The Alliance for the Study and Teaching of Adolescent Literature at Rhode Island College




- Graham Salisbury -


Graham Salisbury grew up on the island of Oahu, and Hawaii, but spent most of the summers in Kailua-Kona. Graham had many jobs before writing, he worked as a skipper of a glass-bottom boat, as a deckhand on a deep- sea fishing boat, a musician, and an elementary school teacher. Today, he lives in Portland, Oregon where he manages a historic building.

The awards he has won for his writing of the Blue Skin of the Sea include: PEN/Norma Klein Award, the Bank Street Child Study Award, and the Parent's Choice book award. He was selected as the NCTE Notable Trade Book in the Language Arts, and as a School Library Journal Best Book of the Year, and an ALA Best Book for Young Adults. Under The Blood Red Sun, received the Scott O'dell Award for Historical Fiction. It also won a lot of other honors.

Q&A with Graham Salisbury

Thanks for reading my work. Hope my answers are enlightening.

1. How do you come up with ideas for your books? Do you write from personal experience?

Ideas are everywhere; I just have to be open to them. Mostly they come from things remembered, things from my youth. I write about the Hawaiian Islands,about people and cultures. I try to find an incident or situation that's somehow different, "fresh", is the word I like to use. Then I build a story around that. A lot of what I come up with is based on personal experience or research, as in the case of UNDER THE BLOOD-RED SUN. The thing for me about ideas is that I can't just go out and "get" one. They kind of sneak up on their own. The key is to remember them. So I keep a journal. An example of taking something from the past and using it would be: when I was a kid growing up on the Big Island, I remember seeing a part of Hilo after it was hit by a devastating tidal wave. I remember the parking meters flattened to the ground. I remember the concrete foundations where buildings once stood. I remember reading about a radio announcer flying over the scene saying, "You would cry to see Waiakea Town not one wall is left." From these memories I built a story (it's in BLUE SKIN OF THE SEA). These memories are gems.

2. Who and what do you read? Who or what has influenced your writing?

Hawaii has influenced my writing, the place, the people, the wonder of it all. A superb childhood has influenced my writing, a love of a particular time in my own life. I read tons of books for young readers. I also read adult books if I think they are good. For R&R I read Elmore Leonard, Dick Francis, and Tony Hillerman. My favorite writers for young readers are Chris Crutcher, Chris Lynch, Gary Paulsen, Brock Cole, Katerine Paterson, Will Hobbs, and many more. For adult literature I think Cormac McCarthy is one of the best. I also like Kaye Gibbons and Tobias Wolff. There are so many talented writers. So many.

3. How long does it take you to write?

BLUE SKIN OF THE SEA took me five years to write, as I taught myself the craft of writing with that book. UNDER THE BLOOD-RED SUN took two years. SHARK BAIT took one, and my new book, JUNGLE DOGS, took one.
I don't think I can write a decent book in less than one year.

4. When did you first want to become an author? Why did you choose YA, and how did you first get published?

I started writing about 15 years ago. I wanted to be a writer because I have an immense love of reading. Reading is a miraculous gift. How is it that mere words can evoke emotion in a human heart? Wow.

I write for kids because I think like a kid, I guess. I loved that time in my life, so I remember it in fiction. Also, it's an area of literature where a writer can be a positive influence, though I do not aim to "teach, preach, or criticize" in my work. But I do wish to show possibilities. I got published by accident. Met my editor at a conference in the wilds of Oregon. I thought she was another aspiring writer. I sat with her at lunch and told her about my work (which ended up as BLUE SKIN OF THE SEA). She said, "Hmmm, sounds interesting. I'm an editor at Bantam Doubleday Dell. Would you mind letting me see it?" From there, it's history. My story is an absolute fairy tale. I doesn't happen that way.

5. When you grew up on the islands was there prejudice against Japanese Americans as strong as during the war?

No. The Japanese in Hawaii are great. They were never disloyal, even during the war with Japan. They are a wonderful people.

6. How is it that you knew so much about the Japanese culture? What kind of research did you have to do?

I knew a certain amount about Japanese culture simply by growing up around it. There were many details, however, that I did not (could not) know. My best research was done by talking to people. When my manuscript was complete, I had a Japanese woman read it over and point out my errors. She was superb. I would never knowingly publish a book that was not as accurate as I could possible make it. I seek quality, and will go to great lengths to find it.

7. Since BLUE SKIN OF THE SEA won so many awards, did you feel pressured to outdo it when writing your other books?

No. I just wanted to write a good story. If I worry about awards and pressure I would be useless. I love the awards; they give me a certain validation. But I love the characters I get to live with while writing a book far better. The bottom line is honesty in writing. To chase awards would be ruinous. So I just write what I feel is worth my precious time.

8. In SHARK BAIT, you wrote about making decisions and sometimes making the wrong decisions. Did you find yourself as a young adult, in the same position?

Of course. I was no rocket scientist as a kid. I was as dumb as the rest of them. "Consequences" is the theme of that book, really, though friendship and loyalty play a heavy part. But kids make choices everyday, and that's what I wanted to play on - making a choice and living with its consequence. As a kid, I was an idiot.

9. When you are writing a book, does it contain most of your thinking, or do you only focus on it while doing the actual writing?

My mind never stops writing. It's part of the art. I write all the time, even if I'm not actually putting words on paper. I think and think and think, and make notes in my head and in my journal. I even dream scenes. Somehow, miraculously, it all comes together in some coherent form in the end. It makes me kind of a spacey guy, though, much to the chagrin of my patient family.

10. In BLUE SKIN OF THE SEA how much of the story was based on personal experiences? How much came from your imagination?

10% experience; 90% imagination. Each story in that book has a germ of truth (except "Malanamekahuluohemanu" which came from outer space). Some "thing" that I experienced sparked the story, such as the tidal wave story. This is how all authors work, I think. We say "What if?" then run with it, using every little ounce of our own human experience to flesh out a story. How else could we do it. In "Deep Water" the truth was that my step-father pushed me out into deep water in an effort to teach me to swim. In "The Old Man" I actually saw Spencer Tracy film part of "The Old Man and the Sea". In "The Boy in the Shadow" I actually knew a kid who fished with a bow and arrow. In "Rudy's Girl" I actually ran a glass-bottom boat and fell in love with two or three Shellys.

Memories are gems.
Writing is more fun than one might imagine.
Life is grand.

Hope all this has given you a peek into the writing world. It's a dang good one.

Graham Salisbury

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This web page was last updated on: 21 June 2007

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