March 2015

Jill Talbot


An Interview with Kerry Howley

In Kerry Howley's debut, Thrown, a graduate student in philosophy wanders from the staid atmosphere of a phenomenology conference in downtown Des Moines to discover two closed doors with a framed sign: "Midwest Cage Championship." Inside, she watches one, two, three Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) fights, feeling "an immense affection for the spectacle." It's on her drive home that she realizes she has finally experienced what she has, as an academic, only read about: "My experience echoed precisely descriptions handed down to us in the writings of Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and Artaud," the narrator explains, "in which a disturbing ritual -- often violent -- rendered each of their senses many more times acute... Some have called the feeling ecstasy." And she cannot get enough of it -- the fights, the blood, the octagon, the dissolution of her own consciousness created via the act of watching one man thrown down with another -- and so she becomes a "spacetaker" in the world of MMA, following Sean Huffman from fight to fight, city to city. Yet because she fears that the loss of Huffman (to injury, to death) will relegate her to being an "imprisoned" student in the Department of Philosophy, she seeks out another fighter, Erik Koch, a young up-and-comer who offers a counterpoint to the thirty-something Huffman. For three years, the narrator splits her time between the two fighters, embracing immediate experience over its intellectualization -- immersing herself in an "exciting experimental philosophy" to study these two "artists of abandon."

The narrator explains: "You will ask questions. They are the wrong questions, the unfighterly questions, but I asked them myself, so I might as well give you the answers." Perhaps you'll note I continue to refer to the narrator, rather than Howley, and that is because in the fourth chapter, Howley takes a break in the action to tell us this: "I stand before you every bit as fictional as longitude and latitude... All narrators, I say, are fiction. All. The reliable ones have the decency to admit it." It is here Howley identifies the "I" as Kit, and in this moment, Howley disrupts the directions of nonfiction and we begin to read anew as we watch these two fighters, this framework, through the lens of a spacetaker, a narrator, a reader of philosophy, a fiction named Kit.

According to Howley's biography, Kit is a "semi-fictionalized graduate student." Howley herself earned an MFA from the University of Iowa and served as the 2012 Provost's Visiting Writer in Nonfiction. Her essays, interviews, and reportage have appeared in Harper'sThe New York Times MagazineSlateThe AtlanticThe Wall Street JournalGulf, and frequently in Bookforum. Kerry Howley is an assistant professor at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, where she teaches creative writing. We discussed fictionalization, reality versus perception, and hotel breakfast bars via e-mail.

I wrote a question in my copy on the bottom of page 65: "Are Sean and Erik real?" I'll focus on Erik: I'm thinking of the way he fictionalizes his self in his press conferences ("sometimes he had started training at age ten, sometimes at eleven, sometimes sixteen or seventeen") or when he claims (creates) reconciliation with his brother, Keoni; the camera crew who shapes (or omits something from) his narrative; and in particular, those moments when he plays Erik Koch in "UFC Undisputed 3" on his Xbox -- a figure Kit describes as his "doppelgänger." In other words, how much is your fictional narrator joined by fictional subjects?

That's interesting. Erik, especially, was frequently pressed to give an account of himself, explain from where he had come. He always had a story at hand, which startled and impressed me. Ask me about who I am, where I'm from, and I go silent. The question is too big. I can't see its edges.

Kit is given to pointing out the holes in any such story; Erik wasn't a farm boy, for instance, and leaves out Keoni when it suits him. But that's not really fair, in the end. The moment we start talking about who we are, we're editing, omitting. Erik's fluidity in storytelling says something about his comfort in the world.

As for Sean, I think Sean's resistance to comforting stories is part of what makes him such a surprising character. The heavy reality of Sean was always a bit jarring to me. There is that first fight, in which all the spectacle is swirling around him -- the shooting fire and the ramps and the opponent in the balaclava -- and Sean just interrupts it with the mundane force of his own presence. He's too solid, somehow, to be swept into the show.

You sweep your reader into this show throughout the book in moments like "You will ask questions... but I asked them myself, so I might as well give you the answers," and "I realize, reader, that this will sound odd." In fact, the opening phrase, "Sometimes you're watching" throws the reader into this world, so we are watching Kit watch Erik and Sean (watch themselves).

One of the most powerful moments, "I wish I could stop here," late in the book, solidifies the narrator's struggle, not in her reading of these two men, but in how the story, the reality, won't bend to the writer's will. Kit explains, "Were I a narrator given to believe that... were I a narrator who relied on... why, I might write... But I am not that narrator." (I wrote in the margin there: Cool move.) Such fascinating layering here regarding the reality, the perception of that reality, and the writing of it.

Those moments reflect what I take to be an excessive formality on Kit's part. She's reading Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, nineteenth-century texts, and her style is perhaps that of a nineteenth-century omniscient narrator: Reader, I married him. It's an affectation, but it's not insincere. She's addressing ecstatic experience in a voice she thinks can bear exploring it: large, impassioned, unafraid. And then of course she wants it both ways: to be the narrator who will clue you in to certain uncomfortable facts regarding Sean's recent divorce, and the narrator who would never be so gauche as to mention it.

Yes, this ecstatic experience you mention -- Kit's quest, as it were, that drives her, that takes over -- so much so she sheds the intellectualization of it (when she forgoes her graduate studies in philosophy) in favor of the immediate experience ("an ongoing study of the phenomenological basis of ecstasy" -- following these men from fight to fight, gym to gym). Kit describes her desire for such ecstatic experiences as a craving: the chance to "disperse," to be "ripped from consciousness," to transcend the "walls of perception," to be lead outside of herself and to have a small hole in her consciousness torn by watching a man "abandon himself" in the octagon in a battle of mixed martial arts, what she sees as "a sublime spectacle."

As I was reading, I kept thinking of Guy DeBord's The Society of the Spectacle, in which he notes, "The spectacle's estrangement from the acting subject is expressed by the fact that the individual's gestures are no longer [her] own; they are the gestures of someone else who represents them to [her]." What of this symbiotic relationship between spectacle and spectator, not only in Thrown, but perhaps in other ways that may have influenced your writing of it?

Have you ever been to a Hampton Inn lobby after they've taken the breakfast away? There's a very particular, very sad scent associated with a hot breakfast that is no longer available. The stale coffee, the few bananas left behind in a wire basket. They're prompt at the Hampton Inn. Whatever the hour is that breakfast ends, they are on it. I was in Newark for Erik's fight, having missed breakfast, when I first read Georges Bataille's Inner Experience. "Be entered ocularly," Bataille says. Or at least I think he does; I haven't been able to find the quote since I think I came across it after missing breakfast. But ever since I have conceived of this as Kit's ideal. That the spectacle might enter without the mediation of consciousness. That instead of thinking, analyzing, processing, she might be entered ocularly. I think of the cameras on tracks on the arena ceiling, the pure, dumb eyes.

I don't know what to make of the DeBord quote. To me there is, in the moment of ecstasy, this longing for dissolution, and the agony of knowing that dissolution without death is impossible.

Sometimes I don't know what to make of DeBord passages either. But I've moved across this country enough times to know that The Country Inn and Suites offers the most lenient breakfast cutoff. I've seen 9:30 linger toward 10 with the steam still escaping from silver trays of pancakes. Yet there's something uncomfortable (at least to me) about a room of strangers recreating that intimate scene of breakfast, each table a spectacle of families or couples or me. Simulacra -- I think of simulacra -- in the Country Inn breakfast nook and while reading Thrown, especially in those moments I mentioned in that first question.

As we talk, I keep puzzling out in my head what to call your work -- an essay, a work of immersion journalism, an anthropological experiment, a nonfiction novel in the tradition of Truman Capote, a fictional nonfiction. How do you categorize Thrown? Or have you written against category?

I don't really have a problem with category -- categories are useful -- but I wish there were one that better accommodated Thrown. I think the book is less fictional than is most of what we call "creative nonfiction," simply because it's upfront about its constructed narrator. In CNF, I see a lot of this one particular nonfiction narrator -- self-deprecating, eager to be liked, "obsessed" with the topic of the book -- and it's just so obviously a comfortable fictionalization. My thought was, if we're going to do this, let's at least make the narrative consciousness interesting. Let's be Thomas De Quincey in "The English Mail-Coach" instead of the milquetoast fellow narrating the latest tale of betrayal and redemption.

Thrown is, in the end, a reported work. Everything in the MMA world was recorded, whether on paper or on a phone, before passing through Kit's psyche.

This is a long way of saying that I consider it an essay, and I'd love to see it beside other book-length essays, but it seems to end up always in the sports section. Imagine if fiction were also treated as dependent on the explicit subject. Moby-Dick: sports. The Sun Also Rises: sports. Pale Fire: literary criticism.

Well then, book-length essay it is. Such a burgeoning and fascinating form, what with Matthew Gavin Frank's Preparing the Ghost, T. Fleischmann's Syzygy, Beauty, Sarah Manguso's The Guardians, Maggie Nelson's Bluets, and Kerry Howley's Thrown.

There are so many questions I have about Thrown, and since you consider it an essay and the essay is an interrogative form, I'll ask you one more: What question drove you to write it?

What am I not seeing, when I am seeing? I don't want to submit to the illusion that this coffee mug is a stable entity. I'm searching for something that might give a glimpse of fluidity behind the illusion of stasis. The world in a continuous state of becoming. Also: Will these guys really let me hang around until this project is finished? The answer to the last question was "apparently," and I am deeply grateful for that.