Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Chris Interviews Rufi Thorpe, author of The Knockout Queen

From Chris - I'm lucky enough to get to interview the author of my tip top, #1, most favorite novel of the year - The Knockout Queen. It's a frighteningly smart take on the old 'unlikely friendship between teenage misfits' genre. I can't say enough good things about this book, but just know that if you only take one recommendation from me all year, if you only read one book all year, this is the one. So let's get to it -

Chris Lee: First of all, thanks so much for taking the time to chat. Your book is by far my favorite thing I’ve read this year. It’s seriously some sort of magic trick, the way you cram so much, so many ideas and feelings, into one book, and while you are of course under absolutely no obligation to reveal the secret recipe to the Boswell blog, I can’t help but return to your book and ask - how? How is this even possible?

Rufi Thorpe: This question made me cry? My kids are shirtless and smeared with cream cheese on the couch watching youtube videos so stupid I’m not even sure I can explain what they are, but let’s just say they are minecraft adjacent. If I managed to cram a lot in there - okay, well, here is an anecdote. With my first book, I got to go to a lunch with sales reps and I had zero practice at pitching my book, no understanding of publishing, had nothing prepared. And a nice man at my table asked: “What are you most proud of about this book?” And I said, I’m not kidding, this is actually what I said: “I just really tried to put a lot of stuff in there.” He looked… concerned. It was not the right answer. But it was true then, and it is true now, and so the idea that someone read my book and thought: gosh, how did she cram so much stuff in there?! It’s a literal dream come true!!!!

CL: This questions is a bit ’where do you get your ideas'-ish, but I have to ask it anyway. Three sentences into the book, I was in tears laughing so hard, and I spent the entire book alternately laughing, crying, and gasping along with your narrator Michael, who might be the drollest teenager of all time. He reads the world so clearly, and in some ways he's scarily self-assured, but at the same time, he's so full of hurt, so raw and tender and capable of being damaged. I can't think of another book in recent memory that’s captured such a fully realized, so alive human being, so, I have to know - where did his voice come from?

RT: Well, so I had been trying to write this book without him for about a year and it just wasn’t working, and then I got the idea for him kind of in a flash and started writing a few sentences from his point of view and it was just an explosion, what had been plodding and difficult and dry was now blown sky high on a geyser of oil or something. It would be really fun to pretend that Michael was some ghost or astral entity communicating through me, but the fact that he kept bringing up aspects of my own biography that I was uncomfortable with leads me to other conclusions. Michael is kind of a hyper concentrated fun house version of me. Life has always struck me as so sad and so funny, and Michael is the same. He’s my lil shadow self buddy.

CL: You've said a part of the inspiration for this book was the desire to write about a physically powerful female character - throughout the novel, though, we see her through Michael's eyes. Can you tell me about how you see Bunny, and maybe also about the ways you see the world looking at her?

RT: Well, I think the culture has become moderately healthier now, but when I was growing up in the 90s heroin chic was big and the ideal body structure for women was sort of split between child-waif and sex doll. And oh how I longed to be one of those empty doll women! But oh, how gross I also felt about that! It was like being sick with want for something you knew would also be very bad for you.

Still, I always identified as big (because I was fat) and strong (for a woman I am unusually strong), and it wasn’t until I was an adult that I understood how… completely stronger men were. I knew they had different Olympic events! I knew everyone said they were stronger. But when you find yourself in a physical altercation with a man, you really realize: oh, wow, my will is entirely circumscribed by my ability to enforce it. And, let me tell you, I can beat every single woman in my extended family at arm wrestling, and then they had me take on my (average size) fifteen year old nephew in-law, and he beat me so easily it took my breath away.

So Bunny is a fantasy. She is a form of wish fulfillment, because she has the physical power to enforce her will, and she also fails to be one of the empty doll women, but not because she is fat. Not being one of the doll women because you are fat is more complicated and the shame is still really confusing for me. That’s a whole other book, one I hope one day to write. But in this book, Bunny  is kind of a violent repudiation of the empty doll women. They pop and hiss and deflate under the pressure of her.

So Bunny is a kind of fantasy, and that fantasy appeals to both me and Michael, but does cause other characters in the book to find her upsetting and distasteful, monstrous even.

CL: The book keeps returning to questions of morality, and everyone in it takes moments to ask: is this okay? Am I a good person? Is he/she? Can I still love this person after what they’ve done? I love how in spite of this constant questioning, it seems like it’s ultimately just this swirl of good and bad people and good and bad things, and they just keep happening to each other just because they can. Could you talk about how you see morality in the novel?

RT: For me the novel is kind of philosophy with tables and chairs and fruit and sex in it, and so those big questions about how to live, how to be good, how we know what is true— those are what the novel is there to explore. But if we are being totally transparent, I probably only think that because I myself am deeply confused about how to be good, what to do with my love for people I know have been bad, what punishment is or should be, and so I seek interesting ruminations on these things in novels, both when I am writing my own and as a reader of other people’s. And you have phrased my basic confusion really well, which is that I can’t separate out the good and bad in people. It seems so densely interwoven to me, I am really not sure how we are supposed to actually make ethical judgments. And yet, we have to, we have no choice, because sometimes the people we are thrown through time with, who we love, who we see so deeply that the sight of them scars us, who we are sewn into, are also trying to kill us. And our sympathy can only extend so far in such a case.

CL: And following that - you never shy away from the overwhelming influence of money, class, and power in the characters’ lives and that ‘this is good, this is bad’ decision making. How central are those pressures to who gets to make those ‘good/bad’ judgement calls and how they’re made?

RT: Well, in the case of the legal system, I think the influence of money and class is almost overt. Like, it’s not a shadowy problem that needs to be exposed, it is something we all know to be trivially true. The rich guy is somehow always able to get off with a slap on the wrist, and the poor kid with twenty bucks of drugs in his pocket gets three years. So we really have to ask: what is it we are trying to punish through the legal system if the severity of the crime and the size of the punishment are often inversely related?

CL: This isn’t the first novel you’ve set in California, and you make North Shore this sort of combination place - it’s suburban LA, it’s a beach town that’s outgrown itself, and it’s even something of an ‘Anytown, USA’ all at once. What in particular do you like about writing about this place?

RT: When I first started thinking of myself as a regional writer, as a specifically Californian writer, it was a major artistic breakthrough because it narrowed the scope of my focus. The particular town of North Shore is fictional, but heavily modeled on El Segundo, which does have a really unusual small town feeling. And I LOVE small town gossip. I’m super interested in mid-size groups of humans. Like, Jane Smiley’s Greenlanders is sweet ambrosia to me. Long standing grudges between neighbors? YES PLEASE.

CL: I said it before, I’ll say it again, there are just so many ideas packed into this novel, I feel like I can barely scrape the surface with a few questions. Is there any idea or theme in the book you feel like readers aren’t picking up on that you want to give more attention?

RT: Gosh, no. If anything it’s been the opposite, where every bookseller quote and every review has made me cry like I’ve been stranded in a space station all alone and finally received a radio transmission. It has just blown me away to have people respond to the ideas in the book the way they have, it’s the biggest gift imaginable.

CL: Finally, let me ask you to be the bookseller for a moment, because the old ‘it’s X meets Y!’ is the classic Hollywood sell line anyway, right? so, fill in the blanks - The Knockout Queen is _____ meets _____ !

RT: I am bad at these!!! Okay, okay, maybe Ghostworld meets Girlfight but with gay sex and murder???

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