Gabe Habash’s Stephen Florida is a three-hundred page manic unraveling of the titular Stephen’s psyche, told over the course of one season of collegiate wrestling. In the opening pages, Stephen states his intentions in no ambiguous terms: he is going to win the NCAA Division Four wrestling championship. The novel is the fast-paced story of this obsession, but it’s also a study of all the bizarre places a young man’s mind will go when his mind thinks about the same thing all the time. We talked with Habash, who is the Fiction Reviews Editor for Publishers Weekly, about wrestling, about mania and about the sense of “anything can happen” permeating his novel.
The Rumpus: We’ll talk about wrestling and mania and bodily fluids later, but first I’m curious: why set this novel in North Dakota?
Gabe Habash: I’ve always been interested in empty spaces. So when I thought about what was the most remote, evocative place where I could set the book, I thought of North Dakota.
In North Dakota there is this big, open environment and that creates a full world of potential, like you can put anything in that space that you want. As opposed to if Stephen was wrestling in Division I and he went to a big wrestling powerhouse like Oklahoma State. That’s a very visible position to be in in the wrestling world. People pay attention to that. People are writing about that online. I wanted his goal to be his alone. He wrestles in Division IV, which actually isn’t even a division. It only goes to Division III. But if he were a very successful wrestler, or in Division I, or was the best in the country, the other elements of his character wouldn’t be the same.
I’d never been to North Dakota before I wrote the book. I’ve never wrestled, either. I needed to have enough elements that didn’t come from my own experience, otherwise, I’d have gotten bored. Writing about a sport that I’d never participated in and in a setting that I’d never been to was for me, as I wrote, a way to discover where the book went. And to not get bored in the process of trying to find that out.
Rumpus: Yes. This book is the opposite of boring. From the first page, there is truly this feeling that anything can happen. Stephen is wild and if I were his friend I would be worried but as his reader I’m hooked.
Habash: Yeah, the sense of “anything can happen” was definitely something I wanted. And in order to achieve that feeling I looked to people like Barry Hannah. Hannah is one of the best sentence writers that I’ve ever read. He’s one of the only sentence writers I can think of who can consistently start a sentence and you don’t know where it’s going to end. He’ll insert an image or his language will shift in a way that’s very surprising. And going back to what I said earlier about being bored, if I’m not surprising myself then I can’t convey that sense of surprise to the reader. I feel like I have to be as unsure of exactly what’s happening as I’m writing as the reader is down the line when they read it.
Rumpus: That ‘anything can happen’ feel definitely has a lot to do with Stephen’s mania. In those first ninenty or so pages there’s a real manic energy that’s just so much fun to read. Then at the end of the first section something happens—I’ll keep this spoiler free—and I remember thinking to myself, well, okay, so that was the manic Stephen and now we’ll calm down. I was bummed. I wanted that energy to sustain. Then I turned the page and kept reading and, never mind, I thought, he’s still manic.
Habash: On a story level, I was always interested in obsessive and monomaniacal protagonists.
So, I wanted to figure out why someone would commit themselves to one thing at the expense of a lot of other things others view as essentials, like family and free time. And wrestling has always been interesting to me because it’s one of the most demanding and unforgiving sports. I viewed the novel as a way to combine those two elements, obsession and wrestling.
Rumpus: There’s something about his single-mindedness that is fascinating, which is a bit paradoxical. You’d think someone who only has one goal would be a bit dull, when in fact everything that attends that single-mindedness can be fascinating.
Habash: It seemed like if you combined the thing that the character is good at and the thing that the character wants, i.e. wrestling, it would naturally lend itself to a propulsive story that, even if you’ve never watched a wrestling match in your life, you would still be able to get engaged in his story. The book has some very strange aspects to it, but from a structural standpoint it’s very straightforward. He says on page one what his goal is and the end of the book is whether he will or will not achieve that goal. It’s just his single season.
So the fact that I was writing about a character with a very direct trajectory allowed me to have all of these side elements that were just sort of peppered throughout and that the whole time, you know, you obviously have this very straightforward psychological viewpoint.
Rumpus: From the psychological to the physical, we have to talk about bodily fluids.
Habash: Yes, okay.
Rumpus: There’s a lot of pissing into places other than toilets. There’s some shitting out of windows. And my favorite is that no matter what happens he refuses to come.
Habash: Right. Yeah. I’ll talk about the shitting and the pissing first. So that was how I viewed his mentality, just as a very physical person by virtue of being a wrestler. A lot of what he does is very tactile. He’s always touching things. At one point in the book he hides behind a pillar and he puts his mouth on it. That might not be something you or I do in that situation, but it makes sense in the context of his character because he just has so much pent-up aggression and energy and he has no outlet for it, except for when he’s allowed to wrestle somebody else during practice or a match. Later, he’s talking about his shit because it’s during the middle of a tournament and he is convinced it gives him an energy boost.
So it’s all through the perspective of him being a very physical person, and that’s all necessitated by the fact that he’s just always thinking about wrestling. Pure and simple. He likes wrestling because it’s a place where he can impose his will and set his own rules and dictate the circumstances. To him wrestling is a circumscribed area where he can control and do what he wants to do in it. And the way that I viewed his rules about sex were his way of trying to impose that same restraint and control on another arena outside of wrestling.
Author photograph © Nina Subin.