Next up in the Interrogation Room… Tom Leins catches up with Bobby Mathews to discuss his new book, Living the Gimmick.
Congratulations on the imminent publication of your new book! How would you pitch Living the Gimmick to potential readers?
Like a lot of books, Living the Gimmick comes down to a pretty simple premise: What if someone murdered the biggest wrestling star on the planet, and his best friend had to navigate the current ‘sports entertainment’ world to solve the crime?
Then, of course, I had to complicate it by also having the protagonist go through the journey of discovering that his so-called best friend wasn’t exactly who/what he was supposed to be. That was kind of fun, as I had Todd Snider’s song “You Think You Know Somebody” running through my head the whole time.
For years I’ve been fascinated by the intersection of criminality and wrestling. I’ve always found that the deeper you dig, the more lurid the stories get. Were there any specific real-life incidents that influenced your plot?
Oh, absolutely. The most famous one is probably Jerry Graham stealing his mother’s body from a hospital morgue and getting into a showdown with the cops over it. But I think if you pay attention to it, there is a ugly underbelly of sexual crimes that either go unreported or ignored completely.
There are some ugly things in wrestling that make Harvey Weinstein’s crimes pale in comparison. Like, you have the Fabulous Moolah, who would train female wrestlers but also credibly accused of farming the young women out as ‘talent’ to promotions in more ways than one.
Then there are guys like Bruiser Bob Sweetan, a longtime territory wrestler who went to prison for molesting his own daughter. Matt Bourne (later Doink in WWE) got run out of Georgia in the early 1980s when he was a tag team champion because he got caught with an underage girl. Art Barr raped a girl in Oregon. Jerry “the King” Lawler was, I believe, indicted for rape and sodomy of an underage girl. Mind you, these are just off the top of my head. There are guys in the business who have spent time in prison, been indicted for, or credibly accused of robbery, rape, murder. And, of course, I’m not even touching on the Chris Benoit situation. Ugh.
Especially in the 1970s and 1980s, but even into the 90s and 2000s, wrestling could be kind of a haven for outlaws.
What is the first wrestling match that you recall watching? Why did it strike such a chord with you?
The first was probably British journeyman Johnny Eagles vs. some underneath guy that I don’t recall. But Eagles was billed as “the Houdini of wrestling.” That captured my 4-year-old imagination for the program, and then later on in the program you had these outlandish people making incredible claims and these wild-looking brawls. So, Johnny Eagles hooked me, and everything else kept me coming back.
I think part of the reason it struck that chord with me as a kid — as it did with so many kids I knew — is that it felt like the life I was experiencing as a child in school, where there were rules that were either flouted or selectively enforced, and a lot of the time the kids did whatever they could get away with. You know how wrestling referees get distracted or misdirected? You could get away with a lot when the teachers weren’t looking.
Not me, though. I read a lot and brought an apple for the teacher every day. How was I supposed to know there was a worm in it?
Has your interest in wrestling waned over time? Are you conflicted over wrestling’s past and wrestling’s present?
It’s definitely waned, because wrestling went corporate. Part of the magic was the characters who were unpredictable, who would do something outrageous to work up the crowd. You look at the 1970s-80s crowds, the height of the territory days, and you had fans who believed — even if only for the time that they were in the arena — that the action they were seeing was real. The ability to get fans to suspend their disbelief is long gone, and now there’s no heat to it. Mainstream corporate wrestling — I’m talking WWE here — is booked to be as inoffensive and bland as possible, because they don’t want to upset their advertisers or endanger their TV contracts.
There are some companies who are doing interesting things right now, but I really prefer old-school territory wrestling even though I still pay some attention to what’s going on today.
Do you have any favourite eras, or matches that you wanted to pay lip service to in your book?
In many ways, Living the Gimmick is a love letter to territory wrestling. As I was writing it, I always thought of the main character as a sort of stand-in for legendary wrestler Arn Anderson, and I was definitely inspired by some of his true-life details (such as meeting the world champion and becoming friends with him in the Pensacola, Florida, territory).
If Living the Gimmick was a wrestler, which wrestler would it be, and why?
You remember the ‘Three Faces of Foley’ storyline, where Mick Foley was kind of shown to have three distinct personalities? That’s what LTG is like, in some ways because it’s a book that’s firmly — and intentionally — split between the territory days of pro wrestling and modern wrestling. One chapter in the present, one in the past. My hope with the book is that the past illuminates the present. (Which would be pretty to believe about real life, wouldn’t it?)
This book was published by Shotgun Honey; do you read mainstream crime fiction, or are your tastes firmly rooted in the independent scene?
I’m completely unreliable in this regard. I’m an omnivore when it comes to reading and rarely take into account whether a book is ‘mainstream’ or small- or micropress, or even self-published. I’ve got books on my shelves that encompass all of the above. Sometimes the only difference is the marketing budget that Big 5 publishers have access to, if they choose to use those dollars.
If you could recommend one crime novel that people are unlikely to have heard of, what would it be?
The novels of Charles Willeford are largely forgotten now, but they remain some of the most entertaining crime fiction I’ve ever read. The Hoke Moseley series is brilliant from start to finish, full of darkness and wry humor. It’s essentially Southern gothic disguised as crime fiction, and every word is brilliant. Start with Miami Blues and go from there.
For your money, which contemporary writers are producing the most interesting, compelling work right now?
This goes without saying, I’m sure, but Jordan Harper is amazing, and I will spend money on anything he does. S.A. Cosby has really captured the moment with his noir novels set in the American South that he knows so well. He’s not only writing at an INCREDIBLY high level, but he’s doing something important, too: His work is a reminder that the South doesn’t just belong to the good ol’ white boys and the conservative power structure that dominates the region. He’s shouldered his way to the front of the line of American letters in the roaring 2020s, and he’s earned every bit of it.
William Soldan remains the best line-for-line writer I’ve ever read who’s not signed to a Big 5 deal. The guy’s got talent for days and I expect him to break out. C.W. Blackwell is fantastic. He beat me out for a Derringer Award last year, and how dare he? I mean, seriously! HOW FUCKING DARE HE???
I’m fine, I’m fine. Just needed to breathe for a moment. Now, what was I saying? Oh, yeah: Nikki Dolson is the Bret Hart of short story writing: The excellence of execution. Everything Nikki writes is fearless and ferocious. Paul Garth is the master of bleak. Read his short story ‘The Hope of Lost Mares’ in The Eviction of Hope anthology. It’s insanely good. Paul writes slowly, but everything he does is so, so good.
Mark Westmoreland is going places. I mean, prison is a place … no, seriously, Mark’s A Violent Gospel was THE independent crime book of the year in 2021, and he’s only scratched the surface of what he can do. J.B. Stevens will punch your guts out with some of his stuff and then turn around and make you laugh with his humor writing, too. He’s got all the tools.
If your career trajectory could follow that of any well-known writer, who would you choose, and why?
I’d love to have Donald Westlake’s career. Westlake started in the 50s and had a publishing career until he died on New Year’s Eve, 2008. He’s at the top of my Mount Rushmore of writers. To quote Lawrence Block: Westlake “never wrote an awkward sentence.” The man wrote more than 100 novels in his lifetime. Can you imagine? But what makes me want to be like Westlake is his professionalism and his dedication to the craft of writing.
Finally, what are your future publishing plans?
Magic City Blues publishes (also through Shotgun Honey) in February of 2023, and I’m co-editing a charity anthology with Raquel Reyes called Dirty South: High Crimes & Low Lives Below the Mason-Dixon Line (Down & Out Books, summer 2023) which will benefit the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama.
I’m currently working on two books: 1) A crime novel with the working title The Boys from Alabama; and 2) A Southern gothic novel set against the backdrop of Hurricane Eloise making landfall along the Gulf Coast in the fall of 1976. I hope to have them finished and on submission somewhere by the end of the year.
Bio: Bobby Mathews is the author of the forthcoming novels Living the Gimmick (May 2022) and Magic City Blues (February 2023). He is the co-editor of the anthology Dirty South: High Crimes & Low Lives Below the Mason-Dixon Line, forthcoming in May 2023 from Down & Out Books. Bobby was a finalist for the 2021 Derringer Award for his story ‘Quitman County Ambush.’ He lives in Hoover, Alabama, and when he’s not writing, he’s covering sports in suburban Birmingham, coaching baseball, or reading something that would scandalize the neighbors.