A Writer’s Insight: Ernie Wang

Ernie Wang’s story, “Good Luck, Champ,” appears in the winter 2022 issue of The Southern Review. Here he discusses with revision, the unfairness of professional wrestling, and the difficulty of writing character who are willing to take ill-informed leaps of faith.

Jake Zawlacki, Editorial Assistant: One of the best parts of storytelling is how we’re able to be placed into totally different cultures. I’m mostly naïve when it comes to professional wrestling, so it was a joy to be thrown into this world. What inspired you to tell this particular story?

Ernie Wang: I am so happy that my story brought you joy, so thank you! I, too, am not well-versed in professional wrestling (or sports in general). I used to watch Hulk Hogan and The Ultimate Warrior pummel each other, but the internet tells me that was over thirty years ago, and that’s pretty alarming. Regarding this story’s inspiration: I often write the initial scene without knowing where the story is going, with just a vague sense of its possible directions. Also, I really enjoy poking fun at sincere hypermasculine characters, and Kolache Kaden fits this bill, and I had him in mind as a starting point and to help me begin laying down the initial framework. Bringing Noah in provided a little more clarity, but what really got things going was bringing Toby in. It was only then that I understood that I wanted this to be a story about a wrestler grappling with his faith and his despair and sense of unfairness. But until I brought in Toby—with his man-bun and hip pastor vibes—I wasn’t quite sure where this was going.

JZ: On a related note, the only other time I’ve seen professional wrestling depicted was in Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler. While the wrestling theme is shared between your piece and the film, the stories themselves are quite different. Although, I was curious if The Wrestler had any influence on how you wrote the piece or how you thought it might impact a reading of your piece.

EW: I have not seen The Wrestler, and though I was aware of its critical acclaim when I drafted and revised this story, I did not know much about it. I have since learned quite a bit about it, and I do see quite a bit of overlap. Mostly, I see two washed-up, middle-aged men who doggedly pursue their passion at the expense of those closest to them. What most strikes me is that their insistence on following their dreams for their entire lives, in many ways, can be considered quite selfish, but their final acts, however misguided and costly they are, are perhaps the most selfless acts they will ever commit.

I would be honored for my story to be considered in the same vein with The Wrestler.

JZ: After reading the two wrestling scenes, I felt physically exhausted. It just seems like so much bodily pain to go through that. How did it feel writing this? Any hand cramps?

EW: Draining, and hand cramps yes! I woke up the next morning bruised and sore and with a black eye. In seriousness, writing this was exhausting, but for another reason. I conceived the story and wrote the first draft in the initial weeks of the covid lockdown in early April of 2020 for Pete Turchi’s workshop at the University of Houston. I was terrified and anxious and lonely, and I wanted to spend all day doom-scrolling and eating sugary things. I negotiated a deal with myself: write this one story, and you get a pass to not write this whole summer. The hardest part was knowing when I had just written a particularly awful section but to keep plowing forward anyway. Completing that first draft is one of my proudest writing moments, not because it was good (it wasn’t) but because I wrote it at all, during a time that had felt to me like the end of days. And when Pete gave me his feedback—this is very, very, very, very rough, but you are onto something that can be meaningful—I reacted with a kind of euphoric catharsis, then proceeded to spend the summer in a stupor, as if I were recovering from getting my head bashed in with a metal folding chair.

Another thing: I’ve noticed when writing scenes that rely primarily on action to propel the story forward, I tend to go overboard and try to capture every minute detail, as if I were writing a bad screenplay (he dips his shoulder so slightly! Like by an inch and a half. He glares in this direction, and that direction, and this direction). My initial draft contained pages of that, and my revision process included reducing and amalgamating to try, as best I could, to set a pace that felt true to the action while keeping the reader firmly planted in their ringside seat.

JZ: The moment that made me shake my head and say, “How the heck did he do that?” was when I recognized the parallels of fate between Raging Rick’s planned loss to the Grim Preacher and Noah’s similarly predetermined loss to leukemia. So, let me ask you, how the heck did you do that? And as a follow up, does that leave room for a hopeful ending?

EW: During the drafting and revision process, I knew I would be relying heavily on the ending to pull the threads together, and for the ending to work, I felt that I needed for Rick to be convinced that his one final remaining act of agency was to do what he does. I did consciously think to go Book-of-Job on Rick, which included giving him a wrestling win-loss timeline that was simply not compatible with Noah’s rapidly fading timeline. Rick’s final stand is an act of love for Noah, but it is also an act of a man who is driven to desperation and capitulation when he finally realizes that every card of fate is stacked against him.

In the end, Rick burns down just about everything that ever mattered to him. The one thing that remains intact is Noah’s belief that his father is a hero, his hero. And this is where Noah will be when he reaches the end: in the arms of his hero. So, does this leave room for a hopeful ending? Yes, I think it does. If I have to go/when I go, this is where I, too, would like to be in my final moments, in the arms of my hero.

JZ: Faith and the absurd work well together in the piece. We see Rick’s optimism about an experimental treatment and Helen’s pessimism about the same. We also see Rick’s frustration with Pastor Toby’s “God is on your side, my friend,” when he says, “Sometimes you’re really annoying, Toby.” (56) Whenever I think of faith, I think of Kierkegaard and his leap. While existentialism can be fun to think about and discuss, it kind of falls apart when you have a young kid dying of cancer. How do you think this story complicates the idea of faith?

EW: I’m so grateful you raised this. Right up to (though not including) the ending, Rick’s whole life has been one big leap of faith. That is the best way to explain why he is nearly forty years old and still wearing spandex and wrestling in high school gymnasiums, and why he sells ice cream from a truck with such aplomb. Helen and Noah enable Rick’s life choices, though their own leaps of faith are complicated by their deep love for Rick. When Rick takes his final stand, I see his action mostly as an expression of his love for Noah, but I also see it as his finally admitting that this was just not going to work, that perhaps this was never going to work. In the end, Rick cements his love for his son, but he forfeits pretty much everything else.

I do think this works against the Western inclination to want to believe that taking a leap of faith is inherently a good thing, that seizing the day generally leads to good things with minimal consequences. When I first began flirting with the idea of becoming a writer, one of the earliest stories I read was Danielle Evans’ “Someone Ought to Tell Her There’s Nowhere to Go,” and my delight—but mostly horror—of realizing you could do really terrible things to a protagonist who takes a leap of faith that is rooted in such good intentions—especially to a character as likable as Georgie—and in ways that would never happen in the commercial books I had been reading until then made a lasting, if slightly traumatic, impact on me.

So, I think I know how I want to respond. I was less interested in implicating those who take ill-informed leaps of faith, like Rick and Georgie do to disastrous consequences. My interest lied, I think, in telling the story of how we respond when our realization that we’ve made the biggest mistake of our lives occurs in the exact moment we lose all the faith we had been hanging onto up to that point.

JZ: I really enjoyed this piece and look forward to reading more of your work. Is anything else coming down the pipeline?

EW: Thank you so much! I’m working on the completion of a linked story collection, of which “Good Luck, Champ” is included, that centers on the lives of a cast of characters who grapple with trauma and various existential questions. As a plug, if I may: the other stories are generally funny and tender, and the collection is not as depressing as I’m making it sound. We may all be doomed, yes, but in the meantime, there is plenty of time for laughs and hugs.

Ernie Wang’s short fiction and essays have been published in Gulf CoastMississippi Review, and The Threepenny Review. He is a PhD student at the University of Houston.
Jake Zawlacki is an editorial assistant at The Southern Review and a current MFA candidate at Louisiana State University. He holds degrees from the University of San Diego and Stanford University and has been the recipient of a Fulbright Fellowship. His creative work investigates questions of mortality, connection, and meaning.
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