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INTERVIEW: Gail Tsukiyama

Wednesday, August 01, 2018


Today I welcome Gail Tsukiyama, author of Women of Silk, to the blog.

Are you a daydreamer too?
I don't believe you can be a writer without being a daydreamer...and a nightdreamer! When you're in the midst of writing a book, you're constantly between worlds, carrying the characters and their stories with you as you go through daily life.

Have you always wanted to be a writer?
Yes, I've always wanted to tell stories, but I didn't follow a direct route to writing novels. While I always wrote short stories as a young girl, my first impulse was to tell them through film. I wanted to be a filmmaker. Once in college, I quickly learned that the technical aspects of making films took away from the creative process of putting words on a page to create a story. I've always loved writing narrative descriptions that pushed a story forward, all the significant details that create a sense of place, tone, character. While you can do it visually and through dialogue in film, words on a page allows for even more breath and depth. Once I transferred to the English Department, I fell madly in love with poetry, and spent my undergraduate and graduate years writing poetry and honing my love of language. It still amazes me how so few words can say so much. Poetry provided a great foundation in learning to use language sparingly. It led to my writing more short stories and then progressing to writing novels.

Tell me a little about yourself – where were you born, where do you live, what do you like to do?
I was born in San Francisco, California and continue to live in the San Francisco Bay Area. My mother was Chinese from Hong Kong, and my father was Japanese from Hawai'i. I like to travel, spend time with family and friends, read, walk, work in the garden, and have a good glass of wine at the end of the day. I also run a nonprofit called, WaterBridge Outreach: Books + Water. We do water projects and library and book projects in developing countries. It's a wonderful addition to my writing life that allows me to give back.

How did you get the first flash of inspiration for this book?
Women of the Silk was my first novel and all I knew was that I wanted to write about the Chinese side of my culture. I was primarily raised in the Chinese culture. I didn't want to write about my family so I began to research. The flash of inspiration took me six months to find, but I knew I would write about these silk working women as soon as I read two lines about them in an autobiography of writer, Han Suyin. I was immediately intrigued that these Chinese women were able to live independent of family and marriage for roughly 100 years in a society based on the traditional bonds of family and marriage. I loved the way they were able to remake their lives to continue those same bonds within their own society. They were early feminists without even knowing it.

How extensively do you plan your novels?
A great deal of research has gone into all the novels I've written. Women of the Silk was especially difficult because at the time it was written, there was very little published information about them as a sub-culture. I almost gave up until I was referred to an essay written specifically about the silk workers published in a book of essays by women anthropologists in the 1940's. I was so fortunate to find it at a library in Berkeley. I don't plan extensively, if a novel is set in a particular place that I want to highlight, I usually begin researching from there. I research throughout the writing of my novels, which have been mostly set in either China and Japan. One of the most wonderful gifts of being a writer is discovering things along the way, not only about your story and characters but about yourself. That's why I plan just enough to get me started, allowing the characters and their stories to lead me forward and tell the rest of their story.

Did you make any astonishing serendipitous discoveries while writing this book?

As a first novel, I was just delighted I could actually write a novel!

Where do you write, and when?
I write at two different homes surrounded by books. One is closer to the city and the other in the country. I try to write during office hours, but find the most productive time for me is between 11:30 pm and 1:30 am when it's completely quiet and I'm not tempted to look at e-mails.

What is your favourite part of writing?
Seeing how the words come together on the page to become a world of its own. I'm always thrilled when I've written that right line that illuminates a character or moves the story forward in just the right way.

What do you do when you get blocked?
Instead of fighting it for too long, I usually move away from the writing. I clean house or watch a movie or work on another project or go for a walk. Getting away from the work for a bit always refreshes the thought process when I return to it.

How do you keep your well of inspiration full?
I read other writers who inspire. Movies work in the same way and the nonprofit work adds another kind of inspiration. I also have a group of writer friends who I get together with once a year for a writers' retreat. We write and talk about our work and all the challenges that come with it.

Who are ten of your favourite writers?
Jane Austen, Willa Cather, Wallace Stegner, Geraldine Brooks, John Steinbeck, Louise Erdrich, E.Annie Proulx, Edwidge Danticat, Toni Morrison, Ian McEwan and the list goes on...

What do you consider to be good writing?
When a writer intimately connects a reader emotionally to a character and story line.

What is your advice for someone dreaming of being a writer too?

To always tell the truth of the story. To never give up the passion.

What are you working on now?
I'm working on a book set on the Big Island of Hawai'i in the 1930's.

You can read my review of Women of Silk here.
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