The Nonfiction editors, Rappahannock Review: What’s your favorite wrestling match and why?
Michael Chin: My personal favorite would be a match between The Ultimate Warrior and Randy Savage from 1991, that happened at WrestleMania 7. As an athletic endeavor, it’s a good one but at times clunky exhibition. From a young age, however, I appreciated this match for its sense of drama and holistic storytelling. It was two of the biggest megastars of my young life battling for the first time, yes, but the stakes had also gone up because their (fictional) rivalry was so heated that they agreed to the stipulation that the loser would have to retire from wrestling. It was the first time I had encountered that wrestling trope, and I remember that it just seemed mind-blowingly epic at the time. Early in the match, the camera cut to Savage’s estranged romantic partner/manager, Elizabeth, in the crowd, who had ostensibly returned to quietly support him. Savage had spent most of his career with her, more often than not playing the part of jealous, over-protective prick to her saintly act. Long story short, after the emotional match ended decisively and Savage had lost, Elizabeth came to the ring and the two of them had a tearful reunion before riding off into the sunset. In retrospect, I think this match spoke to me then and speaks to me now because it embodies a lot of my instincts as a writer/reader/consumer of media. The story of Warrior and Savage coming to blows after three years of coexisting, and the story of Savage and Elizabeth reconciling after over five years of a nationally broadcasted tumultuous relationship suggested both careful, long-term plotting and a suggestion that everything these performers had done over the last five years mattered. To connect this match to my essay, “The Leo Burke Finish,” one of my biggest concerns was making sure that in an essay with a lot of moving parts that wove together a lot of superficially disparate material, I was making the connections clear and that I’d cut anything that wasn’t essential to the over-arching narrative/exploration.
RR: In “The Leo Burke Finish”, you tie together wrestling, death, and your fiancée. What drove you to weave these into a braided essay?
MC: I had been reading a lot of Maggie Nelson when I first drafted this essay (in particular Bluets and The Argonauts). While the concept isn’t uniquely hers, I’d argue she’s one of the most successful, and certainly the most personally influential writer when it comes to proving nothing happens in a vacuum, and that both the world and its literature are much more interesting when we acknowledge that fact. As anyone who reads “The Leo Burke Finish” will surely recognize, wrestling is integral to my life. I had a friend and old workshop partner who had watched wrestling as a teenager and may have said it best–when you’re invested in this world, you don’t so much watch it as live it, because this particular brand of entertainment, for its genre-bending qualities (is it a sport? a reality show? complete fiction?) all but demands immersion from its true fans. And so, when I was was falling in love my (now) wife and when she was falling in love with me, it was inevitable that wrestling would be an accessory to and lens through which to view our relationship. Sometimes it was subtle, like understanding I wanted a Sunday night to myself to eat tacos and watch The Royal Rumble. Sometimes it was more overt like when I brought her along to watch WrestleMania live at a stadium. Love, family, death–they’re all a part of life, and in telling a sweeping, braided story of my life, it only felt natural for wrestling to take its prominent place in that mix.
RR: The kayfabe-reality spectrum leads to an interesting conundrum in what is fiction and what is reality. As a writer as well a wrestling fan, how does this spectrum interact with writing and nonfiction for you?
MC: I came to writing non-fiction after fiction and poetry, as sort of a final frontier. I think one of the keys to me accessing it was recognizing that not everything had to be strictly true. That’s something that professional wrestling–performed and plotted at the highest level–fundamentally understands. If you were to consume a professional wrestling match as if it were actual fight, it would more often than not be a complete farce. Why would a wrestler pause between big moves to pose? And wouldn’t professionals have scouted all of each other’s signature moves and planned for how to block or counter them? No, a great professional wrestling match is an artistic representation of a fight, used to tell a story. So, we suspend our disbelief where necessary and give ourselves over to the story because we know that we’re going to enjoy the story better that way. Or at least I and my fellow fans do. To a cynic, wrestling will remain adults play-fighting in spandex. Non-fiction has its similarities. For example, at a high school dance my senior year, I performed a lip sync routine to Madonna’s “Like a Prayer” (another story for another time/essay). In my mind that performance was and will always be awesome for all of its dramatic interpretation and my audacity at being the nerdy, quiet kid who busted out this off-the-wall performance. Something tells me if video tape of this performance existed, the footage would not be as great as I remembered. I have friends who told me I was great; I have another friend who remembers that night and that he didn’t think my performance was great at all. Who’s right? How could a video tape be wrong? To me, this is where creative non-fiction is so potent–because reality is shaped by not only what was but who perceived it when and how, and its broader context. It’s the same reason why plenty of wrestling pundits would disagree with my thesis that Warrior-Savage was great. In their version of reality, maybe it wasn’t.
RR: You mention the Montreal Screwjob in your piece. How did this change your view of the kayfabe-reality spectrum?
MC: This is a heck of a question to answer on the heels of the last one. Complete honesty: when the Montreal Screwjob went down, I wasn’t regularly watching the WWF. Based on the cable deals at the time and what my family could afford/justify, we didn’t have any of the channels that included WWF programming, so while I watched their competitor, WCW, and still loosely followed the WWF stories via the guys at school and reading fledgling news reports on the still-new Internet, I didn’t really get Montreal until at least two or three years after it had happened. In the essay, I represent my and my father’s reactions to Montreal as more immediate and matter of fact, but truth be told, I don’t think I ever did talk to him about the Screwjob; I’m only basing his fictionalized reaction on what I can extrapolate from our non-fictional interactions (for the record, the bit about us arguing whether someone who interrupted a match was a plant is completely true). In terms of historical implications, though, Montreal is undeniably important as a watershed moment for wrestling and by extension how I watch it. Prior to it , no one on a wrestling show ever acknowledged that there was an external reality. Montreal was a truly post-modern, breaking-the-fourth-wall moment akin to a third-person short story suddenly going first-person so the author can directly address the reader in regards to the fictive moment she’s about to consume. For wrestling, this was a tremendous, genre-busting moment, the likes of which we really haven’t seen since (though plenty of wrestling promotions have since played at fictional versions of non-fictional moments of fiction–profoundly complicated stuff that has more often than not flopped).
RR: What are you working on now?
MC: My two main projects at the moment are a collection of linked flash fiction pieces about a small-time pro wrestler working the independent circuit, and a more traditional novel that explores the aftermath of a white police officer fatally shooting a black teenager in small town America. The former project is pretty far along, and individual pieces are starting to surface in various journals. For the latter, I have a draft, but it’s a long way from ready for public consumption!
“The Leo Burke Finish” appears in Rappahannock Review Issue 4.1.
Michael Chin was born and raised in Utica, New York and is a recent alum of Oregon State’s MFA Program. He won Bayou Magazine’s Jim Knudsen Editor’s Prize for fiction and has work published or forthcoming in journals including The Normal School, Passages North, Prairie Schooner online, and Bellevue Literary Review. He currently serves as a contributing editor for Moss. Find him online here and follow him on Twitter @miketchin.