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Interview: September 8, 1999

September 8, 1999

TBR Senior Writer Jana Siciliano and Dana Schwartz are loyal fans of Gail Tsukiyama's engaging fiction so it was easy for them to come up with questions for the author about her book, THE LANGUAGE OF THREADS. In this book, Tsukiyama revisits her beloved Pei from WOMEN OF THE SILK. Find out what happens to Pei, Tsukiyama's inspirations, her favorite writers, the feedback from her Asian audience, what book has most of a chance to become a movie, and much more in this interview.

TBR: Your new book LANGUAGE OF THREADS, takes off where your 1991 WOMEN OF THE SILK left off. What made you return to the characters from your older book, namely the main character Pei?

GT: Originally, I thought WOMEN OF THE SILK would cover Pei's entire life story. But as I began to research all the information of the silk sisterhood, I realized that the book could logically end when Pei leaves the silk village of Yung Kee for Hong Kong. The book felt complete in that it ended one phase of her life. Yet, I always felt I might return and complete Pei's story another time, but it had to be a moment in time when I felt I could do justice to WOMEN OF THE SILK and the character of Pei. After writing my second and third novels, I just knew it was time to come full circle and complete the rest of Pei's story.

TBR: In LANGUAGE OF THREADS there is a distinct and heartwarming relationship between Mrs. Finch, Pei and Ji Shen. What draws these three women together? Do you also have a special circle of family and friends who are important to you?

GT: Beyond just the basic necessities of everyday survival in Japanese occupied Hong Kong during World War II, there's a strong emotional tie which develops between all three characters as a family unit. In a way, the strength of their bond comes from the fact that they are all orphans who come together to provide for each other. I think we all have a special circle of either family or friends that provide that kind of support for us. I've been very fortunate to have both a close-knit family, as well as long time friends whom I can trust and depend upon.

TBR: WOMEN OF THE SILK deals with women working in the silk factories of China. What drew you to write about these silk factories?

GT: When I first realized I wanted to write a novel, I began by researching China. I'm of both Chinese and Japanese ancestry, though I was brought up in the Chinese culture. So it felt like a natural desire to write about my heritage in some way. As I was reading one volume of an autobiography by Han Suyin, I was amazed to learn of these young women silk workers who were able to survive economically without family or husbands. There had been so little written about these early Chinese feminists that I knew instantly it was their story I wanted to tell.

TBR: The silk sisterhood that Pei joins in WOMEN OF THE SILK is supposed to be a workers union, but is more like a religious order complete with a vow of chastity. Why do you think some of the women in the silk factories were encouraged to take the vow of chastity? Do you think it ended up being for the factory's benefit or the women's?

GT: The vow of chastity had to do with Chinese superstitions, concerning the soaking the cocoons. It was "wet work" and thought to interrupt with a woman's fertility. That's why young girls were enlisted to do the soaking, only to eventually stay on when they grew older. Economically it benefited the factories and silk industry --- at the same time --- these girls were able to make their own money, help support their families, and had a much freer life than many of the young girls forced into an arranged marriage.

TBR: Your books are rich in historical detail. Do you do your own research or do you have a team to help you?

GT: I've always done all my own research. It's part of the process for me, in terms of helping me to define a time and place in its truest sense. At this point, the research always feels so much a part of the story I can't imagine someone else doing it for me.

TBR: What inspires you to write? Do you ever take experiences and/or people from your life and incorporate them into your novels?

GT: Reading good books and telling a good story about characters you can identify with is a strong source of writing inspiration for me. I try not to write about anyone from my real life, though I'll admit characteristics and gestures from people I see or know in my life define many of my characters. Just enough to round out each character and give them a specific sense of personality that's distinctive to each of us.

TBR: What sort of response do you get from Asian readers since you write so often of the pain inherent in the history and culture of both China and Japan?

GT: I've been very touched by the response I've received from Asian readers. Being of both Chinese and Japanese heritage, I've explored my history and culture from both sides in my books as a way for me to see more clearly. From the older Asian generation, there has been a sense of understanding. They have been touched by the experiences I write about and have appreciated the sensitivity in which the characters handle the situations they are in. From the younger Asian generation comes an involvement with the characters and story at a pivotal time in history, which will hopefully allow them to understand more of their history and the strengths and weaknesses of their culture.

TBR: Do you see any of your novels becoming films? If so, which one would you most like to see on the big screen? Who would star in it?

GT: The most immediate interest has been for THE SAMURAI'S GARDEN, which I think would be very poetic and inspiring in depicting the two cultures at a difficult time in history. It would also be nice to see WOMEN OF THE SILK and THE LANGUAGE OF THREADS as one film depicting Pei's life in the sisterhood and beyond. It would certainly be a nice dream, as well as a good showcase for more Asian actors.

TBR: Do you feel like you belong to a community of writers? If so, who makes up your writing community?

GT: Living in the San Francisco Bay Area is a wonderful place to be a writer. There are so many wonderful independent bookstores and bookstores in general who are very supportive of their Bay Area authors. I've also been with a writer's group for almost twelve years and they are certainly essential to my writing life. Many events around the community also work to bring together such Bay Area writers as Dorothy Allison, Tobias Wolff, Lynn Freed, Jim Houston, and Frances Mayes, to name just a few.

TBR: When did you realize you wanted to become a writer? What made you choose the form of the novel?

GT: I actually was a film major in college, only to realize it wasn't film making that I loved, but telling a story. I'd always written as a teenager, so I guess my first inklings came at that time. When I realized writing was closer to what I wanted to do, I transferred to the writing department where I received my BA and MA in English with emphasis in Creative Writing at San Francisco State University.

TBR: Are there other areas of writing you'd like to try your hand at? Short stories? Screenplay writing?

GT: My emphasis in Creative Writing had been in the genre of poetry. My Master's Thesis was a book of poetry. It wasn't until I graduated that I began writing short stories in earnest and naturally progressed to the novel form. I did take a film writing class in which we worked on an original screenplay. I suppose that if I was asked to write the screenplay for one of my novels I might consider trying it again.

TBR: Would you ever consider writing a memoir?

GT: I'm afraid my life is too tame to lend itself to a memoir.

TBR: What authors and books have inspired you throughout your life?

GT: I love everyone from Jane Austen and Shakespeare to Annie Proulx, Louis De Bernieres, and Barbara Kingsolver. Well --- written books are such an inspiration to me as a writer and fortunately there are an endless array of fine writers out there now.

TBR: Do you have another project in the works? Can you give us a sneak preview?

GT: I'm just beginning a new novel, but it's so new that I'm unsure where it's heading at this time. I can say that it most likely won't be set in Asia.

TBR: What are you reading now?

GT: A wonderful novel by Elizabeth McCracken called, THE GIANT'S HOUSE.

TBR: What are your thoughts on the impending millennium?

GT: I hope that we as a people can learn from our past mistakes and keep peace around the world. I also hope it brings a new century of wonderful writing.