Kerry Howley is the author of Thrown, a book-length essay recounting three years she spent following a pair of Midwestern mixed martial artists. A graduate of the Nonfiction Writing Program at the University of Iowa—where she was also the Provost’s Visiting Writer in Nonfiction in 2012 (and my colleague)—her work can be found in Harper’s, The Paris Review, The New York Times and Bookforum. Howley, who teaches creative writing at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, will head to Iowa City for Mission Creek. You can hear her read from Thrown at Prairie Lights on Thursday, April 2 at 6 p.m. We spoke via e-mail about Kit—the semi-fictionalized philosophy grad student who serves as Howley's in-text avatar—and the distinctions between narrators and writerly personae.
Alea Adigweme: Reading reviews of Thrown, it seems like many people can’t help but ask you about the “fictionalization” of the narrator. Even Katherine Dunn’s largely positive review for the New York Times calls the book “partly true,” while also saying that the “rationale offered [for creating narrator Kit] rings a tad specious.” Revealing herself to be the creation of an “(admittedly neurotic) progenitor,” Kit explains in Thrown, “All narrators, I say, are fiction. All. The reliable ones have the decency to admit it.” Since this claim feels honest, I have a difficult time wrapping my mind around what’s so “specious” about it.
Kerry Howley: We’ve all read so much clumsy self-characterization in what we call creative nonfiction. You know the paragraph: “I had to write this book because I am obsessed with the subject of said book, and also something in my childhood is unresolved. Also, I’m self-deprecating. Please like me.” In order to identify the writers of this [creative nonfiction] with the narrators, I would have to believe that all these authors are essentially identical. It seems more likely that distinct individuals are writing books, but narrowing the “I” on the page into similar narrative personae. I don’t know if this is “specious,” but it’s surely boring.
I do think Thrown is more honest for owning up to the inevitable process of self-characterization. Who really thinks she can give an accurate and honest account of why she is driven to write a book, or become a murderous dictator, or get a divorce? And it gets muddier when we bring memory into the mix; who thinks she can remember accurately what drove her to act 30 years ago? Nor do I necessarily want to read the most brutally accurate account of a writer’s selfhood. I wanted to make something of the gap between self and persona. And for the most part, people have been cool about it. Reviewers puzzle over it and move on. I’m grateful for that, and grateful to people who have openly challenged the boundaries of the essay such that my work could be received with something other than hand-wringing over the nature of truth.
AA: Early in Thrown, the narrator says, “I remember well that first real conversation with Sean, wherein we lunched on satisfactory dive bar burgers and I told him I thought his performance an extraordinary physical analogue to phenomenological inquiry.” Kit is breezily cerebral in a way that I find exhilarating and validating.
The ease with which Kit deploys Continental philosophy, the confidence she shows in her scholarship—particularly in the face of naysaying faculty members—is a type of intellectual fierceness often portrayed in print and embodied in the classroom as “masculine.” In an interview with Fightland, you mentioned that your real-life “persona”—being that of “a small, soft-spoken woman given to ironic asides”—was not “the one this book needed.” Do you find the differences between Kerry the Narrator and Kit the Narrator to be so great? Is it simply a matter of the latter being more ripe for comedic ribbing?
KH: I do find the difference to be significant. I’m thinking specifically of Kit’s earnestness, her overeducated naivete, her inability to see the way her hyper-analytical nature separates her from other people. And there is what I might call her all-in-ness. Her ideas about artistry, for instance—that one cannot both have a family and make great art—well, I hope that’s not true. But I was just talking about the limits of self-knowledge, so maybe I’m not the best person to ask. Thrown needed a big, impassioned, earnest voice willing to relate Heideggerian disclosure to a Davenport cage fight. Do I, Kerry Howley, think disclosure a real phenomenon that renders the fight intelligible? Absolutely. But I can also see the absurdity in the juxtaposition.
AA: Another incisive observation by Kit: “The challenge of his young adulthood was not finding employment but finding fellow playmates, because the kind of person willing to play is harder to find than the kind of person willing to work, paid work being the province of the anxious, the routine bound, those seeking safe harbor in a single static wooden desk.” Kit could have been speaking about herself (and her fixation on aging, family and never going home again), me, or any number of early-career working artists I know. While the past few years for you have been filled with the types of “milestones” considered markers of a "successful" young adulthood, how much, if at all, was Kit an outlet for any anxieties you felt before or during your time in the Nonfiction Writing Program or while researching and writing Thrown?
KH: When I reread that line I think about first finding the fighters, and what a relief it was to be in their presence: to have found these men so devoted to play. I don’t think the anxieties that drove me to them are anxieties that ever go away. I’m still aging, it turns out, and still trying to balance art and family. I don’t like going home.
AA: What made you decide to keep your narrator a woman? Is it that making her a man would have “gone too far,” or is there something about “taking up space” as a woman that was essential to your narrative?
KH: I didn’t actually know that Kit was a woman until I had finished the book. I asked my three most trusted readers: Is Kit a woman? Two said “yes.”
But while Kit might have gone either way, being a woman made it easier for me, Kerry Howley, to focus on the fighters rather than on myself. I’m thinking specifically of my time with Iowa’s Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Club. I started training at the same time as another woman, an undergraduate, and we were absolutely terrible. We laughed through the entire class, laughed as we were submitted, laughed as we got caught. There were men starting at the same time as us, and they were getting submitted, and they were...not laughing. There was just so much more at stake for them. There’s a reason that so much writing about mixed martial arts involves the (male) author desperately yearning for the approval of the (male) fight coach. I had none of this emotional baggage to work through as I shadowed the fighters. I did not care if the coach thought I was man enough. And this is why I will never write a book about supermodels.
AA: In your career as a writer, have you ever encountered the notion that your work was “inaccessible” to a mainstream audience? If so, how has that influenced your process?
KH: Well, I think it actually influenced my choosing to pursue an MFA because the kind of editing that says, “We need all of this subtext to be explicit. We need these long sentences to be a third as long. We need any big ideas to be broken down and given a ton of context until they’ve lost their power”—those kinds of directives from editors are part of what led me to a frustration with journalism.
I also think there’s an impatience with long sentences. I love long sentences. I love Moby Dick. I love Nabokov. So, in a way, I think I was pushing against that editorial mindset when I was writing Thrown.
As far as the book’s strangeness, I do think editors were thrown by the fictional narrator, in particular, so I was lucky to find a home at a smaller press that was willing to tolerate something that didn’t have a clear place on a bookstore shelf.
AA: Like many artists, you teach your craft to undergraduates. In thinking about the reality that people are sometimes resistant to your more adventuresome notion of what it means to be a writer, how do you try to cultivate that tendency in your students while also guiding them towards ideas about writing that will help them to be successful?
KH: I direct them to read. Often undergraduates will come to a class having been told their entire lives not to use adverbs—a very silly thing to tell someone who wants to be a writer—so, I’ll say, “Why don’t you read The Great Gatsby and wonder to yourself if this would be better if he had removed all of the adverbs.” I’ll tell them, “I know that you have heard that passive sentences are the enemy, so why don’t you read some Joan Didion and wonder if this would be better without any passive construction.”
I guess I want their community of writers to be larger than whoever’s in their immediate vicinity or whoever’s contemporary. I think that was part of what enabled me to know that writing doesn’t have to look the way the New York Times Magazine says it has to look. It helped me to find a place where there was more tolerance for variety.
AA: The workshop model, I think, is interesting in that way—because, in theory, people from all over the country, sometimes people from other parts of the world, come together and use their internal aesthetic systems to help each other create better work. At the same time, there sometimes is a flattening, or perhaps such an overlap of individual internal aesthetic systems, that people who seem like outliers can have a rough time. So, in thinking about those outliers, I really like your idea of instructing students to find a community of compatriots who might not necessarily be in their particular cohort or even alive in this century.
KH: I love the idea of an internal aesthetic system. And, you know, people are always talking about the way MFA programs flatten prose—and there’s truth to that—but nothing is more damaging to one’s internal aesthetic system than a lack of time and space to write.
AA: That’s true.
KH: If you’re writing for the market, if you’re writing for a deadline, you are not going to have time to explore new ways to express yourself or—to reframe that in terms of interiority—tap into something different that’s innate to yourself. You are going to be aping the nearest example. So, while I do think there’s truth to the criticism, I think what MFA programs do that allows people to fulfill their potential is giving them time and space to find out what that potential is. I don’t think you can overvalue the luxury of that.
AA: Definitely. Like, just having the time to read books.
AA: Speaking of books, I wonder if there are any other writers you encountered outside of nonfiction readings classes that helped you with your creative process while you were writing Thrown. I know there’s an emphasis on Continental Philosophy, but are there any other writers in Thrown’s lineage?
KH: Mostly the ones that I’ve mentioned. I was reading a lot of Moby Dick. I was reading a lot of Nabokov—Pale Fire, in particular. I think Joe Wenderoth’s work has been particularly important to me because of his willingness to teeter between profundity and absurdity. I wanted to write a book that involved ideas, but I didn’t want to write a self-serious book, so I was looking for models that would help me do that.
Alea Adigweme is a writer, artist, and educator based in Iowa City.