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A Knockout of a Novel

The Knockout Queen, writer and El Segundo resident Rufi Thorpe’s most recent novel published by Knopf/Penguin Random House, delivers a powerful female protagonist and a setting that feels familiar.

By Maureen Kingsley

A guileless female protagonist with tremendous physical strength and raw vulnerability. Her unlikely best friend, a smart and self-conscious adolescent boy struggling to connect with others. An ostensibly serene, small-town coastal setting, not unlike the city of El Segundo itself. These are the elements of which the new novel The Knockout Queen is made, and its author, El Segundo resident, seasoned novelist, and mother of two, Rufi Thorpe, has combined them expertly into a unique and compelling story about platonic love, power, violence, and yearning.

“I had grown to my full adult height by fifth grade,” says Rufi, whose main character in The Knockout Queen, Bunny Lampert, literally towers over her fellow high-school students and dominates on the volleyball court. In developing that character, Rufi drew from some of her own life experience and pondered the question, “What if a girl had all the physical attributes of a man?” Bunny is physically intimidated by no one, yet suffers from loneliness.

The character of Michael, Bunny’s peer who moves in next door with his aunt and cousin after his mother is incarcerated, “came out fully formed,” Rufi explains, “and represents some deeply repressed aspects” of herself. Michael is gay and isn’t sure how to find romantic love in his new, relatively conservative town of North Shore or how to come out to his family members.

The pair of friends exist in “different-style cages with different back doors,” Rufi explains, referring to both their respective homes (Bunny’s is huge and ostentatious; Michael’s is tiny and run-down) and their lives within the confines of North Shore.

Rufi Thorpe, author
Rufi Thorpe, author of The Knockout Queen

A third main character, Bunny’s wealthy, hard-drinking, real-estate-mogul father Ray Lampert, is “a study in moral ambiguity,” Rufi says. “He’s repugnant but likeable. He’s bad and good chaotically happening at the same time,” comedy and tragedy all tied up together. “I’ve known so many Ray Lamperts during my life, in every place I’ve ever lived,” Rufi adds. In her novel, Ray, Bunny, and Michael form a type of family unit of their own, mostly loving and often dysfunctional.

The Knockout Queen, a beautiful, sad, hopeful, and fully engaging novel, is the author’s third published by Penguin Random House. Her first, The Girls from Corona del Mar, was published in 2015, is set in Rufi’s hometown, and was long-listed for both the 2014 International Dylan Thomas Prize and the Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize that same year. Her second, Dear Fang with Love, was published in 2017 and explores identity and mental illness in the setting of Vilnius, Lithuania. Of her three published novels, The Knockout Queen was “the easiest to write, in some ways” and “the most fun,” Rufi says.

As research, Rufi frequently visited the LAX courthouse, “watched a lot of girls’ volleyball,” and spoke often with a friend who has experience working a domestic-abuse hotline. “Talking with her really informed my perception of violence and particularly domestic violence,” Rufi says. Her writing process, she adds, was “rough and quick,” getting a lot down on paper fast, then going back later to revise, revise, and revise some more.

Essentially, Rufi says, creating the story of The Knockout Queen was her “chance to say what I want to say about being alive.”

The Knockout Queen becomes available for purchase this month, and as of this writing, in early March, Rufi was scheduled to appear at Skylight Books in Los Angeles at 5pm on April 26 and at Manhattan Beach’s {pages} a bookstore on April 27 at 7pm. (Those interested in attending may wish to confirm these events with the venues as the dates get closer and consult county recommendations regarding social distancing and public gatherings.)

Once it is released, The Knockout Queen will be available wherever books are sold.

This story appears in The El Segundo Scene's April 2020 issue.

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