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Jan. 29, 2015 Volume 36, No. 17

English professor writes novel about roller derby culture

Trudy Lewis will read from The Empire Rolls Feb. 10 at the Columbia Public Library


Every morning, Trudy Lewis sits down at her computer to write. It’s not a rigid practice, but for the professor of English and director of creative writing at MU, it’s an effective one. Meditate. Write. Repeat.

Lewis’ two-hour routine might explain why, more often than not, she has an idea for a short story but ends up writing a book. She just keeps writing.

That’s what happened with The Empire Rolls (Moon City Press, 2014), a novel about roller derby, women’s empowerment, the Midwest and the recession.

Lewis was writing a collection of short stories when a friend joined the CoMo Derby Dames, Columbia’s roller derby team that plays at the Canine Sports Center, 4506 Interstate 70 Drive SW. She thought a story about the team might round out the collection.

“But I loved writing about the roller derby so much that I kept writing,” Lewis said. “The story became a novella, and the novella became a novel.”

Although not a skater, Lewis was drawn to the derby culture. Her protagonist, Sally LaChance, is also not a skater but the emcee for the team. LaChance’s day job is park ranger, and she’s often enraged by the pollution in the park, leading her to pull a gun on a group of polluters. Unfortunately, her filmmaker boyfriend tapes the showdown and posts the video on YouTube, creating drama at her job and in her relationship.

Lewis uses roller derby, the environment, the financial crisis of 2008, the wars in the Middle East and the American soldiers coming home to the Midwest to tell the story.

It is a story “about hard times and the anger of women who are suffering through these situations, whether their problems are due to the war itself, as in the case of one roller derby player who is a returning veteran, or the economic woes of downsizing, shrinking public space and scarcity,” Lewis said.

The book takes place in Boonslick, a fictional town that embodies Missouri’s unique culture. The roller derby culture, meanwhile, was a ripe setting for the story because of the professional and generational diversity in the sport, Lewis said.

Lewis worked with Brian Maurer, assistant teaching professor of film studies, to create a book trailer for the novel. To create the trailer, Lewis chose an excerpt from the book to represent on film. She quickly realized the “differences between fiction and film,” she said.

“I realized that, being a typical writer, I’d tried to include too many words,” Lewis said. “Brian realized this much earlier but was patient. He developed inventive ways to convey the contrast between the roller derby and the forest.”

Empire Rolls

The trailer can be viewed at, and the book is available from the University of Arkansas Press and Amazon. Lewis will read from her book at 7 p.m. Feb. 10 at the Columbia Public Library.

Lewis is already deep into her next project, another short story that keeps getting longer — a science-fiction novel about the immortal jellyfish. A species of Jellyfish called turritopsis dohrnii can revert to a polyp stage to weather through environmental stressors. The book is about the people who hope the jellyfish holds the secret to eternal life for humans.

Besides The Empire Rolls, Lewis is author of the novel Private Correspondences (Northwestern University Press, 1994) and the short story collection The Bones of Garbo (Ohio State University Press, 2003).

— Kelsey Allen