A Writer’s World: How to Make it in Hawai‘i
Yes, lucky we live Hawai‘i, the only state with its own regional literature. But, lately, it’s only gotten harder to make a go of it for our diverse, dedicated and ink-stained scribbling class. Is self-publishing the answer? Who’s writing the next Great Hawai‘i Novel? Why won’t New York pay attention to us? We push the envelope in search of answers to these and other burning questions.
Early Friday mornings over the past few years Kyle Metcalf, 68, a shaggy-haired owner of a small car repair shop in Kaka‘ako, would send out his weekly email blast. Of original poetry. Started two years ago, The Poi Tree quickly grew to about 100 loyal readers. “One gal writes 30 poems a week; I pick one out,” he says. “One guy never wrote a poem in his life and decided to tell his life in rhyme. He gets the most comments every week.”
A Makapu‘u lifeguard before he opened Kyle’s Service, Metcalf actually pursued writing seriously for the first half of his adult life, in college and after. “I was sending out to every little journal and magazine,” he says. “Hundreds of rejections. When I turned 40, I said, time to stop sending them out.” Decades later, Metcalf resumed sending his stuff out—but this time it was a daily rock ’n’ roll quiz emailed to friends all over the Islands. Email back and if you answered right he might reply: YOU ROCK.
Metcalf was amazed at the far more fervent response to poetry, what some think of as a quaint, outmoded literary form. Last year, as he closed down his shop, poetry ousted rock ’n’ roll. “I opened this little door to something and now I’m this hub.”
In other words, he rocks.
Metcalf is not alone. He’s part of a new writing world in the Islands, rising from the ashes of the old, after a ravenous internet, bookstore closures and the 2007 recession broke our local publishing model. But, as Metcalf has learned by publishing The Poi Tree via a simple email chain, technology also sparks creativity and regeneration.
Now, if we wish, we can all be Kyle Metcalf. And a multiverse of streams, feeds, blogs and platforms does make for instant gratification. But does it add up to what existed before—a fully engaged and physically present community of readers who support and sustain our regional literature?
SEE ALSO: The Hawai‘i Writers Almanac 2019
Belonging to and growing with an authentic community is the holy grail for authors big and small, no matter where they live.
Despite working hard at their own jobs to afford high-priced Honolulu, Emily Benton and Spencer Kealamakia didn’t hesitate to take over M.I.A., Mixing Innovative Arts, one of Honolulu’s longest-running and most consistent literary events. Working without pay, the two—partners in life as well as in art—carry on the mission of founder Jaimie Gusman Nagle.
An April event celebrating National Poetry Month marked the one-year anniversary of Da Shop, a year-old bookstore in Kaimukī that has been embraced by readers of all ages for its high-impact selection of the best in local books as well as a curated roster of New York Times bestsellers. Minutes before the start there were still plenty of chairs, but 30 avid listeners had filled nearly every seat by the time Lee A. Tonouchi launched into a rousing pidgin performance from his prize-winning collection, Oriental Faddah and Son.
M.I.A. is the closest thing our city has to a full literary salon, one that’s open and inclusive, attracting fictioneers in every genre, urban scholars, digital and graphic artists. This night’s lineup included poet Susan M. Schultz, publisher of Tinfish Press, which, for more than 20 years, has kept the spirit of literary adventure alive in boldly designed books; and two Native Hawaiian poets, D. Keali‘i MacKenzie and award-winning Christy Passion. True, the 30 who came—and stayed for a German chocolate Chantilly cake after—amounted to a third of what The Poi Tree draws to its Friday morning electronic campfire. But they also left with armloads of books purchased from Da Shop (and the cake was real, not an emoji).
Overall, the pulse of Island writing can be hard to locate and as Passion, a critical care nurse, might say, a bit thready. For this article we talked to a wide cross-section of 26 creative writers and others who live and breathe books. We asked a set series of questions and collected personal stories.
The takeaway was of a dispersed and fairly demoralized scene. Many writers complained of the difficulty connecting with readers who aren’t friends, neighbors or family.
“First TV, then the internet, killed us,” says Tyler McMahon, the author of three novels—two published by a major New York press—and director of the Hawai‘i Pacific University creative writing program. “I don’t have an agent anymore. To get my last book published, I had to submit to a contest and win.”
Writers and publishers were left reeling after the 2011 closure of all six Borders bookstores in the Islands, 2013’s loss of the Kāhala Barnes & Noble to yet another Ross Dress for Less, and the Honolulu Star-Advertiser’s elimination of its feature section and regular book reviews. Last October, rumors swirled that Barnes & Noble was going under. “It seems like there’s nothing you can do,” says Bennett Hymer, who founded Mutual Publishing 40 years ago. He worries that the shock has muted writers of fiction, particularly those who do the kind of tough-minded social realism that Mutual has prided itself on. “The last fiction submitted to us was maybe two years ago,” he explains. “Maybe people are going to Bamboo Ridge, but we’re getting less fiction presented.”
The deeper we probed the seeming wreckage, however, the more signs of life we found—some obvious, others overlooked, all of it fairly recent. Two months into our project, Hymer, a youthful 80, called back full of hope and ideas. “People value books here. We’ve got to find new ways to reach readers. It’s a time of excitement.”
Before I moved to Hawai‘i, people said there wasn’t much going on,” says novelist Shawna Yang Ryan, director of the creative writing program at UH Mānoa. “I think there’s a lot. It’s a very robust community, but it’s also hard to reach them,” she adds, reflecting on a May 2018 UH reading by one of the most praised authors in the country, poet Claudia Rankine, which drew only 10 people.
It’s not that the appetite isn’t there. In May the annual Hawai‘i Book and Music Festival once again drew crowds for two full days of literary and musical appearances, readings and workshops for all ages. Back in early January, U.S. poet laureate Tracy K. Smith packed the 280-seat Doris Duke Theatre at the Honolulu Museum of Art in an event sponsored by the Maui-based Merwin Conservancy, followed by an equally well-attended reading by novelist Richard Powers.
Island communities organized within ethnic and cultural borders once had an easier time of it, because they could count on eager audiences whose stories had been suppressed or repressed. But now those audiences are aging out, taking with them both readers and stories. After all, the plantation memoir has been done, multiple internment narratives have seen the light of day and literary nostalgia for Old Hawai‘i has been replaced by video clips from the ’80s and ’90s and high school yearbook photos posted on Instagram.
And so the literary landscape is changing, too. Bamboo Ridge Press hit 40 last year; founders Eric Chock and Darrell H.Y. Lum retired (though Lum just had a play produced at Kumu Kahua Theatre and the group keeps launching new books and poets). The University of Hawai‘i Press regularly publishes immigrant narratives, notably those of the Japanese-American experience, but over the past four years its leadership and top editors have moved on or retired, too. Bess Press, Kamehameha Publishing and Watermark Publishing and its author-subsidized arm, The Legacy Press, remain valued outlets for Island stories. Cookbooks, children’s books and more of that fine nostalgia pour out of Mutual—just not novels, lately.
Nationally, publishing is back—“sales are up 2% a year,” says Hymer, going back to 2013. Mutual’s “sales have been taken over by Costco, and Amazon amounts to about 7% to 8% of our business now—mostly to people on the Mainland.”
But the crash derailed author careers. In our interviews, only one author lived entirely off their writing. (We exempt as sui generis Paul Theroux, the longtime Hale‘iwa resident who has written 28 novels, 22 works of nonfiction and six short story collections.) But of the others, all taught, held jobs, were supported by spouses or partners, or were writing in retirement.
“People will always buy a book if it’s the right book,” Darien Gee says, describing her feelings before the economic crisis stalled sales. The author of a successful midlist series of books under the pseudonym Mia King, the Big Island writer had the good fortune to get a large advance in 2010—perhaps the largest ever awarded to an Island author. The Mainland market runs on a proven business model of bestsellers, particularly franchise names like James Patterson and Gillian Flynn. Gee was being positioned as a breakout writer.
But when sales for her 2012 novel, Friendship Bread, didn’t meet the raised expectations generated by her advance, she was behind the eight ball. Thanks to sales-tracking software, particularly BookScan, the mainstream Mainland marketplace is unforgiving. “I let my agent go before she could let me go,” Gee says. Trying self-publishing under her name as well as Mia King, she underestimated the effort that goes into self-marketing (more on that later). “I threw myself into it and burned out. After that, I lost my heart for writing fiction,” she says. “I wouldn’t even say it was writer’s block—it was PTSD.” The mother of two went back to school to get an MFA and position herself for teaching gigs.
Keeping it local hasn’t worked out much better for Hilo’s Mark Panek, who has two nonfiction books and a novel, all highly regarded, locally published works. He’s won the state’s highest literary award, the Elliot Cades Award for Literature. “Sometimes I see a story I could do,” he says. “Then I ask myself, do I want to set aside six hours a day to write for two years, only to reach an audience of 2,000, if I’m lucky?” Along with teaching writing at UH Hilo, Panek, 51, plays in a country-western band every Saturday night at the Grand Naniloa hotel. “I picked up the bass five years ago, never played before. At this point I’ve made more money doing music than with all my books.”
Though 42 seems an early age for resignation, Tyler McMahon accepts his lot. “But I worry about the next gen,” he sighs. “I think of what I agreed to when I was 20 years old,” he says, speaking of that compact we make with ourselves when embarking on a career. “It’s like that line in the movie Casablanca: I was misinformed.”
Poetry’s mindfulness aligns it with yoga and other current popular antidotes to a cynical, commodified world; the fact that there’s no money in it is even a plus. But, since time immemorial, poets have also reached audiences by putting their pens in service to causes, and here in Hawai‘i poets are on the front lines.
“The Native Hawaiian poetry scene is thriving,” says Bryan Kamaoli Kuwada. “Poetry is incorporated into meetings and events, even legislative testimony.” Also, he adds, “Hawaiian poets are being published in national outlets.”
A self-described long-term Ph.D. student at UH, Kuwada at first declined to talk about his community. But after, he delivered an eloquent 1,000-word email. “To me, a lot of [the success] is because of community effort. A lot of queer kānaka have gotten together to create spaces for poetry and performance. Activist kānaka have pushed for poetry as part of their political analysis. Even though there is amazing cutting-edge current-generation poetry being created for the page and the stage, it also remains an accessible genre. It is not uncommon to have people at community events come up to perform their poetry for the first time.”
What about fiction?
“There is not a fiction scene in the same way that there is for poetry,” Kuwada says. “That is not to say that we don’t have some brilliant fiction writers in the community … but there is not the same energy as with poetry. I think that fiction comes off as more involved than poetry, less accessible. There are also fewer venues for fiction. Whereas poetry is at rallies and open mics and performances, fiction is not.”
The irony is worth restating: What people in grade school once thought of as difficult and inaccessible—poetry—is now the more immediate, visceral and affecting medium. Perhaps it’s the result of our eyes sharpened by 140-character tweets, texts and quick-cut Instagram Stories.
In March, Gee returned from the Association of Writers & Writing Programs annual conference, where young and old writers alike go to see what their MFA degree can conjure up in the way of employment. (Short answer: temporary adjunct jobs.) “This year at AWP,” she says, “the whole thing is flash fiction”—short snappy stuff, often written on the spot, then performed. In other words, slam prosody. “Of course, the academics love it [and] of course, there’s no money in it.”
Gee taught flash fiction at HPU’s Ko‘olau Writers Workshop in April, so maybe this is the future of poetry and fiction: You do it for cheers and beers at a bar. The resemblance to Trivial Pursuit is not accidental or detrimental: Audience reaction, even participation, is sought, instead of poetry’s formerly cool, hands-off pose.
But what will happen to Hawai‘i’s ability to portray and interrogate itself when local fiction shrinks to the size of a sound bite—or dies? What will happen to Hawai‘i’s portrayal of itself to the outside world?
After all, for 59 years in Hawai‘i there’s been a concerted effort to live down James Michener’s 937-page-potboiler Hawai‘i, to rise up and write our own, more authentic stories, especially after the Talk Story conference of 1978. These works became our local literature and we were proud of it. But they didn’t travel well outside of Oceania. What was written in Hawai‘i, stayed in Hawai‘i.
Still, every so often a writer with moxie would attempt a Great Hawai‘i Novel. It was an honorable thing to try—create a mainstream replacement text to the outsider’s take on us, thereby instructing the world, including all those mai tai-sipping tourists. The most successful in scope, linguistic daring, literary achievement and sales still looks like Kiana Davenport’s 1994 novel Shark Dialogues, multicultural with braided narratives, ambitious in scope and language—especially when you add in its successors, Song of the Exile (1999) and House of Many Gods (2006).
What happened to the big books besides Davenport’s, who alternates between New York City and the Islands and, at age 79, is still writing and publishing about Hawai‘i?
Kaui Hart Hemmings’ The Descendants was a small-brush gem that only began to sell once the movie was made years later; her last book set in Hawai‘i was a young adult novel about Punahou classmates riven by class and money. Alan Brennert’s Moloka‘i turned Hawai‘i’s tragic Hansen’s disease experience into a powerful period piece.
Recent local attempts include Panek’s 2013 Hawai‘i and Chris McKinney’s 2012 Boi No Good; both weave multi-character, multiclass, multi-ethnic stories that include crooked politicians, drug dealers, Native Hawaiian issues, Korean bars and crystal meth. Published locally, neither received national attention, nor did their mentor Ian MacMillan’s 2017 bloody posthumous historical novel, In the Time Before Light.
Where’s the younger generation? “I think the students seem to recognize there’s not one singular narrative that can be told about Hawai‘i, so I don’t think anyone is trying to do the quote unquote Great Hawaiian Novel,” says Ryan. “So their ambition is to maybe tell one of those stories. There’s a lot of resistance to essentializing Hawai‘i to one narrative.”
Saying “you can’t do that here” is a definite concession to Hawai‘i’s prickliness, which has led to controversies and literary shunning. But our seeming retreat is also a reckoning with 200 years of literary oppression. And maybe the whole “Great” thing was a masculinized construct. Still, it can feel like a missed opportunity—and a ceding of cultural representation to outsiders who will tell cheesy narratives suitable for tourists.
It’s also a strange irony when, as Ernest Hemingway said, “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn.” You know, the Twain who got his start writing letters about Hawai‘i back to the Sacramento Union newspaper.
It’s also the death of a dream. One of America’s—and the world’s—cherished fantasies is that anyone who has pen, paper and imagination can write a novel that will change their life. And lightning did strike, even for someone out of left field like Margaret Mitchell, an Atlanta newspaper feature writer who topped the bestseller list for two straight years, 1936 and 1937, with Gone With the Wind.
Instead, the last novel by a Hawai‘i-educated writer to leap over the stile and into national and international prominence avoided Hawai‘i altogether: 2015’s A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara, a 1992 Punahou grad. Set in New York City during the ravages of the AIDS epidemic in the early 1980s and onward, it was a bestseller with its own distinctive visual meme—Google it—and made the shortlist for the Man Booker Prize, one of the world’s most prestigious literary awards along with the Pulitzer Prize.
We emailed Yanagihara in New York, where she edits T: The New York Times Style Magazine, to ask if she’d comment about why she hadn’t yet written about Hawai‘i. “I grew up reading Hawai‘i’s hyper-local literature,” she replied, “which I treasure to this day. I in fact consider my first book, The People in the Trees, to be a story about Hawai‘i, albeit in costume. There are writers, like Anne Tyler, who find in their hometown (adopted or otherwise) endless inspiration, but for many of us, our perspective shifts with our physical location, and that is certainly true for me.”
What about the Native Hawaiian community (besides Davenport)? It sees Island culture continually invoked in writing by those of other cultures. If anyone should write a Great Hawai‘i Novel, shouldn’t it be a Native Hawaiian? So where are they?
“I think that the Hawaiian community is feeling the lack of fiction,” says Kuwada. “The desire for these stories to immerse ourselves in is getting unbearable. And to tell you the truth, I think that it is taking place among the nerds, the kanaka nerds. Nationally, speculative fiction is one of the most exciting genres for me because it has become, despite a lot of pushback, a haven for queer/black/POC/indigenous/disabled writers. So many different voices are coming out and writing beautiful visions of future worlds where we actually exist and thrive, and that is a big change from what was formerly really a ‘haole man colonizes another planet’ kind of genre.”
Meanwhile, Cades Award-winning poet Christy Passion, herself “typical poi, part-Native Hawaiian, Portuguese, Chinese, Filipino, Spanish, Irish,” is now thinking about writing a novel, an ambition she put aside to focus on poetry. With models in mind like Gabriel García Márquez and Don Quixote author Miguel de Cervantes, she’s planning a Hawai‘i epic in her head, but set in modern times.
But wait. By this point, someone is bound to have wondered: What about self-publishing? Doesn’t that solve everything?
The ability to publish on the internet took an evolutionary leap with the introduction of the Sony Reader e-book in 2006 and Amazon Kindle in 2007. Readers could buy a book with a click and begin reading it a minute later. They also could publish their own work. At first it seemed like a bonanza that would finally give an author a fair shake in royalties by cutting out the agent’s take (10% to 15% of a book’s price) and the bookstore’s cut (45% to 50%).
Then came the deluge: hundreds, then thousands, now millions of books spewed out by novice authors who’d never heard of a copy editor.
But before the tsunami, there was a golden moment. Maui social worker Toby Neal started writing at 39 with a traditional crime novel set in Hawai‘i. “I figured it was now or never, before I turned 40,” she says. The novel took three years to write. Neal found an agent, who sent it around to polite rejections—“it was too niche for New York,” she recalls. “Then 2009 hit. My agent said, I can’t sell anything, I’m retiring. She’d sold The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy! If she can’t sell anything, I thought, I’m done in this marketplace.”
In 2011, Neal decided to try self-publishing. She finished a book, Blood Orchids, based on the real drownings of two girls in the East Maui water tunnels. “It did great,” she says. “It was a catchy title.”
Today, Neal says, “I do not know another writer who writes [about] Hawai‘i as a cornerstone of their fiction who makes as much as I do.” She estimates her yearly income falls between $200,000 to $300,000 a year.
So, we should all be self-publishing, right?
Sure, if you’re prepared to drop at least ten grand on turning your book into a bookstore-quality production. For Blood Orchids, Neal says: “I invested in it heavily with my own money. Paid thousands of dollars to top-notch editors that worked in the industry. Paid for the same cover designer that did The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver. I spent heavily for a publicist. I did all the right things but also, most importantly, kept writing the series.”
By the time Blood Orchids debuted, Neal had three books finished and a fourth in conception. “I had a team by then. I created an assembly line for books. I put a book in one end and what came out was equal to a trade publisher title.”
Time has shown that the only books to make money in the self-published category are genre: romance, crime, mysteries. The only way for a newcomer to create a revenue stream is to have another book waiting when the reader is finished with the one before. If it’s not there, they’ll move on, unlike fans of, say, Kingsolver, who will wait two years between books.
And all the time Neal was honing a marketing machine, too, and a web specialist who could play the Amazon algorithm like a pro. She didn’t have to pay anyone—she taught herself both roles. With the algorithms, she says, “You have to be really good to be successful. It’s very tricky.”
She thinks she’s written about 30 books. (It’s hard to keep count when you’re writing four or five a year.) “I thought I would be a lifer working for the state,” she says. “Now I can work from anywhere in the world.”
Any advice for those who still want to try their hand at self-publishing? “Don’t waste your time,” says Gee, who tried that route. “Toby made all the right moves at the right time. If you do, remember that traditional publishers hate it if you self-publish.”
Neal sighs in agreement. “I did hit the sweet spot in self-publishing and on Amazon, before it exploded. It was a lot more easy to get noticed.” Now that a million books are published a year, all that heavy lifting might still be in vain if an author is brand-new—as in, not a brand—and lacking a catchy title. Only 0.01% of self-published authors come close to making the kind of money Neal does.
So that’s the takeaway? You can’t publish here—or anywhere—profitably?
Not quite. First, it depends on what you mean by profit. Writers who do it out of a higher calling enjoy following where the muse takes them. Kathy Phillips, a retired UH professor with mainstream and university press books to her name, now self-publishes sci-fi and fantasy books. “I learned pretty fast that you can trust your own mind,” she says. “Once you’ve started something, it’s making up its own path.” Jan McGrath of the Honolulu Branch of the National League of American Pen Women writes plays about issues of race and conscience—and at 80 sees them produced at TAG and other theaters.
But if you’re serious about publishing and even seeing a check come from it, you can raise your game at the Mokulē‘ia Writers Retreat every May. Or, if you’re ready to go all-in, you can attend the Kaua‘i Writers Conference, which has quietly become the premier writing and publishing conference in the U.S. Taking place in early November in Līhu‘e, it draws some of the biggest names in fiction, plus big-name agents and publishing experts, who offer themselves as resources for about 300 attendees in a variety of lectures, readings, workshops and both formal and informal one-on-ones.
In attendance last year were bestselling authors including Scott Turow, Jane Smiley, Alice Hoffman, part-time Hawai‘i resident Kristin Hannah, and Christina Baker Kline, as well as a half-dozen top New York agents. With an equally stacked lineup for its fourth year, the KWC offers one thing would-be authors in the Islands can’t get anywhere else: access. If you want to go big, go KWC, might be one way of putting it.
A music and theater professor at Kaua‘i Community College since 1988, Gregory Shepherd took workshops with Scott Turow and David Mohr at last year’s KWC even though he had landed a two-book contract with a large New York publisher. “The KWC was very inspiring to me. It was great to be with so many intellectually and creatively alive people, and I highly recommend it to all writers. I think the main lesson from the conference that I brought to the second book which I was writing at the time was a better sense of fleshing out characters by painting word pictures of how they say and do things, rather than just through adverbs and dry descriptions.” Shepherd’s first novel, Sea of Fire, a thriller set on the Korean Peninsula, debuts this month.
“These are the top names in the business,” says David Katz, who runs the KWC’s three-ring circus at the slightly over-the-top Kaua‘i Marriott Resort. “If you were to try to contact one of these agents, more than likely you’d receive a polite email rejection. They find their authors by referrals from other writers. To get a 15-minute one-on-one is simply an opportunity you’ll never have, even if you live in New York City.”
And at KWC, you have to make the most of your 15 minutes. Last year, to hear a couple of agents tell it, a few local attendees came in unprepared. “It was like they didn’t care,” says one head of a New York literary agency. “They just came to chat and assumed I’d jump at something they said and make them famous.”
In their defense, a number of attendees were of a certain age, including many retirees taking a flier on writing. But if you’re going to go mano a mano with an agent—and a private session does cost extra—you should bring at a minimum a finely honed elevator pitch of what your book is about; at least 20 and preferably 50 pages of the book in question (which the agent may or may not request, but which you can email later if you are encouraged to stay in touch); a one-page literary résumé; and a crisp, focused attitude. It’s a job interview, after all. (Don’t bring your self-published book; agents hate them.)
Sounds like too much hassle, and more than a little intimidating? Remember this: If an agent bites, you’ve cleared the biggest hurdle to publication.
What else can be done? You can work with “silence, exile and cunning,” as James Joyce once described the lot of the writer. The only audience for one writer, Virginia Loo, described by a former colleague as “the best local writer no one’s heard of, and never will, because she won’t publish,” is her Kaimukī Writers Group—although the consultant and former Centers for Disease Control epidemiologist admits she’s mulling going public. Or, like Derek Otsuji, a teacher in the Language Arts Department at Honolulu Community College, you can write for decades without trying to publish. And then, when you’re ready, burst onto the scene, as Otsuji did in 2018, with 25 poems published in national journals.
Or you can join a group or create your own. Among the biggest and long-established groups are two local branches of national groups organized by gender, the Honolulu Branch of the National League of American Pen Women and the Hawai‘i chapter of Sisters in Crime. There’s also the Hawai‘i Fiction Writers, a clearinghouse of workshops, readings and advice; groups like the Romance Writers of America; and other unofficial ones you will have to sniff out on your own.
To energize and inspire yourself, you can patronize readings and meet like-minded souls at M.I.A. You can read. You can write. You can even perform.
And you can buy a book. No matter if you’re a reader or a writer, for Pete’s sake, don’t check it out of the library, don’t buy it used on Amazon. Feed the ecosystem, because our culture needs living stories to remain vital—but also, so that when it’s your turn to publish, there may be a pool of readers left to buy your work, too.