If you read my review of Katie Kitamura’s The Longshot last week, you’ll know that I am a big fan of the author’s first novel. You’ll have to take my word for it that a novel about the world of mixed martial arts fighting was not one that I was prepared to fall for so completely. I was first intrigued by Kitamura’s back story – she’s a petite Ivy League graduate who has a PhD from the University of London, she’s a former ballet dancer, and – of course – she’s a woman writing about a brutal ultra-male sport. But the story won me over on its own its own merits.
Katie Kitamura was gracious enough to take time out to answer our burning questions. She’s awesome like that. Read on…
Baby Got Books interview with Katie Kitamura, author of The Longshot
Baby Got Books: Your novel The Longshot takes place in the violent world of mixed martial art fighting. What is it about violent sports that makes for compelling literature?
Katie Kitamura: I think writers necessarily live in their heads. It’s a disembodied lifestyle, and the highly embodied nature of combat sports can become an alluring contrast. I don’t know that writers are necessarily drawn to writing about what they know, even if they should be. I can only speak for myself, but I’m more often drawn to writing about what I don’t understand. You have to be a little bit in love with the world you’re writing about, and I think it’s easier to fall in love with what you don’t fully know.
BGB: At what point will it become very old and/or very insulting that every review or article about this book will begin with pointing out that you are “a girl”? (And I am as guilty of this as anyone…sorry about that)
KK: To flip the tables again, if a man wrote a novel set in a nail salon, people would inevitably comment on it! I genuinely don’t mind – it seems like a natural enough response.
I’m slightly more intrigued by the fact that on the whole, people are saying they can’t tell the book was written by a woman. I can see myself all over the book, and I’m not exactly out of touch with my feminine side. Having said that, I can’t pinpoint exactly where and how that expresses itself in the novel; I think it must do so ways that I haven’t fully worked out myself.
BGB: A cornerstone of the book is its intense realism. It’s clear that you must have spent a great deal of time with fighters and coaches. How did you go about inserting yourself into the very male MMA world? Was there resistance to you being there?
KK: I spent a lot of time with fighters, but to borrow from Joan Didion – I’m small, unobtrusive and neurotically inarticulate. I think they were only half aware I was present. I spent most of my time listening. I wasn’t necessarily listening for content (although a lot of the fight lingo that is in the book came directly from the mouths of fighters); I was listening more for the cadences of their speech. The rhythm of the banter, the jokes that would be picked up and drawn out, the things that were left unsaid.
I never sat down and asked a direct “What is it like to step into the ring?” type of question. It almost didn’t seem necessary, because so much of that experience was telegraphed in their faces, and – both before, during, and after the fight – their bodies. The atmosphere around a fighter is very particular, it has an incredibly tense vibration. I can see how people get addicted to the adrenaline rush of a fight. Even the post fight crash has its nuances.
BGB: Did you ever end up lacing gloves on yourself?
KK: No, no – physically speaking, I’m a complete coward. Probably if I’d had the courage to fight myself, I never would have felt the impetus to write the book in the first place. Maybe to write at all!
BGB: Longshot centers on the relationship of two men, Cal the fighter and Riley the coach. Clearly there is an interdependency between the men. Quoting myself, “Each has a responsibility to the other, neither wants to let the other down, and each play a central role in the continued livelihood of the other.” On the page their relationship is defined as much by what they do not say to one another as what they do say. How did you find the restraint, and the confidence, to leave so much of what is happening between the men off the page?
KK: Any good fight tells an emotionally engaging story through the bodies, and not just the minds, of the fighters. I think I wanted to see if I could do the same in fiction. I didn’t want to do a lot of exposition on the emotions of the men, their motivations and their back-stories. When you sit down to watch a fight, you don’t need to know the back-story of the individual fighters to get drawn in; all you need is the most basic of narrative arcs.
Having said all that, I really did not want to (and hope I haven’t!) frustrate the reader by leaving things unsaid and off the page. I hate the idea of frustrating the reader solely for the purposes of servicing some kind of larger conceit you’ve entertaining as a writer. I hope the relationship between Cal and Riley still feels sufficiently engaging, and also realistic. I think there are a lot of relationships where the core of what is happening is never explicitly stated, but is only revealed in the small details.
BGB: In a profile featured on The Daily Beast, it quotes you as saying that you were shocked at first by the way that MMA is fought here as opposed to Japan where you had previously seen the sport. It’s difficult to imagine your description of the scene in Japan – 50,000 people in attendance, families watching together, polite applause, etc. Why do you think what can be a family outing in Japan has been recast here – whether through marketing or perception – as a bloodsport?
KK: There are a lot of arguments for cultural context – there’s a long history of martial arts in Japan, with judo, karate, and sumo, and most children learn some kind of martial art in school. Certainly I think the way we understand any sport is couched in a received set of aesthetic standards. We perceive boxing as aesthetically valid in part because of everything from Norman Mailer’s prose to archive footage of Ali. I don’t know that a similar aesthetic has been developed for MMA; on screen, it can strike people as ugly, in part because when we watch MMA, we don’t have the tape of Raging Bull or Fat City running in the back of our minds.
Maybe the language of martial arts has been more fully integrated into the Japanese imagination, but I think you’re absolutely right to think that it’s as much a question of marketing as anything else. In America, there was initially a bit of a back door approach to the sport. The marketing relied on shock tactics (the use of the cage, for example, is in essence one giant marketing ploy). It’s now methodically cleaning up its image, and I think is poised to become fully mainstream. But in Japan, MMA was presented and understood to be a mainstream sport from the beginning.
BGB: I’ll admit to not having watched any MMA fights prior to reading your book, so forgive the ignorance that is inherent in this question, but… The fight in your book takes place in Mexico in what seems to be a traditional boxing-type ring. Everything that I have ever seen about the sport – which is only the marketing behind the UFC – takes place in a small cage. Did you purposefully set the fight in Mexico to avoid the UFC scene as – maybe? – too distracting from the story that you wanted to tell?
KK: Yeah – well noted! They use a ring in Japan, and when I went down to Tijuana to watch some fights, they also used a ring. But on the whole, the cage has become the standard across the sport. I’m getting used to it, but I still prefer the ring. I like the associations better, I like the word better in prose – and then there’s the very simple fact that you can see the fighters more easily in a ring.
But to respond to your larger question – in a lot of ways, the book is deliberately nostalgic. In some ways, I wanted to take a very contemporary sport (MMA) and blunt that currency by creating an atmosphere around it that was less immediately locatable, less identified with a particular brand and cultural moment.
BGB: Your first novel has not only found its way to a supportive (and large) publisher, but it has also been getting great reviews. What has that experience been like so far?
KK: I feel very lucky that the book found a home at Free Press – it’s not the most obvious book, and first fiction remains a gamble for any publisher. They’ve been incredibly supportive; my editor used a very sure and light touch in working on the book, and the team at Free Press were very generous in allowing me to meddle in everything from the font on the book cover to marketing ideas.
I’m starting to get feedback from actual readers, and that’s possibly the most exciting part of all. It will sound naïve, but I’m completely astonished to discover that people apart from my friends and family have taken the time to read the book! Giving over that time to an unknown writer seems to me an incredibly generous thing to do, and I’m very grateful.
Bonus: Speaking of grateful, the author has graciously signed three (3!) copies of The Longshot for us to give away here on BGB. Again, she’s awesome like that. If you’d like to get your mitts on a copy to check out this excellent novel yourself, leave us a comment. At the end of the week holiday weekend we’ll choose three enthusiastic readers at random.