For many years, Matt Wallace
was a pro-wrestler. It shows when you see him speak. He’s got a big personality, finely honed showmanship, and an imposing stature that makes for an instant fan favourite. But Wallace left behind his patent leather gloves for a different sort of storytelling several years ago, and Astrolabe readers likely know his fantasy books—ranging from the dark humour of his Sin du Jour
novellas to the out-and-out epic fantasy of Savage Legion
—or his work on the Ditch Diggers
podcast with Mur Lafferty. But more recently a brand new audience is discovering Wallace’s work thanks to his newest book, Bump
is the first middle-grade book for Wallace after years as an adult fiction writer. I caught up with him to talk about what it’s like to write for kids, wrestling, and the unique value of found family.
“I like to keep my readers guessing,” Wallace told me when I expressed surprise at seeing him release a middle-grade book. “It’s not what I normally expect from me either. Through a very random series of happenstance and acts of vengeance, I discovered I have a pretty good voice for middle-grade fiction and really enjoy writing in it.”
Wallace doesn’t have children, but he’s got four nieces and a nephew, all of who provided a lot of inspiration for Bump, along with his personal memories as a kid at a pro-wrestling school. “I started wrestling in my very early teens, so I had a lot of childhood memories of this very specific, very obscure environment very few people really know anything about.”
Given their shared background, I asked Wallace whether he thought his younger self would be friends or rivals with Bump‘s protagonist, a middle school outcast named MJ. The answer turned out to be more complicated than I expected. “Young Matt, especially around the age MJ is in Bump, was pretty terrified of other kids, especially girls. I think they certainly could’ve used each other’s friendship, and would’ve bonded over their shared love of wrestling and inability to connect with other kids and make friends.”
MJ knows what it means to hurt. Bruises from gymnastics heal, but big hurts—like her dad not being around anymore—don’t go away. Now her mom needs to work two jobs, and MJ doesn’t have friends at school to lean on.
There is only one thing MJ loves: the world of professional wrestling. She especially idolizes the luchadores and the stories they tell in the ring. When MJ learns that her neighbor, Mr. Arellano, runs a wrestling school, she has a new mission in life: join the school, train hard, and become a wrestler.
But trouble lies ahead. After wrestling in a showcase event, MJ attracts the attention of Mr. Arellano’s enemy at the State Athletic Commission. There are threats to shut the school down, putting MJ’s new home—and the community that welcomed her—at risk. What can MJ do to save her new family?
Many people, myself included, think of wrestling as a predominantly male sport, especially pro-wrestling, but Wallace created MJ specifically because he wanted his niece and other girls to see themselves in a wrestling book. So, what does Wallace want them to take away from Bump?
“That they have and deserve a place in spaces that haven’t always included them, like pro-wrestling,” he said, “even if they have to fight for that place. That their feelings are valid and important and need to be given breath and attention. And hopefully that wrestling is cool.”
Though Wallace’s past fiction has been written for adults, he had his sights set solely on kids for Bump. I’m reading it right now and enjoying the heck out of it, but that’s happy coincidence, he told me. “I honestly wasn’t thinking about adults reading Bump when I wrote it. I was only thinking about kids around MJ’s age, and how to best connect with and speak to them.”
Though he wrote it specifically for kids, Wallace expects adult readers will take a lot away from the book “because simply by the math most adults have lost and grieved more than most 12-year-old kids.”
Wallace found a unique honesty in writing middle-grade fiction, which he hopes to bring back to his adult fiction. “There is less language to hide behind,” he said. “You can’t assume as much from your audience, not in terms of knowledge or intelligence, because kids are blazingly sharp, but in terms of references and everyday life experience. You have to strip down concepts to their essentials more. I think there is a lot of value there, to all kinds of fiction writing.”
But writing for kids isn’t some sort of cheat code, Wallace told me when I asked if he had advice for people wanting to get into writing middle-grade fiction. “Do it because you have a story you want to tell young readers, and write that story for them. Don’t do it because you think it will be more marketable or somehow easier than writing adult fiction. It’s not.”
Wallace is hard at work on an unannounced middle-grade follow-up to Bump.
“It’s completely different from anything I’ve ever written, even Bump
, and probably even more personal.” But before that, his 2020 epic fantasy, Savage Legion
, is about to hit paperback, and the sequel, Savage Bounty
is just around the corner, coming in Summer 2021 from Saga Press.