January 08, 2020

Chris McCormick

Suspension of disbelief
Interview by

Pro wrestling serves as a clever metaphor in Chris McCormick’s second novel, The Gimmicks, a complex exploration of fakery, authenticity, luck and survival.

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The answer to whether or not professional wrestling is scripted or authentic is complicated, with the protection of kayfabethe concept of maintaining the veracity of staged events—considered to be one of the sport’s highest tenets. If the wrestlers play along, then so does the audience—even when we know it’s an act. And isn’t this wild, sweaty show better when we all play along?

Pro wrestling serves as a clever metaphor in Chris McCormick’s second novel, The Gimmicks, a complex exploration of fakery, authenticity, luck and survival. It follows two cousins in the wake of the Armenian genocide as they search for their place in history and attempt to define the extent of their loyalty. While Ruben escapes to France and beyond, Avo becomes a pro wrestler in America. Mina, a mutual friend and love interest, enlists Terry, Avo’s manager, to help provide answers about the brothers’ whereabouts.

We reached out to McCormick, who’s an assistant professor at Minnesota State University, to hear more about this engaging tale.

What is your relationship to professional wrestling?
The title of the book comes from the wrestling term for the characters a wrestler portrays in the ring. I’m interested in the ways not only wrestlers but all of us perform different versions of ourselves. When pro wrestling is done well, it can play with those boundaries between authenticity and performance in ways I find fascinating. As a fiction writer, I find it useful to learn about my own capacities for suspension of disbelief, narrative justice and sheer storytelling joy. I grew up believing pro wrestling was real, and then I learned it was orchestrated. Now I know it’s both.

“I grew up believing pro wrestling was real, and then I learned it was orchestrated. Now I know it’s both.”

What was your process for researching pro wrestling and the Armenian genocide? Did you research your more tangential topics, like cat breeding and backgammon?
Although fictional, the novel is heavily researched and incorporates historical characters and events. Because my mother and my extended family immigrated from Armenia, I grew up learning about Armenian history. Researching the book, though, I needed more than my family’s accounts of the genocide and of the country. I read countless thousands of pages of history, including Ronald Grigor Suny’s remarkable contextualization of the late Ottoman Empire, “They Can Live in the Desert but Nowhere Else”: A History of the Armenian Genocide, and Michael J. Arlen’s classic personal journey to Soviet Armenia, Passage to Ararat. In addition to historical research, I traveled to Armenia myself.

Similarly, my understanding of the complex inner workings of the professional wrestling industry in the late 1970s and early 1980s, at the end of the so-called “territory days,” when wrestlers traveled the country to keep their gimmicks fresh to new audiences, required serious research. Chief among my sources were David Shoemaker’s book, The Squared Circle: Life, Death, and Professional Wrestling, and Scott Beekman’s Ringside: A History of Professional Wrestling in America. I’m also indebted to countless hours of “shoot” interviews online with current and former pro wrestlers, whose road stories influenced the voice and perspective of my novel’s old-school ambassador to the sport, Terry “Angel Hair” Krill.

The best part about writing a novel is that you get to use everything you’re interested in. Because I’d grown up watching the old Armenians in my family play backgammon at every gathering, I learned about the game and used it in the story. As for cat breeding, I can’t say I’m interested in it, but my character seemed to be, and I was curious about his interest. That’s where the internet comes in handy.

“Writing the book helped me map my own fluctuating hopefulness and fears, my own evolving capacity to suspend my disbelief in America.”

Describe your writing process. Specifically, how do you balance teaching and writing?
The balancing act can be stressful, but I find the attempt meaningful. When I’m teaching well—when my students and I are engaged in the turbulent fun of reading closely, when questions of craft and questions of meaning synthesize into multihearted conversations about human experiences—I find that my own writing improves, too. More controlled, my prose becomes paradoxically more adventurous; my characters contradict themselves more surprisingly, and they begin to interfere with the world as much as the world interferes with them. The big questions I find myself dramatizing in fiction—about performance and authenticity, about the costs and benefits of inherited identities—are treated both with more scrutiny and more generosity.

Same goes for the other way around. When I’m energized by a good stretch of writing, I feel better equipped to inspire and cultivate in my students a serious curiosity about the ways in which language can superimpose what’s missing onto what’s right in front of our eyes and expose our own messiest contradictions. There’s a contagious relationship between the enthusiasm my students and I bring to our reading and the energy we take home to our writing.

As for process, I focus more on consistency than efficiency. I write a little every day, and I don’t use an outline until the revision process. I need to spend a lot of time with my characters to see who I’m dealing with. What are they protecting, and why? What are they willing to give up to go on protecting it? Then I have to figure out the narrator’s attitude toward the story, the tone. With The Gimmicks, all of the above took me about two and a half years. Then came two and a half more years of working out the structure. Five years later, here we are!

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of The Gimmicks.

Who was the most difficult character to develop?
Inventing individual characters is relatively straightforward compared to developing convincing relationships between characters. Figuring out how and why my characters depended on one another, felt confined by one another, protected and/or betrayed one another—that took years of writing and revising. It became like a jigsaw puzzle: The individual pieces were important insofar as how their shapes—their emotional and psychological contours—allowed or disallowed their fitting together with the other pieces. Of course there’s a crucial difference between a puzzle and a novel: In a novel the conjoining pieces bend and stretch each other’s shapes over time, so that what once fit perfectly no longer does.

In the book, you write that the wrestling ring is the only place where men can take real care of each other. Do you agree?
That’s not me talking. That’s a man in the novel who, after a lifetime spent building protective barriers around himself, is finally grappling with his own failures to express his love for the men in his life. Reflecting on his decades in wrestling, he realizes that although the sport is a performance of violence between men, what’s actually happening in that ring is a profound and mutual tenderness.

How did the writing of this novel change you? Did it change your mind on anything?
Writing this book brought me to Armenia, literally and otherwise. I feel a deeper connection to my own origins. But the book became a reflection of my faith in my own country, too, and its future. The American dream—reinvention, meritocracy, blind justice—is a gimmick, a fiction that can only be made real if believed in and worked toward. Writing the book helped me map my own fluctuating hopefulness and fears, my own evolving capacity to suspend my disbelief in America.

What is your favorite scene in the book?
There’s a sequence at the Black Sea I like for its tonal range and movement. And I’m grateful that the ending, which came to me one day almost fully formed, still seems to me exactly right.

What’s something people might not know about Armenia?
There are 36 letters in the Armenian alphabet, which was invented in the early fifth century after millenia of Armenian as a spoken language. Although Armenian is famously unique—it belongs to its own independent branch of east Indo-European languages—the shapes of many Armenian letters were inspired by the shapes of letters in the Ethiopian alphabet. Ethiopians and Armenians looking at one another’s books might get confused, though: the sounds of the shared symbols have nothing in common.

Can you hint at any new projects you’re working on?
It’s too early to say, but music—classical and jazz, which I grew up playing (badly)—seems to be involved.


Author photo © Jenna Meacham.

Get the Book

The Gimmicks

The Gimmicks

By Chris McCormick
ISBN 9780062908568

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