A Conversation with Kaui Hart Hemmings
Random House Reader’s Circle: Many of the characters in your work are teenagers. Why are you drawn to writing about this demographic, and how do you channel their voices?
Kaui Hart Hemmings: Teenagers are a reflection of us–what we value, what we wear, how we speak, how we treat each other. They’re sort of like caricatures of adults. I like working with them for this reason. I also use them because their voices come naturally to me. They’re candid and funny, confident. I’m pretty ineloquent and I have strange thoughts. In my writing I can mask my thoughts in teen-speech because it’s okay for a teen to have ditzy ruminations, but it’s not okay for me. I can use them to say what I’ve always wanted to say.
RHRC: Was it difficult writing from a middle-aged man’s point of view? What made you make Matt King a first-person narrator?
KHH: The fact that I used a male point of view was sort of a non-issue for me. I was writing about human psychology, not male psychology. A reviewer politely wondered if I (and other women writers) chose a masculine character as a way to avoid being pigeonholed as “women writers.” Well, no. I chose a masculine character because I thought he was the best person to tell the story I wanted to tell. It’s never given any attention when a man writes from a female point of view, perhaps assuming that to do so is no big feat. A woman delving into a man’s head, however, is seen as risky. Is it because we think that a man’s psychology is so much more foreign and complicated? I don’t know. Men aren’t that knotty. Tapping into the psychology of a middle-aged woman would be a much greater challenge. I should say is a greater challenge because it’s something I’m attempting to do in the novel I’m working on now.
RHRC: Hawaii is such a strong presence in The Descendants–it is almost like an additional character. How did growing up there shape your perspective and writing?
KHH: Growing up in Hawaii has given me a front-row seat on the complicated issues of land, history, and inheritance, ideas I’m pretty obsessed with.
I don’t know if anyone can pinpoint just how a place affects you, nor do we recognize the major influence place has on our lives–the way we see, the choices we make. While I don’t know exactly how Hawaii has shaped me, I know that it has. It’s not so much a character in my novel as it is a silent force–something that stealthily moves the characters from action to action, confining them, manipulating them, inspiring them. I don’t want to write throwaway characters and, along those same lines, I don’t want to create a throwaway place. The setting had to figure in to the novel somehow. It couldn’t be symbolic; it couldn’t be cheap wallpaper. In this novel, the land itself is a major conflict for the characters. I wanted the setting to have a function besides looking good.
RHRC: The Descendants is a difficult book to categorize– it’s incredibly sad and moving in some parts, and hilarious and irreverent in others. What kind of novel did you set out to write when you started, and did it end up changing at all along the way? Were you hoping to make people both laugh and cry?
KHH: I definitely don’t have those kind of intentions when I sit down to write. In fact, I rarely know if something is funny or moving until I go back and read it for myself. There is nothing more satisfying to me than when your own work makes you feel something, or if your own words make you laugh, though I tend to look around, embarrassed to be laughing at my own joke. It’s my only gauge–myself, my own reactions, and of course it influences the way I edit.
When I set out to write a novel, my only intentions have to do with story, not emotions, ideas, or themes. I set out to make something happen to my characters, to complicate their lives and see what choices they’ll make. The emotional undercurrent relies on and is derived naturally from action, dialogue, scene. My plot changed along the way–I didn’t know Joanie was going to have an affair, but that change was made because it was a great complication for my characters to respond to. I’m constantly creating platforms on which my characters can perform.
RHRC: Joanie really comes alive on the page–and she’s in a coma the whole time! How did you make her emerge as a fully developed character?
KHH: The way people react and interact with someone is very revealing. Joanie couldn’t speak for herself, so I had to depend on the eyes of others, and because the characters each had such different perspectives Joanie was able to take on complicated dimensions. It was a challenge though, because I try to avoid flashbacks. This is always a challenge for me because I tend to feature an important though absent character in a lot of my work.
RHRC: How did you come up with the idea for this novel? Aside from the Hawaii setting, is any part of it autobiographical?
KHH: No, it’s not autobiographical, yet like anything else in fiction it’s a work of imagination filtered, to some extent, through the author’s own experience in life. The process of writing fiction is always a collage: real places, aspects of real situations or people, perhaps, but never the whole package. People in Hawaii are always coming up to me and saying things like, “The woman by the pool. That’s [so-and-so], right?” But that’s not really it.
When they talk about the book they don’t use the characters’ names. They use the names of the people they think they’re based on. It’s great to hear someone talking, gossiping, and wondering about someone who doesn’t exist.
I’m not sure how I came up with the idea for the novel. It’s like when someone asks how I decided to be a writer. I can’t pinpoint the time and I don’t recall ever really deciding. I don’t remember coming up with the idea for The Descendants. It just started as a seed, I cared for it, and then it became something different each day.
RHRC: What’s a typical writing day for you like? Do you have any routines?
KHH: My routine is shaped by the routine of my daughter. When she was a baby I worked during naps. Now that she’s three and in preschool I go on the coffee shop circuit. I alternate between three different shops and work for about an hour, an hour and a half, which translates into three pages. I like getting out into my neighborhood and seeing familiar faces before going home and becoming a shut-in. Then I write a little more, check email, have lunch, work out, read, and feel guilty that my husband’s in an office all day, slaving away. Sometimes my schedule makes me feel like a trophy wife, but unless I’m finishing up a project, there’s no way I can write all day.
But in a way I am writing all day. Reading other people’s novels is my work. Exercising is when I usually get all of my ideas (Watching TV as well). At lunch I do the crosswords so I’m working my brain, and any outing I take or interaction I make has potential for material. Never mind–I don’t feel guilty. I’m always on the clock.
RHRC: What other authors inspire you and influence your work? Is there anyone you would say is absolutely pivotal in terms of how you’ve developed your career?
KHH: There are many authors I admire: Tobias Wolff, Peter Cameron, William Maxwell. Actually, there are many books I love. It’s rare that I love an author’s entire body of work with the exception of the aforementioned. I loved Lolita, East of Eden, The Secret History, The Ice Storm, Cracks by Sheila Kohler. I don’t think I’m conscious of how other writers influence my work. I do know that whatever I’m reading manages to seep into whatever I’m writing. I’m responding in some way, mimicking, or perhaps something one writer said reminds me of something I’ve wanted to say. It’s a great thing, because in a way you’re engaging in this strange, silent conversation.
RHRC: What are you working on next?
KHH: I’m working on a novel about raising a baby in San Francisco. It has been fun to write a story where the characters’ lives have more in common with my own life than anything I’ve done before in my fiction.
I’m double-fisting and am also working on a novel set in an affluent resort town in Colorado, this time channeling the voice of a middle-aged woman. This one is also funny, yet tragic. I can’t help it. I have a feeling I will always write about the painfully funny struggles of people in Edenic settings. I also have started another novel, though I’ve put it aside for now. I have a queue of projects, sort of like an idea Netflix. Ideaflix. I want to get rid of one so I can see what’s next.
The other day I met a man who is involved in a highly publicized lawsuit. He made me think of my character, Matt King. This man is who Matt would be in fifteen years, conflict included. And now, of course, it’s all I’m thinking about. The Descendants started as a short story. I couldn’t let it go and it became a novel. Now I might not be able to let these characters rest. Sequel, perhaps?
From the Trade Paperback edition.