Kerry Howley Enters the Octagon

Former Houstonia editor explores the world of mixed martial arts in her celebrated new book.

By Michael Hardy October 16, 2014

Kerry Howley: Thrown
Oct 20 at 7
Brazos Bookstore
2421 Bissonnet St.

In Thrown, the first book by Kerry Howley, a young philosophy graduate student named Kit becomes obsessed with mixed martial arts (MMA), dropping out of school to follow two fighters—one an up-and-coming Young Turk, the other a battle-scarred veteran—as they travel from state to state and octagon to octagon. The narrator comes to see MMA fights as modern-day Greek dramas, venues for the collective experience of pity and terror, for ecstatic self-forgetfulness. (The title refers to both a martial arts move and one of philosopher Martin Heidegger’s key concepts.) Howley, a former managing editor at Houstonia, deliberately blurs the lines between fiction and journalism: her narrator is a lightly fictionalized version of herself, while the fighters she follows and the stories she tells are real. Time magazine book critic Lev Grossman recently called Thrown "probably the most bizarre and fascinating book I've read this year." 

Howley currently teaches creative writing at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. She will read from Thrown at Brazos Bookstore on Monday night. We reached her by e-mail earlier this week to discuss the book, MMA, and the problem of genre. 

Houstonia: The narrator, Kit, encounters MMA fighting almost by accident, while taking a break from a philosophy conference in Des Moines, Iowa. Does that approximate how you, Kerry, first became aware of the sport?  

Kerry Howley: I have no idea how I first became aware of MMA. Probably on television, like most people. Kit, by the way, would not approve of you calling it a “sport.”

Why tell the story in the voice of Kit? How different is Kit from you? You seem to have a lot in common, although Kit drops out of (philosophy) grad school and you finished your MFA in creative nonfiction at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. 

While I don’t think it’s a stretch to compare MMA to Artaud’s Theater of Cruelty (a comparison first brought to my attention by poet Joe Wenderoth), I do think this is the kind of comparison that (in our time at least) can only be made in a comic work. Thrown required a big voice, a self-obsessed academic narrator who could play against the decency and confidence of the fighters themselves. Kit and I do have a lot in common, but she is more absolutist than I am, more severe in her conception of the artist as a figure. Kit, for instance, believes that the artist loses her capacity for abandonment if enmeshed in a family. Personally, I hope that this is not true.

The fighters you describe are real people, but your narrator is invented, and you call the demand for literal truth “a prejudice endemic to our times.” Is this a work of nonfiction, creative nonfiction, fiction, journalism…? Do those categories matter to you? 

These categories are taken very seriously by people who organize bookstore shelves, but any writer of fiction or nonfiction understands that no work fits neatly on either side of this divide. They shade into one another. The novelist draws from her own life, the memoirist recreates dialogue he can’t possibly recall. I’m interested in the essay as a genre, and historically, the essay has not been defined primarily by its relationship to facticity. Another way to say this: Every nonfiction narrator is by necessity a construct, and Thrown is a more honest book because Kit takes the additional step of acknowledging herself as such. And given that Thrown is not a work that relies heavily on memory, it was possible for me to be quite fastidious about the facts as they relate to the fighters and the world of MMA—to work from recordings, notes, and video to recreate, as accurately as possible, these particular moments in the fighters’ lives.

Image: Felix Sanchez

What is it about MMA that makes it the perfect vehicle of ecstatic experience—better, say, than boxing, or football, or soccer? 

There are moments in a good fight—not all fights, but the good ones—that seem outside of, or perhaps prior to, civilization. I think this is not unrelated to the general discomfort with MMA, the efforts to ban it that we saw from, say, Senator John McCain in the ’90s. This discomfort persists even though it’s increasingly clear that sports such as football and boxing are more dangerous to participants in the long term. What interests me about these moments is how inaccessible they are to the rest of us. They’re only achieved through years upon years of disciplined study of extremely refined martial arts, which is to say, they are a product of the civilization they momentarily obliterate.

You use a lot of sexual imagery to describe the fights, often referring to fighters “penetrating” each other. Do you see parallels between MMA fights and sex? Do they bring about the same kind of ecstatic experiences?

I’m sure those parallels are there, but it’s not something I’m thinking about as I’m watching a fight. I’m interested in the abandonment of the self, the fighter’s rejection of the dictates of self-preservation, and I conceive of that as an openness, a freedom from a kind of self-protective anxiety, a willingness to be, yes, penetrated. I suppose I’m talking less about the interaction between two men than I am about the willingness of an individual to swear off protection of the self he was given. I will say that over the course of writing the book, I encountered a number of straight men (and no women) eager to dismiss MMA as some sort of homoerotic hazing ritual. I take this to come from a place of fear rather than knowledge.

Have Erik and Sean [the two fighters you follow] read the book? If so, what were their reactions? What have been the reactions of the other people in the MMA world who have read it?  

You’d have to ask them about their reactions (they’ve read it), but to me, they’ve been very kind about Thrown. I do think it’s odd for them to see offhand comments that meant nothing to them at the time enshrined in print. You say something about blueberry muffin tops one evening, and then it’s in a book you’re reading, and suddenly it’s quoted in Time magazine. That has to be unnerving. One of the fighter’s friends just posted a Facebook comment that reads: “I can’t believe I’m reading this shit in a book.” I think that about sums it up.

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