Sheltering: Rufi Thorpe on Violent Women, Friendship, and Unruly Bodies
The Author of Knockout Queen Talks to Maris Kreizman
On this episode of Sheltering, Maris Kreizman speaks with Rufi Thorpe about her new novel, Knockout Queen, a story of queer friendship and the unruliness of our bodies and wants. Thorpe talks about one of her protagonists learning queerness from Ru Paul’s Drag Race, the animal tendency towards violence, wanting what we wish we didn’t want. Please purchase Knockout Queen from your favorite local bookstore, or through Bookshop.
From the episode:
Maris Kreizman: Welcome to Sheltering. I’m Maris Kreizman. I am so happy to be talking to Rufi Thorpe today. She wrote The Knockout Queen, which is one of my favorite books of the year so far, and I’m so happy to talk to her virtually.
Rufi Thorpe: Thank you so much for having me.
Maris: Rufi, introduce yourself and tell us how you’re doing, coping, that kind of thing.
Rufi: I am Rufi Thorpe, and my first novel was The Girls from Corona del Mar. My newest book is The Knockout Queen. I’m in California, and all things considered, relatively lucky. My kids are four and seven, so they can read for a while and entertain themselves, and we have a yard. We’re doing okay. Every three days, I have a period where I just sort of fall into the slop of despond, and then for three more days I can pretend I’m functioning, and it sort of just alternates like that.
Maris: Yeah! I feel like that’s how my sleep goes too. Tell me a little bit about The Knockout Queen.
Rufi: The Knockout Queen is really about two best friends who are growing up in the same small town where everybody knows everybody’s business. One of them is Bunny, who is an athlete and 6’3 by the end of high school; the other is her next-door neighbor Michael, who is a straight-A student who works at Rite Aid after school and has a secret Grindr account. Bunny winds up doing something, acting on impulse, and it changes their lives forever, and they have to pay the consequences. It’s a book about the body, really, about the unruliness of the body, in terms of both sex and violence and doing something you didn’t need to do, wanting something you wish you didn’t want.
Maris: I love that. Every time I think there can’t be any more to say about coming of age, you come along. The violence in the book stuck with me because it feels like the kind of thing that happens everywhere. There’s no predictor for where it will erupt. Is that fair?
Rufi: Yeah, I think we have a lot of confusion about how normal violence is. In a weird way, I think our love of those shows like
Maris: And so much violence isn’t done by someone who’s really thought it through.
Rufi: Oh, yeah. I’m really interested in ethical judgments and morality, and how do we hold people responsible for their actions. That whole problem of loving someone who’s a bad person. That’s at the center of what I’m most worried about; each of my books explores it in a different way. The extent to which, are we animals that are naturally violent and therefore it is excusable sometimes when we erupt, or is it so important that we suppress our base nature and embrace this higher, intellectual nature? We have a lot of really conflicting ideas about that, just as a cultural inheritance.
Maris: Gender comes into it of course. Steven says to Bunny at some point, judges don’t like violent women. We don’t think of them the same way as we think of men.
Rufi: Yeah, it’s viewed definitely as more monstrous or abnormal if a woman is violent. I had a friend who worked for a domestic violence hotline, and that was the story she saw over and over again, was women would defend themselves or wind up in a tussle, and then they would be the ones charged and have the book thrown at them, whereas there had been a history of their husband beating them up and no real consequences for years.
Maris: That’s so tough. And then of course there is Bunny’s father, who—I don’t know if this is right or not—but I picture him sort of as Lyla Garrity’s father on Friday Night Lights. That’s who was always in my mind when I read about him, Ray Lambert. He is both somewhat charming and goodhearted, and he’s a real asshole.
Rufi: Oh, yeah. He’s an actively bad person. And yet, weirdly likable? He’s in a way the villain of the book, at least from Michael’s point of view. But I had so much fun writing him as a character. I feel like I have known a million Ray Lamberts. It was tremendous fun to write him.
Maris: I love that. I also love that Bunny and Michael love culturally appropriating the shit out of Rupaul’s Drag Race. I feel like maybe I should go back and do a marathon binge during this quarantine.
Rufi: I got to go back and watch a bunch as I was writing the book, and it was just so fun. It also reminds me of the girl I was when I was first watching it. It must be somewhat complicated for people in drag culture because they have this sort of double audience, because there’s a lot of straight women who love it. I think that they love seeing all those ideas of femininity taken apart and put back together again.
Maris: And then certainly the idea that Michael isn’t out—I think you wrote something like he learned what it was to be queer from that.
Rufi: Yeah, or it certainly gave him—any piece of gay culture than he can get his hands on is like a promise that someday he’s going to be out of this time, out of this claustrophobic situation, and he’s going to get to have his real life. So, I think that Rupaul’s Drag Race is that for him. It’s interesting because that show has its own set of dynamics and characteristics and moral judgments. He loves what they value, this ability to be really funny and mean. He’s like, that is for me!
Maris: And then, of course, the idea of passing has to appeal to a kid who is poor, is living in a neighborhood where there are wealthier people around, is gay, is not quite sure who he is.
Rufi: Absolutely. Bunny’s failing at passing too. Not just because of her size and because her body doesn’t fit into the ideal of a teen body in Southern California, but because she is not good at being coy or flirting or knowing how to play those social games. She’s a very flat-footed creature, and that makes high school super, super hard.
Maris: It’s so lovely to see her through Michael’s eyes because he really does find her beautiful. Sometimes I had to pull myself out of the book and think oh no, school was probably very, very hard for her. It’s so wonderful. Is there a question that you thought you might get on book tour that I can ask you about the book now?
Rufi: Oh, gosh. Well, I anticipated and thought most about my answer about why did I choose to write it from this point of view.
Maris: Tell me about writing it from Michael’s point of view!
Rufi: So, I wrote a book titled Bunny Lambert ten years ago, that was an entirely different book. It was really a series of connected short stories in which she was a peripheral character. But I had the idea of her for a long time. Then I knew that I wanted to write this book, and I had an idea of the plot, and I had an idea of Ray and everything, and I was trying to write it from Bunny’s point of view, and it just wasn’t working because she couldn’t see what was amazing about herself. She also couldn’t render what was happening with enough nuance. For her, it was all just painful. I knew that I needed a focalizer, an outside character. Michael, the moment I thought of him, he was one of those characters that writes themselves, where you start writing from their voice and it’s just an explosion, and you know you’ve hit a vein. In my experience, what that usually means is it’s a deeply repressed aspect of your own self, and sure enough, he wound up dredging up parts of my own biography.
I’m not an autobiographical writer. I feel like maybe after more therapy, I can render myself as a sympathetic character, but I don’t think I have enough self-insight to render myself as a character, so I generally avoid it. But I understood more and more how thematically related—. The biographical things he kept bringing in was this idea of meeting people randomly for sex on the internet and questioning your sexual orientation. For me, that wasn’t really happening. I was definitely questioning my sexual orientation when I was a teenager, but I didn’t start using the internet to meet women to have sex with until I was in my twenties. I sort of lived this life where I really was not admitting what I was doing, and I was like, yeah, no I’m still straight, I just have sex with women for fun. I was sort of the worst cliché of every bi woman ever. I think it’s an interesting case study because that background does not give me a right to write as a young gay man, and yet it’s why I wrote as a young gay man. Whether it’s authentic or not is complicated.
Maris: I mean, I’m not allowed to tell you what’s authentic or not, but I can tell you from my point of view is what gives you the right to write from his point of view, is that you do it with such empathy and insight and humor. So, thank you.
Rufi: Well, it was all very sincere.
Maris: Tell me a little bit about what you were originally planning to do for your book release and how that’s changed.
Rufi: We had a couple local events planned, and I was really excited for those because those are the ones that friends and family go to.
Maris: Where were they going to be?
Rufi: One of them was going to be at Pages, which is an indie bookstore in Manhattan Beach, and then we were also going to do something at the El Segundo Public Library, and then another event at Vroman’s a little bit later. My husband has this great big extended family, so it’s always fun. They all show up. It’s very sweet.
Maris: Oh, that’s wonderful. And sad. How has digital/virtual book tour been going?
Rufi: On the one hand, it’s hard. I feel like it’s really hard projecting yourself in cyberspace. There’s an awkwardness inherent to the medium. But on the other hand, I’ve gotten to talk to people I probably wouldn’t have gotten to talk with and be part of things and create things with other writers and make videos with other writers that are really fun to do. So, it’s been kind of a blessing in a lot of ways.
Maris: That’s how I feel. I wish I could be in a big room surrounded by people who are cheering you on, but the next best thing, right?
Rufi: If it were my first book, I’m sure it would be a lot more emotional and hard, and for my friends who are debut authors, I just am like oh! Because you want that for them. But it’s okay, it’s my third book. I’ll live.
Maris: Tell me a little bit more about, are you able to get work done now? Are you mostly taking care of your kids?
Rufi: It’s not as bad as I worried it was going to be with having them home. Luckily, my littlest one is four, almost five, so he’s just hitting the age where he can go read a book or spend half an hour looking for bugs. My husband’s also working from home, and my mom is working from home, so between the three of us we can usually shuffle it so that we each get five or six hours a day. We also just solve it by not having weekends.
Maris: Oh, yeah. What are weekends now?
Rufi: Yeah, exactly. Every day is this amorphous thing that we wander through together.
Maris: Yes. Well, thank you so much. Everyone should buy your book! Obviously.
Rufi: You’re so sweet. Thank you so much for talking to me.