March 2015

Rebecca Silber

features

An Interview with Erika Krouse

Erika Krouse's debut novel, Contenders, tells the story of street fighter Nina Black who earns a living by stealing wallets from unsuspecting men in Denver. Nina is tough, strong, and fearless, her actions are as addictively unpredictable as Krouse's plot. Hit with a sucker punch like she's never experienced before, Nina learns that she is getting custody of her eight-year-old niece. Disrupted by a bevy of people, and emotions, Nina struggles to figure out how she wants to continue with her life.

Baby Boom this novel is not -- I don't think that I am spoiling anything by saying that no one moves to Vermont to start making baby food. Boulder, Colorado-based Krouse, author of a lauded earlier collection of short stories, Come Up and See Me Sometime, writes with a pulse-pounding and engaging ferocity that grabs at the reader, Contenders is heart-racingly original.

Contenders provokes an odd mixture of feelings of compassion and feelings of rage. Nina is a soft mess on the inside, and pretty much the opposite on the outside. Several of the characters, actually, are not presenting their authentic selves (sorry for the Oprah terminology). Because of this, I found myself confused, in a good way, about my character allegiances as I read your book. Was your intention to create such internal reader conflict?

I experienced similar internal conflict as I wrote the novel. I love Nina, but she's scary. She does bad things -- fights men and steals their wallets -- for her own reasons, according to her own code. I don't share that code, but I crave the breadth of her moral and physical freedom. And that craving makes me wonder who the hell I am.

Okay, so you just answered my next question, which was: Are you a street fighter? Evidently, you are not. The fight scenes, and training scenes, are very detailed and graphic. How did you get into this street fighting character? Where did you get the knowledge required to write such details?

I've never been in a street fight in my life. If I ever were, I would definitely be killed. I've been a martial arts tourist forever, though, and must have fought (and lost to) hundreds of men. I really can't stress enough how bad I am at it. You learn a lot by losing, and that gave me the knowledge base for Contenders.

Fighting has its own culture, psychology, and value system. It's a kind of intimacy unlike any other. And it's taboo for women. So what if, like Nina Black, you were a genius at this one thing, the thing you were forbidden to do? Of course it would pervert you. You'd be at the outermost edges of human life. Anything might happen inside your orbit.

I found it interesting to learn a little bit about the culture of street fighting, despite the fact that I had given it little thought prior to reading Contenders. How did it occur to you to take this brutal, raw subject matter and mix it together with the far softer story of Nina getting unexpected custody of her eight-year-old niece?

Fiction is about conflict, but Nina thrives on conflict, so conflict isn't conflict for her. I needed to find something that would mess her right up. For Nina, that's having to care for an innocent and needy eight-year-old girl. Trigger city.

Also, I find it fascinating that we're these monkeys who wear clothes and swirl wine and try to be role models for our children, while our primal side lurks just beneath our skin. With an insta-kid in her life, Nina can't continue to mug people, but her nature precludes domestication, so I wanted to see what's behind door number three.

Door #3 definitely made for a captivating plot. Did you know prior to writing how Nina's life would be after Kate and Isaac found her? Or did door number three reveal itself to you as you were writing?

It was much more chaotic than either of those things. I had just spent two years writing most of a different novel before realizing I didn't give a crap about it. So when I began Contenders, I only knew that I wanted to write about "a woman who fights." I had no characters, situation, plot, theme, conflict, setting, nada.

My mistake was trying to write my way in. I must have thrown away thousands of carefully revised pages, hundreds of attempted ideas, dozens of developed plots and characters. It took me a decade to finally understand what the book was about. You know that E.L. Doctorow quote, "It's like driving a car at night. You never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way"? Not me.

Thankfully, all those mistakes taught me to be a better writer. I really like what I'm working on now, and I feel revitalized about the writing process.

I'm going to come back to this shortly. But, first I want to ask you about the fight scenes. They are so intense and raw, it was difficult for me to get through some of them. The graphic details made me nauseous, which in a convoluted way, is a compliment to your writing! How did you get into the mental place necessary to write them? Blow by blow, how did you know and decide how the fights would play out?

Those scenes were difficult to write, especially the scenes where my protagonist got hurt. Because I'm a pacifist! So I'd write part of one, say, "Yikes," and then stop for a while. Then I'd go back a little deeper until I hit "Yikes" again, rinse, repeat. It was like sculpting a grotesque form; you have to find that edge between beauty and horror. I still don't know if I got it right.

You've touched on the dilemma of fiction, though -- you have to thoroughly live inside the imaginary world you've decided on. And fiction isn't about bunny rabbits and swimming pools and milkshakes. It's about trouble. This is why writers are crazy.

I think that you did find the edge between beauty and horror. And it's true, no one would read fiction if it was all about bunny rabbits, swimming pools, and milkshakes. I definitely wouldn't, anyway. 

Thanks! I appreciate that.

You said that when you began writing Contenders, you only knew that you wanted to write about a "woman who fights." What drove your desire to want to write about such a woman? What (if any) of Nina's characteristics are you most proud of?

The driving force behind Nina was that I needed to understand the difference between fighting and violence -- how the two intersect, and how they don't. I've had a lifetime fascination with fighting, and an equally long abhorrence and fear of violence. I wanted to create a character who understood what I didn't. And then, of course, I had to understand her.

I don't know if I'm ever proud of something I care about (it can always be better, right?). And I care about this novel more than most things I've done. I guess I admire Nina's talent for survival, and her utter refusal to take shit from anybody. I'm terrified of the line she straddles between sociopathy and humanity. And I'm fascinated by her ability to metabolize darkness. Me, I can't even read the newspaper without weeping.

You mentioned that you really like what you are working on now. Are you working on another novel? 

I'm going through the schizophrenic process of simultaneously writing both a novel and a collection of short stories. It keeps me off balance, which is actually working out for me. I really like where the work is taking me, and all the brain damage from my first novel is beginning to pay off. That said, I do miss living in the world of Contenders. Nina and I traveled a long way together, and I miss her.