Since Rea Frey moved to Chicago four years ago to attend Columbia College, the 22-year-old Nashville native has taken up boxing, undergone brain surgery, gotten married, been named valedictorian of her graduating class, and written her first novel, A Woman’s Ring, which will be published this summer by Dare2Dream Publishing, a small South Carolina press specializing in poetry and fiction by and about women. She lives with her husband and two cats in a spotless high-rise apartment a few blocks from Michigan Avenue.

Tori Marlan: Do you feel like you’ve done a lot for someone who’s 22?

Rea Frey: No, because I want so much more. Ever since I was little I’ve had an intense passion and drive for everything from school projects to gymnastics competitions. It’s because of the support my parents gave me and my brother. We have this insatiable thirst. That’s the purpose of living. There’s no other way to be.

TM: What’s your book about?

RF: Basically it’s about a young mother who abandons her children to become a boxer. She learns the sport well but loses her first fight. Then she starts developing headaches and realizes that she’s going to have to get brain surgery–I wanted to throw that in there because I went through it and I wanted to share that. It’s just about the choices she makes. They’re not the right choices, but they’re the right choices for her. I’m sure I’ll get a lot of hate letters from mothers, because this woman abandons her children. I like writing about things that aren’t really supposed to happen.

TM: When did you start boxing?

RF: When I came here I joined Crunch gym. They have a boxing program there, and Jerome Nealon, who’s my boxing trainer, is one of the best boxers in the world. We had one lesson together and I just fell in love with the sport. It’s not a violent thing to me, it’s about performing well and learning new skills. It’s like a graceful dance.

TM: Tell me about the brain surgery.

RF: I was in boxing class one day and a guy accidentally hit me in the eye. Then I started getting horrible headaches that lasted for about two weeks. So I went to the doctor and they found an arachnoid cyst, which they think I’ve probably had since I was little, but because of all the intense pounding it grew to where it was about to hemorrhage. What they did is cut the skin open and remove part of my skull, which was so eroded over time from this cyst pressing up against it that it was as thin as an eggshell. When they put the skull section back on, it was so thin they put in four metal plates and 16 screws. The neurosurgeon was going to put in two plates, but he was like, since you’re going to box I’ll put in four.

TM: When was that?

RF: Spring break, 2001. I didn’t miss any school.

TM: Did you give up boxing?

RF: No, no, I went on to compete in Golden Gloves and competitions after that. I think I’m going to do nationals this August.

TM: How long did it take you to write A Woman’s Ring?

RF: I kind of had the idea a few years ago, but it began as more of a memoir and I wanted it to be fiction. Not until last year did I come up with the story. I wrote the bulk of it in about four or five months, though I had some of the boxing parts from a few years ago.

TM: What kind of writing schedule do you keep?

RF: I’m usually in school or working, so I write here and there. But I tend to write fast–a large amount in a short period of time. I know people who write for three hours every single morning, but I don’t. I can’t force myself to write. I write when things are going on in my head and I have a story, and when I do sit down, it’s like I’m not even really aware of what I’m doing, it comes out so quickly. I can sit and write 30 pages at a time and be done. That’s why I’m really looking forward to graduating: to take some time, a month or so, and just write. It’s going to be amazing.

TM: Do you usually know the story before you sit down to write?

RF: Not really. Sometimes I start with the first line and then I just go. I don’t even know what I’m going to write about or what’s going to happen, but I just go with it. I think it’s more interesting for me to start and see where the story and the characters take me. And sometimes I’ll write and get done and I don’t even know how I wrote it or where it came from.

TM: What else do you do besides write and box?

RF: Eventually I want to go to school for forensic psychology. I’m so interested in that. It’s so funny because my life here so far has been fitness and writing. That’s basically what it’s been. But I’m very interested in theater. I wish I had more time to do things like that. And I want to open my own business sometime.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Paul L. Merideth.