Monday, July 11, 2016

A Conversation with Chad Dundas about his debut Champion of the World

You all know I love debut authors so I'm pleased as punch to bring you a conversation with sportswriter turned author Chad Dundas about his debut novel Champion of the World, which releases tomorrow by Penguin Random House Publishers.

ISBN-13: 9780399176081
Publisher: Penguin Random House
Release Date: 07/12/2016
Length: 480pp
Buy It: B&N/Amazon/Kobo/IndieBound/Audible


In this stunning historical fiction debut set in the world of wrestling in the 1920s, a husband and wife are set adrift in a place where everyone has something to hide and not even the fights can be taken at face value.

Late summer, 1921: Disgraced former lightweight champion Pepper Van Dean has spent the past two years on the carnival circuit performing the dangerous “hangman’s drop” and taking on all comers in nightly challenge bouts. But when he and his cardsharp wife, Moira, are marooned in the wilds of Oregon, Pepper accepts an offer to return to the world of wrestling as a trainer for Garfield Taft, a down-and-out African American heavyweight contender in search of a comeback and a shot at the world title.
At the training camp in rural Montana, Pepper and Moira soon realize that nothing is what it seems: not Taft, the upcoming match, or the training facility itself. With nowhere to go and no options left, Pepper and Moira must carefully navigate the world of gangsters, bootlegging, and fixed competitions, in the hope that they can carve out a viable future.
A story of second chances and a sport at the cusp of major change, Champion of the World is a wonderful historical debut from a new talent in fiction.

A Conversation with Chad Dundas about

As a sportswriter and wrestling enthusiast, you were already familiar with the history of wrestling. What research did you need to conduct for the novel?
 Anytime you’re dealing with wrestling there are always going to be gray areas. That’s the nature of the beast when you’re looking into a history that for so many years was kept by carnival hucksters and conmen, who took so many steps to closely guard the truth.

I looked at a lot of old newspaper archives to gauge the kind of coverage wrestling was getting, to get a read on what the public’s expectations were for the sport’s legitimacy and when—if ever—that started to change.

And then there were a lot of general details of the time period that needed to be checked out. I sifted through train schedules and medical and military manuals and even some old menus to see what kind of food people might have been ordering in restaurants. Old newspapers are such great research tools. Just going back to look at vintage advertisements and newspaper stories tells you so much about how people lived, how much they paid for things, the fashions they wore, that kind of thing.

CHAMPION OF THE WORLD begins with your protagonist, Pepper Van Dean, doing an incredibly dangerous carnival act known as the Hangman’s Drop. How did you become familiar with that maneuver? How dangerous was it in real life?
 The hangman’s drop was a real performance act popularized by wrestler and trainer Martin “Farmer” Burns during the early 1900s. It’s impossible to know how much of it was a real feat of strength and how much was sleight of hand.

For Pepper’s trick, I took some liberties. The trick appears in the first chapter in the book, so the goal was to create a carnival act that would be engaging, wild and weird enough that once readers got through the first five or six pages of the book, they wouldn’t want to put it down.

What would you like people to know about the sport of wrestling as it existed in America a century ago? How does it compare to the types of events and matches we see today?
 Today, I don’t think many people conceive of a time when “professional wrestling” was a hard-nosed legitimate sport. At the turn of the last century, however, that was exactly the case and for years wrestling was an extremely popular spectator sport, both in America and abroad.

There were a litany of different styles and different rules, but the action was typically more varied and more violent than what we see in today’s legitimate amateur wrestling. The closest modern analogue is probably catch wrestling, Brazilian jiu jitsu or mixed martial arts fighting.

How did you get inside the head of Garfield Taft, a black fighter married to a white woman in the 1920s?
 A large portion of readers will probably notice the similarities between Garfield Taft and heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnson. After I made the decision to base a character in my novel on Johnson, I read Geoffrey C. Ward’s amazing book about him, Unforgivable Blackness—and watched the documentary Ken Burns made for PBS—and read some of Johnson’s own writing.

As with any character, I just wanted Taft to be a fully realized unique individual, not a symbol of anything larger or a “type” of any kind. He’s a character who has faced a lot of racial discrimination in his life, but he’s equally defined by the other aspects of his life—his status as a heavyweight wrestler, his complicated feelings for his wife, his guilt over past mistakes and his somewhat blind hope for the future.

References to real-life fighters like Frank Gotch are scattered throughout your book. Were any events in the novel inspired by real events in Gotch’s—or any other fighter’s—career?
 The ghost of Frank Gotch looms large over this whole book. During his heyday as world’s heavyweight champion, Gotch was probably as big a star as someone like Ty Cobb or Jack Dempsey, but his run was so fleeting. He won the world title in 1908, by 1913 he was retired and in 1917 he died after a sudden illness—rumors swirled that it was syphilis, but nobody knows for sure. So several aspects of Gotch’s life inform the experiences of both Pepper Van Dean and Garfield Taft.

I also took a lot of inspiration from the professional mixed martial arts fighters I’ve covered as a journalist the last few years. Many of those guys turn pro after careers as successful college or Olympic wrestlers and, as diverse a group as they are, many of them carry a little chip on their shoulder from one social interaction to the next. I tried to take that personality and turn it up to 11 for Pepper Van Dean.

Which character did you most relate to and why? Which one was the most difficult to write?
 In one form or another, these are all people who are trying to find a place in a world that is changing and modernizing around them at an incredible pace. Ready or not, they have to deal with the fallout of that. I hope that’s something many modern readers can identify with. The wrestlers in the book have spent their entire lives trying to be the roughest, toughest guys around and suddenly they realize their sport no longer values that. I hope certain aspects of their stories—their hopes and their struggles—are relatable to a wide audience. I know they are for me.

Moira is a strong female character with a complex history. She often acts as the voice of reason in the novel. What inspired her character?
 The character of Moira turned out to be the most pleasant surprise of writing this novel. I knew early on that I didn’t want Pepper to exist in a vacuum—I didn’t want him to be this solitary tough guy out there taking on the world all by himself. I wanted him to have some sort of family, some sort of companionship. So I started to write Moira as a supporting character for him and—boom—there she was, as if she’d been there the whole time, waiting to be discovered. She damn near took over the whole novel.

I knew anyone I cast opposite as big a personality as Pepper’s would have to be his equal. Moira is certainly leaps and bounds ahead of him intellectually and in her ability to read social situations. In many ways she is the novel’s voice of reason, but she also enjoys courting trouble.

In many ways their relationship is symbiotic, but they also do a lot to enable each other’s worst tendencies as well. I think that’s one of the things that’s so fun about them as characters.

The wrestlers in the novel have great, creative ring names. How did you come up with them?
 Professional wrestlers have always used stage names, dating all the way back to the carnival circuit. They typically came up with aliases for the purposes of either making themselves sound more marketable or, in some cases, to keep their true identities from the public—many of them were committing fraud, after all.

It’s interesting, though, because professional wrestling has always taken such pains to blur the lines between what’s real and what’s fake. Part of the whole point is to convince the general public that Terry Bollea is Hulk Hogan, all the time, in “real life.”

On its face, it seems like a silly holdover from wrestling’s carnival days, but the truth is, it makes for a very strange—and, in my opinion, fascinating—environment for storytelling. Wrestling cultivates this bizarre merging of fact and fiction, where sometimes not even the participants know where the truth lies. Giving some of the wrestlers in my novel over-the-top stage names was just one subtle way of me trying to play with that.       

When did you decide you wanted to be a professional writer? How did you prepare yourself for the long task of completing a novel?
 I was lucky—and maybe a tad cursed—to grow up in a family full of writers and artists and to spend my childhood in Missoula, which has such a vibrant arts culture and a university creative writing program that is so highly regarded. Around here, just about every waiter and landscaper has an MFA and a novel they’re trying to tell.

My older brother Zach dragged me into journalism when I was a freshman in high school and after I graduated from college in that and worked as a reporter for a few years, I circled back for a graduate degree in fiction. I tried and failed to write a historical novel as my graduate thesis project, so when I sat down to write Champion of the World I had already done a fair amount of research into the general time period.

Still, it was an arduous, but rewarding process. I’m lucky to have a great group of writers in Missoula who all stay active and meet regularly to help each other with ongoing projects. I hit the jackpot when I landed with the Sobel-Weber agency for representation, because Nat Sobel and Judith Weber took a very hands-on approach to the manuscript and were instrumental in getting my shoddy early drafts ready for publication. My editor at Putnam—Sarah Minnich—has also been unbelievable. She had a ton of brilliant ideas that helped make the final draft what it is today. I’ve been blessed to be surrounded by great people throughout the process.

Are you working on a second novel? What can you tell us about it?
 Yes, I have a second novel in the works with Putnam—a contemporary mystery and thriller.

It follows a young soldier who comes back from the war after suffering a traumatic brain injury that has wiped out his autobiographical memory. Amid that personal chaos, he gets word that his estranged father has committed suicide and returns to his Montana hometown to put his dad’s meager affairs in order. On one of his first nights back in town he witnesses a mysterious house fire in which a well-regarded local college student is killed. As he struggles to put the pieces of his lost life back together, he becomes convinced that the house fire, his dad’s suicide and his forgotten past are all connected.

The book’s final title and publication date are still to be announced, but I’m hopeful it will be ready to go for 2017.

Praise for The Champion of the World:

“Dundas puts together a tightly woven piece of storytelling punctuated by some intriguing close-ups of wrestling when it was taken seriously. . . . [The] last [twist is] a doozy with a demon ex machina even nastier than the mobsters. Centered on the sweet-tough relationship of Pepper and his card shark wife, Moira, and enriched by a wrestling history that contrasts sharply with today’s circus, the novel has the feel of noir but is rounder and richer than a Jim Thompson outing. Dundas suggests writers known for loosely historical works, such as Doctorow and Chabon, but he features a pared-down, punchy style that goes well with his characters' basic raw ambitions and emotions.”—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“A brilliant novel about life—and sport—at the cusp of the modern age, Champion of the World follows a down-and-out couple as they struggle to survive on their wits alone. Reminiscent of the best of early Cormac McCarthy, but with compelling female characters.”—Philipp Meyer, New York Times-bestselling author of The Son and American Rust
Champion of the World is a debut with the masterful breadth and insight of a veteran talent’s work. The confluence of a sport and entertainment, gambling and gangsterism is illuminated on every page, as Chad Dundas burrows into the tangled roots of American wrestling. Tragic and by turns hopeful, Champion of the World is a showcase bout full of reversals, grit, and spirit.”—Smith Henderson, author of Fourth of July Creek
“Here's one of the finest first novels in years, a gritty tale involving professional wrestling, bootlegging, and the byzantine strategies of cold-blooded conmen and desperate grifters. If the subject matter strikes you as too quirky, think again. My advice to anyone who loves brilliant storytelling is this: read Chad Dundas'sChampion of the World.”—Jeff Guinn, New York Times- bestselling author of The Last Gunfight
“Chad Dundas’s novel Champion of the World sets us squarely down in 1921 and brings it vividly to life.  Moira and Pepper Van Dean feel like a real couple. The tense buildup to the wrestling matches is outstanding, and the pleasure of the matches themselves is that their outcome cannot be predicted.  A terrific debut.”—David Fuller, author of Sundance 
“Smart and flinty, Chad Dundas’s archetypal debut is a sprawling, brawling yarn populated by gangsters and carnies, bootleggers, hucksters and early-day wrestlers—characters who, in their irresistibility, fairly drag you along by the throat through page after compelling page.  A piercing and at times heart-rending examination of the universal quest to reach our own championship, be it the big pay-day, enduring love, or mere survival in a ruthless world.”—Kim Zupan, author of The Ploughmen

Champion of the World is professional wrestling of the 1920s in full roar. It bristles with heroes, schemes, bootleggers, shysters, twists, romance, and excitement. Dundas knows wrestling, scene-making and a good plot. The result is this vivid and cinematic portrait of a sport, and a culture, in flux.”—Deirdre McNamer, author of One Sweet Quarrel and Red Rover 
Library Journal
Sportswriter Dundas crafts the story of disgraced former lightweight wrestling champion Pepper Van Dean, who's working the carnival circuit with his wife in the 1920s when he's asked to train an African American heavyweight looking for a comeback. What's really expected, though, is very different—and very dangerous. Lots of library marketing.
Kirkus Reviews
★ 2016-04-12
In 1920s America, when professional wrestling is in its dying years as a serious sport, one high-stakes contest brings together athletes, gangsters, and long-suffering women in this fine debut. Five years after the embarrassing loss of his lightweight wrestling crown, Pepper Van Dean gets booted from the lousy traveling-carnival job he turned to for survival. His only option is a dubious deal with a former training partner and a Chicago gang leader who were both tied to his last professional defeat. The deal gets more complicated, as Pepper must train Garfield Taft, a charismatic athlete who is also a black ex-convict married to a white woman and hoping for a shot at the reigning white heavyweight wrestling champion. Such a match is unlikely amid American racism and fears of another embarrassment after Jack Johnson's grab of boxing's heavyweight title, but it's potentially lucrative. Then, while working out at a remote Montana lodge, Taft develops strange fainting spells and stranger marital problems. Canadian bootleggers arrive at the lodge with a shipment of booze to add another wrinkle. Back stories and subplots emerge and old wounds reopen as Dundas puts together a tightly woven piece of storytelling punctuated by some intriguing close-ups of wrestling when it was taken seriously. He will spring a penultimate twist that might not surprise many readers and a last one that's a doozy with a demon ex machina even nastier than the mobsters. Centered on the sweet-tough relationship of Pepper and his card shark wife, Moira, and enriched by a wrestling history that contrasts sharply with today's circus, the novel has the feel of noir but is rounder and richer than a Jim Thompson outing. Dundas suggests writers known for loosely historical works, such as Doctorow and Chabon, but he features a pared-down, punchy style that goes well with his characters' basic raw ambitions and emotions.
Champion of the World Tour Schedule

Connect with Chad - Website - Facebook - Twitter

Meet Chad:Chad Dundas earned his MFA from the University of Montana, and his short fiction has appeared in the Beloit Fiction JournalSycamore ReviewSou’Wester, andThuglit. Since 2001, he’s worked as a sportswriter for national outlets including ESPN, NBC Sports, Sporting NewsBleacher Report, and the Associated Press, as well as local and regional newspapers. A fourth-generation Montanan, he lives with his wife and children in Missoula.

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  1. Enjoyed the interview! I love stories set in that era and have read a boxing historical fiction story. This one sounds fantastic from the characters to the situation to the back drop. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Mm sounds really interesting and I like that he has a strong woman in the line up of characters because he didn't want Pepper to be in a vacuum with no relationships. Hope the books does well.

    1. Yes I love strong women characters and so glad that men authors see the need for them!

  3. Another cool interview, Debbie!

    This genre/trope isn't something I seek, but from the interview, I can see that a lot of research was put into this and the author added a lot of cool stuff to it.

  4. Fantastic interview. I love the time period and find the setting so interesting.

  5. Oh well I'd bet that would be a really interesting read. Thanks for the intro!