Astrolabe (14): Transmission Received with Matt Wallace, author of Bump
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I'm pleased to share the full transcript of my interview with Matt Wallace, author of Bump. It was featured in Astrolabe 14: Writing for Kids with Matt Wallace, Time's Illusion, and Indians on Vacation.
How to take a hit with Matt Wallace, author of Bump
Aidan Moher: Matt! Welcome! So, a kids book, huh? That's a big departure from what readers normally expect from you.
Matt Wallace: I like to keep my readers guessing, which is why you can only buy my books in themed escape rooms after solving a series of no less than twenty-four puzzles. But no, 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.
AM: Bump's about wrestling, which you know very well considering you're a former professional wrestler, but it's also about kids and childhood. As far as I know, you don't have any kids of your own, so what'd you do to get in the headspace to write this book?
MW: A lot of it was drawing from my own experiences as a kid attending 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. The rest was me drawing from my nieces and my nephew, who are the kids I'm around the most in my life right now. I have four nieces, which is why I chose to make the protagonist, MJ, a young girl. I thought it would be cool for them to see themselves in the book, and for girls like them to see that, as well.
AM: Right. There are a lot of women in wrestling, but I expect most people think of the men who headline when they think of the sport. So I love that Bump's about a girl. Growing up with two brothers, physical play, wrestling, imaginative collaboration, and everything in between was super vital to our youth, and it's no different with my two girls now. What does wrestling teach kids, and how did this inform MJ's story?
MW: Pro-wrestling school for me, especially becoming pretty much my second home at such a formative age, was about figuring myself out through this process that was both physical and creative. It was the first place I learned to feel confident in myself, and it gave me a unique culture and a family to which I could belong. All of those things are part of MJ's journey, and they also help her deal with grief and isolation that are very unique to her situation in the story.
AM: I think a lot of us in SFF fandom can empathize with a story like that, and especially the value and healing in finding a community among other people who share our passions. How would MJ fit into SFF fandom? Would she be closing down bars at WorldCon? Writing anonymously on AO3?
MW: I definitely think MJ would discover and really dig books by authors like Zoraida Córdova, Jordan Ifueko, and Daniel José Older, and get into the fandom that way. Cons, and particularly cosplay, would probably appeal to her greatly. I could see her doing a lucha/SFF crossover cosplay of her own. There's always been a not insignificant amount of crossover between pro-wrestling and genre fandom. I remember pro-wrestling at Dragon*Con in the long-long ago when I attended such things. I'm not sure I see her as a writer, though. Or maybe I just don't want to because it feels too close to me. And she's already pretty close.
AM: Would MJ and young Matt be friends or rivals?
MW: 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. I honestly didn't have "rivals" at that age, unless you count the world at large. I really just wanted to have friends like other kids did, and didn't know how to reach out, or accept friendship. MJ has a lot of that, too.
AM: Communities often grow around passions, and I've noticed that a lot of your books involve things people are passionate about. Wrestling in Bump, food in the Sin du Jour series. Is this an intentional part of the Matt Wallace oeuvre, or just a natural extension of who you are?
MW: I think, like most writers, I write about and incorporate my own passions and my history into my stories. Cooking, pro-wrestling, martial arts, have all been a big part of my life and some of my most enduring passions. More than that though, I'm always fascinated by and attracted to the concept of found family and esoteric siblinghoods. I spent my teens and early 20's in pro-wrestling, which was still very much a carny trade and practically a secret society back then. So those two things collide in my stories a lot. People find their family in these very insular, niche communities and cultures.
AM: On first glance, a lot of people might think wrestling and writing novels are about as different as two crafts can be—but they're both very dependant on storytelling and pacing, characters you care about, and theatrical drama. How'd you find your way from one to the other?
MW: I always wrote. I wrote before I ever thought of actually trying to become a professional wrestler. Both appeal to me for the same reason. They are storytelling mediums. That's what pro-wrestling is, period. It's a form of storytelling. The stories can be very elaborate and nuanced and complex, or they can be as simple as two opponents both wanting to win a physical contest, but one of the key lessons I was taught when I trained was, with everything you do, always tell the story.
AM: Early in Bump, MJ recalls her wrestling coach instructing her that "bumping, especially taking bigger bumps than a simple fall backward, would be harder on her because there was so little padding over her bones, and it would get easier when she had more meat on her."
This felt like it was doing double duty to me—also revealing MJ's emotionally vulnerable "bones" and the padding wrestling provides to help her navigate her traumas, high school bullying, etc. What does Bump have to say about resiliency and getting stronger?
MW: I didn't want the sole lesson of the book and MJ's story to be learning that when you fall down you have to get back up. That's part of it, but it's more about learning you need a support system to help you confront and cope with your stronger emotions and trauma, like grief. You have to learn how to accept help from the people in your life who care about you, or from people outside your everyday life. MJ's pro-wrestling instructor is dealing with the same thing. He's lost his grandson, his sense of family and legacy, and rather than confront how he feels about that he's just going through the motions of the business and the craft that always see him through tough times in his life. Meeting and teaching MJ forces him to finally, really deal with all of that. They help each other. That's really what the story is about at its core.
AM: You mentioned your nieces earlier, who I'm guessing are the bulk of the people listed in the book's dedication. What do you want them to take away from Bump?
MW: That they have and deserve a place in spaces that haven't always included them, like pro-wrestling, 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.
AM: And what about their parents? How do you think the experience reading Bump changes between kids and adults?
MW: I don't know, really. 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. My wife read and enjoyed the book and it was extremely resonant for her, but there are also very personal things in there that are specific to our family. But I would think an adult reading it might take even more away from some of the themes in Bump because simply by the math most adults have lost and grieved more than most 12-year-old kids.
AM: You mentioned writing a middle-grade novel like Bump wasn't something you expected to work on as an adult fiction writer. How'd the project come about?
MW: My agent put me up for a work-for-hire gig writing a middle-grade novel based on this company's IP. The editor wanted to see endless "samples" from me for consideration. I hate writing anything like that for free for other people, ever, but this was a few years ago when my career was in a major slump and I was broke and really needed the job. So I did it. The process went on for weeks and weeks, and at the end of it, despite all these conversations and notes and praise from the editor, I didn't get the job. Which is fine. But it did tweak me and my agent. We also both agreed I had a pretty good voice for MG. So my agent suggested I come up with my own middle-grade novel we could sell on our own. The whole thing was really for spite more than anything in the beginning. It became much more than that, obviously, but not getting that job was a great motivator.
AM: So something good can come from petty spite after all? What'd you learn about writing for middle-grade audiences that you're going to bring forward to your adult fiction?
MW: There's an honesty to writing middle-grade fiction, I've found. There is less language to hide behind. 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.
AM: Do you have any advice for writers looking to get into writing middle-grade?
MW: 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. Absolutely have kids read your middle-grade manuscript, and get their perspective and thoughts on it. I feel like with MG and YA the actual intended audience gets lost or forgotten or ignored way too much of the time. I'm happy that Bump has been accessible for a lot of adults who've read it, but I didn't plan it that way, and I don't make that a focus or priority when writing a middle-grade novel.
AM: What books or other consumable media would you recommend for readers who love Bump?
MW: I would definitely stream the complete series of Lucha Underground, which I believe is currently on Tubi for free. It bridges lucha libre and American pro-wrestling and was a wonderful, innovative, truly different kind of wrestling show. I miss it. There are big nods to it in BUMP. I would also recommend the brilliant Sal and Gabi series of books by Carlos Hernandez, as well as Greg van Eekhout's Voyage of the Dogs and Cog. They're the books I read when I was figuring out how to write middle-grade fiction.
AM: What's next for you, Matt?
MW: I'm just about to head into copyedits on my next middle-grade novel with Katherine Tegen Books. It hasn't been announced yet, so I can't go into details, but I'm really excited about this one. It's completely different from anything I've ever written, even Bump, and probably even more personal. My adult epic fantasy novel Savage Legion, which came out last year, is about to release in paperback, and the follow-up, Savage Bounty, is coming out this summer from Saga Press. I'm taking a few months hiatus from the Ditch Diggers podcast I co-host with Mur Lafferty, but she'll be keeping it going strong in the interim, and I will check in with audio dispatches occasionally. I'm also considering learning to clog dance.
AM: Thanks so much for joining me, Matt!
MW: Thank you for having me! You do really great work in the space, and you've always been very supportive of my stuff, so it is an honor.
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