Monday, October 09, 2006

One Writer's Process: Graham Salisbury

Compassion, sensitivity, and grace are words that reviewers have used to describe Graham Salisbury's work, and many of Salisbury's friends might use the same words to describe the man himself.

A master craftsman, Salisbury has earned a place for his award-winning historical fiction, contemporary novels, and short story collections--Blue Skin of the Sea, Under the Blood-Red Sun, Shark Bait, Jungle Dogs, Lord of the Deep, Island Boyz, and Eyes of the Emperor--on the shelf alongside the work of legendary writers like Scott O'Dell . (Indeed, Under the Blood-Red Sun won the Scott O'Dell Award for Historical Fiction in 1995.)

Ever since his first book, Blue Skin of the Sea, was released in 1992, Salisbury has made a name for himself writing about boys and their adventures with a deep understanding of their lives and the emotional currents buffeting them as they make their way toward adulthood.

Much of his work, which is set in Hawaii where Salisbury grew up, addresses the challenging issues of what it means to be an American. But he explores with equal fervor themes of justice and racism, as well as what is required to live a life with integrity and honor.

For Salisbury, the answer to that question appears to be the same as years ago when he quoted La Rouchefoucauld in an epigraph to Blue Skin of the Sea: "When you cannot find peace in yourself, it is useless to look for it elsewhere."

Salisbury, whose newest book, House of the Red Fish, is a sequel to Under the Blood-Red Sun, was kind enough to take a few minutes from a busy schedule to share his thoughts on writing with Wordswimmer.

Wordswimmer: How do you get into the water each day

Salisbury: Well, the first thing I do is put my feet in the water … or on the floor. I do this at 4:45 a.m. Once my feet touch the carpet I know I can take it from there. I am an early bird. I do my best work in the morning and I know that. Plus, I love being out in the community before everyone else. I like the peace of it, especially in the winter when the mornings are tar black. I can’t work at home. I need to be out there among the working stiffs. I admire them and try to be a hard worker, too. I know myself and know what I have to do to get going, and one of those things is to have some “place,” some “ritualistic spot” to work. For me it’s a busy coffee shop, any one of several Starbucks locations in Lake Oswego, Oregon, where I live (I actually live in Portland, but work in Lake Oswego, a mile or so from my house). I park, get out and breathe a huge gulp of clean Oregon air, and go inside. By now it’s around six o’clock. I grab a 16-ounce Americano (fancy costly coffee) and set myself down with either a pad and pen, or my laptop. From that point I vanish into my project, which means that I essentially go to Hawaii (how cool is that?). I do first drafts in longhand and revisions on my Mac. For the next three hours I am totally focused on whatever book project I am working on. I’m in the water. Wordswimming.

Wordswimmer: What keeps you afloat … for short work? For longer work?

Salisbury: The same thing for both: honest interest, passion, and commitment to the project. If my concept doesn’t thrill me I bail and go on to something else. I do far more long work (novels) than I do short work. I like to dig deep and explore and see what I can come up with. I like to get to know my characters. I have long believed in the magic of writing. Something special happens when you sit down and start to work – I call that something magic – things come out that you never expect, and often those things surprise and delight me. That’s what keeps me afloat. The magic.

Wordswimmer: How do you keep swimming through dry spells?

Salisbury: I keep kicking, and I do that by not allowing dry spells, also known as “writer’s block.” I don’t get writer’s block. Actually, to me, it’s not a block at all, it’s procrastination, pure and simple. Anyone who really wants to work just plows right on through the problems that inevitably arise when writing. When I think I have “nothing” in me, then I just write garbage until is smells better. I can fix it later. Or dump it. I believe – no, I know from experience – that if I HAVE something on paper I can fix it. If I have nothing on paper, I have nothing to fix. So garbage can look pretty good when you think of it that way. This is one of the best writing lessons I’ve picked up over the years. I keep swimming by clinging to the knowledge that I can transform pig slop into diamonds. I can fix whatever crummy purple prose I write. Keep water in the pool – forbid dry spells.

Wordswimmer: What’s the hardest part of swimming?

Salisbury: For me, it’s swimming in a straight line. My right arm is stronger than my left, so I’m constantly drifting out of the lane. Translated into the writing process, this means I sometimes lose focus. It’s easy to go off on tangents, so I try to give myself the barest of outlines before I start. I don’t want anything close to a detailed outline, but I do want to know where I’m going. It’s important for me to know the ending early on. The ending is probably what I want to know most. Sometimes, after I have finished a book I look at it and frown. What the spit is this thing about? I did that with LORD OF THE DEEP. I just didn’t capture the story I’d imagined. So I did a really smart thing: I asked a particularly bright seventh-grade girl in my neighborhood to read the manuscript and tell me what it was about. “This is about integrity,” was her answer, essentially. With that in mind I went back and rewrote (fixed) the manuscript, tightening down the focus, and -- boing! -- LORD OF THE DEEP began to take shape. It ultimately won the Boston Globe/ Horn Book Award, and it only had a shot at that lofty accolade because I had the smarts to ask a pro to make sense of the mess I had made. The hardest part of swimming is staying in the dang lane.

Wordswimmer: How do you overcome obstacles, problems, when swimming alone?

Salisbury: I swim through them any way I can. Often, the key to swimming (writing) alone is more solitude. I have written passages on the treadmill, taking the dogs for a walk, in bed half-awake, and in the car while driving long distances. Take your problems with you. Plant them in your brain and forget about them. Your conscious mind will zone out and have a rest. But your subconscious mind can’t stand not knowing the solution to a problem, so it keeps on working until something comes up. When it finds a solution it might even let you know what it is. This is called an epiphany. Don’t underestimate the POWER of your quiet mind. Sometimes it may even help to go swimming with another writer and toss ideas about. But mostly, I deal with obstacles alone.

Wordswimmer: What’s the part of swimming you love the most?

Salisbury: Revision. Oh, man, do I love revision. Polishing. Deepening. Fine tuning. The equivalent in the swimming world would be body surfing a clean, glassy wave at White Sands Beach in Kailua-Kona about 30 years ago when the Kona Coast was still pristine (it was so stunningly beautiful that I wrote BLUE SKIN OF THE SEA, just so I would never forget it – that was the energy behind that book). I haven’t seen such beauty since. When you revise you can find beauty in your work. It’s possible.

Wordswimmer: Any other advice to share with writers?

Salisbury: My advice? Swim with delight and thank the universe for all the water (magic). Keep going, keep going, keep going. It is surely worth the effort. Oh, yeah.

For more information about Graham Salisbury and his work, check out his website:

Also, take a look at an interview that appears on The Alan Review:

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