Interview: Children’s-YA Author Graham Salisbury

Graham SalisburyGraham Salisbury is a well known author whose work concentrates on Hawaii as a setting, and his novels include: JUNGLE DOGS (Sagebush, 2001)(rebound edition), SHARK BAIT (Laurel Leaf, 1999), UNDER THE BLOOD-RED SUN (Sagebush, 1999)(rebound edition), and BLUE SKIN OF THE SEA (Delacorte, 1992). This interview was conducted via email in September 2000. Visit: Graham Salisbury’s Page . . . Aloha!

What kind of a reader were you as a kid? What were your favorite books?

I did not read as a kid. I was a goof and a wandering fool. I had way more freedom than I should have had, not so much because my mother was permissive, or worse, irresponsible, but rather because she had far larger problems than me to worry about (she lost two husbands within a span of ten years).

Fortunately for her, I wasn’t a bad kid. I was pretty easy. Just clueless.

Because of that scenario I have been in charge of my own life forever, which explains why I was not a reader – no one encouraging me. Sure, I read assigned books in school, and once in a while I’d latch onto a Classic Comic. One time I went crazy and read Edgar Rice Burrow’s TARZAN OF THE APES, which I loved.

Other than that, though, I did not read. I surfed; bellied my way under barbed-wire fences into Bellows Field (a restricted military base, just over the ridge); rode my goose-necked bike around like Marlon Brando in the Wild One; fished in a swamp with a bamboo pole; roamed the rainforest on the Big Island; tried to get girls to fawn over me; chewed my nails in prep school waiting for love letters to appear in my dormitory mailbox; fell hopelessly deeper in love when they did; ran cross-country to escape whatever confused me; taught myself how to play the guitar; listened to sappy love songs (which I still love); got hopelessly infatuated with blond beach bunnies who wouldn’t give me the time of day; and had a complete and total blast being a kid in one of the most beautiful places in the world.

But I did not read.

Did you always want to be a writer, or did you experiment with other jobs?

I never thought I’d be a writer. It was the LAST thing I thought I’d be.

Truthfully, I flunked English TWICE in college. On my third attempt I got an A —- this was because by then I was in college because I wanted to be there, not because it was the thing to do.

I experimented with many of jobs, trying to find something that interested me. I found a few I liked: graphic design, music, teaching. What I really wanted to be growing up was a rock and roll star. I actually gave it a shot. I’ve got four CDs out there, two with me as a member of the seven-piece band Millennium, and two as a single artist. Old stuff. Classic, some say. Just plain fun sappy songs, I say. I should have made it big. Actually, I did. I had a number one song . . . in the Philippines.

Which of your characters is the most like you and why? Which is the most different and why?

Of all the (viewpoint) characters I’ve created so far, the most different is Tomi, in UNDER THE BLOOD-RED SUN. Tomi was far more responsible than I ever was. I wish I had been more like him. I guess I was most like Sonny in BLUE SKIN OF THE SEA. He may have been a little smarter than I was, but he essentially came from me. Yeah, Sonny. That’s me. Or at least, that’s the me who could have been. My sisters might laugh at that. They’ll go with another assessment: I was an idiot. But they still love me, thank heaven.

Which of your books was the most challenging to write and why? Which one are you most proud of?

Blue Skin of the Sea by Graham SalisburyThe most challenging AND the one I’m most proud of are the same: BLUE SKIN OF THE SEA. I taught myself how to write with that book. It took me five years. I am very close to that one. I am also proud of UNDER THE BLOOD-RED SUN and LORD OF THE DEEP (summer 2001).

But BLUE SKIN OF THE SEA captures the Hawaii I knew when I was younger, a time that no longer exists. A wonderful, innocent time. Kailua-Kona was paradise if there ever was one. And because I now have BLUE SKIN OF THE SEA, I can go back time and again.


What are the challenges in writing a book set in Hawaii and/or being a writer who lives/lived in Hawaii?

I no longer live in Hawaii (now in Oregon), which, as a writer writing about Hawaii, is good. For me, anyway. If I were there I think I would feel too close to my material. I would see all the little things I was getting wrong or missing altogether. But worse, I would not have the NEED to set my stories there, because I would BE there (and would probably be surfing more than writing).

Being apart from a place I love makes it all the more enticing. Writing is one way to stay close, very close. In my head and heart, daily, I am in the islands. I remember the powerful parts of growing up, the good and the bad. I remember what was important to me as a young person, which is probably not so different from what’s important to young people in the islands today.

My biggest challenge is internal: procrastination, a weakness born of fear, or something like fear. Fear of failure? Fear of success (how can anyone fear success?). Fear of bad reviews? Fear of inadequacy? Fear of ineptitude? Who knows?

Why are children’s books set in Hawaii so rare? Do you expect that to change?

I have no idea why children’s books set in Hawaii are so rare. Or adult books, for that matter. There are a lot of really good writers in the islands, a few of them among my personal all-time favorites. I do expect it to change. Hawaii is rich and exotic and full of stuff to write about.

Maybe it’s because it’s such an exotic place — readers can take only so much of it. Nah. I can take a lot of stories set in exotic settings. Maybe it’s just really hard to publish. Maybe publishers say, we already have writers doing that. Their loss, if that’s true. I consider myself extremely fortunate.

Many of your books could be categorized as multicultural. Are there any particular challenges in writing about people of many different backgrounds?

All of my books are multicultural. I was/am simply part of the multi-culture of Hawaii, or the world, for that matter. I’m a multi-cultural white guy, a mix of many cultures: French, Irish, English, Scot, and German. Maybe to some the term “multi-cultural” excludes all traces of whiteness, but to me it sure doesn’t. We are all part of the great whole.

My characters are of every race in Hawaii, including my own. On the surface it’s easy for me to write about every race. We were all the same growing up — did the same things, ate the same foods, all that.

What I can’t get is a POV from inside the purity of another race. Very few writers outside of a particular pure race can do that. But most of my characters are of mixed-blood, like myself, so I often don’t need to go there.

Do you think there are any particular themes that run through the body of your work?

Under The Blood-Red Sun by Graham Salisbury

Yes, I do. Fatherhood. Friendship. Loyalty. Honor. Family. Integrity.

I think I write around themes that are important to me, and, at the same time, try to paint those themes into interesting stories. I might have a difficult time writing a story of pure entertainment. I think, for me, there needs to be some deeper value.

This is just one way to write. I read tons of adult mysteries, which I love, but are almost always pure entertainment with no deep thematic content. So what I do is just what I do. It’s neither right nor wrong. It’s just me.

You’re working on a novel not set in Hawaii, and this is a first for you. What inspired you to branch out geographically?

I failed with this one. It sits in a “drawer” in my computer. I wrote that dangblasted thing over and over, revision after revision. Got a lot of feedback, sent it to my editor and agent. Nah, they said. Junk. I think I took too much advice from too many people (all good advice, though, just too diverse) and did not listen enough to my own heart. It’s not that I can’t write a story set anywhere other than Hawaii. I’m sure I can. It’s just that this particular one failed. I may pull it out again in the future and try again. But maybe not, too. Resurrection is a hard thing to do.

What advice do you have for other writers?

Read. Read. Read. Write. Write. Write. Revise. Revise. Revise. Butt in chair.

Persevere. Find the heartbeat. Fall in love with your characters, even the heavies.

Sounds dumb, I know, but this is precisely what a writer needs most. Magic is found in the writing itself. Do a crummy first draft, then make it better and better and better by revising it until it sings to you. And never forget that magic happens when you write, not when you think — when you write. Make it happen. No one else will, or can, do it for you. You gotta want it, and want it deeply, passionately.

Speaking of Journals by Paula W. GrahamOtherwise it’s no fun. And writing, which is most assuredly very hard work, should always be fun.

Always. Even when it’s tough. Just do it. Good God, if I can, you can.