Debut YA novelist and boxing champion Sarah Deming on writing, fighting and the will to win
The acknowledgments at the end of Sarah Deming’s new YA novel, Gravity, are six pages long. The author thanks boxers—women she fought on her road to becoming a New York Golden Gloves champion—as well as trainers, students, gym owners, fellow boxing journalists, editors, her agent and publisher, family, friends and her husband. It’s a lovely testament to the veritable village that underlies Deming’s experience of boxing, writing, publishing and living a life.
“I’m really grateful,” she tells BookPage in a call to her Brooklyn home. “If you’re telling a story not just for your own ego’s sake but for a lot of people . . . people will help you along, and it’s not as lonely, not as hard.”
The value of such encouragement is an ever-present theme in Gravity, a thrilling, moving story about a Dominican Jewish girl who boxes her way to a better life. It’s the culmination of Deming’s 20-some years in the world of boxing as a competitor, reporter and coach.
Gravity Delgado began training at 12 years old at a boxing gym in a rough area of Brooklyn. By 16, she’s a Golden Gloves champion angling for a spot on the 2016 Summer Olympics team. Her desire burns brightly as she runs miles in a plastic suit, protects her little brother from their abusive, alcoholic mother and wonders if her father (who abandoned the family when she was 8) thinks about her, too.
The gym that’s long been Deming’s boxing home inspired Gravity’s gym, but the author says she doesn’t miss competing. “Oh God, no. It was so hard! It’s for young people. I’m happy to be around it, but it’s a grueling sport.”
She now channels her energy into coaching and writing. Deming says, “I’ve always had a lot of drive and been really competitive, really hard on myself. The years when I was boxing, it gave me an external focus for that. . . . I was really living in my aggression.”
Deming felt strongly about capturing how, in order to succeed, boxers must be comfortable with (enjoy, even) competition and full contact. In writing Gravity, she says, “I wanted to give kids, especially girls, permission to be hungry and driven. . . . I wanted to give a portrait that would be aspirational for young women, and I really hoped it would be accessible for people who don’t know anything about boxing.”
Gravity is indeed those things. Gravity is talented and determined, and while she must be intensely focused if she wants to make it to the Olympics, she also works to balance friendship and sport, being a sister and being a boxer. She makes mistakes, of course, and readers who’ve faced similar tensions will empathize with her lessons learned.
When it comes to the boxing elements of the book, Gravity is exciting and suspenseful. The road to Rio for the young boxers at Gravity’s gym is artfully described via intermittent news dispatches from a boxing journalist, compelling blow-by-blow descriptions of various bouts and vignettes that amp up the suspense, such as a will-they-make-weight-or-not scene that will leave readers chuckling and a bit grossed out. (“Spitting was my favorite way to make weight,” Deming says.)
The author says she’s experienced the same inner conflict Gravity does when fighting against her friends, or when playfully chatting with an opponent one minute and whaling on them the next. “A rival is a very powerful thing,” she says. “I wanted to show that relationship, and that [Gravity and her friends] could strive against each other. You can see things in your friends that you don’t like and want to react against that and do better than them, but at the end of the day still care about each other.”
That’s a battle fought within, something each boxer must come to terms with in their own way. “The real message,” Deming says, “is that your true competition is with yourself. As a writer, I always try to remember that. I should feel abundant, that there’s enough success in the world for everyone. I’m in competition with myself, and nobody else can write the book I want to write.”
Ultimately, she says, “Gravity is everything I had to say about boxing. It’s my love song to boxing, warts and all.”
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our starred review of Gravity.
Author photo by Gordon Erikson.