Photo: Nina Subin
Sometimes an epigraph offers you a serving of Plato, some Ecclesiastes, or perhaps a few fine lines from an obscure Eastern European poet. To welcome readers into Stephen Florida, his first novel, Gabe Habash has picked these five words from Arnold Schwarzenegger: “The mind is the limit.” Sitting alone on a page, floating in negative space, they feel like a frightening prophecy.
Stephen Florida follows a college wrestler in his senior season. It is written as if the ghost of Laurence Sterne watched a lot of ESPN before returning to his desk. Stephen’s voice draws momentum from his attempts to leave a mark on the world. Like the voice in Tristram Shandy, it obsessively digresses from that central aim into ideas of human failure and misreading. We learn that even his name has its foundation in a mistake: Stephen Florida was supposed to be called Steven Forster. An unfortunate clerical error occurred.
Habash has a great eye for the ways in which our public identities and private insecurities are shaped by happenstance. Stephen Florida is full of vim and invention, good jokes and built-up bodies, unexpected sentences. He and I discussed his love of Barry Hannah and Roberto Bolaño, the common pitfalls of books about sport, and how frustrations with writing may have fed into his narrator’s preoccupation with completion.
What was it that drew you to write about wrestling in Stephen Florida, and held your interest? Are you a sports obsessive?
I really only love basketball. LeBron James is the greatest human being on the planet. But what drew me to wrestling was how demanding and unforgiving it is. It seems to exist in an adjacent world that not even other sports inhabit. Like other sports, wrestling can give you so much, but it seems to take more, to ask more of its participants. It was necessary for Stephen’s pursuit of a championship to exist in the periphery. He’s in the lowest division of college wrestling at a school in the middle of nowhere. I wanted readers to feel like they were watching something happen that no one else was paying attention to.
Are there sportswriters you admire? It’s a tricky thing, bringing wordless grace or mute power to life with words, and you do it unusually well.
I have a tough time with sportswriting because usually I’d prefer to just watch sports, whether it be narrative or a documentary. For example, the best basketball movie—and best sports movie in general—is Hoop Dreams. Compare that with something like The Breaks of the Game by David Halberstam, which is frequently cited as a classic basketball book.
The Breaks of the Game is good, but Hoop Dreams is just on a whole different level. And with a “sports” novel like End Zone by Don DeLillo, the most boring part of that whole book is the extended football game in the middle. So often, sportswriting starts to read like a screenplay without the dialogue—it’s just, “He does this, his opponent does that.” In film, you can get away with just showing the sport. Sports are inherently dramatic from a visual standpoint—you instantaneously absorb the athletic forces competing. But if you just try to transcribe that on the page, you’re dead. I knew that if I found that kind of writing boring, someone who wasn’t a sports fan definitely would, and the book would fail. So I tried to give it as much life as possible.
Was it important to you to try and capture a range of tones within the novel and battle against any temptation toward restraint or safety?
Well, I wanted there to be the sense that anything could happen. Stephen’s voice is the book’s engine. It’s unpredictable and kept me from ever being bored as I was writing. I started the first draft knowing where it would end and knowing the major points along the way, but frequently I wouldn’t know what would happen until it was happening. The sense of uncertainty was really important to me in the early stages. I hope the book never feels safe.
Why write a book? Is it, as your character Stephen says of his own daily grind, “to prove to yourself you can do it [and] to prove to everyone else you can do it”?
For me, that’s a part of it, yes. My reason for writing is different from yours and yours is different from someone else’s, but I think back to when I was writing the first draft. I was writing only for myself. I hadn’t shown it to anyone. It becomes this secret that relies on you to live. To me, that’s incredibly motivating. If you believe in and love the work, you feel like you can’t neglect it or it’ll fade into obscurity and eventually die. And you don’t want something you love to die, do you?
Are there the corpses of abandoned Gabe Habash novels lurking under this debut novel, and did they inform the story you eventually told?
Yes, definitely. As I was writing the book, it was often a container for my frustrations, both writing frustrations and broader frustrations. Stephen Florida would be very different or might not exist at all if there weren’t the failures beforehand. It’s the third novel I’ve completed. The first one was bad and I never tried to publish it. The second one was rejected thirty-seven times, and we never found anyone who wanted it. Stephen Florida was rejected thirty times. Coffee House was the only publisher who wanted it.
When I was writing this book, some of the motivation was frustration at the previous rejections, but it was also frustration with my shortcomings as a writer. I feel like most writers are frequent second-guessers to begin with, but the problem was exacerbated after no one wanted the second novel. And Stephen’s confidence in the novel sort of gets chipped away at—he starts the book very confident and arrogant but then as he approaches the end of the season and the uncertainty of what comes after, he becomes more doubtful. So I was able to incorporate a lot of what I felt about my writing into his story. It was helpful to have a container.
I’d like to ask you about mistakes. The idea of what it means to be mistaken, or unsure of the facts of any given matter, seems to recur throughout the novel. It’s there in your very first sentences—the idea that the narrator’s strength may be a kind of mistake, resulting from the fact he was supposed to have a twin. And even his name, Stephen Florida, is a fuckup. Was there something about the nature of chance, or error, that you wanted to explore in this novel?
Some of the instances of mistakes and chances weren’t conscious choices. The twin thing was not me thinking, Ha! This will nicely tie into my theme of mistakes! Writing a novel is a tangled ball of conscious and unconscious decisions. Sometimes you decide to write something just because it seems right and you don’t know why. And you’re writing a novel over a long period of time, so sometimes you won’t remember why you made a decision because it was fourteen months ago. But you are right that chance and error play a big part in the book. Without giving anything away, some pretty significant plot moments rely purely on chance.
What was the first scene or moment in the novel that you put down on paper? I wonder in particular whether the idea of the protagonist feeding off two placentas—cancelling out his twin—was always there at the start.
The opening of the book is the same as it always was, except for that very first paragraph about Stephen’s mother having two placentas. That came later after I read an article about Marshawn Lynch.
What excited you about the article?
I just knew when I read it. The idea that someone could have a mythology before they’ve even exited the womb—that the double placenta situation gave them Paul Bunyanish strength—and that that mythology comes from the mother herself, like the mother is the child’s hype person, I loved that. It’s so strange and specific.
Also, Stephen’s parents have died in a car accident by the time the narrative starts, and so much of the novel is about what Stephen is missing, so immediately, in the first sentence, it establishes Stephen’s connection to what he’s lost.
What have been a few of the books you’ve been obsessed with at different times in your life —in high school, in college, during your M.F.A., as a young editor at Publishers Weekly?
I didn’t really read in high school. I thought I wanted to make movies, so I was busy doing these goofball movies with my friends. Also, I played a lot of video games. I didn’t start reading until college. I think Sometimes a Great Notion was probably the first book that, you know, you say to yourself, Oh, okay, wow. I read All the King’s Men shortly after that and had a similar head explosion. Letters to Yesenin, 2666, Journey to the End of the Night, A Severed Head, Sweet Days of Discipline, This Boy’s Life, Revolutionary Road, Remainder, The Known World—I’m still obsessed with all those books.
Tell me a little about your process for revision. How heavily do you work over each page, and what’s the most difficult aspect for you?
As you get further into the revision and editing stage, you just get increasingly tired of the work, so it becomes increasingly easy to edit. By the end, you’ve hopefully minimized the amount of the work that causes repulsion and disgust in you. Then you feel better about letting it go and letting readers have it.
The structure for this book was fairly straightforward, so probably developing the characters was the most difficult aspect, especially the secondary characters. The book is first person and Stephen’s perspective is specific and distorted, so making the characters be able to stand up under the intense pressure of his voice was a challenge. Also, incorporating the wrestling aspect without bogging it down. I knew that needed to be relatively streamlined but also hold the weight of how much importance Stephen gives it.
This is often said without cause, but in your case holds true—your sentences often have an aural quality. Was it important for you that we should be able to hear the rhythms of Stephen’s voice as we read?
I’m not sure I can give a coherent answer to that. The “rhythm” of the sentences came from inhabiting Stephen’s voice. It’s like anything else you get overly familiar with—there’s less and less hesitation until it’s second nature. The sentences would just start spilling out and I wouldn’t worry about shaping them until the revision process.
I think maybe the biggest influence on the book on a sentence level is Barry Hannah. He’ll often begin sentences and you won’t know where they’ll end. They will take sudden and sharp turns and land on an unexpected image or thought. Airships is the best short-story collection I’ve ever read, and probably the most surprising, as well.
Is there a particular story of his that stays with you above others?
Ray is a masterpiece, and you could basically pick any story from Airships, but I’ll pick “Green Gets It.” I think part of what I love about Barry Hannah is you can’t really summarize his stories or his novels. They just sort of unspool in front of you, and you miss fundamentally important things just because the language stuns you. In “Green Gets It,” the main character, Quarles Green, repeatedly attempts suicide, but the first attempt, which is the opening of the story, is, “Unable to swim, he had maneuvered to fall off an old-timer’s party yacht in the Hudson River … He couldn’t swim. But he did. He learned how.” Green makes it to a dock by the end of the seventh sentence, and I don’t think I even realized that he was attempting suicide until a page or so later, when he tries again.
I’m not doing a good job selling the story, I know. But that’s because you don’t really read Hannah for plot. You read him for sentences that twist and shift and are surprising and beautiful and challenge what you think language can do. On the last page of the story, Green dies on an airplane. It says, “He sat there awhile and died.” I still haven’t gotten over how good that is.
Jonathan Lee’s novel High Dive, picked as a best book of 2016 by the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Chicago Tribune, and the Guardian, is now out in paperback from Vintage.
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