Rita Bullwinkel

On the Strangeness of Sports, Writing as an Act of Control, and Her Novel ‘Headshot’

Cover of Rita Bullwinkel: On the Strangeness of Sports, Writing as an Act of Control, and Her Novel ‘Headshot’

We live in a world where you are only as great as your accomplishments.  Social media has destroyed us by flattening the wonder of the human experience into tiny squares. We express our “stories” in vertical form with hashtags and hyperlinks. We are a cup of coffee glimmering in the perfect cafe lighting. We are a heavily documented trip to Europe or a lonely walk through a flowery field. We are expensive dinners and homemade stew. We are engagements and marriages and babies—our greatest commitments to others on blast for the world to see. We are a publication announcement, a book deal, an invite to come see us read in a city near you.

Reading Headshot (Viking, 2024) by Rita Bullwinkel was a transcendent experience that briefly took me away from the slog of social expectations. At Bob’s Boxing Gym in Reno, Nevada, eight young women compete for the Daughters of America Cup in a weekend-long set of fights.  Round by round, Rita’s characters bleed off the page. They are vicious, they are strange, they are crazed and strong and deep and emotional. They each have their own ideas about what it means to be a boxer and what it means to be alive.    

And although they are all competing for a cash prize, what felt more important than winning were the lessons that each fighter faces during their bout. They question power structures and the cultural climate, they ponder their own existence and the repercussions of ego and the self.  In the span of each two-minute round, new revelations arise. The Daughters of America Cup becomes more than winning or losing. The boxers have their own unique, individual experiences that give them the awareness to reach radical acceptance, to come to terms with themselves inside and out of the boxing ring. We, too, must come to terms with ourselves.  

Headshot questions whether we are capable of such feats, or if we are in fact all beholden to the animal instinct that lives inside all of us.


Brittany Ackerman: Well, I’d be damned if we didn’t start with the Weird Hat Philosophy, eh? Rachel Doricko’s Daniel Boone-style racoon hat is a part of her identity.  It’s a symbol for embracing the weird. I’d say that all boxers need to be a little strange in order to voluntarily put themselves into the ring and fight another human being.  

“Rachel had a theory about other humans: people are the most scared by what makes zero sense to them but that they cannot, no matter how they try, avoid.”

How do you navigate Rachel Doricko’s Weird Hat Philosophy? Do you agree that our lives are most horrifying when we come in contact with the unknown, or rather can it be equally if not more terrifying to actually understand how something works and be beholden to that system?Rita Bullwinkel: I think that there are people who are very scared, the most scared, by what they do not understand. But then, of course, there are whole religions that rely on the seduction of mystery. But the mystery is meant to be a little scary, maybe? Like it’s the mystery itself, the unknowableness of god, for instance, that is scary and inspires awe? I mean, on a walking-down-the-street level, I do like to know what to expect of people, that the people I am walking next to will likely just walk with me or by my. Clothing is a whole other thing. It’s so superficial, but it’s some of the only outward armor we have against the outside world. I think many teenagers, and many adults, myself included, use clothing as a way to protect themselves, to subvert expectations and feel comfortable in this wholly inhospitable world. 

BA: Speaking of weird, have you seen Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler?  It’s a movie I return to because of how deliciously strange it is.  The deep-dive into the character of Randy “The Ram” Robinson is brutally heartbreaking and viscerally painful. He’s old, he’s in ill-health, and he’s got a drinking problem. His family doesn’t speak to him, and he abandons anyone who wants to be close to him.

I was reminded of the film because of the line in Headshot, “The desire to please people is the desire to not be singular.” In The Wrestler, Randy wants to be singular.  He has a big ego and lets that ego drive his every move. But the girls in Headshot don’t necessarily want that same kind of fame. They want to succeed because girls are told they should be good and succeed. They feel familial pressure. They feel so separate from everyone else on the planet and just want some place to fit in.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on how despite wrestling, boxing, or fighting of any kind seems to come with the territory of oversized ego, you’ve managed to create characters who don’t have that sole focus.

RB: Yeah, the book is definitely not about winning. The girls kind of blend into each other as the book progresses, and begin to carry each other’s bodies inside one other. Their memory of the prior fights, and the prior girls’ they’ve fought, move with them into the next match so there is a crowd of consciousnesses in the end. I guess I just fundamentally don’t think women play sports in order to dominate over other women. I think there is something else going on, something much, much stranger. 

BA: One of my favorite themes of the book was the aspect of girlhood games—the chants and hand-clapping games and chubby bunny and hide-and-seek. There’s a line in the book about the girls being closer to birth than death, but yet they all have so much insight as each round plays out. Each one rides the wave of a deep, psychological shift as they fight.

Do you think the girls are aware of the shift happening and how much of a turning point the Daughters of America Cup is for them?

RB: No. I don’t think the girls are aware of that shift while they are fighting. The narrator of the book, who I like to think of as a chorus of all the girl fighters that came before and all the girl fighters that will come after, they know. The chorus-narrator knows. 

BA: Rose Mueller also struck a chord with me, as someone who came to writing the same way she came to fighting—in hopes that we would better our opponents in the world around us. Rose wanted to be able to really see people and understand what was going on in their minds, a departure from her traumatic experience at her former school.  

“Rose Mueller’s father did not suggest that Rose Mueller become a boxer. He had asked Rose, when she moved schools, if there was a sport she wanted to play. She was so big for her age. Maybe a sport will protect her, thought Rose Mueller’s father. He hadn’t expected that she would see a poster downtown advertising a class for young boxers.”

Do you think that a sport can protect you from the world?  How does it prepare you for life outside the ring, the field, the court, etc.?  

RB: Playing a sport is a consensual activity. You know the rules. You know how long the match will be. You know that there will be a clear and definitive outcome: that someone will win, and someone will lose. Nothing else in life is like that. In life there are not true binaries, there is never true clarity. Sports can be a way to escape from the messiness of the real. I am not convinced that sports prepare you for anything outside the given sport for which you are training.

BA: “There is a glorification, in the world outside of boxing, of desperation and wildness while fighting—this notion that desire and scrappiness can and will conquer experience. No boxing coach has ever asked their athlete to be more desperate. Control and restraint are much more valuable than wild punches.”

I think a lot of writing today feels desperate (sorry, not sorry), especially as a sort of means to be seen and heard. But do you feel that this desperation is akin to fighting in that control and restraint are better tools than being scrappy? When is it opportune to be scrappy on the page?

RB: For me, writing is an incredibly controlled and calculated act. I cannot think of an instance when it would be beneficial to be “scrappy on the page”. 

BA: I want to talk about the duality in the book.  There are two ways of life proposed by the characters: life has meaning vs. life has no meaning.  

For example, Rachel Doricko and Kate Heffer see the world completely differently, but both make good cases for each side throughout their intense match.  Rachel flies by the seat of her pants because there is no order, only chaos, while Kate lives her life according to the scoreboard because she believes in setting goals and approaching life methodically and with purpose.  

The other girls have their own philosophies too, of course, and I’m wondering which of the boxers you resonate with most?  Or, do they all make up bits and pieces of your psyche?

RB: All of the eight main character girl boxers are both me and not me. They are all byproducts of bits and pieces of my psyche. 

BA:  My last question, another one about duality, pertains to the FUTURE section of the book. This section takes us to another time on another planet where perhaps girls meet and come together and fight. There’s no more Bob’s Boxing Palace, or even a women’s space to compete, but still, the girls have the internal instinct to battle each other.

This section also includes the story of the founding of Rome, of Romulus and Remus and how the two brothers only survived because a she-wolf found them floating down a river and cared for them. But Romulus ended up killing Remus out of greed, perhaps the same way that the two girls are destined to fight with only one surviving and outliving the other.  

One of the girls asks, “How are my hands like and unlike the paws of an animal?” (207).

How are we like and unlike animals?

RB: Oh gosh, great question! I am pretty sure I am an animal, and that being female is  more animal-like than being male, or at least our female bodies remind us of our animal-selves with much, much greater frequency. Obviously I am not saying that women are non-human, or are less human than men, though of course that argument has been made many times, just that women are greater shape-shifters, and animals are great shape-shifters, too. 



Rita Bullwinkel is the author of Headshot and Belly Up, which won a 2022 Whiting Award. She is the editor of McSweeney’s Quarterly, a contributing editor for NOON and an Assistant Professor of English at 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.

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