The Body as Tool: A Conversation with Rita Bullwinkel

By Crow Jonah NorlanderMarch 17, 2024

The Body as Tool: A Conversation with Rita Bullwinkel

Headshot by Rita Bullwinkel

IN RITA BULLWINKEL’S debut novel Headshot (2024), the 12th Annual Women’s 18 & Under Daughters of America Cup takes place at Bob’s Boxing Palace over two July days in Reno, Nevada. Each of its eight competitors steps into the narrative focus of the ring, where time telescopically reveals how they got there and what will come after. Their striving is a painful but worthy spectacle.

It’s an elastic, polyphonic book. Each girl is distinct, yet they are all unified in an anticipation that gives way to reflex and instinct. While the teenage girl boxers hit each other, the reader’s attention is passed gently between them, revealing the impulse to exchange adversarial hatred for friendship, the slippery ties between psyche and physicality, and the ephemeral nature not just of success but of even the most climactic events as well.

For these boxers, the tournament is the apex of their athletic achievement. Success will amount to a short-lived, niche notoriety at most. The book neither condemns the futility nor extols the fleeting glory. Rather, it suggests that every experience can mutate and become integrated into the next meaningful thing, even if the through line isn’t visible. Almost nothing yields exclusively good or bad consequences, and touch need not be tender to bring you close.


CROW JONAH NORLANDER: I read that you weren’t a boxer but that you did play water polo. You called your involvement with sports and athletics “insane and irrational,” and this book seems to be an interrogation of that feeling. I’m wondering if you still feel that way.

RITA BULLWINKEL: Hearing it quoted back to me, I feel like, wow, what an unnecessarily dramatic way to put it. I do feel mystified by this past self that spent so much time honing my body to be as physically powerful at this one very specific thing as possible. When I was growing up in the San Francisco Bay area, I went to public middle school, and then I was going to go to public high school, and the way districting works is that, if you want to go to a high school that’s in your district but not your specific geographic public school zone, you can apply for something called an interdistrict transfer. As a 13-year-old, I looked up the paperwork and applied for an interdistrict transfer so that I could go to the high school with the higher-ranked basketball and water polo teams. I structured my life around this thing that now has almost no meaning to me. It was this massive part of my life that not only governed the physical hours I spent during my day—I would structure my whole day around a morning workout and an afternoon workout—but also governed where I moved, what school I went to. I had identities outside of it, but it was a very large part of my life. 

In college, I was a recruited athlete, and I began that recruitment process as a 16-year-old. I was the cocaptain of the water polo team, which was a top-20-ranked team, and a lot of my teammates went on to play pro in Europe and Australia, where they have professional leagues for women, while I didn’t. The further away I got from that break, the more and more mystified I became by this former person. The book came out of that kind of questioning, and I still don’t really know who that former person was, but I think each of the eight main characters in the book has a little bit of her in them. It was really important to me with the structure of the book and how I was thinking about that time to move into the deep future and deep past of the girls. They’re in this tournament, just these two days for one moment, and even though they think in that moment that this tournament is the most important thing they’ll ever do in their lives, they have so much left to live and so much that came before.

I was moved by the flash-forward when Artemis, at age 60, has hands so gnarled from being repeatedly broken that she can’t open a refrigerator door or hold a cup of tea. You write, “No one in her life at that point, including her daughter, will have any remembrance of the meaning attached to what it means to be a boxer.” Such an intense experience just gets tucked away and forgotten in the complexity of the rest of her life to come. It made me wonder, what are your relationships like with your elders?

I feel really lucky that I’ve had and continue to have a lot of old people in my life. I think about what it means to be in an advanced stage of life pretty frequently because I’ve had so many people in my life who have been at that stage. Until I went to kindergarten, the people I spent the most time with were my great-grandparents. My mom would drop me off at their house, and I would be there all day until she would be done working, and then she would come pick me up. They were in their mid-eighties and early nineties. They were my primary daily caretakers, and I spent a lot of time with them. My husband is a violinist, and yesterday he was playing a show, so we went and picked my 92-year-old grandmother up and took her to the show. I often think about how, even though I’ve spent all of my life with her, there’s so much about her life that I have no capacity to know. And also how strange I must seem to her. She was born here, but her parents were born in Italy, and she’s someone who has lived her whole life in one place. And our lived experiences on earth have just been really, really different.

There can be a necessary flattening of a relationship to the present, and there’s not always the opportunity to find out what came before and what sort of strange things a person has gone through.

And it’s not for lack of me not asking. I’m very nosy. I have definitely asked. And she’s a great storyteller. She’s got a lot of really great stories about marriage proposals, all of the men that made offers that she turned down. I think there’s only so much you can know of another person, even your spouse, and there will always be parts of a person that only they can know. And those gaps can be very large.

I want to ask you about the structure of the book. I don’t remember the stories in your 2016 collection Belly Up feeling especially constraint-driven, but the tournament here in Headshot, the eight characters, the two days in the desert, it’s very well-scoped. How and when did the structure of the book make itself known to you?

I had a draft of the book that was written in the first person from the point of view of one girl boxer, and I don’t even remember her name or who she was. I wasn’t sure it was a book, but it was book-length. I read it, and I realized that the only parts of that draft that had energy and meaning for me were the parts that were physically in the ring. Those parts with the protagonist physically competing were what allowed me the greatest movement and emotional and formal leaps. I drew a bracket and decided that I wanted there to be eight main characters, and they weren’t characters that had been in the previous draft at all. I briefly sketched out who I thought they were. Once I had the tournament structure, I felt very committed to it. I thought, This is the only way I can tell the story that I want so that it feels the way I want it to feel. I think of the bracket almost like how when you read fantasy books, they sometimes come with maps, or China Miéville has this incredible book about the Russian Revolution. It’s a nonfiction book called October (2017), where he gives you a cast of characters and a brief overview, and there’s something fantasy-like about it. I liked that feeling. Once I had the structure, I knew I wanted to stay committed to it, although it does kind of curdle at the end.

You subvert the traditional sports narrative’s climactic tension of wondering who is going to win. You’re not coaxing me into rooting for an outcome. It almost feels immaterial who wins each round. Is there any inspiring, sporty art that freed you up to think experimentally about this form?

It totally doesn’t matter who wins, which is kind of weird. It was how I felt about it. I think of the girls who are competing against one another as a collective and more as comrades with one another than as adversaries. There are definitely some other people who have written so beautifully about what it feels like to play a sport or to use your body intensely. I’m thinking about the way Natalie Diaz writes about basketball. Her poems that deal with basketball are not about triumph. There is a sense of power in them, but it’s not about triumph over another person. There are two books that have been meaningful to me about horse racing, which is not a sport I have any connection to. But these two specific worlds, Kick the Latch (2022) by Kathryn Scanlan and Lord of Misrule (2010) by Jaimy Gordon, are books that are deeply rooted in the feeling of using your body for something physically intense. They’re really interested in the world of horse racing, the diction around it, the language around it, the voice around it, what it feels like. It’s almost like I could be reading about dragons. That’s how intense the world-building is. But instead, it’s horse racing.

Something that I talked a lot about with my editors at Viking, Paul Slovak and Allie Merola, was the intention of the book. They helped me arrive at this conclusion: the book is about what it feels like to play a sport, not what it feels like to watch a sport. There’s a lot of sports literature that uses that voyeuristic model of what it feels like to watch. Joyce Carol Oates has a nonfiction essay collection on boxing, about what it feels like to watch boxing at Madison Square Garden. And that was not something I was interested in. Also, in Headshot, it’s not professional level. It’s young women competing at a high level, but there aren’t a lot of people watching. It’s not like the societal stakes are high.

Bodies are often described in the book as being like meat or like food. These boxers see themselves and each other this way. Listening to sports analysts and fans talking about athletes’ bodies can feel icky and strange, but head-to-head in a fight, you have to be physically attuned to how you match up with someone. I’m curious how you thought about that quality of looking.

Okay, bear with me on this thought process. In our home, we recently had a tremendous amount of water problems. It was raining inside. We had a busted old roof, and it was just a disaster. Through this very unfortunate experience, I began to gain all this knowledge about what a really shitty roof looks like and what a really good roof looks like, what it looks like when something is watertight and when something isn’t. And now I’ll be walking around a neighborhood and the only thing I can see is roofs. My first thought when I look at a building is like, Dang, that roof looks brand new, that looks nice, or like, Wow, those people, I feel bad for them. Their roof, if it doesn’t have a problem yet, is going to have a problem soon. 

When you, for instance, are a boxer or a water polo player, and you know so much about what a specific body needs to be good at something, then when you encounter people out in the world, you only see their body in the front of your brain from the point of view of what it looks like it would be good at doing. So, for instance, for water polo players and swimmers, there’s a material advantage to having very large shoulders and very small hips. To this day, I’ll encounter people in a work meeting or out in the world and I will notice that someone has very large shoulders and small hips. This is kind of a cliché example, but my first thought is that they would be very good at a very specific maneuver in the water. For these young women, their world is so deeply inside this sport of physical competition, and they desire so greatly to be so good at this thing that they see their own bodies and the bodies of the young women they’re competing against in terms of their nature as tools. There’s also this thing that happens with really intense athletes where they disassociate from their bodies. It’s a thing that they need something from. It becomes an object. It becomes disassociated from the self and becomes essentially meat. Like something that can do something, or something that can execute what they want it to, or something that has failed them.

Bob’s Boxing Palace is defined by the light through the skylight and the dusty padding, and there’s a lot of really great sound description: “The thwack sounds like an open palm hitting a flat surface of water”; the girls attempt to speak through their mouthguards. How did this book come sensorially alive in your imagination? Did you have any strategies for conceiving of the navigation of physical space? There is the dissociative separation of the body and the mind, but the book is very embodied too. There’s a lot of tactile, physical stuff happening.

Even though I was most successful at water polo, I played a lot of sports growing up that would take place in these complexes. When I was growing up, my family would go to Reno on vacation. People go to play sports in these large youth athletic complexes that exist there. Not even just in Reno. All over the country, there are these complexes that are sometimes specific to a sport, but sometimes they convert them to be able to hold multiple sports. In my life, I have spent a lot of time in these spaces, so I was definitely thinking about specific sports complexes and how they sound and how they look and feel. My overarching memory of them, even in college, was that they’re pretty shitty spaces. You know when you enter a space and you’re like, this is a space where someone has thought about how the light will look or how it will make someone feel? They’re spaces that seem to have totally rejected that. They don’t really care about the humanistic experience you’re going to have when you enter them. I have some really specific memories of how the lighting works in these complexes, specifically these industrial lights that have cages on the bottom of them. And they’re often on a timer, and they warm up. They start low, and then when they’re on full blast, you almost can’t even see yourself. They’re so bright. You almost feel like you’re in an operating room. One of the reasons why I feel like I was drawn to the world of youth boxing is that there’s so much about it that is like theater. You have a ring that looks physically like a stage, and the way you view a boxing match is very much like one would view a play. And in terms of the embodied space of the boxing ring and Bob’s Boxing Palace, I was thinking of it as a theater, and I was excited to be in that physical world.


Rita Bullwinkel is the author of Headshot (2024) and Belly Up (2016), which garnered a 2022 Whiting Award. Bullwinkel’s writing has been published in Tin House, The White Review, ZYZZYVA, Conjunctions, BOMB, Vice, NOON, and Guernica. She is an assistant professor of English at the University of San Francisco, where she teaches courses on creative writing, zines, and the uses of invented and foreign languages as tools for world-building.

LARB Contributor

Crow Jonah Norlander is a writer living in Maine with his family of humans and hounds.


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