The Big Idea: Tricia Sullivan

How do martial arts, motherhood and stray cats connect? As Tricia Sullivan explains in her Big Idea piece for Shadowboxer, the connection is real — and relevant to her novel.


When I started writing Shadowboxer in late 2008 I had three small children. I was breastfeeding the youngest. My abdominal muscles were shot. Large chunks of my day were spent crawling around on the floor and I got most of my exercise by pushing a stroller. I was also managing a website for my partner Steve Morris, whom I’d met as a martial arts student. I learned the difference between traditional martial arts and fighting in Steve’s class. It was all made clear to me when an enormous dude dealt with my perfectly-formed punches and kicks by picking me and my karate brown belt up and casually chucking us across the room.

When Steve and I eventually started the website we got a lot of enquiries from people disillusioned with traditional martial arts and looking for a practical way to train for real. Nearly all of those people were men. Some of them were men who trained women. I felt that women were being condescended to by many of these guys. Instructors offered traditional martial arts with little contact or light contact only, or ‘ladies boxercise’ or some canned ‘self-defense’ moves that they taught to women because they themselves had no idea how to fight for real. It wasn’t just in the UK that this was happening. Even though organizations like the UFC and Strikeforce were already big in the US, the focus was in combat sports was heavily male-oriented. Most of the women who got press coverage were ring girls.

I admit that I became frustrated. I got tired of the macho attitudes of many of the martial arts instructors whose commentary and questions came through our site. I was annoyed that an awesome fighter like Gina Carano was getting media attention based primarily on her looks—as if the physical prowess and skill of female fighters meant nothing. And I was sick to death after years of being compared to Buffy the Vampire Slayer by people who thought they were complimenting me.


But I couldn’t do anything about it. With a ruined abdomen and milk-filled breasts, I wasn’t in any position to do hard training. I was living on very little sleep, and I had reproductive hormones running through my bloodstream like crack—only instead of making me high they made me gentle. Hell, if a sentimental ad came on TV I’d be in floods of tears.

The only way I could deal with my frustration was to write about it. I wanted to explore what it might be like for a young woman trying to break in as a fighter, and I wanted to know what would make her want to do that in a culture pitched so hard against her expression of physical violence. I kept asking questions, I listened to the little voices in my head—yeah, I know, that doesn’t sound too good but it’s how I do it—and pretty soon Jade started talking to me.

Jade Barrera is a Dominican-American mixed martial artist—a cage-fighter—but she’s named after the Mexican boxer Marco Antonio Barrera, whose epic 2005 match against Jose Morales made a big impression on me. I based Jade’s persona loosely on a sixth-grade girl in my class in New York City many years ago; I’ll call her L. L was the smallest kid in the class and also the fiercest. She would start it up with people on purpose, just to make sure they knew she wasn’t soft. Except L. was soft. She would bring in pictures of her cat and when no one else was around she’d show them to me and tell me stories of her cat’s exceptional adorableness.

So, in the opening scene of Shadowboxer, Jade sees a martial arts movie star mistreating a stray cat, and she becomes unhinged. She leaves the movie star’s nose somewhere west of his face and finds herself in big trouble with her trainer. He wants to get her away from the media, so he sends her off to his family’s gym in Bangkok, Thailand, for fight experience. In the US, professional fighters have to be eighteen to compete. In Thailand, they start much younger.

Muay Thai is one of the hardest sports on Earth. It’s also a link between Thailand and the rest of the world, with martial artists from all over the world living in training camps so they can eat, breathe, and sleep Muay Thai fighting. This cross-cultural contact drives the plot of the book; it’s while she’s fighting in Thailand that Jade gets caught up in crime with a supernatural bent, crime that will follow her back to the US and change the course of her life forever.

There are a lot of fight scenes in this book. There’s plenty of detail about Jade’s training. But here’s the thing: even back all those years ago, before the current focus on ‘kickass women protagonists’ had taken hold, one thing I knew for sure was that I wasn’t going to let Jade be the only significant female character. Nor was I going to conflate winning fights with being heroic. Because there’s more to being strong than thinking with your fists. Anyway, strength isn’t the only virtue a person can have. There are plenty of admirable things for girls and women—for all people— to do that really have nothing to do with ‘strength’ as such, but everything to do with living honourably in a world full of darkness and compromise. I hope this is reflected in the variety of female characters I’ve written.

I started out asking myself what would make a teenaged girl aspire to be a fighter, and the process of writing Shadowboxer led me and Jade together on a journey through Jade’s own violence and through the violence and evil of others. It’s only on the other side of this violence that Jade finds a fragile understanding of what is worth fighting for in life.

And yes: I do personally happen to think that stray cats are worth fighting for.


Shadowboxer: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt (pdf file). Visit the author’s site. Follow her on Twitter.


24 Comments on “The Big Idea: Tricia Sullivan”

  1. I like the way that you’ve thought in depth about what ‘strength’ means as a virtue here. I think the way ‘strong’ protagonists are written, especially female ones, is often skewed by the fact that we use the same word for physical strength, strength of character in a person and the strength of the character as a story element. So when people hear that they need a strong character for their books their leap straight to giving that character muscles and fighting skills. Not that those are necessarily uninteresting, but it means people sometimes end up portraying, or even reacting against, a type of strength that isn’t what the search for strong characters was about in the first place.

  2. Super-excited for this! I just ordered it for my library yesterday. I’m a female martial artist too and my god, the number of people who don’t *really* believe I like hitting dudes really hard with sticks until I show them pictures… Have you ever read Tamora Pierce’s “Protector of the Small” series? I think Jade and Kel (female soldier who risks her life and career to protect others/animals) would get on beautifully.

  3. I haven’t read that series, but it looks great and might be just right for my daughter. Thanks for the rec! (This is Trish, by the way, in my WordPress guise).

  4. I admit, I’m normally not into boxing/fighting/martial arts characters/books/movies, but this sounds intriguing. Added to my read pile for later. Thanks!

  5. I’m jazzed just at the sight of a clearly non-Caucasian female, with actual muscles, in a plausible fighting stance! YESSSS.

    Also, seconding H. Savinien on Tamora Pierce!

  6. It sounds really interesting, I appreciate your thinking it through like this. I will say the cover is quite off-putting. Too bad photo covers are cheap and painted covers more costly (good ones, at any rate). This isn’t one I’d pick up based on cover, which is how I usually shop books, blurbs and reviews coming after.

  7. I admit I’m also fonder of covers with smart graphic design than straight-up “photo of person” or even “painting of spaceship/group of armored people on horseback/??”. But shopping by cover? In bookstores or libraries, it’s usually just the spine that’s visible, so actually that’s how the judging-book-by-cover usually goes for me — 6″ by 1.5″ worth of color, typography, and titling. Harsh world.

  8. [Deleted for (perhaps unintentionally) attempting to drag Internet drama from elsewhere into this space. Let’s not, please – JS]

  9. Hello Kai, I made a number of revisions to the novel after taking consultation on culture and race issues from several people. I gave it a lot of thought. I’m not able to judge how successful I was in addressing concerns that were raised, but I tried my best. Thanks for your interest. — Tricia

  10. Might get this one for my girlfriend; think she’d appreciate the protagonist (she practices a Japanese MMA style).

    Overall, it sounds interesting. Kind of wondering how much punching evil in the face there is. Always a big fan. Which version is better for Tricia (since she’s reading the comments), kindle or hard copy?

  11. I’d be grateful for anyone reading any version, kindle, hard copy, or library…thanks :-)
    (And I may be slow on comment responses depending on where I am, but I will of course read all of the comments.)

  12. I appreciate cover art that doesn’t fall prey to the ‘exaggerated female form in improbable poses’ trope that seems to be how female fighters are portrayed currently. That or the fantasy breastplate more likely to cause injury than prevent it. This cover looks more like Vasquez from Aliens, ready to kick ass and take names if needed.

    I’ve taken to ordering some of the Big Idea books for my own Kindle, and if they turn out good, passing them on to our library system’s selection committee.

  13. It’s great to see libraries getting some love.

    On cover art: it’s always interesting to me how widely people’s tastes vary. I’ve been living in the UK for nearly 20 years now, and when I first came here I was struck by the different book cover aesthetic. I’m trying to capture what it was; it’s hard to frame on a single characteristic. They are more austere in the UK, maybe?

    I don’t know how long those differences can last with so many UK publishers subsidiary to larger international groups and deals now often being done on a world English language rights basis. While it persists, I think it speaks to the way images are received differently in different cultures. And of course each of us are so different as individuals.

    Fwiw, this cover was designed by a US-based artist for a small UK company based on an idea by me–which is the first time I’ve been asked for input at the very beginning of the process (and this is my 11th novel). Mostly I’ve had no input at all, which you guys probably already know is fairly typical.

    I know that one time I complained about a cover concept one of my earlier books was given and the artist eventually worked from a sketch I sent in, I thought the result was MUCH BETTER and they used it, but everyone else hated it and the book tanked. So after that I sat on my hands and kept my mouth shut. For, like, almost 15 years. Until now.

    If @Richard upthread is reading this he’s probably going, ‘Yup, that explains everything.’ ;-)

  14. The book sounded intriguing even before the mention of a supernatural aspect, but that moved it into the “hmmm, I might need to buy this” category.

  15. Suggesting for my library as well, and thirding Tamora Pierce’s books. Well worth reading.

  16. I have been following Whatever for several years now, I almost always note the title of any book that is listed as a big idea to follow up later. Today is the first time I purchased the book as soon as I reached the link at the bottom of the page. Hopefully by the time I finish typing this it will have finished downloading

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