Some say a best-selling novel hides inside every working journalist. But sports writers? Not so much, unless one has the pedigree and panache of Chad Dundas.
The Missoula sportswriter broke the mold four years ago when his debut novel, “Champion of the World,” landed the 2016 Boston Globe Best Book of the Year award. At the center of the 1921 tale is a disgraced professional wrestler who agrees to return to a Montana training camp to coach a down-and-out African-American heavyweight contender to a world title.
The retro-wrestling tale not only earned Dundas favorable comparison to the likes of Cormac McCarthy and Jim Thompson but sold in a two-book deal to G.P. Putnam’s Sons.
Book number two, “The Blaze,” which just dropped in January, is a fast-moving contemporary mystery about Matthew Rose, an Army veteran with traumatic brain injury who returns home from Iraq to Montana to settle his late father’s estate. Unfortunately, a deadly house fire his first night back signals the start of a rough sled for Rose, whose memory of a different fire long ago sparks long-unresolved mysteries from his past.
Dundas admits that his own lineage played a major role in leading him to a writer’s life.
“It was always one of the things I was interested in, and frankly always one of the only things that I could do somewhat well; I can’t really do math and I can’t really do science, so I focused a lot on writing,” he says. “But I am pretty lucky to come from a family of writers. My big brother Zach is a longtime journalist and magazine editor and at this point has two nonfiction books out (“The Great Detective,” “The Renegade Sportsman”). My uncle Daryl Gadbow was sports editor at the Missoulian for a long time and ultimately did the outdoors page. And then my aunt Kate Gadbow was the director of creative writing at the university for a lot of years.
“My grandma Margaret Gadbow, whom everyone called Peggy, was the head librarian for School District number one here in Missoula growing up, so we were always surrounded by books and artists and people who were either writing for a living or writing to enrich themselves, so it always seemed like a possibility,”
Like his big brother Zach, Chad got his journalism start at the Hellgate High School student paper. Chad graduated and became a sports writer for the Montana Kaimin while earning his journalism degree at the University of Montana. After college, he applied for a news job, but his timing landed him in sports.
“I went to apply for a job at the Missoulian, back when Mike McInally was the editor there, and it was for a news reporting job. I had an interview with Mike that I thought went well and we hit if off a little bit, talked and talked, and then at the end of it, he was like, ‘Well, we’re not going to give you the news reporter job because we’re going to give it to this other person, but we have this part-time sports reporter job. Do you want that instead?’ and I was like, ‘Heck yes; I’ll do that!’ So I was the part-time sports writer at the Missoulian for a while, and then when Kim Briggeman transferred over to start doing more news stuff and ultimately the history column that he does at the Missoulian now, I went fulltime and found my niche as a sports writer from then on.”
Dundas expounds on his history and success in his interview with the Montana Press:
How did fiction enter your paradigm?
I always had an interest in both things. I started out at UM as a creative writing major; I always thought I would sort of lean that way, then after a short time, I had a lot of friends who were in the journalism program and there must have been some more pragmatic part of my brain that kicked in that said, ‘Well, if I’m going to go to college, I should learn a trade that I could get a job with after I graduate.’ At the time, I didn’t know that choosing journalism was probably the second worst possible decision that I could have made, but I changed my major and eventually got a bachelor’s degree in journalism. But I was always interested in both things, and hoped that I would get the opportunity to do both in my adult professional life.
Your sports beat eventually led to your fiction debut with your hit first novel, “Champion of the World.” How did that roll out?
For about a decade now, I’ve been a mixed martial arts reporter; I worked for ESPN from 2008 to 2010, then Bleacher Report and CNN off and on from 2010 to 2018. It was kind of a thing I fell into in the late 2000s, covering combat sports and professional fighting, and to me it’s a fascinating world, both as a sporting subculture and as a sport itself. My first book was kind of inspired by the works that I have done as an MMA reporter, and certainly the personalities that are on the page in “Champion of the World” were informed by a lot of the professional fighters and the people around them that I have been able to interact with over the last decade or so. It’s a very colorful, very interesting world where something crazy is always happening. It’s sort of the exact opposite of the very vanilla, staid, PR-controlled world of other mainstream professional sports. It can be wild and a little bit unpredictable, but at the same time, the people who do it are very dedicated and in many ways very cerebral and just interesting to talk to.
How did you find your fiction voice?
When I was finishing my MFA, as my senior thesis, I was trying to write a novel, but ended up just writing 50 pages over and over again, which ultimately just kind of died on the page. It was a novel that was set in the twentieth-century teens in Montana, and ultimately there was a lot of stuff in that failed draft that I ended up using in “Champion of the World.” I had a day job as a sports reporter, but I was trying to write short stories and trying to keep that part of my creative life alive, and when I came up with the idea for “Champion of the World,” it kind of lit up all of these different nerve centers in my brain, of this lifelong interest I have had of being a sportswriter and, as a kid, a professional wrestling fan, and now covering combat sports as an adult. All of those very nerdy interests kind of fused together in my mind. I just needed to find the right project to prove to myself that writing an entire book was even a thing that I was capable of doing.
Setting your first book in the 1920s took some guts.
I had read several novels about boxing, but I was trying to think of a great novel about wrestling and I couldn’t really think of one. I knew that I had this lifelong interest in professional wrestling that, as an adult, had become an interest in the weird history of professional wrestling, and I knew that as a sports writer, I had access to all these personalities, many of whom are analogous to what the professional wrestlers of the early 1900s may have been like, so I thought that it was a book that no one had written, a book that I would pick off the shelf if I was a consumer, and a book that I was uniquely positioned to write. So it was a unique obsession of mine to write that first book as a novel.
Where did you get the concept for “The Blaze?”
I always knew that I wanted to write mysteries and thrillers, because those are the kind of books that I grew up reading. I grew up really liking the big Montana mystery writers like James Lee Burke and James Crumley, and also the giants of that genre, as I was growing up, like James Ellroy, George Pelecanos and Megan Abbott. So I always had this idea that my second book was going to be a mystery set in Montana, and as I thought about it a little more, I started to come up with a character who had memory troubles; who had a lot of his biographical memory scrubbed away.
One of the unfortunate offshoots of my job covering combat sports is, you have to get a little bit acquainted with head injury and know a little something about traumatic brain injury and concussion and post-concussion syndrome and all these different things, and while I’m not expert, I knew enough to know that there is potential there from a mystery standpoint. I started to read stories about soldiers who were coming back from modern military conflicts with the signature injury of modern warfare, the dramatic brain injury, and started to realize that there was probably an opportunity there to try to write about that experience.
I took that idea and forged it with the idea that I wanted to set a contemporary mystery in Missoula and write about the modern west and the Montana that I see around me every day, and from there just kind of fleshed out the characters and the plot from there.
This story seems really familiar to you.
I have several friends who were in the military and did deploy overseas and had combat experiences, several of whom were very gracious to me and allowed me to ask them questions and read early drafts of the novel and allowed me to flesh out the military part of Matthew’s character. I supplemented the rest of it with stuff that I was more intimately acquainted with in my own life, like as a sports writer, I made him a former high school athlete. But most of it is just fictionalized, spraying out of my own brain one way or the other.
Are you working on a new book?
Yeah, I have a couple of novels going right now, kind of in their formative stages. I’m trying to get the first act going on two or three different projects and then I might ultimately settle on one that has the most creative juices for me right now. I’m also doing a history and true-crime podcast with my brother that’s going to be called “Dead in the West.” It’s going to be coming out in 2020 and our first season is going to focus on the murder of (labor leader) Frank Little in Butte in 1917. So I’ve got a lot of different irons in the fire.
Any thoughts of writing fiction full time?
I’m married and I have three small kids, but the ultimate dream I think would to be a full-time fiction writer; it’s always been my passion and it’s always been the thing that I’ve wanted to do most of all. When I sold “Champion of the World” to G.P. Putnam and Sons, I actually got a two-book deal, so they got “The Blaze” at the same time, but I had only started “The Blaze” in a very skeletal way. So after I found out that they were going to buy both of those books, I was filled with this rush of extreme exaltation but also terror. I took two weeks off after I sold “Champion,” but after that, I started writing “The Blaze.”
I’ve had a great experience and a great education over the last several years writing and publishing these two books and it’s definitely a thing that I want to continue to do if they will let me. But I think you have to get real lucky in order to actually write fiction as a full-time job: you either have to pen a runaway bestseller or someone has to come along and offer you a bunch of money on an option for a movie or TV show. It’s almost like buying a lottery ticket; every book that comes out has the opportunity to do all of these things that could be very lucrative, but at the same time, you can’t count on any of them. Just take it as it comes, and enjoy the wonderful ride of fulfilling a lifelong ambition.