Gabe Habash's debut novel, Stephen Florida
, begins: “My mother had two placentas and I was living off both of them. I was supposed to have a twin. When the doctor yanked me out, he said, ‘There's a good chance this child will be quite strong.’ This is the story my parents always told me, but I never really believed it.” Stephen is strong, in fact — he's a wrestler for a small college in North Dakota — but he's been plagued by loss throughout his life; his parents were killed in a car crash, and his beloved grandmother died not long ago. Stephen is one of the more exceptional characters in recent literature, and his voice, as he tries to move forward through his tightly circumscribed life, is both haunting and hilarious. Garth Greenwell, author of What Belongs to You
, raves “Stephen Florida
is an unforgettable addition to the canon of great literary eccentrics. At once a chronicle of obsession, a philosophical treatise, and a deeply affecting love story, this singular novel is perhaps most profoundly an anatomy of American loneliness. Gabe Habash is a writer of powerful gifts, and this is a wonderful book.” We agree — Gabe Habash is an extraordinary new talent, and we're excited to choose Stephen Florida
as Volume 67 of Indiespensable
: What was the genesis of Stephen Florida
: That's an impossible question to answer [laughter
]. It's a combination of a lot of factors.
I was interested in writing a book about obsession, and I've always liked books and movies and stories in general about monomaniacally obsessed characters. There Will Be Blood
is one of my favorite movies. Remainder
by Tom McCarthy is one of my favorite books because the narrator is similarly obsessed the way that my narrator is.
I was interested in that, and then, I was never a wrestler, but I was always intrigued by how demanding and punishing and unforgiving it is, and how it's not exactly marginalized, but it doesn't have the same exposure that sports like football and baseball and basketball do. I thought that someone who would be willing to commit to something that was that unforgiving — that was a perspective worth exploring.
Another interest of mine is empty spaces. I live in New York, which is the opposite, so I like to think of things that are outside of my own experience as much as possible. Otherwise I get bored when I write. I thought of the most empty, expansive place I could think of. That's how I settled on North Dakota.
So there was this amalgamation of a lot of different things that fit together in a way that made sense to me. The structure of the book follows his senior season, so that was a very straightforward trajectory to structure the story around. The emotional aspects, his depression and things of that nature, were a little bit more personal. It was just a matter of finding a container for those aspects and fictionalizing them adequately.
: I think it's surprising that you don't have experience with wrestling. It's such a central part of the book, and it feels absolutely realistic. Did you do a lot of research for it? Did you experiment with wrestling at all during the course of the book?
: I went outside and asked random strangers, like in Fight Club
, if they wanted to wrestle me right there. [Laughter
No, I didn't read that much. I actually spent a lot of time on the Internet. I watched countless hours of YouTube videos. I watched match after match after match.
This is going back a little bit to my answer about how wrestling is outside of my own experience, because I need something to keep me interested in the subject. I think that helps me, because I was trying to describe something that I didn't fully understand, or understand to the extent that I had never experienced it firsthand.
I figured if I could describe a wrestling match from the first-person perspective of someone in the wrestling match, and I could understand it, then other people who had never wrestled before would be able to understand it as well.
I had to do enough research to get the verisimilitude, get the terminology, and make it believable. A family friend of mine is a former wrestler. He read the book and dotted the i's, crossed the t's, and cleaned up some of the things that I needed help on.
That was, I think, an advantage that I had, was coming at it from a new angle, and being forced to find a vocabulary for it.
I thought that someone who would be willing to commit to something that was that unforgiving — that was a perspective worth exploring.
: At one point, Stephen was talking about wrestling turning him back into himself as a baby. I thought that was a fascinating comparison and observation, that it was you at your most frustrated self, unable to make things what you wanted them to be.
: Right. In another interview, someone asked me about what it is about wrestling that Stephen's drawn to. And I do think it's that. It is a set dimensional circle that he can go into.
He's such a control freak and so obsessive. So many other aspects of his life are in shambles. His parents are dead, and he's in his senior season. He doesn't really have a plan of what he's going to do after he graduates. He doesn't really have any meaningful human relationships.
The wrestling mat is a place where he can try to construct things in the way that he wants them to be. It's all about his having control over the situation.
: The first page is amazing. As an introduction, and just as the beginning of the book, I think it might be one of the strongest first pages I have read. Was that always the way it began?
: Yes. The way that I write — I have big spaces between when I'll start something. I have to get all of my ducks in a row before I will step out and start the first draft. That's all to say that I had his voice in my head and ready to go when I sat down and typed the first page. From there, I wrote the book, the first draft, in 15 months or so.
It was a little bit over a year, which is relatively quick, at least for me. That was attributed to the fact that I had his voice. Even from that first page, up through the end, that was a part of the book that had already been ready and established to go as I sat down to do it.
Yeah, the first page just sort of fell out. [Laughter
: That is one of the great strengths of the book, that voice. It's really what drew me into the character and the rest of the book.
Do you think his voice changed at all as the book went on? It felt to me like it was opening up a little bit, as his character did, maybe loosening some of that control slightly.
: That's a really good question and something that I don't know if I could actually answer accurately, because the book, again, was written over an extended period of time. Then through all of the X
number of rounds of revision — my agent looked at it, my wife looked at it, my editor looked at it.
It'd gone through so many permutations or mutations that I'm sure it did change. Aspects of the book that are in the finished version were written in the first draft, but there are huge swaths of it that were added in later. I do think that, chronologically, as you go through the book, I would hope it does change a little bit.
He is a bull-headed person and stuck in the interior of his mind about as forcefully as you can be. I do think that through the experiences that he has — not to give anything away with the story — those add to his perspective by the end of the book, for sure.
: Part of his voice, or his narration, are these little tossed-off philosophical asides all the time that are frequently quite insightful — he's very self-aware but only in certain directions, or self-aware but unable to actually change anything, at least initially.
: Barry Hannah
, who's one of my favorite writers, actually has a really good quote about first-person narration and why he prefers it over third person. It had something to do with how third person lends itself to wisdom he felt he hadn't earned yet.
With first person, all you have to worry about is a fool bumbling through the story, and just blasting through the scenery with what little information he has, which I think is a really smart thought.
Stephen has a number of shortcomings. The limitations of first person, I think, naturally lend themselves to the limits of Stephen's perspective. Then, like you pointed out, his voice does change as he accrues useless knowledge in his classes, or has a romantic relationship with another character, and opens his brain up a little bit. He's still a very weird and strange person.
I think that the physicality of the book goes a long way in establishing the balance between the exterior of Stephen's world and the interior of his brain.
: Yes. [Laughter
] The romantic relationship is wonderful. Mary Beth's character is fantastic. You really make the reader believe in and fall in love with her. She's a great match for Stephen, which almost seems like an impossibility when you're first meeting him, but then there she is. How did you think about her character?
: That's a really good question. I guess I thought about all of the different characters of the book in terms of what they would reveal about Stephen, since it's all through his perspective. I felt more freedom, paradoxically, because I was so limited to his perspective. Everything in the book was in relation to him. I knew that he was going to have that relationship, and I knew he has another similarly very close relationship with another wrestler on the team, Linus.
I don't really know how I thought about the relationships. I guess I thought about them in the same way that I thought about a lot of other aspects in the book, which is that I just went blindly into where they were going to take me.
Again, related to not being bored when I write, I like to be able to figure stuff out on the fly. I know it can sound a little bit precious sometimes when writers say that the character has led them, or whatever they say. But in a lot of instances where the particulars of the conversations between Mary Beth and Stephen go, that was just written as I was going.
I think that maybe subconsciously, I did that because Stephen himself does things so by-the-seat-of-his-pants that it felt authentic to replicate that mind frame. They just were free-styled, for lack of a better term.
I felt that if I were surprised by where the relationships were going, then hopefully the reader would get a sense of that as well.
: Early on in the book, Stephen's talking about wrestling practice, but really everything, and he says, "I believe that the more time you spend thinking about what the fuck you're doing here is in direct proportion to your worseness. If you just buy into the craziness, you're a lot better off."
I was wondering if you thought that applied to writing in the same way. It sounds similar to what you're talking about.
: I think that I approached the book in this very loose — I had the structure in mind, I had the characters in mind, and I had an ending in mind. The book ended up, in its longest iteration, at about 150,000 words. The final version is about 50,000 words shorter.
A full third of the book — it was over 500 pages in my Word doc — was just deleted. That was a lot of little side journeys that he took. The natural product of writing the way that I approached the book is that you're going to get a lot of things that don't necessarily pay off, aren't needed, or aren't necessary.
That's where the people who helped me edit the book really elevated the book, because they were able to point out those things. I was so stuck in my head, like Stephen in that sense, that I needed outside perspectives to show me where the false trails or dead ends were.
So much of the book itself is Stephen's frustration at where things are and how he intended them to go, versus the reality not measuring up to that.
: Even though Stephen is, in most ways, trying to be so tightly controlled, by the end of the book, it reminded me how young he was when he did keep doing unexpected things, things that did open up the possibilities of his life, even though they were within his channels of what he was trying to make happen, like stealing a truck. It cemented that it is still, in a way, a coming-of-age story.
: That's a really good point. I'm glad that came through. That was a dichotomy I wanted because he is a senior and there are a lot of ways he's a mentor to Linus, who is an incoming freshman and is just starting. He has that mentor/paternal relationship with his teammate.
But at the same time, he has been so sheltered in going to a small school to just wrestle and put the other things in his life on the back burner. Then he's going to be forced to face them and figure out what he's going to do with his life when he is done with the season.
I'm glad that that came through, that his acting out reaches a crescendo as he becomes aware that his time is running short.
: You've talked about Linus a bit, and I wanted to let you know that I really loved Stephen’s relationship with him. It's really touching. Their chemistry and how their relationship changes through the course of the book is really, really well done.
: Thank you.
: How did the Silas thread come into it, I was just curious?
: The Silas thread is I guess one of the obstacles; I would lump Silas in with the other antagonists in the book that he comes up against.
So to give a bit of context, Silas is a jazz professor at Stephen's college who may or may not have murdered his wife. The circumstances are very hazy. Mary Beth, who Stephen begins a relationship with during the course of the book, is obsessed with Silas and figuring out if he did it. Because she can't accept the fact that if he did do it — which she thinks he probably did — he got away with it. He's still allowed to live his normal life and teach in the school.
What I wanted to have with the Silas character is this transmutation where Mary Beth's crusade to figure out what is going on with Silas is passed onto Stephen during the course of the book. Her crusade — for lack of a better term — becomes his. I wanted that to be his maybe possibly misguided, but also touching, way of fighting for Mary Beth. I also wanted there to be this eeriness and general pervasion of dread, and a sense that something really bad has been happening or could happen in this part of the country.
Silas is one, or maybe not, part of this vague nimbus cloud that's floating around the campus that may or may not be real or not [laughter
]. I know that's how a politician would answer something.
: I think that that feels accurate.
There's been a ton of loss in Stephen's life, which can be heartbreaking and poignant. But the book is also funny as hell. How did you think about the tone overall?
: I'm really glad you asked me that because no one has yet. This gives me an opportunity to talk about how important I think humor is in fiction, and how much you can get away with if you… Obviously, humor is very subjective. Just because someone finds something funny doesn't mean anybody else will, but I do think that there is an aspect of humor that acknowledges to the reader that you as the writer are not taking this that seriously.
Me, I really love that. Some of my favorite writers are funny. If you were to boil this not-taking-yourself-too-seriously mentality down to a single term, and that term is humor, that's some of my favorite writers.
My love of reading is very close to my love of writing.
, who is a master of the dread and ominousness that I mentioned I was trying to capture, is also extremely funny. Vladimir Nabokov
is one of my favorite writers. He is very funny. Barry Hannah is probably the funniest writer who's ever lived, in my opinion. Lorrie Moore
is very funny.
There are a lot of dick and fart jokes in my book, but it doesn't have to be that type of humor. It could just be the sense of the ridiculousness of the world that you're trying to capture. I was making myself laugh when I was writing it, but obviously, not everybody finds dick and fart jokes funny. I'm glad you did. [Laughter
Even if you don't, hopefully that element of the book and Stephen's voice goes a certain distance in making you willing to follow where he's going. Books and other forms of storytelling, like movies, that take themselves so seriously — I have nothing against those, but that's not the type of story I wanted to tell.
: In line with the dick and fart jokes — although I did think other parts of it were funny, too — it's a very physical book. There's a lot of corporeal imagery. There are a lot of fluids. There are a lot of bodies. What interested you about that level of the story?
: I felt that that was a natural element of someone who is a wrestler, if your entire stock and trade is putting your hands on things and interacting with them in a physical way. I felt that that was an essential part of what Stephen's day-to-day life would consist of.
There's one part of the book where I think he's hiding from some students at night on the campus. He starts putting his mouth on a column. It's a part of the architecture of a building. It's very strange, but it felt like something that someone who is consistently touching things in his day-to-day life, as part of the thing he cares about the most, would do.
On a storytelling level, so much of the book is very interior. That was something that I worked to balance out with as many exterior elements as possible. Whether that be dialogue or anything that puts you outside of the core of Stephen's brain, I think, helps balance how much of that you do get in the book. I think that the physicality of the book goes a long way in establishing the balance between the exterior of Stephen's world and the interior of his brain.
: Your language is extraordinary — there are so many little examples, like when Stephen's describing Fink talking as "like he's rolling a roll of toilet paper out of his mouth." How did you think about the book on a language level?
: When I was writing the book, a lot of the book is told in this fragmentary way, and literally becomes fragmented as the book goes along. A really big influence on the book in that regard is this novel that came out by Lindsay Hill, who actually used to live in Portland. It's called Sea of Hooks
. It was published by a really small press.
: I've heard amazing things about that book.
: It changed my life. It really did. That book does a similar thing, where it has these titled fragment sections, and they jump around in time. I had obviously read things that were written structurally that way before, but Lindsay Hill’s book was this crystallization of the possibility of how you could use a fragmentary structure.
When I started my book, I knew that his voice was going to be very discursive, conversational, and jump around a lot. That, I think, naturally lends itself to these language tics, because he is so scattershot that he's observing one thing, and then another. That creates a frequency that builds up as the book goes.
In terms of writing them, when I was writing the first draft, I would go for runs outside with my phone. I would stop if a phrase or a sentence would pop into my head, and sometimes whole paragraphs would come out. I would stop running and stand there on the street, and just type it into my phone as a text message to myself.
Or I would be lying in bed at one or two in the morning. Again, some phrase would pop into my head, and I would go over to my computer, and type it into the Word doc. The way that the first Word doc was, is it was the actual text of the book and then just dozens and dozens of these little fragment sentences and phrases.
I incorporated them as I went. There's a very piecemeal feel to that, I think, because his brain is so scattershot.
: That's interesting. I don't think I've ever heard anybody else describe doing that in their writing process.
: I interviewed Lindsay Hill for Sea of Hooks
, because I work at Publishers Weekly
. That was one of the first books that I read when I started in fiction reviews.
He's a poet, and he talked about how he wrote it over 20 years. It was just this magpie collecting all these little things that he joined together. It's an incredible book. It's really amazing.
: How do you think being the fiction reviews editor at Publishers Weekly
has affected your writing, if at all?
: It's a hard question to answer, because I see literally everything. I do general fiction, so basically any fiction book that doesn't count as genre. I don't do mysteries, sci-fi, or romance. I see everything that publishers choose to submit to Publishers Weekly
, which is basically every book.
I don't know if I would have ever discovered Sea of Hooks
if it weren't for the job. In that sense, I'm really grateful, because I am getting exposed to things that I probably or maybe wouldn't otherwise. That's, I think, the real value of the job.
I think I'm able to separate them. I don't think of the publishing world in relation to my book, or my role as a writer versus my role as an editor in the publishing industry. Those things don't feel anywhere close to each other.
I do have the job because I love books. My love of reading is very close to my love of writing. In that sense, the two will sometimes become closer — when I discover something that particularly moves me, surprises me, or something that I wouldn't have otherwise found.
I spoke to Gabe Habash on Tuesday, May 2, 2017.