Jenny “Kasey Bomber” Barbee and Alex “Axles of Evil” Cohen are the authors of Down and Derby: the Insider’s Guide to Roller Derby” (Soft Skull Press). Barbee works at the Writers Guild of America and Cohen is a news anchor at LA-based NPR station KPCC.
This writer/derby-girl duo talk about their journeys into derby, their writing process, training/choreographing the actors on the coming-of-age derby film Whip It!, and more in this Write On! Q&A.
How did you go from derby girls to writers? Or was it the other way around?
Barbee: I think that being a writer and being a derby girl are a lot the same. You either are one, or you aren’t. Certainly you always will get better with practice, but it’s something you’ve got to have in you from the beginning. I’ve always skated and I’ve always written for as long as I can remember. It just took a while before other people noticed!
Cohen: Well, we had both been writers for a while… In fact, it was being a reporter that got me into derby. I was planning a trip to Austin, Texas, and looking for a way to write the vacation off as a business expense. At the time, a friend of mine had just started doing derby there, so I decided to do a story on it for public radio.
I had such a good time hanging out and interviewing those women and watching what they did that I found myself hankering to get into derby myself. Luckily, a league started up in Los Angeles not long after that.
What inspired you to write Down and Derby? Why did you decide to collaborate?
Barbee: We really wanted to capture our version of derby on paper before the story was lost in the cracks of oral history. As the sport grows, it becomes more and more important to remember where it all began: both the original version that came into play in the 1930s and the modern millennial version that we enjoy now. Things are growing and changing so fast, that it’s often hard to keep up with the dissemination of vital information to all the new recruits. We kind of hoped to help that along. Now, if someone is interested in joining a derby league, they can pick up Down and Derby and arrive at their first practice equipped with a lot more knowledge on history, tradition, rules of the game, team positions, and the community than we had when we were kind of flying blind so many years ago. We decided to collaborate, I think, because we balance each other out well, and respect each other’s input … even when we don’t agree on things. Alex is much more regimented than I am. I’m sort of lazy and tend to sit still for hours waiting for that elusive inspiration. Sometimes, it’s nice when that inspiration comes in the form of someone else telling you to get crackin’!
Cohen: We realized that the sport was growing so quickly that there were a lot of people who had no idea how the modern version of derby got started. We felt it was important to preserve that history and share it with those who, like us, fell in love with the sport.
We also were tired of every news story that seem to report only the same old trite cliches about the sport (“By day, she’s a quiet school teacher, by night, she’s a wild, tattooed rollergirl …”). We wanted to write a book that derby girls could give to their parents to help them understand what this sport is and why it can be so addictive.
Jenny and I had collaborated before on the set of Whip It!, where we were both trainers and choreographers. We knew we worked well together. Not to be cheesy, but we’re a bit yin and yang. We’re good at complementing each others’ skills and abilities. She also cracks me up and you need all the laughs you can get when you are writing a book. It’s hard work.
What was your process for writing it? Getting it published?
Barbee: When it comes to getting published, we were really fortunate to have a really supportive agent in Ted Weinstein. He and Alex were friends from way back. We had no idea how to construct a nonfiction proposal, or what process to follow … really anything. Alex called Ted and asked if he would mind giving us advice. He very generously offered to read over our proposal once we finished, and give us some critique before we started looking for an agent. Lucky for us, he liked it so well, he decided to take us on himself. I hate to say things like “I feel very blessed” because it just sounds so much like a rapper at the Grammys, but in this case it’s pretty accurate.
Once Soft Skull Press came into the picture, we decided that we’d work by doing a lot of back and forth with the writing between Alex and me. We split up the chapters between the two of us for our first draft, then as we revised, we traded them off several times until our voices started to meld together. This approach might not work for everyone, but I will say that it had some unexpected bonuses. Namely, there were those chapters that we’d trade off after pounding out a frustrating first draft, and we’d hold our breath until we got the feedback from the other. You’d have that feeling like you just wrestled and bear, and you’re not sure anymore who won the match, you know what I mean? Just brutal boogers when it came to getting all the information out the way you wanted. Anyway, those tended to be the chapters that we’d run for the phone to call the other and totally lose our minds about how much we loved each other’s writing.
Cohen: With the help of our great agent (Ted Weinstein) and editor (Denise Oswald), we were able to put together a solid outline of what we wanted to do. We split up the chapters, wrote on our own and then edited each others’ copy. We didn’t have a lot of time to write it, so we definitely hustled, but I think we both work well fueled on adrenaline. After all, we ARE derby girls.
As for getting it published … Originally we set out to write an “Idiot’s Guide to Roller Derby” book. But we realized that it would be hard to teach people how to skate in a book and we had no interest in telling people how to start and run their own league. It’s just too much of an individual process shaped by things like geography, personality, etc.
Our agent, Ted Weinstein, suggested we write a “celebration” of derby. After I finished vomiting (sorry, but the term “celebration” seemed a bit too New Age-y for a sport like derby!), I started thinking seriously about it We realized that there really is a lot to celebrate about our sport: things like having a derby wife and young girls getting involved in the sport. We decided to go for it. Luckily, Soft Skull Press was home to an editor who loved derby and totally got what we wanted to do.
What was your favorite part of writing Down and Derby? The greatest challenge?
Barbee: I think that one of the most satisfying things about writing this is just the ability to put all the love we both put into roller derby into writing. We had the opportunity to meet and talk to so many amazing people all over the world about this sport, and the more we talked to people the more determined we were to write the best book we possibly could to make them proud. The positive press we’ve gotten in the wake of publication has been amazing, but none of it is as great as hearing a skater come up to us saying, “Thank you for writing this. It made me believe I could do it. I just went to my first practice last month.”
Challenging parts? Two words: Photo Research. I used to do photo research and editing for a living, but looking at pictures of celebrities at the Oscars and trying to find the best selection to send to the press is nothing compared to combing through tens of thousands of pictures of roller derby and trying to find the 100 best of the bunch! We were very fortunate in the end to have the generous cooperation of what we believe are the best shooters in the sport today, though.
Cohen: So far my favorite part of writing the book has been meeting roller girls across the country and finding out what they love best about the sport. We’ve received some great responses to the book. When we hear from a fresh meat (newbie skater) who says our book helped her get started on her derby path that is a great honor to us.
The greatest challenge for me was the fact that derby is constantly changing. Book writing and publishing takes a long time and the rules and culture of derby are constantly shifting. At some point we just had to resign ourselves to the fact that we wouldn’t be able to get every facet of derby in the book. But, hey, that’s all the more reason for future editions!
How did you come with your Derby names?
Barbee: My derby name is a play on the Raquel Welch film Kansas City Bomber. Kansas City becomes K.C. K.C. became Kasey. Oddly enough, “kcbomber” has been part of my email address since the late ’90s – long before I was a skater myself. Mostly I just stuck with it. I love movies. I love derby. Boom.
Cohen: When I joined derby, we were still in the Bush years and the term “axis of evil” was being used a lot. I liked the play on words, especially since I’m a vintage car buff and own a ’58 Edsel. Also, “axle” plays on the letters in my real name, so the name fit all sorts of needs for me.
How did you like working on Whip It?
Barbee: Whip It was like the world’s most awesome summer camp. The cast was so dedicated to making derby look good enough to make the derby community proud; it was really impressive. They got the crash course in roller derby for sure – blisters, bruises, cuts, massive falls – they were all a daily part of filming. They worked HARD on that skating, which made our jobs much easier than they could have been. Not a prima donna in the bunch. At some point I really started to realize just how many women were on the set of that movie – director, writer, costumes, makeup, cast, doubles, stunt women, and all the real skaters that were on hand to make things look extra good onscreen. Talk about your awesomely unholy sorority! When we went out on the weekends up there in Detroit, we rolled hard. Team Whip It we called it, and we were quite a team. I’d do it all over again, like, right now if I was asked. I have no doubt that it will last in my memory as one of the best times in my life.
Cohen: Working on Whip It! was amazing, really a dream come true. We got paid to do what we love with an incredible group of women who also just happen to be actresses and musicians we admire and respect. We all worked very hard. Some days we were skating for 12 hours a day. But it was well worth it. It was a great feeling of pride watching the actresses turn down stunt doubles because they wanted to do their own skating … And could!
In what ways was this project similar to/different than your other work? And working solo vs collaboration?
Cohen: I work primarily in radio where you are writing for the spoken voice. That’s a lot different than writing for print and sometimes it was a difficult adjustment. I also have never spent so much time researching and writing just one topic. At times I was sick to death of thinking about derby. But the feeling you get opening a box of books with your name on it is pretty incredible. You don’t get that on the radio for sure.
Most of the time I write for myself, by myself. At first, writing with someone else took a bit of adjustment. But fortunately, Jenny and I share a similar style and sense of humor. It was also great to have someone to bounce ideas off of and share the workload. I never could have done this alone.
Barbee: I’ve done a lot of magazine writing about roller derby over the last few years, so in a way, the transition wasn’t too much of a stretch for me. It was my first collaborative work though, which was much different than working alone. I am pretty impressed with how few times there were that we actually got into arguments. We’re both quite strong-willed, but I think that our aims were so similar that all the disagreements we may have had ended up just strengthening the writing. I think that I was able to flex a lot more creative muscles when I had her muscles to spot me. I’d say that the fact we’re discussing another collaboration speaks to the success of the first one for us.Alex Cohen Down & Derby Jenny Barbee Rollar Derby Whip It