Ruth Bonapace

On Creating a Unique Voice, the Gym as an Escape, and Balancing Tenderness and Humor

Cover of Ruth Bonapace: On Creating a Unique Voice, the Gym as an Escape, and Balancing Tenderness and Humor

Over the past few years, I’ve been somewhat obsessed with the worlds of strength sports and bodybuilding. I watch every documentary I can find on the subject, and it’s something that continually inspires my writing. When I heard that one of my favorite publishers, CLASH Books, was publishing The Bulgarian Training Manual, described in blurbs as a comic wild ride that smartly satirizes the world of fitness and wellness, I was instantly intrigued. I reached out to Ruth, and we connected over our mutual fascination with strongmen and strongwomen.

She sent me a copy, and I enjoyed it from the first page. We’re thrown headfirst into the strange ecosystem of the gym with all its peculiarities. Aside from a biting comedy,  The Bulgarian Training Manual is also a deeply researched look at rich tradition with roots in the days of vaudeville carnivals. Ruth was kind enough to talk with me about her debut novel.

 

Drew Buxton: The thing that jumps out immediately with this book is the voice. In his blurb, Mark Leyner wrote that the narrator Tina speaks in a “homemade lingo that crackles like a cheek of cinnamon chewing gum.” I honestly can’t think of a better way to describe it. These short punchy fragments create a rhythm that draws in the reader. How did this voice come about? What influences is it drawn from?

Ruth Bonapace: It’s an urban working-class voice I’ve picked up over much of my life from different sources. Having been raised in blue-collar Queens and Long Island neighborhoods, it’s a familiar patois that I mostly lost, assuming I had it at all, after college and travel. However, I still hear it among some friends, including one from New Jersey who says “she don’t” even though he is college educated and another from pre-gentrified Brooklyn who refers to almost anything as “shit” instead of “stuff.” 

 For the cadence, I’ve long been fascinated by the clipped, sarcastic, and intimate voice of longtime New York Post gossip columnist Cindy Adams, who often used one- or two-word sentences. I just looked her up to see if she’s still alive and, yes, she is, at 93. She ended all her columns with “Only in New York, kids, only in New York.” It’s the assertive voice on a city stoop, or the noir characters in those vintage radio shows like Johnny Dollar and films of the ’30s and ’40s, where the characters, especially the women, either had heavy New York accents and said things like “Hey buster, whaddya want?” or they had affected pseudoupper-class diction. I wanted a tough-girl, in-your-face, baring-my-guts, entre nous kind of voice that was also vulnerable and filled with self-doubt. It’s not easy to sustain, however. There were days when I’d start writing and the narrator would sound more like me. On those days, I’d have to stop and try again another day.

This is slightly off topic but speaking of old movies, one of my favorites is The Petrified Forest from 1936 with Bette Davis, Humphrey Bogart and Leslie Howard. These three characters personify a distinct linguistic patternBogey and his cronies, of course, do the classic gangster talk; Leslie Howard is the dreamy suffering poet, and Bette Davis, while having an accent that is completely at odds with her redneck town, is nonetheless full of spunk and spitfire in her direct language and take-no-prisoners attitude. Like my narrator Tina might have been in another era.

I love the assertiveness of the women in the pre-1950s movies.

DB: It’s not surprising the voice has so many different influences. I definitely caught some of the old noir influence, and Tina feels like a throwback in a way that really works.

She lives in a basement apartment in New Jersey and works a dead-end job that she can’t stand. The gym is an escape from the mundanity of her life. Her harsh reality is contrasted with the supernatural powers of the training manual and ghosts of bodybuilding past. What is it about the fitness world that captures Tina’s imagination? As a writer, what makes it a great vehicle to move from realism into the speculative?

RB: The gym is an escape for many people. You can socialize thereor not. You can “be somebody” at the gymand you see this with a lot of the guys, especially, who train hard and preen in the mirrorwhen outside you’ve got an ordinary life. Like the images in Bruce Springsteen’s song “Out in the Street.” At night, the anonymous factory worker says, “When I’m out in the street, I walk the way I want to walk,” etc. I’ve escaped to the gym myself during hard times, like when I was in the middle of a divorce, and I discovered how jumping on the bike or the treadmill was a release and learning how to lift weights within a few months resulted in an easy-to-see change in my body definition. It’s a way to control something in your life when everything seems out of control. So, I think that would appeal to Tina. 

As for moving into the speculativeI mean, look at the contestants at bodybuilding shows all over the country. Those are bodies that most of us wouldn’t attain, even with steroids. Looks like something from a Marvel movie. It’s a bizarre transformation and an equally bizarre regimen that these people followmen and women. Like the old cliché about truth being stranger than fiction. It’s all already here.

DB: That’s a really interesting point. I’ve known people who live for that notoriety in the gym. They’re much more invested in their bodies and the social scene of the gym than conventional ideas of success. I’ve also definitely had times where lifting weights was a respite. The times I’ve been really into fitness have been the times my life isn’t going especially well.

This book provides a comedic look at the wellness and fitness industry. It moves into the absurd with insatiable demand for gluten-free communion wafers, hydrating serum contraband, and guru adjuncts at DeVry University. What is it about the current culture of “wellness” and vanity that is so ripe for satire? What do you think the allure of it is that draws in so many followers?

RB: Many of us want an edge, that “secret sauce” that can elevate some part of us to a new level. Lose weight. Gain muscle. Improve memory. Have more energy. Instagram and TikTok are filled with endless weight loss and exercise gurus, before and after pictures: obese to slender, flabby to firm. Pop into any GNC store and check out the shelves. Many of the supplements mentioned  in my book are realcreatine, thiamine and, yes, horny goat weed, which is sort of a plant-based Viagra. Apart from the many esoteric legal and illicit substances used to gain athletic strength and muscle, we have endless “fat-burning” supplements and new pharmaceuticals like Ozempic.

The absurd in fiction is not too far from the absurd in life. If we had the grapefruit diet and the Subway diet where you eat nothing but Subway sandwichesI am not making this upthen hell, it’s not a big step to find a “secret” communion wafer craze. Actually, I’d been mulling over what might be an unlikely supplement when I went into a church in Paris that had a wild array of realistic looking statues including St. Catherine of Siena. When I read that she lived off communion for years, I looked up more info and not only did I have my obscure  supplement but another character of sorts for the book. Same with the information about how to make anabolic steroids. By the way, the first steroids in America were introduced by a U.S. Olympic team doctor, John “Montana Jack” Ziegler, who gave it to his athletes back in the ’50s. Supposedly he found out about it while chit chatting over drinks with a Russian physicist. So when Big Steve talks about Eastern Bloc spies trading workout secrets, that’s not too far from reality. Ziegler was a bodybuilder, too. As you can probably tell, I did a lot of research while writing this book. And then had fun with it.

As for the professor from DeVrythe bodybuilding world is very cultish, and I’ve discovered books, articles and nutritional supplements touted by people with important-sounding letters after their names from obscure institutions.

DB: It’s wild to think someone could live off communion! I think the search for an edge is a natural thing for humans. Sometimes I think athletic commissions should stop trying to stop the use of performance-enhancing drugs because some are going to find a way to beat the system one way or another. Of course, there would be some big downsides as well…

Something we learn early on is that Tina grew up without parents. While this book is a raucous look at the world of extreme fitness, it is also a tender story of family and self-discovery. How did you go about striking a balance between these two elements?

RB: I’m glad this came through. I rewrote the book many times as I discovered new elements or ideas. After early drafts, I wanted to dive a little deeper into Tina, her deepest fears, desires, disappointments. The tender wounds and doubts we carry. I didn’t want her to be a one-dimensional cartoon. But I also didn’t want to lose the momentum or the humor.

One of my favorite scenes is when she sits down on the wet stoop and the water soaks through her jeans. It’s one of those moments when youthe universal “we”feel overwhelmed by both real and existential grief and sadness. You think it can’t get any worse and then you get into a fender bender, or your dog chews up your new expensive shoes, or you sit down on a soaking wet stoop. Of course, I can’t just leave her there, being the writer and master of her universe. That little voice of reasonin this case she channels Schwarzeneggertells her to “stop whining.” And she kind of snaps back into perspective. 

As for her parents, I chose to make it ambiguous as to whether she was given a false narrative by others or, possibly, by herself, to justify her abandonment. Technically, we can write a novel with no ancestors. But I wanted to include her grandmother, who is based on my own maternal grandmother who had a sad life and would drink beer and watch boxing and wrestling on TV. I really loved her, and I knew from an early age that other kids’ grandmas didn’t spend Sunday afternoons rooting for people bouncing around in a ring.

From there, I thought it would be fun to have all these whispers about her parentage. After all, why did everyone want her version of The Bulgarian Training Manual

When I was about two-thirds through the novel, and after reading Joseph Campbell’s books, especially The Hero with a Thousand Faces, I recognized parallels between my book and The Wizard of Oz . Like Dorothy, Tina starts off fearful, filled with grievances, then a bizarre event takes her to a far-off land where she finds companions who happen to be archetypes, then, poof, comes back changed. Dorothy learned she didn’t need the ruby slippers, that she had the power to go home all alongand when the scarecrow demands to know why she wasn’t told from the start, Glinda replies something like “she wouldn’t have believed me. She needed to find out for herself.” Bingo. I then had the answer that had been eluding me in finishing the book. Tina starts out a hot mess, and slowly realizes that she is stronger than she knows, smarter than she believed. And she has to find out for herself. This leads to a massive shift. 

The book also has elements of romancebut purposely not a romcom, which in my opinion comprises too much of today’s popular fiction. Tina, in defensive mode, is highly suspicious of Cowboy/Vladimir and keeps him at arm’s length. Spoiler alert! LOL. She gradually warms up to him and at the end, is completely flummoxed when he walks toward her as she is giving a speech.

One more thingwhen I was thinking about my grandmother and the pro wrestlers, and the fictional origins of The Bulgarian Training Manual, I did some research into pioneers of the sport. Along the way, someone recommended the Leslie Fiedler book Freaks: Myths and Images of the Secret Self.  I was skeptical at first, but I found it moving, especially about how many of these athletes, particularly the strong, muscular women, were considered freaks in their day and relegated to circus sideshows. Thomas Edison in 1901 produced a short film of a beautiful strong womanstripping on a trapeze! That woman was Laverie Vallee, aka Charmion. I substituted a photo of her on the interior title page instead of Hackenschmidt, which you have in the galley. Most people still regard the pro bodybuilders as freaks with their extreme physiques, and the acceptance of strong women with muscleeveryday women and tennis players like Venus Williams, basketball stars like Brittney Griner, etc.is a relatively recent phenomenon. Tina comes to embody not only an improved mindset, but an understanding that being a strong woman is her birthright and, by extension, every woman’s.

 

Ruth Bonapace has an MFA from Stony Brook University. Her work has appeared in various publications including The Southampton Review, The Saturday Evening Post, The New York Times, and American Writer’s Review. Ruth’s debut novel The Bulgarian Training Manual is scheduled for publication in June 2024 by Clash Books. Her interest in the habits of athletes began while she was covering pro sports at The Associated Press for two years, and continued through her experiences at the gym.

Share this