Gail Tsukiyama: Poet, Novelist, Teacher
Gail Tsukiyama is the author of seven novels, the most recent of which is A Hundred Flowers. She was born in San Francisco to a Chinese mother and a Japanese father and attended San Francisco State University, where she received both her Bachelor of Arts degree and a master of arts degree in English with an emphasis in creative writing. Most of her college work was focused on poetry, and she was the recipient of the Academy of American Poets Award.
Q. Did you always know you wanted to be a writer?
A. I knew I always wanted to tell stories. Even when I was very young, I was always writing down stories or scenes or dreaming of them in my mind. I began as a film major, thinking that was the medium in which I wanted to tell my stories. I quickly realized it was too confining in terms of structure and development and turned to the writing department.
Q. What inspires you?
A. Good music, well-written books, a wonderful movie, friends, a lovely glass of wine.
Q. Can you tell us a little bit about your latest project?
A. It’s early in the writing, but it might depart a bit from my other more historically placed works. A good part of it takes place in modern day.
Q. I’ve heard that writers often bond to their characters, what does it feel like to finish a story and let go of that bond a little?
A. How I really know I’m finished with a story is when it also feels like it’s time to let go of my characters. It feels similar to sending a child out into the world; it’s hard and you worry, but you inherently know that you’ve prepared them in every way you can and that they’re ready.
Q. Do you have any advice/cure/ for the infamous “writer’s block”?
A. I tend to walk away from the work for a short time and take on a different mindset – I go window shopping or grocery shopping. I see a movie or read a book. I go for a walk or work out in the yard. Doing something physical always works for me, even something as mundane as vacuuming. By the time I return to the story, I almost always feel rejuvenated and able to see the work more objectively.
Q. How did you get started in the writing industry and what is your best piece of advice to people interested in pursuing writing as a career?
A. I majored in English with emphasis in creative writing at San Francisco State University. I began publishing my poetry in small literary magazines and worked my way up to writing short stories and then the novel. When I was almost finished with my first novel, I attended a writer’s workshop at Mills College. There I met a group of writers who have remained my writer’s group for the past twenty-five years. I met my agent through one of them and the rest is history. It’s important to have readers whom you trust that you can show your work to for feedback. And if you’re not in an MFA program, there are many writing programs, such as the Antioch Summer Writing Institute that bring together writers with those in the writing industry.
My best advice is to concentrate on writing the best story you can, and to write it without thoughts of being published. If the writing comes from a passion within, the rest will follow.
Q. What is one interesting thing about you that most people don’t know?
A. I always wanted to be a doctor.
Q. What is the best food you’ve eaten in the past week?
A. Fried chicken. I don’t eat it often, but when I do it’s got to be good!
Q. Is there anything new on your plate? What can we expect from you in the future?
A. Besides a new book, I’m also involved with a books + water project called WaterBridge Outreach. It’s a private, nonprofit that supplies books and water needs to impoverished countries. I was in India last November checking on projects we’ve sponsored. I hope to keep working with WBO in the years to come.
Q. What is one thing you are really looking forward to with the Summer Writing Institute?
A. Hearing new voices.
Q: How important is networking and social media in the field of writing?
A. Apparently very important. I’m so bad at it that it’s embarrassing. I wrote an entire keynote talk about my inability to use social media in ways that would help with the business of writing.
Q: Do you have any practices regarding the above question that you have found successful? Any websites you swear by, any online communities that have been helpful, etc.?
A. I finally have an Author’s Page on Facebook. Unfortunately, I’m not very good at keeping up with it so I’m definitely the wrong author to ask. I’m going to try and do better with using social media in the months ahead!
Q: Can you give us a rough breakdown of the process of writing a novel from the point of conception to having the book published and sitting on bookshelves?
A. The initial process of writing a novel is in the writer’s hands. You have to sit down and write every day until that glimmer of light finds its way onto the page(s) and shines. It takes discipline and dedication. Only after you’ve written a really clean final draft, do you look for an agent who believes in your book, so they’ll find the right home for it. (Meaning an editor and publishing house.) They are your allies and will help fight for everything that becomes the business of writing – from designing the book cover to how much marketing will take place, from sending early copies out for reviews to which bookstores or warehouses will carry the book. (This is also when social media can play a helpful role in getting the word out!) While the process of writing a book is very solitary, it takes a team to bring the final product to the bookshelf of a bookstore.
Q: What was the best piece of advice about writing or becoming a writer that someone has ever given you?
A. Always tell the truth. It’s also what I tell students.