Take Five with Gail Tsukiyama

July 29, 2020 | By Baltimore County Public Library

Photo of Gail Tsukiyama

Bestselling author Gail Tsukiyama delivers a beautiful story of family, secrets and choices in "The Color of Air." The 1935 eruption of Hawaii’s Mauna Loa volcano is the backdrop for Tsukiyama’s vibrant and reflective novel that alternates between past and present.    

1. I love that your novels present glimpses of time and place that readers may not recognize. Once you get an idea for your novel, what is your research process?

Since all of my novels have taken place in time periods and places that I haven’t lived in, I usually start my research with establishing a sense of place. Whether it’s a small village in China, as in "Women of the Silk, or Tokyo, Japan during WWII, in "The Street of a Thousand Blossoms," or Hilo town and the Big Island of Hawai’i in "The Color of Air," I research enough until I feel comfortable with the world I’m about to step into. Once that happens, I write organically, letting the characters and storyline follow suit.

I’ve always believed that place provides a good starting point because it immediately creates character. Where a character is born and raised also defines who they are. Growing up on a tropical island is much different from growing up in a busy, crowded city. Because the writing process all works hand in hand, time and place helps me shape my characters—through their environment, their religion and customs, the foods they eat and the superstitions they might live by—which in turn also helps to push the storyline forward. Once I begin writing, I’m always researching simultaneously, always discovering things along the way that often makes its way into the story, or inspires a new direction the story takes.

2. How challenging is it to write in two different time periods?

With every book there have been challenges! It’s always a one step forward, two steps back movement when you’re writing a novel-length story that might cross generations and take years to write. With "The Color of Air," I realized that my present day (1935) character’s storylines also revolved around two characters from their pasts, so it meant returning to those past events (1910 to 1933) to tell all of their stories. By the time I knew who my characters were and how their pasts remained so much a part of their present, moving back and forth in time actually felt like part of the natural flow of the story.

Cover of The Color of Air

3. How has your work as a poet affected your novels?

Poetry taught me how to use language sparingly; how a word in a line placed just right could speak volumes. I think the “less is more” approach has become ingrained in my writing style, that, and the lyricism that comes from the love of language and the music it can make.

4. What is your idea of a good story? What do you like to read?

My idea of a good story is one that captivates and pulls me in to their world. When I come out of that world again, I’ll find my own life a little bit changed. I read everyone from Louise Erdrich to Hillary Mantel to Hanya Yanagihara to Michael Ondaatje. I also like to reread Jane Austen every so often and the manuscripts of writer friends who allow me sneak peeks.

5. Has your writing process changed during the pandemic? What is the most unexpected thing you’ve discovered during quarantine and what person-place-thing do you miss the most?

When we first quarantined, several writer friends and I felt there wasn’t much change from our daily hibernating life of writing. We were used to working from home by ourselves and I was still writing and researching as usual. What has changed greatly is having a book come out during the pandemic while being quarantined and still doing a virtual book tour. While it’s amazing to have social media and platforms like Zoom and Crowdcast in which we can still connect, I miss the personal interaction. I miss not being able to see booksellers, librarians and readers in person. I also miss seeing my 98 and 99-year-old aunts, not being able to travel to places near and far, and hugging friends. Thankfully, there are books!

Category: Collection and Materials