Photo courtesy Coffee House Press

"Always an iced coffee, even in winter"

Molly McArdle
February 07, 2018

A manic episode of a book, Stephen Florida follows its titular character, a college wrestler in his senior year at a North Dakota college, on a quest for greatness. Debut novelist Gabe Habash, bores deep into Stephen’s psyche, whose telescoping on his ultimate goal is terribly more intense—and limiting—than your average set of blinders. It’s a thrilling, sweaty ride.

What did you have for breakfast this morning?
I went to my bodega, Food U Desire, and had an iced coffee and a granola bar.

Is that a normal breakfast for you?
Yes. Always iced coffee, even in winter, but I'll get different bars. I like Nature Valley and GoMacro carob and almond butter bars, which were recalled for Salmonella contamination a few years ago.

Are there any breakfast moments in Stephen Florida?
My narrator, Stephen, has a bare-minimum food intake because he's a wrestler, and it gets more erratic as the story goes along. By the end, this is his eating mindset: "I dump a bag of nuts into my mouth" and "It’s hard to figure out when I’m ready or not ready for food because I don’t feel hungry. So I take guesses and force things down when it seems o.k." He also smears peanut butter on his face, but it's not at breakfast time.

I know you've never wrestled, and you had never before been to North Dakota. How did you research these two big elements of the novel?
The wrestling was reading a few books and familiarizing myself with the terminology, but mainly I watched YouTube videos of matches. Hours and hours of them. Then I tried to translate what I was seeing to the page; I felt my lack of a wrestling background was actually helpful, because I figured if I could articulate what was happening in the book during a match, readers who weren't familiar with wrestling would also be able to understand.

The book is set in central North Dakota at a fictional college in a fictional town. Central North Dakota is about as blank as you can get in terms of a blank slate for a setting, so I felt I had a lot of room to fill in that space. I used Google Earth to view a lot of the state (the roads and landmarks like lakes are accurate), but it's largely fictionalized. The isolation of the setting was essential to me in heightening the solitude of my narrator's goal.

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