TRAMBLINGS. . .
When I wrote MORE LIKE WRESTLING, I knew for sure I wanted to tell OAKLAND’S story. Tell a story of African American California. I was and still am passionate and inquisitive about my hometown, about the people in it, their histories and hopes and tragedies. I was also sure I wanted to get across my idea of a complicated sisterhood. I was sure I wanted the language to stand out. I was sure with BLISS that I wanted to talk about music, and that I wanted to talk about a woman who truly works. I wanted that woman to be spiritually wounded, I wanted her to be driven, and I wanted her to be confident. I did not want her to be a whiner – I wanted her to be a winner, and to have to deal with the price of professional triumphs.
2) To borrow a question from NOVEL IDEAS: CONTEMPORARY AUTHORS SHARE THE CREATIVE PROCESS, how did BLISS “gather” for you? What was the seed of the story and how did you pull it all together?
Hm. How did it gather? I’m shrugging in my head right now, because aside from the music of the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s, I don’t know what else it could be. The heroine of BLISS, Eva, is molded and motivated by her relationship to soul and hip hop and pop and so just listening and listening to that kind of music (not like it was hard to do, as I listen to music pretty relentlessly) made Eva come alive for me. It gave me her loves, and her hatreds, gave me her outfits and her boyfriends and her trajectory. The music gave her a soul, and after that, well, I’m not going to say it was easy, but at least Eva was there, being my rock.
3) What is a question that you’ve never been asked in interviews that you always wanted to answer in regard to your writing?
The question is: “So, Danyel, do you like to write? I mean, do you truly enjoy it?” And my answer would be, only sometimes. Only when I can see the golden light at the end of the tunnel, only when the whole of whatever I’m working on can be seen in 3D. Only when the work seems heavy and full. Only when I sense the coming of the “ting”. I need to feel so I can know I’m as finished as I can be. Most of writing for me is difficult and involves dealing with my insecurities and what I perceive to be my deficiencies. And is that fun? No. But it is satisfying. Rather like a beautiful, harrowing cold hike uphill, barefoot, toward the sun.
4) Is there a single book that has influenced you more than others?
The singularity and boldness of ZORA NEALE HURSTON’S Janie in THEIR EYES WERE WATCHING GOD. The gorgeous confidence of Hurston’s writing. The detail in anything ever written by JOAN DIDION. The sense of place, character and language in any fiction from CRISTINA GARCIA. The brevity of Hemingway. JAMES BALDWIN’S SONNY’S BLUES. J.M. COETZEE’S DISGRACE. Everything SYLVIA PLATH. Toni Morrison’s SONG OF SOLOMON. MARJORIE MORNINGSTAR. ROOTS. THE GODFATHER. THE GREAT GATSBY. JOHN UPDIKE’S MARRY ME.
5) What about research? How does that figure into your writing?
All I can say is: YES. I should own stock in Google. I’m sure I’ve paid the light bill for Amazon.com. And don’t get me to talking about time and money spent on CDs. I am motivated by a lust for the magic detail and/or connection. The sweet little line between, say the true name of a kind of peach and the color of a person’s skin. Maybe the name of the peach is a “Tennessee Maybelle.” Maybe Maybelles are known for their perfect white flesh. Maybe I can name a character Maybelle. Maybe she’s white and has lovely skin. Maybe she’s black and dreams of having sweet white flesh. Maybe she’s biracial, and Maybelle peaches are a hybrid. Maybe Maybelles aren’t a hybrid, but they bruise easily and spoil quickly. All this kind of stuff can be used, yes, but more importantly, it can be known, and when you have this kind of stuff on your brain when you write, you can pull a rabbit from a hat. Patterns start to form it what was a barren stretch of sand.
6) Have you ever considered a writing project a complete failure?
Each and everyone, while it’s in the process.
6a) How do you avoid that sort of thinking?
Tell me, and we’ll both know.
7) Grace Paley said, “Write what you know about what you don’t know.” Have you ever applied that? Give an example.
I feel this way whenever I write male characters. I don’t feel this way when I write older characters, or character of other races. But, men? That’s when I’m writing what I know about what I don’t know. Who are they? Why do they say the things they say? Do the things they do? Male motivation, the male heart. A man’s soul. His regrets, his reasons for lying, for loving, for leaving, for staying. Trying to write that, capture that – for me it’s a leap of faith crossed with rare moments of true and total confidence.
Are there stories that you, or your family, have deemed off-limits?
Yes. Absolutely. And some of our “off limits” stories are, in some form or another, right in MORE LIKE WRESTLING.
9) Have you ever lost a project? How? Computer failure? Misplaced?
Please! Are you jinxing me? YES! I’ve lost huge sections of important stuff. Left in a cab. Server crash. Laptop bugged out. Edited pages accidentally thrown away. ALL THAT! But these things are not spoken of!
10) Do you do any writing besides fiction? Nonfiction? Screenwriting? Songwriting? Poetry?
I’ve had a sixteen-year career as a journalist, and it’s not over yet. I wrote something like poetry while in my MFA program. I like doing it, but learning the rules of poetry, even just so I could break them, is intimidating. Besides, though the poets will argue with me, fiction – the novel – is the highest calling. It’s a lifetime goal to write one that will stand the test of time. Screenwriting? I want to try. Songwriting? It’s never been a dream.
11) Have you read anything lately, specifically fiction, that just knocked your socks off? Share with us and give us the name of a writer whom you think has been ignored.
Too, too many to name. And, ignored by who? Everyone? Or the “mainstream” audience. I just read some of K’wan’s stuff and I like it a lot. I read some of Eisa Ulens first novel, CRYSTELLE MOURNING and I like it a lot. I like DANIEL ALARCON.
13) Name a character in your writing that is closest to you? How?
Paige, from MORE LIKE WRESTLING resembles, in spirit, me in my early twenties. Paige is desperate, bold, pissed, without guidance, caught-up, judgmental, loves love, over-compensates with people-pleasing for miles of perceived and real weaknesses – and she’s loyal to a fault. Ha! Some traits, one grows out of. Other traits are in the DNA. Paige, after all, is young and bruised, and still has to learn how hard the work is for even fleeting moments of bliss. The working title of my third novel is “KINDNESS FOR WEAKNESS.” As in, “. . . don’t mistake my. . .” I love the things we get strong enough to think, say, and write — as time goes by.
# # # # #
An INTERVIEW with Danyel in the SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE.
Danyel Smith at COLORED GIRLS.
IN CONVERSATION at SLATE MAGAZINE.
ESSENCE on BLISS.
Danyel interviewing KANYE WEST.
Until next time. . .