An interview with Graham Salisbury
Graham Salisbury is the author of middle grade and young adult fiction, including Eyes of the Emperor, Blue Skin of the Sea, and the Scott O’Dell and Nene Award-winning Under the Blood-Red Sun. I’d been interested in interviewing him since we started this blog (because how does a haole guy raised in Hawaii but now living in Oregon become best known for his historical fiction about a Japanese-American boy during World War II?), a feeling that was only reinforced by the Celebrate Reading session I attended. So here it is, our interview with Graham Salisbury.
How did you go from performing in a rock band to writing books for young people?
Young people have always played a part in my life. Simply put, I like them. I like being around them. I love their energy and the sparkle in their eyes. This is most likely so because I loved my own youth. Growing up in the islands was a wondrous experience all the way around. At age ten or so I became enthralled with popular music. I remember the car radio blasting as I hitched a ride to school with my best friend and his older brother. Elvis, the Everly Brothers, and the Fleetwoods captured me, completely, entirely. Consumed me, even. I was hooked. I begged my mother to buy me a guitar. She found an old Harmony, and I started plunking away on it. Later, I gave music a good shot and did pretty well. I wrote over 100 songs and recorded most of them. I even had a number one song … in the Philippines. Hah! To this day I still write songs for fun. When I decided to continue with higher education I went back to my roots: love of youth, young people. I wanted to be an elementary school principal. I got a teaching degree, and later a masters in writing. Later still, I became a voracious reader, and from there, a writer. Probably could have answered this question in a single sentence: put down my guitar and picked up my pen.
When you began Under the Blood-Red Sun, did you intend to write a series of books about Hawaii at war? And why focus on the Japanese-American experience?
Okay, now you’re asking me to get to work. This five-book series became my plan after I’d written UNDER THE BLOOD-RED SUN. That book has a rather open-ended ending. Readers want to know more. They are left without closure, as was Tomi in the novel. What happens to Papa and Grampa? Even I wanted to know that. So new ideas emerged. I didn’t set out to focus on the Japanese-American experience from the Hawaii point of view. But the power of their story, as it unfolded in my research, overwhelmed me. Writing UNDER THE BLOOD-RED SUN from Tomi’s point of view made me, I like to think, an honorary Hawaii Japanese. I became Tomi as I wrote UNDER THE BLOOD-RED SUN. And I was educated. The more I learned, the more I sympathized with the massive injustices done to this group of Americans. And I discovered powerful stories. EYES OF THE EMPEROR grew out of one such story. Ray Nosaka, a 100th Battalion WWII veteran, wrote a short piece for JAPANESE EYES, AMERICAN HEART, a wonderful collection of WWII memories. When I read his story I said, Ho! This has GOT to be told! And I was off and running. So I guess, in answer to your question, I focus on Hawaii’s Japanese-Americans of WW II because I find in them what I would hope to find in myself: courage, honor, loyalty, patriotism, family faithfulness. These are people as solid as they come. The most powerful, and perhaps the most telling point that I have come across in my work is that even through all of the injustices and indignities, the vast majority of this group remained the strongest of patriots, even after all that was done to them. Their response set the foundation for those who would follow. It’s an incredible story.
You said that although you were worried about writing from the perspective of a Japanese-American boy, no one has ever complained about it.
True, I was worried. Looking back, I ask myself … why? The answer is simple. Because some self-important literary elite told me I could not write out of my race. I heard or read that somewhere, and took it as indisputable. Balderdash, as my grandfather used to say. A writer is an artist, and an artist creates what he creates. Still, I had that fear. Even beyond UNDER THE BLOOD-RED SUN. When I first met with the eight veterans who lived the Cat Island story in EYES OF THE EMPEROR, the first thing I said to them was, “This is not my story; it’s yours. May I tell it?” Not one of them said I couldn’t. With that permission I did the best that I could. On some level I hope I have succeeded. I don’t worry about racial perspective when writing anymore. I’ve found that no matter what you do someone will complain. It’s human, I suppose. The really lucky thing for me is that if someone of Japanese ancestry is not happy with my having done it, they’ve kept quiet about it. I would give little credence to a complaint from one of any other race, frankly. But not to complain is a Japanese quality. They are too polite. I have great admiration for that. As well as gratefulness.
I would be suspicious of a book set in Hawaii that does not contain pidgin English (unless it takes place in a hotel or something). It can be hard for non-locals to understand pidgin, so how do you incorporate it into your books so that it’s understandable to a national audience?
What I feel most secure about in my writing is dialogue, or, at least, Hawaii dialogue. When I’m at work I “hear” my characters loud and clear, and many of them speak the pidgin of my time. Hawaii’s unique pidgin English is an alive and changing “language,” if I may be so bold. To me, it’s not only hilarious, but also thrilling. I love it. I must have heard a bunch of it as a kid in Kaneohe, Kailua, Kailua-Kona, and Kamuela, because when I write it pops up and rambles on as if I were still the fourteen-year-old idiot fool I probably was (my sisters would say, no, the fool you absolutely were). But I digress: to answer your question more simply, I can’t even imagine writing what I do and not using pidgin in some form or another. After all, I write for and about Hawaii’s young people, and though they are rightly encouraged to speak Standard English, pidgin is present nevertheless. Hawaii would not be Hawaii without it. What I do to make it accessible to mainland readers is (1) not spell it phonetically, and (2) portray it through syntax (“We go store,” instead of “Let’s go to the store.”). This way it becomes accessible. When something I write makes no sense to a mainland reader (my editor being the first to say so), I will modify and clarify. I want them to see the Hawaii I know and love.
Do the producers or narrators of your audio books call you to ask about the pronunciation of words or names?
No, but I demand that they know. I have in the past recorded word pronunciations and sent them to New York. When the words in my books are mispronounced it bothers me to the extreme. I read, personally, two of my books for audio, and loved doing it. But, alas, I am not a very good narrator. One needs a modicum of acting ability. Since Recorded Books in New York, who has put all of my books to audio, seems to have no Hawaii-raised narrators in their arsenal, I came up with my own solution: I ask that they hire a Latino named Robert Ramirez to narrate my books. Robert’s accent works better than an attempted oriental accent, and he’s pretty good at getting it right. I like his work overall, too. He’s good.
How do you research your books and what kind of research do you do?
The only books I research extensively are my war books. The others flow through the magic that happens between my fingertips and keyboard … and it is magic … but that’s another subject. When I need facts, I go first to Google and look for key words. I usually find a ton of stuff, and from there I launch into a more fine-tuned search. Beyond the Internet, I spend hours in libraries (I love libraries, the carrels, the quiet, the smell of books, the array of choices). I also buy books. I have a huge personal library, and am always in need of more shelf space. I donate a lot of what I buy to my kids’ school. The best research I have done, however, is primary research – finding and interviewing those who have “been there.” That is an amazing experience. One of the most rewarding things for me is to hear my young readers say that because of my books, they have taken it upon themselves to ask their grandparents about their lives, and have been greatly rewarded for it. That’s a wonderful thing for this writer to hear, and I hear it often. Research gives me the past. Through the past I am educated and made better.
Librarians often complain about the dearth of middle grade books for boys, especially when it comes to realistic fiction. You said that middle grade boys are exactly the audience you want to write for.
And that is entirely correct. I want to reach boys from grades two through eight, mostly, but am happy to reach any reader anywhere. And girls are more than welcome in my world. I yearn for them to be there. In fact, I have a ton of female readers. I get as many letters from girls as I do boys. But boys are my ground zero. Why? I’m not really sure, but my belief is that I am subconsciously working through my own misdirected boyhood. Until my mom, bless her overwhelmed heart, sent me away to boarding school (Hawaii Prep on the Big Island) in the seventh grade … until that time I was freer than I ever should have been. But what an awesome gift, too. My life was basically that of a nomad, wandering my neighborhoods with my buddies. Early in the morning I’d say to my mother, “I’m going to Terry’s house.” And she’d say, “Be back for dinner.” And I was gone. All day. Doing whatever I wanted. I am so fortunate in that my choices were somewhat, though not always, halfway intelligent. I write realistic fiction because I like it and think it’s important. I want to show real people in real situations that mirror real life. Fantasy and Science Fiction have their place, for sure, and a huge place it is. But real issues and situations explored in fiction can hit home. Recently, in Honolulu at the Celebrate Reading Festival, I was told by a young reader that a scene in UNDER THE BLOOD-RED SUN was so powerful to him, so moving, that it became, for him, a seminal life moment. In a realistic, human way, that one scene (in the context of the novel) turned him into a Lifetime Reader. That is what it’s all about. I call that a homerun.