Interview: Mick Foley (2003)

(Back in 2003, I had the chance to sit down with legendary wrestler Mick Foley. A WWE Hall of Famer, the former king of the death match had defied expectations by becoming a household name, and then pushed expectations even further by becoming a best-selling writer through his autobiographies. I talked with him just as his debut novel, Tietem Brown, was being published.)

Richard Whittaker: So what inspired your new book, Tietam Brown?

Mick Foley: It was actually inspired by the movie Affliction, with Nick Nolte and James Coburn. I really loved the movie, but thought it was flat-out miserable. There was really never any sense of hope whatsoever. So I wanted to do a father/son story, but I wanted to make the father considerably more charming than the James Coburn character was. At the same time, I wanted to write him with the potential to be equally as horrible.

RW: It’s pretty dark, and a far cry from the more entertaining world of pro-wrestling.

MF: I think for a while in my book, it is a fun world. There are glimpses of that world, and the main character, Andy, has the potential to really be happy. I don’t why it got so damn dark, but it was written just after September 11, and I think I wanted to write a book about hope in the face of hopelessness.

RW: There does seem to be quite a lot of you, Mick Foley, in the book. Was that a conscious decision when you were writing it?

MF: I realized that what people really liked about the autobiographies was the voice, and the fact that it really felt like they were hanging out with me. Except it was more exciting, because in truth I’m not all that cool to hang out with. I thought well, if I’m a pretty good story teller and people like my voice when I’m using it for real, then I’m not going to re-invent the wheel. I took a trip to China and I was writing a short story. At the end of the writing, I kept having to go back and changing the ‘I’s and ‘my’s to ‘he’s and ‘his’s. So I re-did the short story as a novel and just kept it in the first person.

RW: Having specialized in character-heavy gimmicks in wrestling, with Dude Love, Cactus Jack and Mankind, did you find that helped in making the jump from autobiographies to fiction?

MF: Yeah, I did, actually. I’ve given credit to the Stephen King book, On Storytelling, because he really stresses the importance of characters in storytelling over plot and writing techniques. I sat back and thought ‘well, this doesn’t sound that different to what I’ve done’. I thought one of my strengths in the wrestling world was that I did characters who were multi-dimensional, who had some depth to them. So I thought it was very helpful when writing fiction to just sit in a chair, get into character and just write as that character.

RW: With the father and son characters. Tietam and Andy, I’ve had some people suggest that it’s reminiscent of two sides of your: nice guy Andy is a bit like Mick Foley, and Tietam catches the darker, more violent edge of Cactus Jack.

MF: I hadn’t heard of it before. The great thing for me is that books are so open to interpretation. I’ve thought to myself that if you were making a movie Tietam Brown, and you gave me ten really good actors, then you’d have ten really good interpretations. Probably the best interpretation comes in the reader’s mind: so I don’t think that Cactus theory’s right, but I’m not going to say that it’s wrong

RW: So not Cactus in particular, but really the violent parts of your in-ring persona?

MF: Yeah. When I did the audio version, I wondered if I could really ever play a bad guy again. I found out that not only can I still play a bad guy, I can be pretty convincing. The father comes in pretty quietly, but he can be really cruel, and the things he says are designed to hurt.

RW: Considering how many characters you’ve played over the years, is it gratifying to finally make it as yourself?

MF: It is gratifying, and it was a pretty great evolution. The 1998 Mankind started becoming a slightly goofier version of myself, and that graduated to the point that the commissioner was essentially me showing up dressed up as I was and being who I was. I had a lot of fights with Vince McMahon verbally, but there’s a famous one where he said that he more or less made me. I replied that if that was the case, then the biggest character of all wouldn’t have been commissioner Mick Foley. At which point he went the comedy route and said ‘that’s not true. The best character was Dude Love’. I think he knew I’d made a point.

RW: You’ve got a lot of fans, and a lot of people listening to you and reading your book: do you ever feel burdened by that responsibility?

MF: No, it’s a privilege. I feel a responsibility to give something back. One of my fears is that some of the positive things I do will no longer be available to me because I have written a somewhat disturbing book. My younger fans’ parents may have the sense to scan through it and say ‘this isn’t for you, Johnny’. But I think if a kid is fifteen years is old, they’re OK for it. They may find it uplifting in a dark, depressing way.

RW: Do you ever worry that, as a wrestler, people may not take you as seriously as an author who’s come from nowhere?

MF: Yeah, but I think there’s a trade-off, and I think it works to my advantage. Sure, there’s some people who may not take me seriously, and also there’s some reviewers who are predisposed to not like the book because that think that what I did as a wrestler is garbage. But there’s a lot of people who are predisposed to liking me, and since liking a book is predicated on liking the narrator, that makes it easier. I understand that there will be a certain amount of criticism that comes from being a wrestler, but I also understand that there are certain benefits as well.

RW: So did you always plan to write fiction?

MF: No, I never imagined it. The autobiography I did because, in my opinion, the ghost writer was doing a poor job and I thought ‘well, maybe I’m not the best writer in the world, but I can do this book better than he can. It wasn’t until I started writing it that I thought that not only is it fun, but I was reading it to the other wrestlers and they seemed to enjoy it. Sometimes you don’t know you have talent until you try, and maybe this book will serve as an inspiration to prospective writers out there who think ‘if that guy can do it, anyone can’. I think that everyone can write to some degree, it just depend if you’ve got a talent and you work hard at it.

RW: And you’ve more books upcoming?

MF: I’ve got another one on the way. I’ve just handed the manuscript in, which I think is very good. And I might finally get my children’s book released through the WWE. I think that’s the best thing I’ve ever done, and I’ve read it to thousands of kids who really love it. It’s a really good book that has a simple but important message to it, and it would be really cool to help promote literacy through the bonds that the WWE has with middle school kids.

RW: Are you still writing long-hand?

MF: I was thinking there was something wrong with me the first time I did I, but I’ve since found out that a lot of writers have a more legitimate, more natural brain-pen connection than they do brain-keyboard. It does take longer, but at the same time I’m still waiting for someone to challenge me that I didn’t write it myself. When they do, I’ve got literally boxes full of notebooks to show them. The only thing than a dumber than a wrestler writing books long-hand would be a wrestler copying out what someone else wrote long-hand. So I don’t think anyone would ever accuse me of copying if they saw the evidence.

RW: There’s been other wrestlers who’ve released autobiographies, both within the WWE and outside. Which ones have you enjoyed the most?

MF: I’m pretty easy to please, and even books that have been panned I get something out of. But the key word is that you say they’ve released them, they didn’t write them. I don’t think there’s a substitute for the hundreds of hours of solitude reflecting on your career. I did enjoy Freddie Blassie’s book, which I finished a couple of days before he died, and I enjoyed the Kurt Angle book, but mainly because I enjoy amateur wrestling. If you don’t enjoy amateur wrestling, that one may be a tough read. I liked the Hardyz book. I don’t think anyone in the WWE had it edited, so you get their thoughts, which are often times kind of blunt. You get to see Jeff Hardy burning out before you, so it was very eye-opening in that regards.

RW: So when you finally gave up wrestling and took up writing, did you think to yourself ‘well, at least I won’t be on the road anymore and I can work from home’

MF: It was one of the big benefits. This really my first extended tour. I’ve travel once or twice a month know and it’s kind of a shame, because all those airlines that used to treat me like something special because I was a platinum deluxe member now go ‘what? What do you want?’ My travelling days had been really minimized before this six week extravaganza. You guys are lucky, because I have a feeling that in a few weeks I’ll be so sick of talking about this book that I’ll just be on auto-pilot. The publisher I’m travelling with, Christian from Jonathan Cape, says I’m doing really well because I very rarely say the same thin twice. I know a lot of authors just have a standard stump speech, and I’m trying to keep changing things, but I don’t know if I’ll be able to do that in the middle of August.

RW: Of course, we have to ask about Mister Socko…

MF: I hate to say this, because he came from Al Snow’s mind. I had to go to hospital to visit Vince, where he was hooked up to a heart monitor for a bruised ankle, and the idea was that, as much as he hated seeing me, he was happy because I wasn’t Austin. He was worried that Austin was going to find him and attack him, but I turn up with a whole cache of tacky items: balloon animals and chocolate that was half-eaten, and I just needed one more horrible prop. So I asked Al Snow what I could bring that everyone finds annoying and he said ‘what about a sock puppet?’. I had no idea when I unleashed Mr Socko in the hospital in Lansing, Michigan that it would go on to be the biggest thing in my career. I have no idea why it clicked with the people, and I never knew whether to be flattered or insulted that when I pulled it out it got a bigger reaction than anything else I did in my career.

RW: Was there ever a time that you went too far at Al’s expense?

MF: Yeah. Even though it was a good joke, there was one time I thought I’d scored with a pretty good line in the ring, but it was something Al had asked me not to mention. So I broke the rules of our personal warfare, and that lead to some hard feelings for a while. It was really the insults in Have A Nice Day that brought our friendship around, because he realized that he was important enough to me to insult in my autobiography. I don’t think it’s ever been done before, to have an autobiography become an exercise in one-upmanship. I don’t think Sporty Spice would do it in hers, there’d be no Emma Bunton jokes in there.

RW: Do you miss tormenting Al on a weekly basis?

MF: I think I don’t. I thought I’d got it all out of my system, but Raw last week I managed to pull off a good Al Snow joke in front of 18,000 fans live at Madison Square Gardens and millions on TV around the world. I don’t think anyone can deny that was a solid knock-out and I think he enjoyed it.

RW: How was it, being back in MSG with everyone just saying thanks for everything you’d done for wrestling over the years?

MF: It was genuinely touching, and one of the greatest moments of my career. The best part was watching the video on the Titantron and hearing the crowd chanting, and I got a little choked up.

RW: So what is it about you that makes you so popular with the fans?

MF: I don’t know. I think they respect the sacrifices I’ve made, but I also think that at a time when all the wrestlers wanted to be portrayed as slick and cool, I was prepared to go the other route and actually be portrayed as a loser and a nice guy. That was, for me, the best decision I ever made. We’ve got thirty-seven tough guys in-ring and one loser, but in the crowd the losers out-number the cool guys ten-to-one so I knew there were a lot more of us than there were of them.

RW: With the current co-general manager angle on Raw really playing up Steve Austin’ goofy side, do you think the WWE has really learnt some lessons from your time as commissioner and the humor you brought to the role?

MF: I know Steve considered me somewhat of a pioneer in goofy and he wanted my stamp of approval on his ‘bad guy’ Austin. It was really great comedy acting, but perhaps not what the company needed at the time. I think he’s got the comedic abilities, and it’s a tough job to do if you’re not capable of doing matches. After all, there’s only so much a commissioner or g-m can take before he’s got to stand up for himself. In my case, I didn’t want to have a match, and in Austin’s he can’t have a match, so these things will always be limited.

RW: Ever regret anything you ever did in the ring?

MF: I do regret some of the things I did in the really empty schools and parking lots and armories. Because for many years, I used to let it all hang out every night and when I hit the big time I really didn’t have an awful lot left. If it hadn’t been for Mr Socko, there would have been an even more premature ending. So I regret doing a lot of that really wild stuff in front of really small crowds.

RW: Which would you rather be remembered as, Mick Foley the wrestler or Mick Foley the writer?

MF: Who am I kidding: I’ll be remembered as Mick Foley the wrestler / writer, if I’m lucky. But maybe after six or seven novels, maybe I’ll have an audience that says ‘What? That great writer used to be a wrestler? Impossible!’. But until then, I’m more than happy to be the wrestler / author.

[Parts of this interview previously appeared at Wrestling Dot Com]

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