The Big Idea: Pamela Ribon

I’ve been a huge sloppy fan of Pamela Ribon since she and I were part of the first wave of “online journals” back in the day, me with Whatever, and she with Why am I such a fan? Because Pamie’s professional-grade funny, that’s why, and funny’s a lot harder than it looks. Pam’s been funny across several television shows and three novels, and the latest of these, Going in Circles, bundles up the funny with one of Pam’s other loves: Roller derby. She’s not just a spectator, she’s a player, something which she lorded over me in a recent conversation:

Pamie: I’m rocking a gimpy leg right now from a derby injury. See? I suffer for my books. It’s not like you ever went to SPACE, John.

Me: I haven’t been in space, but I do run all around my house with toy spaceships in my hands, making “Pew! Pew! Pew!” sounds. Which counts for SOMETHING.

I think she got the better of that particular discussion.

But what makes her comedy work so well is not only that it’s funny, but because there’s more there than just funny– there’s also what the funny has worked through to get here. I’d explain more, but Pamie’s better at it, so here she is.


I had to write this book because people were beginning to ask me a lot of questions about my two secrets: divorce and roller derby. Oddly enough, you tend to get the same kinds of questions.

“When did THIS happen?”
“But doesn’t it hurt?”
“How could you do this?”
“Have you lost weight?”

They have similar answers, actually. “It sort of just happened, and I’m sorry I didn’t tell you right away but I wasn’t sure if I was going to go through with this, and now it looks like I am and yes, it hurts an awful lot, and I don’t know exactly why I’m doing this… except that I have to.”

These were complicated relationships in my life, and I didn’t really know how to talk about them without sounding like a crazy person. And look, both divorce and roller derby make you seem crazy to other people, to outsiders who aren’t inside your head. People immediately place themselves in your shoes and then judge you based off of whether or not you’re behaving in the manner in which they think they would behave in your situation. I’ve come to look at it as something not unlike when people yell at the movie screen during a horror movie. Sure, that girl’s an idiot for running up that flight of stairs when the man with the knife is coming at her. I hear you hollering. But I bet if that same piece of cutlery was coming at your head you’d be taking those steps two at a time, because they’re right there. It’s probably true — enduring a lengthy, estranged marriage was the equivalent of racing up three floors in the rickety house of a serial killer. But the thing is, you can yell at that girl all you want. She can’t hear you.

What happens in this novel bears little resemblance to what happened in my own. This is not a memoir. But the emotions the main character is struggling with that cause her to believe she might actually be going crazy — that’s where this story comes from. Because when things are in limbo like that, when your life seems stuck on pause, every question appears to have sixteen thousand equally plausible answers. When I was struggling with my own answers, I never seemed to have the ones people were looking for. I think it’s because human beings have a natural, very healthy, instinct to avoid pain. Going through a divorce or signing up for roller derby says to the world, “I am about to get hurt. A lot. Seemingly willingly.” Who could understand that?

I didn’t want to write what felt like all the words that had already been written before about a broken relationship. Equally important to me was finding a way to write about a sport most people have never even heard of, nor do they understand. I’ve joked elsewhere that describing the rules to such a visual sport as roller derby made me feel like I was trying to reinvent Quidditch. How do you get people who aren’t inside this world — who have never intentionally thrown their body into another person with the intent to knock her over — to understand why you’d want to play such a dangerous sport? Why would you spend all that time doing something that actually costs you time, money and sometimes blood? How do you explain the passion it takes to stick with something that forces you to confront all of your flaws, insecurities, and weaknesses –all while wearing a helmet and a mouth guard?

You describe it like someone falling in love. Because that’s also scary and dangerous, with new people and unfamiliar feelings that seem heightened and impossible. It’s the same kind of terror that comes with the knowledge that if you really get into this, you know you’re going to get hurt. You think about it all day, you wait for it all night, and you find yourself touching the marks on your skin, the new bruises that came from when it got kind of hot and sweaty and physical.

…This has gone to a weird place. I know. I’m sorry. But it’s the closest I can explain to people when they ask why someone would play roller derby. It’s like getting to be in that one wild, horrible love affair that had too much of everything but you can’t and won’t stop it because it’s the most fun you’ve had in your life. It’s probably not good to you, but it’s good for you. It’s what we do when the pain of a break-up makes it so we can no longer stand the sound of our own voices, or the ache of our insides. We find something out there that can overwhelm the pain, something that hurts almost as much but in a different, more tangible way, just to forget about the real world for a while.

A friend of mine put it so perfectly the other day, and I hope he doesn’t mind me sharing it here. He said the hardest part about going from two to one, from learning that a long-term and seemingly untouchable relationship can actually end, is that you lose an important part of your identity. “It’s like you’re giving up your language,” he said. That sticks with me. And it resonates here, because the main character in this novel was losing her language. Not just the shorthand that comes from being in a couple, but her ability to speak, to answer questions. She had to fill her vocabulary with new words, like “booty block” and “helmet panty.” Words that are very silly, but much easier to say.

When you get injured playing a sport, everything stops. You’re splayed out, writhing in pain, and everyone else takes a knee. They quietly wait, frozen still, while you check yourself out to see if you’re okay. I think that’s fantastic. This book came out of those times when your life gets extremely painful, and everyone important to you stops, takes a knee, and watches you, worried and waiting. And in that moment they all want to help, they all care, and they all have a million different questions. But what it boils down to is the only answer they really need is: “I’m okay.”

That’s the one answer. “I’m okay. …But just in case, someone better call an ambulance.”


Going in Circles: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Read Pamela Ribon’s blog. Follow her on Twitter.