Early on in Gabe Habash’s debut novel, the titular protagonist pins his opponent in a wrestling match. “I place my ear on Brett’s back and hear his heart. ‘Oh Brett, I told you I was going to eat you,’ I whisper to him. Something like sympathy, I could fall asleep if we stayed here long enough.” It’s described dreamily, as if it’s our hero sinking into a warm-hued pillow rather than snapping another guy’s arm behind his back under fluorescent lights.
Stephen Florida is about a college wrestler striving for greatness, but that’s a reductive synopsis. It’s a dark and twisty tale of ambition: ambition in overdrive, ambition that hauls its dark heavy tarp over everything else in your life. Stephen is an orphan in the last season of his college career, on the brink of victory or a meltdown, whichever comes first. The book takes place over that one season: we follow him through early-morning practices and days in the weight room; we see his relationships ebb, flow, and deteriorate; we begin to clock time the same way he does. “Was last night New Year’s? Practice is starting up in two days if so.” It’s a psychologically rich book, one that requires time to ruminate on, and it’s hard not to feel as if you’re getting stuck in both his thoughts and your own. What happens when you put blinders on for the one thing you want, and ignore everything else? Are humans meant to be so singularly driven, so completely alone? Stephen is so lost in his want that he becomes almost inhuman, but it’s this disfiguration that makes him recognizable. I spoke with Gabe Habash about the unforgiving nature of wrestling, stories of single-minded obsession, and his first time in North Dakota.
Some people might classify Stephen Florida as a sports book, though wrestling is a particularly interesting sport to choose because it’s more about isolation than teamwork. Why did you choose wrestling?
I don’t think of it as a sports book or a wrestling book, I think of it as a book with wrestling in it. My favorite sports, literature, and movies put character and story before the sports. One of the best is Annie Proulx’s short story “The Mud Below,” which is about a rodeo bull rider, but it’s really about how the rider’s momentary exhilaration atop a bull is his only relief from the slow erosion of his life off a bull–his strained relationship with his mother, his absent father, his itinerant travels to rodeos reflecting his internal restlessness. By the end, it’s the bull riding scenes (which are wonderful and visceral) that support the non-bull riding scenes. Hoop Dreams is one of the best “sports movies” ever made, and it’s not because it’s a good basketball movie; it’s because we follow William Gates and Arthur Agee through high school, for years, and it’s because we’re invested in them–we care about them winning basketball games, not about the basketball games in a vacuum. So I didn’t want to write a sports book. I wanted the depiction of wrestling to be accurate, but I was much, much more interested in character, and with what the wrestling could say about character.
I’ve never wrestled before, and this made the writing easier in certain ways. I’d also never been to North Dakota (where the book is set) until a very late draft, and after the trip I only altered one thing in the book. I needed enough foreign elements to surprise me as I was writing. If I’m not surprised by the book and where it goes when I’m writing it, it’s boring to me, and it’ll be boring to the reader.
I picked wrestling specifically because it’s the most intense, unforgiving, and demanding sport. I wanted to find out what kind of person would commit to something that punishes you, asks so much of you, and gives so little (ostensibly) back.
When you did go to North Dakota, how did it feel stepping into the setting of the book?
I went during the summer of 2016, after the book had sold. It was a strange experience driving on the highway that Stephen runs on in the book. I went past Egg Lake, where he hides an incriminating object, and passed all the massive, flat fields where he wanders off. By that point in time I was in the editing stage, and basically had the whole book memorized, but there was definitely this weird vertiginous perspective shift, like maybe the book wasn’t exactly the way I’d remembered it. But the whole book’s made up, of course, so I enjoyed seeing how my made up nonsense matched up against the real thing. I went not really expecting to change much, if anything; if I had arrived in North Dakota and said, “Oh, God, this is all wrong!” my editor, Chris, probably wouldn’t have been too happy.
The writing style echoes Stephen’s mental state as the book goes on. At one point, the sections become shorter and leaner, and it feels like he’s unraveling. It reminded me of how I start to feel when I’ve been in a room by myself, writing for too long. Was it tough to get into that mindset while writing this narrative?
Writing the first draft weirdly reflected the book itself. The book takes place over one season; it took me a little over a year to write it. Most days I’d come home from work and write until I couldn’t, which was only a few hours a day, sometimes more, sometimes less. Stephen’s voice is the main engine of the book, so sometimes that momentum would carry me very late into the night, other times he’d exhaust me in twenty minutes. I would think in his voice. Something in his voice would pop into my head in the middle of the night, and I’d get up and open my computer (which I never turned off, for this exact reason), and write. I’d go for long runs at night and listen to music and stop and type a word, phrase, or sometimes a whole paragraph into my phone, standing on a sidewalk.
When I sat down in earnest to start the first draft I already had Stephen’s voice in my head. By the time the book is hitting the climax, Stephen is running on fumes, and so was I.
Stephen is an orphan in all senses, cut off from the world. He’s part of the wrestling team, but he’s only in it for his own victory, and his parents have both passed away, so he has no family. He exists in this vacuum of ambition. What does this isolation give him? Does the singularity of his focus help or hinder him?
I love stories of single-minded obsession. There Will Be Blood and Remainder by Tom McCarthy are two favorites of mine. Obsession is just taking human want to its furthest point, and you see in both There Will Be Blood and Remainder that the monomaniacal protagonists become less human (though you could argue that the unnamed narrator of Remainder is sort of sociopathically blanked out from the book’s outset, possibly thanks to the object that falls on his head). It’s fun to take a character to the edge and see what happens.
Stephen’s obsession comes at the expense of things like relationships and free time, but unlike Daniel Plainview and the narrator of Remainder, he’s a bit torn over desiring “normal” things. He has a couple of meaningful relationships during the course of the book, but in different ways they clash against his wrestling ambition, which has so fundamentally morphed his psyche that he views and understands “normal things” at a remove, almost like a robot or alien would.
And when he talks about himself, it almost always sounds like he’s describing an object, or machine—something non-human very far from himself. Do you think this is common in people whose bodies are their ‘instruments’?
Stephen thinks in terms of what he will accomplish, and his body is, as you point out, the machine or tool that he uses to accomplish his goal: winning the championship. It’s the same thing as a mechanic selecting the right wrench.
During the most physical sequences like the matches and the practices, he’s acting and reacting on a subconscious level, so the disassociation or disembodiment is even further notched up. But at the same time, Stephen’s put the work in; he knows what he’s doing, he’ll have the move in his head an instant before striking–it’s instant recall. It’s just that by the time you notice–if you notice–it’s already two or three moves later.
LeBron James is my hero and one of the greatest passers in NBA history, and during an interview he said he knows where his teammates like to receive his passes, depending on their particular shooting motion and preference: “I’ve seen where he likes the ball, how he likes the ball, if he likes it low, if he likes it high, if he likes it seams, no seams,” James said. When you’re watching a game, you don’t notice this stuff, unless you’re specifically looking for it.
After seeing his extreme passion for wrestling, I was surprised when we learned the reason for Stephen becoming a wrestler was kind of a throwaway — his best friend from childhood, Bird, ended up leaving their hometown, and Stephen had nothing else to do.
His friendship with Bird isn’t revealed until later (Stephen has a tough time expressing things that make him emotional, including to the reader), but it’s the first time he feels abandoned. As his life progresses, he’s left behind by a number of people that are important to him, but I think that first time with Bird changes something in him, turns him inward for the first time and teaches him that at life’s most basic level, you can only rely on yourself. So he starts wrestling, which gives him a shield because it’s a space where the only person he has to depend on is himself.
Stephen is obsessed with the idea of winning and victory. But like most feelings, glory is fleeting. I think when you reach a milestone, it’s hard to reconcile how it feels with how you thought it would feel. It probably applies to writing—when you finished or sold your book, did it feel the way you always thought it would?
I certainly put a lot of my own frustrations into the book. I hope the book is messy and living and contradictory and jarring because I wanted it to feel like what I put into it. The parallels you note between wrestling and writing are on point. With both you are working tirelessly for interminable periods of time. You deal with losses in wrestling and rejections in writing. With anything that you commit to fully, there are going to be moments of doubt and questioning why you’re spending so much of your time on something that can make you so miserable. And with both writing and wrestling, it’s for those few moments when it all comes together, when you somehow get it right, whether it’s executing a perfect sequence leading to a pin or writing a sentence that seems to materialize on the page through someone beyond yourself.