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.

24 Comments on “The Big Idea: Pamela Ribon”

  1. Just saw Whip It and loved it. Bad girls who skate seems like the kind of thing I’d watch on TV. Books sounds fun too.

  2. If you ever get the chance to see modern roller derby, do it. It’ll take you most of the bout to figure out what’s going on, but it’s not the same as the stuff they showed on TV 40 years ago.

  3. Well, Pamie shares the same birthday as my oldest daughter; 4 April 1975. And while my daughter was not involved in roller derby, she was a gifted gymnast who for some reason just didn’t like to compete.

    So if nothing else, Happy Birthday.

  4. Have it downloading to the Kindle at home.

    Thanks, John, your vignettes are worth far more to me than any block review on Amazon.

    (probably because I know your tastes and how they mesh with mine)

    (bought Boneshaker the same way)

  5. *waves*

    retired roller girl here :D ~ Sick Cid Six Slinger, yes, that was/is my name ~__^

    I am personally really excited about this book – and I never even knew it was coming out until right now, but I’m about to go and order me one. Derby is… so very unique. I won’t go off on my love for the game (TEXAS TEXAS, KILL KILL KILL) but um, I’m officially very excited…..

  6. Oh Lordy, I think I’ve found our next reading-out-loud book.

    I don’t know from roller derby, but I remember getting some of the same questions re martial arts. (Though my partner got them more often, I guess because she’s a girl [cough].)

    I think I know what you mean about touching the bruises. It’s a weird feeling of “I earned that” pride. In some sense, getting bruises in martial arts often means you did something wrong. But the bruises also mean that you’re doing the learning right, because a consistent lack of bruises would be a sign that you’re playing it too safe, you’re not pushing your limits.

    The life lesson in that is left as an exercise for the reader.

  7. There are sites devoted to derby injuries; they’re badges of honor. I remember (and still have picture proof) of my first bad derby bruise/rink rash, and there are pictures of me post-concussion floating around somewhere that look awful because of all the blood.

  8. I very rarely step outside my prefered genre (Fantasy) but I think I must aquire this book.

    Its the “losing language” part that sold me. That’s exactly how I felt, spliting up with my ex.

    Sold! *heads to Barnes & Noble asap.*

  9. ok, so here’s my shallow admission: I was sold at just the cover.

    Then I read the article, and now I’m sold by both the cover and the description of everyone taking a knee, because I’ve totally been there before (not roller derby, but you’d be amazed the damage a field hockey stick can do), and the description here brought a little tear to my eye (that’s right, I’m a sap).

    This looks awesome. Also the cover wins at life.

  10. YAY PAMIE! If you guys like this, you should check out Why Girls are Weird and Why Moms are Weird. This is not a genre I generally visit, but Pamie is so funny and totally willing to embarrass herself and as such, writes really honestly. Even when its not something that happened to her, or someone she knows, it seems like it should have, she writes it so well.

  11. Can’t wait to read the book–I just got confirmation this morning that my copy that I pre-ordered is now available from iBooks! Yay!

    Pamie describes perfectly some of the reasons I loved playing sports in my youth. I wish/hope more girls find it out for themselves, whether in derby or other sports.

  12. Happy healing, Pamie. Heart, body, and soul. However you get there. Thank you for writing it down, here, and in the book.

  13. She sounds awesome. Ima go out and read her stuff.

    As a recent divorcee myself, I’ve ventured into Salsa/Ballroom dancing for the first time ever. Not something my jock/surfer buds understand. At all. But her description resonates. And reinventing self seems part of the mix. Doing something new seems to heighten confidence, independence, and self discovery.

  14. I’m probably not going to read the book, but that was one hell of a well written and very touching essay.

  15. Oh, wow. I’ve read some good books based on these Big Idea pieces, but no Big Idea piece itself had ever made me break into tears until now. I’m going through the end of an 8-year relationship myself, and that last paragraph is such a perfect image. Yes, those are my friends. I don’t have the right answers for them, but they’re still taking a knee, and it’s partly because of that that I really will be okay.

  16. I finished this book last night because I couldn’t put it down. Not only because of the incredible sense of nostalgia. It’s been a year since I ‘retired’ from derby, but the story and the characters. Loved the book, highly suggest it.

  17. I’m incredibly touched by these warm, honest responses to this essay. It’s not that I’m surprised at the caliber of character that Scalzi’s readers have, it’s that you guys have no idea how nervous I was to post what I’d written. It’s the first time I’ve ever used the word “divorce” in public. So thank you, and for those of you who got a copy of GIC, I really appreciate it.