Interview by Jeni Wright
Danyel Smith has the type of credentials that would make anyone a little insecure. She's a former editor at large for Time Inc.and the former editor-in-chief of Vibe, not to mention the fact that she's also written for the Village Voice, Rolling Stone, Spin, The New Yorker, The San Francisco Bay Guardian and The New York Times. A few years ago, she made the decision to devote herself to writing fiction and the hard work paid off. Her first novel, More Like Wrestling, which is already wracking up considerable critical acclaim, makes it abundantly clear Danyel's talents extend beyond the walls of magazine suites. Danyel talked with coloredgirls about her career in journalism, More Like Wrestling (MLW) and why fiction is so irresistibly seductive.
coloredgirls: Asian American writer Nora Okja Keller was quoted in an interview with Jocelyn Lieu as saying, "When I was going to school we studied Shakespeare, Chaucer, Milton and the great American authors Faulkner and Hemingway. Even though I loved reading them, I felt no personal connection to them and I thought I would never become a writer because I didn't fit the mold that I had studied."
How did you come to see yourself a writer?
Danyel Smith: From the time I was 7 or 8, I would write things down. I was making books. I was making newspapers. I was writing down what happened in my neighborhood. [I] put together a newspaper in the fourth grade called the Weekly Arrow we're talking one copy, my mother would read it. [quick laugh] And since maybe 5th grade, I've kept a journal. I still do. When I run into people from junior high, and I tell them that I'm a journalist and no one's surprised, they're like I remember when you were in Mrs. Gibbs's 4th grade class doing that. [In terms of a writing career], journalism just seemed like the most possible thing. It was everywhere. Writing a book seemed so far away. It was like could I make a story as good as I was reading? In 11th grade I was fascinated by American Literature Poe, Hemmingway. I was a Hemmingway maniac, but I never thought I could do that.
cg: Did you read any of the authors of the Harlem Renaissance during that time?
DS: It wasn't taught at my Catholic high school which was all black, all girls. There wasn't a lot of black literature taught there. Writing for newspapers just seemed more achievable. Even then, it wasn't like I made a beeline for journalism when I got to college. I thought I might major in English or become a librarian. I dropped out of college after a year and a half and I had no idea how to make writing pay for me in this world. I was lucky because I had a professor at Berkley for a non-fiction class who took me aside and said, "You need to do something with your writing." The real kick in the ass, though, came from my stepfather. At that time my sister and I were living together, working at bullshit jobs in Oakland I was maybe 23, she was 20. I had lied to my parents about dropping out of school, and I was living in this fantasy world, going around Oakland interviewing people and telling people I was going to sell these articles to various publications. Well my stepfather drove up from LA and was basically like what are you going to do with your life? And he read some of the interviews I had done and told me they were good and then the next thing you know he's driving me to the San Francisco Bay Guardian and it's me and him sitting in the car outside the office, and he's telling me I'm going to go in there and show them my article. And I had a thousand reasons why I wasn't going to embarrass myself like that. But finally I went in and left the piece with the arts editor. My step dad took me out to lunch and then took me straight back to the Guardian. I was like, there's no way anyone's read it yet, I'm not going back in there! But I went back in anyway. A week later I was enrolled in their internship program. But it wasn't this linear path by any means.
cg: I read that your inspiration for MLW came from an editor back in San Francisco who pointed to a column you wrote about Oakland and said, "Here's your novel." Was it an editor from the SF Bay Guardian?
DS: Yes, Tommy Tompkins. I started writing this column for the Bay Guardian when I was 25 and frequently I wouldn't know what to write about. Tommy was great he would tell me, "Just tell the truth. Tell your truth and you will be fine."
cg: What was that column you wrote about Oakland?
DS: It was about how conflicted I felt about the dope dealing in Oakland it was hard for me to put the drug dealers down from a moral place, because they seemed so together. They would seem like guys with good jobs, like they had pride in themselves
cg: Like how the grandmothers in MLW who would sit at that buffet-style restaurant the dealers and their families frequent and talk bad about them, but would still gave them credit for taking care of their kids, for providing the best for their family?
DG: Yes. But of course you could walk down the street and see a crackhead and see how the dealers were killing people. In Oakland, you didn't have to work hard to find someone who lost someone to crack.
cg: I thought it was interesting the way one of the characters in the book is so clear about how she and her sister and friends are involved in the dealing, too, by dating and associating with guys who deal.
DS: Yes, second-hand dealing. It was hard after a while when you started seeing people going to jail and getting injured and dying being hurt mentally and physically from crack. I started looking at things more deeply. It still bothers me, how crack can take out a city, be a ghost economy, an invisible killer. I want to say, too, that what sparked me to write that column wasn't just me in Oakland thinking more deeply about this situation. The column was based on these songs by the Timex Social Club and Club Noveau. The songs were "Situation #9" and "Hey Little Walter," and they were both cautionary tales about drug dealers. These songs touched a nerve they were popular all over, not just CA.
cg: It was easy for me to tell you have a lot of love for your hometown of Oakland, the setting for MLW. Do you think you could have told this story in NYC or Baltimore or Cleveland? How would it have been different to set it outside of the SF Bay Area?
DS: This is a story that could be told in any metropolitan city. I think cities less citified than NY or LA would probably have more specifics because of their size and population. Cities like St. Louis, El Paso, Baltimore, so-called second tier cities sometimes they try harder, people work harder toward whatever version of success they have, because they're used to being the underdog, used to being in the shadow. Like how Oakland is to San Francisco.
cg: What is Oakland like today? I think if you read your book and had never been to Oakland in your life, you would come away thinking that people don't really associate too much outside of their own race. Not that a lot of American cities aren't like that but
Oakland is changing it used to be basically a black city, and now there's a huge number of Mexican-Americans moving there. Oakland is a very segregated city, especially the housing. There are pockets that are very integrated, and places like Berkeley certainly are known for that. People tend to stay to themselves though, socially. I'll tell you a story, my mom was raised in Oakland, and my mother is very fair-skinned. The teachers at her high school didn't actually realize she was black until she asked a brother out to the Sadie Hawkins Dance, and the teachers then called her home. My grandmother came to school and told them, look, I'm black, my daughter is black, but what happened in the end was that the dance was cancelled. And this was in 1960, 1961.
And it's not too different today, in my opinion. I wrote a column for the Bay Guardian about how there were these clubs that would basically have "Negro dance night" it was just sort of known that on Thursday or whenever they would cater to black folks. I wrote about this pool place in Emeryville, just outside of Oakland, that was totally integrated. It was maybe 40% black, 40% white, and 20% everything else. And I wrote that when that black percentage got over say, 55, the management would probably take pains to make sure that the place didn't stay like that.
cg: MLW is told in the alternating voices of two sisters who are very close to one another, Paige and Pinch. How would you describe their relationship throughout the book?
DS: Too close for comfort. I envision Paige and Pinch as people in WWI who fought together in the trenches, didn't have a lot in common, maybe they didn't stay in touch after the war but when they come back together, there is still that instant connection. The common enemy made them close. With Paige and Pinch, when things are less hectic that closeness gets to be too much.
cg: How long did you and your sister live together?
DS: We started when I was 23, she was 19. And it was six years together. It worked out even though we fought like crazy the first year, because we established certain rules. Like if you're going to be out past midnight, call. And we split things up one of us cooked, the other one cleaned we took on separate bills. We lived together for six years and then I left to get married and by that time I was ready to go. (laugh) I was like, OK, I love you but it's time!
What always fascinated me was sisterhood, especially the more complicated aspects of sisterhood. Before I started this book, I read all these accounts of sisterhood, that would say things like, blood is thicker than water and I would be like, what does that mean, blood is thicker than water? What do you mean, you get to choose your friends not your family? I know a lot of people that choose to not deal with their family As to whether or not the book is autobiographical, it is to the degree that I am fascinated by the relationship my sister and I have. I love my sister to death, but would we be friends if you weren't related? Probably not, we're very different people. How do you place that next to the fact that I have no idea who I would be on this earth without my sister? I mean, I have no idea of people who say things like, well, my brother is down in Texas, and I haven't talked to him in two years. I'm like, my sister would send out the National Guard if she didn't hear from me in four days. She'd be like, you better call me back!
cg: Characterizations of Pinch as the quiet practical one and Paige as the brash crazy one just didn't hit home for me. How about you?
DS: You know, you have to remember, that Pinch had the benefit of therapy. She got to talk it out with people, or play with dolls or whatever, because she didn't talk. I never saw Paige as crazy, and I still don't. I think she had used up all her motivation, all her energy, early on.
cg: Aside from sisterhood, there was a lot of time in the book spent developing and exploring romantic relationships. I was fascinated by the mantra that kept coming up in the book about staying with someone through the hard times, how, as Paige and Pinch's mother put it 'You don't leave at the first sign of trouble. That's just not what you do.' Pinch contemplated this question at one point in the book that was in my head: 'Do we leave at the second sign of trouble? The eightieth?' I have to admit I was surprised about the outcome of the relationship between Paige and her boyfriend.
DS: I know, right? Were Oscar and Paige going to stay together? Answering that was a struggle for me. I worked hard to make an Oscar worthy of her. He didn't baby her. I wanted him to fight Maynard but Paige had to deal with Maynard on her own. See, I didn't want solutions to everyone's problems to be leaving. It's just not real, especially for black girls in Oakland. Some people are lucky, but most people have to find themselves right where they are.
cg: Would you ever write another book with Paige and Pinch or any of the characters from MLW?
DS: Well, I'm working on a second book, and I'm superstitious so I can't talk about it, but it has nothing to do with More Like Wrestling. I wonder about Paige and Pinch, though was at a reading recently for Walter Mosley and someone asked him if his characters talked to him. He was like, "I'm not crazy. My characters do not talk to me."
cg: And you were sitting in the audience like "I guess I'm crazy."
DS: Well my characters don't talk to me, but they are real to me, I envision them somewhere out there living in the world, trying to figure it all out, you know?
cg: The writing style of MLW is absolutely unique, definitely daring and I remember being a little surprised that it made it into print.
DS: For that I have to thank my editor, Chris Jackson. He is extraordinary. My agents really stuck by me as well. They sent MLW out September 10, 2001, if you can believe that. Three or four houses were interested, good houses, but I mean, no one was jumping though hoops to acquire this book. This is my first time saying this on the record, so I want to phrase this carefully I had lunch with this one editor, she took me to this fancy restaurant, and she told me I had to make a decision whether or not I was writing for black people or white people. And that I needed to have clearer heroes and heroines in the book.
DS: Yes, I was just sitting there at that lunch and biting my tongue, hard. When I met with Chris, he didn't take me to a fancy restaurant, he took me to Starbucks, which was great [quick laugh]. And he was committed to my vision. That's not to say that he didn't push me to make my work the best it could be, put me through revision upon revision but he understood what I was trying to do. He was this great combination of a cheerleader/you need to get your shit together. He wasn't afraid to take risks with me. God bless those other editors, but I am just happy that Chris exists in the world as an alternative. There are a couple of authors right now he's been working with I would recommend, one by the name of Donnel Alexander, who wrote a book that's both a biography and autobiography dealing with his relationship with his father: Ghetto Celebrity: Searching for the Delbert in Me. The other book I think is called The Autobiography of Her Life in Corn Rows.
cg: You moved to NYC in 1993, so this year will be your 10th anniversary living on the East Coast.
DS: I know, I can't believe it sometimes. I visit California maybe once a year. Definitely not enough. I miss it a lot, and when I do go I always end up staying longer.
cg: I read that you're a part-time professor at The New School in New York. What courses do you teach there?
DS: I teach Creating a Sense of History and Place in Your Fiction at The New School, where I'm taking the semester off, and also Creative Writing II at the Frederick Douglas Creative Arts Center. I also taken creative writing classes at the New School. And I'm still going to be taking classes. It's helped me get chapters together. Being a journalist I need a deadline. And my stuff needs help, it needs feedback. I'm writing my second book in the third person, and to me the third person seems like you're far away from the narration. I need someone to talk to about what it means to write in that person. And it's great because someone will be like well read these books, and they'll give me four books written in the third person, and they'll tell me to read them to see how third person narrative can be done without seeming far away.
cg: How has working as a music journalist affected your sensibility, or prepared you for writing fiction?
DS: With journalism, I learned discipline. As a journalist, I could have four stories due in a week, or four different reviews; it's so fast-paced you have to have it together. There's less freedom involved. Writing fiction, it's fun not having to fit what I want to say in 1500 words, it feels very free. But I love that I have that skill, that I know how to condense, how to revise so that I can give my opinion in 350 words. Fiction offers a freedom that journalism doesn't allow. I'm lucky to have both in my life.
My second book takes place somewhere that's not Oakland and there is this huge excitement for me of figuring that place out, interviewing people and doing research. When I was interviewing someone for a magazine article, I always noticed little things about that person if they were constantly adding sugar in their coffee, for example. Or if I was reviewing a live show, I'd always try to find details so it didn't read like the same old review of so and so. That eye for detail helped me in developing fictional characters. An editor at Vibe gave me interviewing tips when I first started, he told me to prepare questions, to research the person but he also told me not to be afraid to let the interview go where it's gong to go. When I'm writing (fictional) dialogue, what shows up on the page might be two sentences from what used to be a paragraph and a half. I let the character talk on and on and then I'll go through that revising process. It's very similar to doing an interview and choosing those one or two quotes from the dozens you got that sums everything up.
It's tumultuous, the idea of being reviewed, as opposed to doing the reviewing. I'm sure I could have gone on in journalism and been the queen of this or that but it just stopped fulfilling me. It's just not the same. Fiction is seductive, real hard, real fun all the things journalism was to me when I was 25. I'm 37. Things change. I want to learn something new, I want to figure out something that's difficult.
cg: I'm glad you made that choice, because otherwise I wouldn't have had the pleasure of reading More Like Wrestling. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts with coloredgirls.com
Danyel Smith can be reached at email@example.com
Jeni Wright is a writer living in New York City. Her work has appeared on Africana.com, Blackplanet.com and in Black Issues Book Review. She is currently at work on a novel about mixed race identity.
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