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Author Interview

A Conversation with Katie Kitamura, Author of The Longshot


1. How did you become interested in mixed martial arts fighting?

I was introduced to fighting by my older brother, a tattoo artist who is friendly with (and has done tattoos on) a number of fighters. The first fight I saw—the rematch, for those who follow the sport, between Mirko Filipovic and Kevin Randleman—set something off. In that fight, a powerful narrative was communicated in incredibly economical terms (forty-one seconds, for the record). And I was captivated by the physicality of the fighters, the stories that were evoked in their bodies and movements.

I think I pretty much knew immediately that I wanted to write something about fighting, and my brother was a great guide to the sport. We’ve been to fights around the world together, watched and rewatched our favorite fights, endlessly debated the strengths and weaknesses of individual fighters. We’re pretty extravagantly different; while I was studying for a Ph.D. in American literature he was busy establishing himself as one of the top tattoo artists in the world. But fighting is something we’re both completely passionate about. He’s now had the word LONGSHOT tattooed on his knuckles, and that’s the cover image for the book. So the whole thing has come full circle in a really wonderful way.

2. Where did the inspiration for Cal and Riley come from? Are they based on anyone that you know?

The individual fighting styles and physical descriptions of Cal, Rivera and Luis are based on fighters that I met while researching the book. It was very useful to have a visual image of the characters while I was writing—in an odd way it helped clarify for me what the characters would or wouldn’t do.

I didn’t have a specific model for Riley, but in a lot of ways his character emerged as a foil and partner to Cal, so once I had a sense of Cal, it was quite easy to write Riley’s character.

3. Much of the intensity and tempo of The Longshot stems from the fact that it takes place over the course of only a few days. Did you ever consider telling a longer, more drawn-out story? Why did you choose to write it the way you did?

I always wanted to make the book as taut as possible, both in terms of style and structure; I wanted it to come as close as possible to the rhythm and feel of an actual fight. The device of focusing on a fixed period of time was fairly integral to the way I thought about the book from the very beginning.

Having said that, I did at one point consider a radically different structure, whereby the book would be split into two parts. The first half would be told from Cal and Riley’s perspective, the second from Rivera’s. I went so far as to write out an entirely different second half for the book, but in the end it didn’t work.

4. Did you intentionally leave it ambiguous as to whether Cal dies at the end? To your mind, did he die?

For me, concretely speaking, he doesn’t die—but it has been a question for quite a few people, and I’m happy for it to be ambiguous.

5. The events at the end of The Longshot are seriously disappointing, if not outright devastating. Did you ever have an alternate ending in mind, wherein Cal won? Or did you know from the start that Rivera was going to win?

It was initially an open question, but the further I got into the writing of the book, the more it seemed apparent that Cal couldn’t win, although there were plenty of moments when I wished he could!

6. You have a particular perspective on the athlete/trainer relationship—you go so far as to write, “A trainer was supposed to protect his fighter. . . . That was the promise. That was what kept a fighter and a trainer together.” (p. 144) Have you ever had a close relationship with a trainer, coach, or teacher?

I trained pretty seriously in classical ballet when I was younger, and I think that ended up informing a lot of the book. The idea of physical strain and discipline, the question of how and when you leave that life behind—they’re things I’m familiar with on one level or another. And, of course, the relationship with a trainer. It’s a relationship that is built on expectation, which is necessary but also rather dangerous.

7. In your capacity as a journalist, you have spent time in the world of MMA, traveling to California and Japan to watch fights and interview fighters. What is it like to watch a fight live? What are the fighters like outside of the ring?

The experience of watching a fight live is extraordinary. I have to confess that I experience it as an extreme form of anxiety. I end up having a completely irrational, emotional stake in the outcome of a fight—in that sense, I’m a shameless fan.

In total contrast, I’m amazed by how relaxed the fighters themselves are before a fight. Outside the ring they are a disparate group, but on the whole I found them to be smart, funny and extremely generous. They were very open about their experiences, which was useful in researching the book.

8. Are there certain MMA fighters that you admire? If so, can you tell us a little bit about them?

I pretty much admire anybody who has the discipline and the will to make a career out of fighting. It takes buckets of nerve. What struck me most was the incredibly public nature of what they were doing. The first fight I saw live, the fighter I was shadowing lost in front of a crowd of forty thousand people. The scale of that is staggering to me. Undergoing that overlap between something very personal and something very public strikes me as both admirable and also somewhat terrifying.

9. Despite the dangers involved, have you ever thought of stepping into the ring yourself? Or are you more comfortable on the sidelines?

No, absolutely not. I’m not one to probe my limitations.

10. What is next for you?

I’m working on my next book, and researching fish farms.

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