Acclaimed novelist Gail Tsukiyama

Interview by WaterBridgeReview

Gail Tsukiyama

Gail Tsukiyama is the bestselling author of six novels, including Women of the Silk, The Samurai’s Garden and, most recently, The Street of a Thousand Blossoms, which was published earlier this year by St. Martin’s Press. She is the recipient of the Academy of American Poets Award and the PEN Oakland/Josephine Miles Literary Award. Gail has served as chair of the Kiriyama Prize fiction panel, and she is WaterBridge Review book reviews editor. Gail divides her time between El Cerrito and Napa Valley, California.

WaterBridge Review: What sparked your interest in sumo?

Gail Tsukiyama: I’ve always been fascinated with social groups who have flourished apart from mainstream society. In Women of the Silk, my first novel, there were the women silk workers who forged their own sisterhood, followed by the lepers of Yamaguchi in The Samurai’s Garden. Sumo was simply another extension of my ongoing interest in how individuals and social groups survive and thrive away from the norm. I have actually thought about a sumotori as a protagonist in a novel since my college days. I believe many books evolve out of the natural curiosity of the writer. Writers are always asking themselves questions and hoping to find the answers. And sumo wrestling provided a wealth of questions: "Were the boys always so big as children? What was their training like? How much do they eat? What do they eat? What makes someone, both physically and emotionally, a good wrestler?" It always begins with that initial desire to know.

WBR: The research for this book—not only of sumo and noh, but of Japan during the war—must have been extensive. How did you approach it?

GT: I approached the research one step at a time. If I had really realized, before I began the novel, how much material I was going to cover I might never have started! So, I began at the beginning, knowing the brothers would be growing up in Tokyo and researching the area in and around Tokyo. During my initial reading, I discovered Yanaka, the district in which the boys grow up with their grandparents. It was described as a working class area with a maze of alleyways and I knew immediately it was where the story would begin. Much of the research fell along the same lines of discovery: one thing led to another. The most daunting task was writing the war from the Japanese perspective, but I was aided by a wonderful book of interviews with survivors. And, while I always knew Hiroshi, the older brother, was going to find his way into sumo wrestling, I had no idea what direction Kenji, the younger brother, would follow. In one early scene in the book, I have him running down an alleyway and he suddenly sees some noh masks in a shop window. It was my first inkling of what was to come. 

WBR: Did anything you discover during your research surprise you?

GT: I hadn’t realized that so many Japanese civilians were killed on that one night in March 1945 during the firebombing of Tokyo. It was both astounding and heartbreaking to me. We Westerners grow up hearing much more about the atomic bombs being dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to end the war, when, in actuality, more civilians died on that single night of the firebombing.

WBR: Can you speak a little to the theme of acceptance in the book?

GT: I think it’s very much part of the Japanese culture during that time period of World War II and before—that one’s fate is predetermined by greater forces. You accept what’s told to you and support the greater good of the country and culture.

WBR: Is there a writer, past or present, who has influenced your work?

GT: It’s always such a difficult question to answer because there have been so many … from the poets Tu Fu, Basho, Juan Ramón Jimenez and Denise Levertov to the fiction writers Jane Austen, John Steinbeck, Iris Murdoch, Raymond Carver, E. Annie Proulx, Louise Erdrich and Ian McEwan, just to name a few.

WBR: Is there a fictional hero or heroine you identify with?

GT: For me, the problem with choosing one fictional character is that there are aspects of many characters that I identify with—all the good and the bad, the frailties and the strengths, the complexities of human nature. It’s part of what keeps me writing as well as reading books, this mirroring of the human condition. Who could not identify with the characters in Rohinton Mistry’s Family Matters? Or the Joads in The Grapes of Wrath? I remember the first time I read Jane Austen’s books, each one of her heroines, from Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice to Anne Eliot in Persuasion to Fanny Price in Mansfield Park, encompassed a range of human qualities I could identify with. I still do.

WBR: What are you reading now?

GT: I’ve been reading voraciously since my book tour ended. It’s just nice to be back in one place for a while, and reading can be very grounding. I’ve just finished The Road by Cormac McCarthy, Always by Amy Bloom, A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers by Xiaolu Guo, and The Air We Breathe by Andrea Barrett. I’m currently reading Astrid & Veronika by Linda Olsson.

WBR: What do you do for peace of mind in everyday life?

GT: Work outside in the garden. Cook. Have a good glass of wine. Read a good book. Watch movies. Watch good and bad television. Go shoe shopping.

WBR: Is there something you regret not knowing how to do?

GT: Where do I begin? Speak and write Chinese. Swim well. Play an instrument well.

WBR: What’s your best personal quality?

GT: Loyalty.

WBR: What’s your most aggravating habit?

GT: Procrastination.

WBR: If you weren’t a writer, what would you be?

GT: I started out as a filmmaker, which still intrigues me. But what I really wanted to be was a doctor. The beauty is that I can still practice medicine in my fiction!

WBR: Is there anything you consider your most prized possession?

GT: I’d like to think it’s a sense of humor.

WBR: What’s the bravest thing you’ve ever done?

GT: Write a book and send it out into the world.

WBR: What will you do next?

GT: Turn off the computer and pour a glass of wine.