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Interview: October 2011

In KUNG FOOEY, the sixth installment in Graham Salisbury’s Calvin Coconut series, Calvin’s fourth grade class meets the quirky new kid, Benny Obi. Benny loves to brag about his exotic knowledge and challenge Tito, the school bully.

In this interview, conducted by Kidsreads.com’s Donna Volkenannt, Salisbury describes how his childhood in Oahu and Hawaii inspired the Calvin Coconut books, and how one old friend in particular was the basis for Benny. He also shares his favorite --- and least favorite --- things about being a writer and talks about his passion for music.

Kidsreads.com: KUNG FOOEY introduces Benny Obi, a new fourth-grade student at Kailua Elementary School who claims to know kung fu. How did you come up with the idea for this latest installment?

Graham Salisbury: I once had a good friend who exaggerated everything, and though it was annoying, it was often jaw-dropping and sometimes hilarious. I had to pretty much cut whatever he said in half. I soon figured out that his exaggerating was sort of a personal survival mechanism for him, in that, for whatever reason, he never quite felt accepted or worthwhile. I suspect it had something to do with his relationship with his father. Though Benny Obi just popped up for me one day, I think this is where he came from, the memory of that old friend. Benny Obi was so easy to write. I had more fun writing that book than any other to date.

KRC: According to your website, you spent your childhood on the islands of Oahu and Hawaii, where you had friends of many different races. Calvin’s friends also are multicultural. Did your background growing up inspire you to create your characters? Are Calvin and his friends based on the kids with whom you grew up?

GS: Absolutely, though I hesitate to use the term “multicultural.” We were multi-racial living in the one culture that is Hawaii. We were of several races, Caucasian, Japanese, Chinese, Hawaiian, Filipino, Portuguese being the most prevalent at the time. And though there were racial problems in certain places and certain schools, my group of friends found true multi-racial harmony. I could not possibly write books set in Hawaii without all these races included in my character lineup. In most cases, Hawaii is a harmonious melting pot, and hopefully my stories reflect that.

KRC: After Calvin writes a postcard, he thinks about what Mr. Purdy told the class about writing a story: “Even though you might not know exactly what your story is about or where it’s going, once you start writing, stuff happens. It’s magic.” Is that how writing is for you --- magic?

GS: There is much magic in writing, much, much, much … and that’s what makes it so exciting for me. Though I often have a plan before I set out on a novel, stuff happens while my fingers race across the keyboard, stuff that I had not even considered in my planning. That’s where the magic is, and it’s the most thrilling part of creating a story. For example, the way Benny Obi talks --- fast and furious, as thoughts pop into his head --- that all came as a surprise to me. His voice sprang into my head and I was off and running, trying to keep up with him. I remember grinning and silently laughing as this crazy dude tried very hard to take over my story, and even eclipse Calvin himself. Wow. Magic.

KRC: At recess, Calvin and his friends sit under the shade of a monkey pod tree. For those unfamiliar with monkey pod trees, will you please describe what they look like?

GS: Well, they are beautiful, big trees with wide spreading branches. Monkey pod trees look like huge umbrellas, and are great for shade on a hot sunny day. Yet it is often called the “rain tree.” Its leaves fold up at night, then open again in the light of day. Because of this, rain falls through the tree at night, thus the alternate name. This tree is not native to Hawaii. It was brought to the islands in the 1800s as a seed from Panama. Now, monkey pod tress are all over the place, and thankfully so.

KRC: In addition to being an entertaining story with likable characters, KUNG FOOEY has an important message about the effects of bullying and ridicule. What do you hope young readers will take away from reading the book?

GS: In writing all of my books, every single one of them, I am always cognizant of a character’s values. I was extremely fortunate to have had an educator (my high school headmaster) speak to us idiot seventh and eighth grade boys about ethics and values, issues such as friendship, loyalty, honor, honestly, hard work, and other important character issues. Character building is foundational in creating decent, generous, thoughtful young adults. I want my characters to model situations wherein decisions have to be made. They make choices. They experience consequences. This is a significant part of what I try to do in my stories. The rest is pure entertainment, for me and, hopefully, the reader.

KRC: Benny Obi is an unusual and a memorable character. During recess, he tells Calvin and his friends a story about Obakes, the Japanese word for ghosts. Will we see more of Benny or hear more about Obakes in future Calvin Coconut books?

GS: I just don’t know about Benny Obi. He has a mind of his own. Maybe he will pop up again, and I sure wouldn’t mind that! As for obakes, maybe. Supernatural incidents are part of Hawaii’s mystique, and are not often taken lightly. There are a few stories that would curl your hair! Only time will tell if an obake story will come up again in Calvin Coconut’s world.

KRC: What has been the response from readers about your series?

GS: Very good, fortunately! I get lots of fan mail, and teachers seem to like what I’m doing. For example, DOG HEAVEN, where Calvin’s teacher, Mr. Purdy, spends a great deal of time on persuasive writing --- and revision --- is something teachers can point to and say, “See? I’m not the only one harping on this stuff.”

KRC: What advice do you have for young readers who want to become writers?

GS: Read, read, read. Write, write, write. You cannot be a writer if you are not first a reader. I might also recommend keeping a journal, a place to store ideas as they arise. One thing I have learned the hard way is that if you don’t immediately capture an idea, it flies away. Poof. Gone. Write them down!

KRC: What are some of your favorite books?

GS: ALL THE PRETTY HORSES by Cormac McCarthy

ISLAND OF THE BLUE DOLPHINS by Scott O’Dell

LORD OF THE FLIES by William Golding

A SEPARATE PEACE by John Knowles

THIS BOY’S LIFE by Tobias Wolff

SHOGUN by James Clavell

LONESOME DOVE by Larry McMurtry

All Jack Henry books by Jack Gantos

Books by Gary Soto, Chris Crutcher, Chris Lynch, and many, many more!

KRC: What do you like the most and the least about being a writer?

GS: MOST: The magic! The surprises. A story with a strong heartbeat. The times I write some scene or passage, and upon re-reading it don’t remember having written it. The times where I’m moved, or humored by something I’ve written. I also love revising, making my story stronger, and better. Most of the time it’s my editor who gets me there. Her name is Wendy Lamb, and she’s been my brilliant editor from day one of my writing career. In a classroom, teachers are the editors, and their job is to make your stories better. Treasure them!

LEAST: Writing the first draft --- this is flat out hard work! When writing a first draft I get exhausted after three or four hours. When revising, I can go all day and have energy left for a 10-mile run that night.

KRC: You are a musician as well as a writer. Can you tell our readers about what you play? What similarities, if any, do you see between the two activities?

GS: The only similarity between writing books and writing songs is that they are both creative endeavors, which is what makes them both so rewarding. To be is to create. I am a guitar player, not a great one, but sufficient. I have written over 100 songs, many of which have been recorded (see “Sandy Salisbury” iTunes). Much of my recorded music is from my younger years in the Hollywood music scene, when I loved sunshine pop and lush harmonies. Still do like that stuff. I also write for and produce a dynamic new recording artist by the name of Little Johnny Coconut, Calvin’s dad. He’s got some good stuff in the studio at this very moment!

KRC: What’s next for Calvin Coconut? What’s next for Graham Salisbury?

GS: I absolutely love writing Calvin Coconut books. They just sort of fill me up with good feelings. I will keep writing them until there is a good reason not to. As it now stands with my publisher, Wendy Lamb Books (Random House), there will be a set of 12. As for me personally, well, I’m still learning, still growing, still trying not to be a fool --- and for a lot of us guys, that can be a bit of a challenge.