Virtual Book Tour | Interview with Danyel Smith

More Like Wrestling is the story of two sisters, Page and Pinch, growing up on their own in Oakland in the 1980s. Smart, stubborn Paige and her silent little sister, Pinch, enjoy an idyllic if lopsided childhood as children of a single mother, with visits to the library, ballet lessons and Black Panther day care. But when Paige is 14 and Pinch is 12, their mother’s boyfriend attacks Paige in public, and Paige persuades their mother to rent the girls their own apartment. Making house for each other, they begin to attract a circle of friends: Maynard, Donnell and LaNell, Teeara, Oscar. Through high school it is all (or mostly) innocent, just microwave dinners together and trips to Mexicali Rose for burritos. Then the boys begin to have more money-too much money. Paige’s best friend, Maynard, marries an uptown girl named Jess and has a baby; Paige drops out of college and starts dating Oscar. Oscar and Maynard begin dealing drugs; then Jess is shot and killed, and Paige thinks she knows who’s responsible. Fiercely independent and sharp as she has always seemed, she begins to lose her bearings and lean on Pinch, who is still quiet but surprisingly resilient.

Let’s start by focusing on your two main characters.  Did Pinch and Paige come to you before the idea of this book formed, or did you have the idea of this story first, and your childhood experiences formed these two sisters?  Are you more Pinch or Paige?

I am more Paige than Pinch. Though my mom says she sees me clearly in both characterstwo sides of a coin, I guess. My younger sister, Raquel, who likes More Like Wrestling a lot, says she is certainly *not* like Pinch at all. And really she’s only like Pinch in the most superficial ways. The idea of Paige came to me firstI wrote a short story for a class (which ends up being, in very revised form, the chapter, I think it’s chapter five, in which Paige deals with boyfriends Major and Ted). When I decided to write a whole novel, I wanted a narrator who was more dependable than Paige. I wanted a watcher, and someone more in touch with her own disenchantment. Pinch was my answer.

How much of the characters in your book are taken from your own experiences, and was that a challenge or more of a release for you?

More Like Wrestling is autobiographical in spirit. Writing it was a challenge and release. It was scary, too, just imagining how my family was going to react. There were some bumps along the road, but my fam is mostly just proud of me.

Your third main character is the city of Oakland.  You speak of the city like people talk of old boyfriends/girlfriends.  What is Oakland to you?

Oakland is home. Warm, welcoming, and crazy.

Where are the places you absolutely take people when you show them Oakland for the first time?

Lake Merritt is always first. In MLW I call it an “indigo-greeen jewel” of a lake. I love Lake Merrittso many memories.

Where are the places you absolutely have to go to when you’re there on your own?

See yesterday’s Book Tour stop.

When do you miss Oakland the most?

I’m always California dreamin’ on a winter’s day. I hate snow. In California, snow is a choice. In New York, snow is a fact, a tax. I hate it. From Oakland, or L.A., where most of my family is now, you *choose* to go to the snow. I miss rainy Oakland winters. The mistiness. The purple afternoons. I miss sunny palm tree Christmases in Los Angeles, too.

When you think of Oakland, do you first think of people, places or food?

I think of places. And places come, lots of times, with people and food. I always think of the bridges, too. The Bay Bridge, mostly, because I was on it the most. And the Golden Gate because it’s one of the most amazing things I’ve seen in the worldand I’ve been around!. People oooh and aaahh at the Brooklyn Bridge, and I’m like, whatever. The people of the Bay Area pay taxes and tolls (begrudgingly, but they pay them) to keep the Bay Area’s bridges beautiful. It says something about the population, that beauty is as worth paying for as utility.

Did you think you’d live there forever?  At what point did you start to become aware of the size of the world?  As kids our circle can be so small, and at a certain time we start to expand our minds and can see outside of our homes, our friends, our schools and we start to imagine life elsewhere.

I absolutely thought I would live in the Bay Area forever. My huge dream, until I moved to New York City, was to one day live in Marin County. In San Geronimo, where I’ve never even been to this day, just because I liked the romance of the town’s name. Then I went to NYC, on assignment (to profile PM Dawn for Spin magazine; how’s that for dating myself?), and stayed at the Holiday Inn at Times Square. I was WOWED. I wanted out of Oakland after that, badly. The thing about California: it’s so huge, you can travel for days, but still be there. It’s its own world, practically its own globe, so you can feel, especially as a young person, like you’ve been around because you’ve chilled in San Diego, San Francisco, Sacramento, Davis, Fresno, Santa Barbara, San Jose, Eureka, Modesto, Redding, Monterey, Big Sur, Yosemite, Carmel, Morro Baysee what I mean? And if you’ve been to Tiajuana, jeez, you’re international. After I moved to NYC, I became a traveling maniac. I traveled a lot for work and lots for pleasure. I stopped flying for a bit after September 11, 2001 (which made the tour for my hardcover interesting), but now I’m back in the air. Been to Florida twice in the last month. Been to Atlanta recently. Going to Negril in May. Going places, watching people there, walking in new countries and cities, researching place names and local historiesI’m a little obsessed with it.

When did you know you were going to leave Oakland?

I didn’t know until I got the job (R&B Editor) at Billboard in May 1993. I’d been married for six months, and we had two weeks until my first day at work. It was crazy. My family acted like I was moving to Saturn. My (now ex) husband’s family acted like we would surely be back in six months.

Would you ever move back?

Yes. But I’ve been saying that for ten years. I can’t imagine being old in NYC. I can’t imagine not seeing my niece (Parker; she’s almost two) on a more regular basis. I can’t imagine not being around as my parents get older. But I keep on staying here. I just don’t know.

Little background: last May I learned that the city of Oakland pulled funding for the libraries and their book-buying budget was cut.  One savvy librarian made an Amazon wish list of materials.  I linked to it, it caught on, and sent close to 700 donations to the OPL.  You found it when someone sent a copy of More Like Wrestling to the library, remember? I posted your letter.  I realize there’s no question in that.

Full disclosure: The fact a random person named Kate bought my book for the Oakland Library made me tear up way back then. Because 1.) The fact that the Oakland Library would need a person to buy for them a book about Oakland is just pitiful. Pitiful. Pisses me off, makes me mad and sad. To go back to my comment about the people of the Bay Area, and how they pay taxes and tolls for the bridges, it’s like, What?!? But then you won’t pay for the damn book? And not just my book, but books in general??? Pathetic and lame. No hometown is perfect. And I teared up because, 2.) I still get emotional about MLW. Especially as it relates to anyone or anything in the Bay Area. When I read at Cody’s, at A Clean Well-Lighted Place, at Marcus Books, I was weepy, literally. Reading aloud about Oakland, to people from Oakland, it was an overwhelming experience.

Were you a library girl?  Which branch?

Got my first library card at the Fruitvale Branch! In the Diamond District! Or was it called the Diamond Branch? I was a library girl for the longest. My mom got me “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” for my seventh Christmas. A beautiful hardcover that I still have (though minus the jacket). I finished it before our turkey dinner though. So Mom said, “That’s it. We’re going to the library right after the first of the year.” It was all about economics.

Do you get involved with community service?  Any organizations you’d like to talk about or promote?

I get involved only to a degree these days. When I was E-i-C of Vibe, I was more activeon the New York Board of Teach for America, for example. Organized stuff up at Harlem Hospital. Spoke at schools often. Right now, I’m mentor to a young woman who wants to be a writer. I’m big with literacy. Very high on teachers and teaching. Hate the fact that the arts are being slowly removed from public schools. I used to work for California Youth Authority/San Francisco and Oakland Parole. I saw the boys locked up, saw them come out, most barely able to read. They had lots of other problems, obviously, but the fact they couldn’t read was so embarrassing to them. Made them so angry. When I was home just recently I did a reading at juvenile hall in San Leandro. It was heartbreaking and hard and the absolute best. Those girls could read, though. They just don’t believe in possibility.

What music do you listen to when you write?

When I’m actually writing, I don’t listen to any music. Too distracting. Best I do, is the television on mute. The book I’m working on now is a lot about music, though. So I listen and take notes, but I don’t listen while I’m writing.

How aware are you of the rhythm of your prose?  During the editing process, do you find it easy to see where you need to cut, or is a case of Mozart asking which notes to remove?

Aware? Um, not while I’m writing, but during revisions I like stuff to sound “right” to my ear. I work on it until it does. I like to hear a bounce sometimes. Or flatness. I like to create “rests” when I can. I go for staccato when it’s appropriate. And always, I aim for a flow. As for cutting, it’s harduntil right before publication. That’s when my cold-ass editor’s eye comes out. I pretend the book is not my book, and I slice and dice. Still, though, when I read from MLW, I see cuts.

What are you working on now?

I’m revising my second novel, to be published by Crown summer 2005. It’s hell on wheels. Writing in the third person (new for me!). Writing about music (I’m very hard on myself). Writing about sex and love (we’re all ignorant on the subjects, so why am I even trying?!?). Writing a book that is not autobiographical in sprit (what comes next? who are these characters?!?). Writing about places that are NOT Oakland (yikes!) But I’m having fun. I like the challenge.

What do you like to read?  Any authors of inspiration?

I adore Joan Didion. Cristina Garcia. Hurston. Whitney Otto. Hemingway. Hughes. Baldwin. Victor LaValle. Richard Ford. Charlotte Bronte. I also adore biographies, and want to write one someday.

What are you listening to right now?

Old hip hip and R&B on one disc: Naughty By Nature, Mase, Biggie, always Tupac Skakur, Lil Kim, Too Short, E-40, En Vogue, Timex Social Club, SOS Band, Marvin Gaye, Tavares, Aretha, Run-DMC, Digital Underground.

On the other, for my Easy Listening pleasure:

Barry Manilow, Captain & Tennille, the Carpenters, Michael Franks, Journey, Styx, Steely Dan, the Doobies (1979’s “What A Fool Believes” is one of my all-time favorite songs, and is mentioned in More Like Wrestling), Christopher Cross, ELO.

When is your favorite time to write?

Between midnight and dawn. No question.

When it’s just you and a computer, no deadlines, no expectations, what do you find yourself writing?

In my journal. The events of the day, and the tangents they inspire.

MORE LIKE WRESTLING, by Danyel Smith, is now in paperback. Find out more here.

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