18 Hawaii Books to Read This Summer
Our guide to new and notable books from local authors and publishers.
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Honolulu-based author Tyler McMahon tells a story of surfing, drugs and corruption in El Salvador through the eyes of a Hawaii character.
Hawaii Pacific University English professor Tyler McMahon’s second novel, Kilometer 99, is slated for release this month from St. Martin’s Press. Drawing on his experience as a Peace Corps volunteer in El Salvador from 1999 to 2001, McMahon’s story follows a young Hawaii surfer and engineer after a huge earthquake shakes up her world. Originally from the D.C. suburbs, McMahon came to Hawaii six years ago to teach, write and surf. We talked with him about his upcoming book, teaching writing in Hawaii, and his take on the local literature scene.
Q: What was it about the town of La Libertad in El Salvador that made you want to write about it?
A: It was an incredible place. The contradictions were all over—it’s the kind of place where you see a guy riding a horse and carrying a cell phone, where people will rob you and say, “Thank you very much, you really helped me out.” By now it’s probably very developed and a lot of surfers probably go there because the waves are just so good, but, back then, it was this weird mix of surfers, fishermen, a few hotels, drug addicts and drug dealers.
Q: Your main character and narrator is Malia, a surfer and Honolulu native. What was Hawaii’s effect on your novel and how did Malia come about?
A: Literally, I had written a whole other novel … and it just wasn’t working. I was beating my head against the table and couldn’t quite get it to gel. Then Malia just stumbled in one day. She had all these things that made the story snap into focus—she had a unique perspective on surfing, on tourism, development and colonial issues. All of a sudden she gave the book a whole other dimension that I really liked. Hawaii is a place that’s been trafficked in by a lot of different writers, and I didn’t want to be part of that tradition, to a certain extent. But I just couldn’t get the story to work without her.
Q: What other aspects of Hawaii did you draw upon to create Malia?
A: Being from a place that has already seen what can happen when you get a really big ocean-related tourist infrastructure gives her an even more critical perspective on what Pelochucho (the story’s antagonist) is planning to do.
I notice a yearning to travel from my students, especially local students. I wanted to tap into that a little bit, that idea of, I just want to see the world. Also, her mother comes up in flashbacks in later parts of the story, and in some ways she’s a very harsh character. … But I was really interested in a character who thinks about her ancestry and has specific individuals in her ancestry who loom really large. … I was trying to capture some of the mixed feelings you can have about where you come from.
Q: You’ve been teaching in the English department at HPU for six years now. What’s it like teaching in Honolulu as opposed to, say, Boise State University?
A: The writers, the students, I just feel so lucky to teach the students that I do. They have such unique perspectives. I started my teaching career in Boise—it was a very different group of students. Sometimes I look at my syllabi and I still have these vestigial paragraphs about civility and tolerance for different points of view. I’ll be reading it on the first day of class and I’ll ask myself, “What am I doing?” These students are so much more tolerant of differences and are willing to discuss things that are foreign to their experience. They’ve taught me so much.
Q: Having been part of the local literature scene for a few years now, what are your thoughts on what local writers and publishers are producing?
A: It’s particularly fun to work with books from local authors and books from local presses in my classes. It’s nice to know that not everybody subscribes to the same kind of hierarchy that a lot of Mainland writers aspire to. … Here more than anywhere you realize that artists should aspire to create community and write things their peer group can admire and be influenced by. I really think Honolulu is ahead of the curve. The rest of the world will eventually look like what the publishing scene looks like here. … What we’re really missing is more bookstores.
Q: You’re taking over Hawaii Pacific Review from long-time editor Patrice Wilson. What’s in the future for that journal?
A: For a few decades it’s been a print annual. I’m taking it over with the mandate that it’s moving online. I didn’t want it to emulate a print journal, so we’re doing an ongoing, rolling submission and publication cycle. We’re doing something different, and writers are sometimes wary about giving their work to something unconventional like that. But we’re getting good feedback. We encourage people to submit!