered Melville’s description of “the black terrific Ahab,” and started thinking of the ways obsession can warp the mind. This book is about dysmorphia–the bodily kind, in which the sufferer sees his or her body as ugly or deformed, and the special poet’s variety, in which the poet disdains her own creative output no matter how promising it may be.

What genre does your book fall under?

Poetry. Also: Suffering. Also: Not Suffering.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

The final section of the book features a recurring female figure whom I call “The Eater.” She should be played by a Venus Fly Trap.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

“Let’s all freak out about beauty.”

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

It will be published and represented by the talented people at Sarabande.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

About two years.

What other books would you compare this collection to within your genre?

Better yet, here are the books that my book would like to invite on a date: Tracy K. Smith’s Life on Mars, Sabrina Orah Mark’s The Babies, Darcie   Dennigan’s Madame X.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

Food and eating; body image and American womanhood; Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia; two recent trips to China; one recent marriage (mine); darkness and its varieties.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

The titles of the poems in one section of the book are taken from the English translations of dishes that were served to me on my trips to China. In English, the titles became whimsical and inspiring, though they had little to do with food. Examples: “Tun Back Your Head and There is the Shore,” “I Love You. No Discussion.,” and “Linked to Blood.”

Hymn for the Black Terrific, Kiki Petrosino

Petrosino offers us wildly inventive lyrics that take as launch pad allergenesis, the contents and significance of swamps, a revised notion of marriage, and ancestors—both actual and dreamed. The eponymous second section storms through Chinese delicacies, doubts, and confident proclamations from regions of an exploratory self. Hymn for the Black Terrific is a book of pure astonishment.

For a classroom-ready reader's guide written by the author herself, follow this link, and explore more titles with reader's guides in Sarabande in Education

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