Graham Salisbury’s books for middle-graders and young adults have won numerous accolades, including the PEN/Norma Klein Award and the Scott O’Dell Award. His often dramatic tales of boyhood adventure in a rich Hawaiian setting are fan favorites. While continuing to work on a five-volume cycle of novels set during WWII that began with Under the Blood-Red Sun, Salisbury has also created a new series for younger readers, beginning with Calvin Coconut: Trouble Magnet (Random House/Wendy Lamb, Mar.).
What got you started writing children’s books?
It was all a glorious accident. It was nothing that ever crossed my mind as a young person. Back in my first year of college at the University of Vermont, I took a speech class. One of the assignments was to go back to the dorm and then come back into class with a two-minute intro that would really hook an audience. I dreamed up this little gimmick where I would talk about surfing and then say something about a giant wave coming in. So I came in and turned my back to the class and yelled something about the wave. There must have been five heart attacks in the front row. My professor came over and said “That’s not what I had in mind.” I was so embarrassed that I couldn’t go back to that class for a long time and I developed a terrible fear of public speaking. A bit later, though, I signed up for a Dale Carnegie [speaking] course. We had to write more of those two-minute intros. As I got better at it, I felt good about myself and that’s when I started writing.
Eventually I was writing short stories and learning how to structure a story that had a real beginning, middle and end. I found it fascinating. Not just the writing, but everything about how to write. Later, when I got pretty serious about it, I went to Vermont College’s fiction writing program and that’s where I got my MFA. My project there ended up being Blue Skin of the Sea (Delacorte, 1992), my first book. It’s all been rolling from there and it’s been a grand ride, to tell the truth.
Do you write full-time these days?
I do many things in my life, but writing books is my primary adventure. I also do commercial real estate investing and management, which helps to support me and my family. I’m creating a Web site for birdwatchers, which will probably launch in April. And I’m creating a Calvin Coconut site based on my new book series. I like to keep busy!
How did you find your editor?
Once I had a manuscript of Blue Skin of the Sea, I went to a writers’ conference here in Oregon. Wendy Lamb was scheduled as one of the speakers. I think she was a part-time editor for what was then called Bantam Doubleday Dell. I sat down at lunchtime at a table and over lunch was talking to a woman about my work. I had no idea it was Wendy, until she said, ‘By the way, I’m an editor at BDD. Could I see what you’re doing?’ I gave her my manuscript and two weeks later she called me with an offer.
I would never leave her. She is just terrific. I have had three different agents over the years and I have told all of them, ‘Whatever you do, don’t mess with Wendy.’ I’m very loyal. If you have a good team, you just want to stick with it.
What is your collaboration like?
I send her a manuscript and she sends it back and forth two or three times. She is pretty much spot-on all of the time with her comments and suggestions. I can give you one great example. I first wrote Under the Blood-Red Sun from a different character’s point of view. I sent it to Wendy and she said, ‘This doesn’t have a heartbeat, try again.’ Even though I had reservations about it, I decided, ‘I’m going to get into the Japanese boy’s head.’ I wrote the book from his point of view and it had a heartbeat from page one. I realized that I was more like the Japanese boy than the other boy all along. Whatever Wendy says, I trust it.
You grew up in Hawaii, and the Hawaiian setting in your books is almost like a character itself. Can you talk about its significance to you?
My family’s roots there are very deep, going back to 1819. That’s when my great-great-great-grandfather arrived there as a congregational minister and missionary to the Sandwich Islands. He and his wife spent their lives there and raised five kids in Kailua-Kona.
As for my childhood, I had a different upbringing. My mother had three husbands and I had three fathers. My father was a Navy flyer and he died when I was just a year old so I never knew him. My mother remarried, to another Navy guy, and he died young of cancer. My mother’s third husband was totally inaccessible to me and to her. As a result, I was way too free as a young person. I basically took care of myself. But I got to experience a lot of things. I felt that I was one with the land, the ocean, the jungle, the sand, the river and I was always fishing. It got into my blood. I just love the ocean. It’s the most amazing thing in the tropics—the ocean’s color is very blue. Once you’re on a fishing boat moving quickly and you see that royal blue and the great light on the water—once you experience that, it becomes a part of you. It comes out in my writing.
Why did you want to tackle a series for younger readers?
Calvin was yet another happy accident. A few years ago I was doing a presentation for about 500 sixth- and seventh-graders in a gym. As I was leaving, the principal came over with a teacher and asked if I would mind stopping into a third class. The teacher had read her class one of my stories, and she said that the kids really wanted to meet me. When I walked in, everything froze, it was a like a king walking into the room. She gave me the seat of honor, and asked if I would like to try one of the cookies the class had just made. I could see right away that they had made some sort of rubber cookies and it was all a big joke, but I played along. I made a big show of tasting one and going “blech!” They laughed their heads off. I had such fun that day that my face hurt from smiling so much. I loved the experience and thought, ‘I’ve got to write for those guys.’ It took me a long time to come up with how to do it, but eventually I found a way to dig down deep and I based Calvin on myself.
How is Calvin Coconut like the young Graham Salisbury?
Calvin is the young Graham Salisbury. Calvin lives in my old house. He goes to Kailua Elementary. I just have to look back at the goofy boy I was and the material is all there.
Many people may not know that you also had a career music before you became a writer. Is Calvin’s dad’s musical career a shout-out to your own musical success?
The funny thing is that I did do music professionally [in the late 1960s], which people may not know. My group, Millennium, is more famous today than it was then. You can find my music on iTunes under Sandy Salisbury; Sandy is my nickname. “Little Bit of Love,” the song that made Little Johnny Coconut a one-hit wonder in the book, was one of the songs I wrote.
Do you still play music?
I’m only involved for my enjoyment of it now. I love to play the guitar and to write songs. It’s all about the beauty of the instrument.
Do you have a scope for the series in mind? How far might it go?
It’s pretty free-form. I want to write books about Calvin until he’s not popular anymore. I also want to keep him in fourth grade throughout the series; I don’t want him to grow up. I’d really like to get seven- to 12-year-old boys reading more.
One of the things about Calvin is I like to get him outside. I have two sons who spend their entire lives behind the computer and I’m always telling them go do something. I want to get boys outside. And I want the books to have the feel of plausibility, so that kids can relate to things like Calvin’s single mother or how he deals with bullies or his friends.
What are you working on now?
Next is Calvin #4—I’ve given myself a deadline of June 15 for the first draft. Then I will write the fourth book in the war series, which will be a sequel to Eyes of the Emperor. And then after that, more Calvins.
Calvin Coconut: Trouble Magnet by Graham Salisbury. Random House/Wendy Lamb, $12.99 ISBN 978-0-385-73701-2