Interview: Kaui Hart Hemmings, Author
One of the problems with reading so much is, simply, that you read so much. It’s easy to fall into a rhythm where nothing is exciting, where the books you finish is kind of like munching on saltine crackers, no real taste exactly, no real excitement, just swallow it, take a sip of water, and start on the next one. Sometimes, this rut is caused by an unlucky string of uninteresting books. Other times, this monotony is your own fault where maybe you’re just not into it, or maybe you’re just not giving the books a chance. But whatever the cause, Kaui Hart Hemmings’ collection House of Thieves was one that woke me up out of such a stupor several weeks ago. While no one would call Hemmings’ work minimalist, she certainly manages to make a lot out of a little. The plots are simple, but they build up to have major implications.
Hemmings was nice enough to talk to us about the writing program at Stanford, about Hawaii, using dialects in fiction, and the uses of teeth.
Slushpile: Your book is set in Hawaii, and in the Acknowledgements, you thank your family for making the islands so compelling for you. Did you remain in the islands until leaving for college?
Hemmings: I stayed until I was eighteen then I got out of town. I thanked my family (my parents) because they really have made Hawaii fascinating to me and have exposed me to so much. My step-dad knows more about the islands than anyone I know and sincerely and passionately cares about its fate. My mom has the most wonderful stories and knows such interesting people. They were the kind of parents that you wanted to be around, my friends did too.
Slushpile: Please tell us a little about your background? How big is your family?
Hemmings: I grew up with my mom and step-dad. I have a step-brother and a step-sister. I was the only one of my friends with a step-family, so while it was normal for me, all my friends found it complicated.
Slushpile: What made you select your college of choice?
Hemmings: Colorado College was small and unique and I liked the idea of the block plan–a system where you studied one subject at a time. I also really wanted to be in Colorado. I had this crazy notion that I could snowboard, which is similar to how I started writing, knew I could and would do it even though I hadn’t tried it yet.
Slushpile: What was your favorite toy as a child?
Hemmings: My mom has all these pictures of me on tractors, so I guess I really loved tractors and riding mowers. I also loved this toy where you’d blow through this tube and little plastic balls would fly up for the duration of your breath, but I later found this was some kind of doctor’s instrument (it was at my grandfather’s house and he was a surgeon).
Slushpile: What is your earliest literary memory? What was your favorite book when you were younger?
Hemmings: I had so many favorite books–all of the Beatrix Potter books, and I loved Ferdinand the Bull and The Story About Ping, the one about the Chinese duck. There was also this brilliant Hawaiian one about a pig. As you can see, I really dug books. Some of my favorites are now politically incorrect like Babar and Little Black Sambo, and now because I have a ten-month-old I’m exposed to sorts of books I never had as a kid such as Everyone Poops, Hands are not for Hitting, Teeth are not for Biting. What are teeth for if not for biting?
Slushpile: How did you make the decision to be a writer? Do you remember a specific event or revelation that was the catalyst for your decision?
Hemmings: I don’t remember making a decision. I was mainly looking for a way to keep going to school and to avoid a real job. I knew I wanted to write, but never wrote. I don’t know how I got into an MFA program.
Slushpile: You studied at the Colorado College and Sarah Lawrence College. What were your degrees from those institutions?
Hemmings: English degree at Colorado College. MFA in fiction at Sarah Lawrence.
Slushpile: How did you end up in the writing program at Stanford?
Hemmings: I left the MFA program early and just started writing on my own. I don’t even know how I heard about the Stegner program, maybe through another MFA person who was applying. So, I left Sarah Lawrence and moved to Denver and applied and then next thing I know Tobias Wolff calls me while I’m eating chicken wings in some barbecue joint. I had to run to the restroom to talk to him because the music was so loud.
Slushpile: When I first started taking writing classes from Barry Hannah, I was a sophomore and I was terrified of the man. What professor at Stanford most intimidated you at first?
Hemmings: John L’Heureux was scary, very Hannibal Lector-esque, his intellect a kind of predator, except he gnawed on our writing instead of our flesh, which is good, and he didn’t like me for some reason–I’m not being insecure, my fellow Stegners will confirm my suspicions. He didn;t like my stories, but the second year I worked on a novel and he liked it and is now very nice to me. I loved that he didn’t like my writing, you need a reader like that because you want to please him and you force yourself to try and see what’s not working. Yes, men are bad. As a writer, I need to hear, no. I need a heckler.
Slushpile: You had the opportunity to study with some fantastic writers at Stanford. But if you could study with any writer that isn’t already on the faculty there, who would it be? Who would be your dream mentor?
Hemmings: I love John Irving. He’s my favorite, but who knows if he’d be a good mentor.
Slushpile: Writing is a craft that we will work to learn our entire lives. But still, there is usually a point with students in workshops where they write their first “real” story. Do you remember the story where you felt like you finally “got it” and knew what you were doing?
Hemmings: I guess I felt that way when other readers responded well to a story; otherwise I have no idea if what I’m doing works. Workshops let you know not only what you’re doing wrong, but what you’re doing right. I don’t know what I would have done without that kind of feedback.
Slushpile: Who is your agent? How did you approach him/her for representation?
Hemmings: Kim Witherspoon is my agent. I emailed her, asking if she’d read a few stories and she got back to me that same day. I sent my work the next day and she took the weekend to read it and signed me on Monday. She said she got back to me so quickly because my email was so short.
Slushpile: Short story collections are becoming increasingly more difficult, if not borderline impossible, to publish for first time writers. What is the story behind the publication of House of Thieves?
Hemmings: My agent sent it out, about four publishers responded and bid and I chose Penguin Press. Ann Godoff was the editor and I liked her immediately, she just got it. I also loved what she was publishing. I felt honored to be in such good company.
Slushpile: Can you give us an idea of the timelines involved in publishing the individual stories, securing a book deal, and ultimately publishing the book. All of this can take quite a bit of time (waiting on responses from editors and agents, waiting for printed copies to hit the shelves, etc) and you’re 28-years-old. How old were you when you started this process?
Hemmings: I published The Minor Wars and House of Thieves in 2004. I got an agent in June 2004 and she sold the collection a few weeks later, and the book came out June 2005. I was about 24 when I really buckled down and tried to write, but I dabbled in writing in college. I wrote Begin with an Outline my freshman year and I think it’s cool it made its way in to the book–most stuff gets thrown out, but I think it’s because I haven’t changed or evolved that much since college. So, 24, but I spent most of my time reading contemporary fiction and learning how to tell a story. I had no idea about basic craft elements such as scenes, plot, and it took me a while to find Hawaii as my subject. 26, I went to Stanford, and good things followed.
Slushpile: Story collections are often sold to publishers as part of a package deal along with a novel. Is this the case with you? Are you working on a novel?
Hemmings: Mine wasn’t sold as a package and I’m so grateful for that. We wanted a publisher to buy the stories and not the novel with the stories clinging on for dear life.
Slushpile: What are your future writing goals? Would you like to write stories or will you try your hand at novels as well? Or even screenplays or nonfiction?
Hemmings: I just finished a novel. I’d love to write some nonfiction and a screenplay! Mix it up a bit. I think my novel would be fun to adapt into a screenplay.
Slushpile: How do you work with your agent? Tell us about that relationship? Does he/she submit short stories for you or do you do that yourself?
Hemmings: My agent rules. She didn’t really submit stories because she sold the collection so quickly.
Slushpile: What is your worst rejection story?
Hemmings: I don’t really have one. They’re all bad. I hate the ones that say they were so close to taking it, but, I mean why don’t they just suggest changes if they’re that close?
Slushpile: House of Thieves was originally published in Zoetrope and The Minor Wars initially appeared in StoryQuarterly. Tell us the story of these publications. Have you published any stories in addition to the ones presented in your collection?
Hemmings: Both stories were pulled out of the slush pile and I’m very grateful. These stories had been rejected by everyone. Begin with an Outline will be in Best American New Voices 2006.
Slushpile: Who would you say are the biggest influences on your writing?
Hemmings: Inspirations are John Cheever, James Baldwin (his non-fiction), Tobias Wolff, Peter Cameron, Sheila Kohler. There are certain books I always reference to inspire me when I’m stuck: Lolita, Tender is the Night, Crossing to Safety. Rick Moody’s The Ice Storm helped me write my novel.
Slushpile: One of my favorite aspects of House of Thieves is the way that you portray the Hawaiian setting. Many writers beat the reader over the headwith local color and details designed to constantly hammer home the exotic locale. House of Thieves isn’t like this in that it’s just home to these people, no different than Des Moines or Boulder or anywhere else that isn’t “exotic.” What were your goals in presenting the Hawaiian back-drop of this book?
Hemmings: There’s two things I wanted to avoid, the first is what you mentioned, beating the reader over the head with local color or making it so dark that the moral becomes, “Paradise isn’t paradise after all” although that seems to be a favorite catch phrase for reviewers. First and foremost I wanted to tell stories about people who are shaped by the world in which they live. Hawaii’s history and politics, a character’s moral, social and economical world within Hawaii, I wanted all of this to play a part, yet character and story come first.
Slushpile: The dialogue in your book is surprisingly devoid of the Hawaiian phrases and slang that enter daily speech in the islands. There is one mention of haole in Final Girl and Jeffrey the gardener in Ancient Weapons seems to have some pidgin rhythm to his speech. And some pidgin and dialect from the father’s side of the family in Begin with an Outline. But other than that, there isn’t the makai, mauka, puka, pau, da kine, kai, ohana, and other words I heard peppered into people’s speech while I lived on Oahu. What were your thoughts about presenting the dialogue of your characters in this book?
Hemmings: I get sort of annoyed when I see colloquial speech in fiction. I didn’t feel I needed to establish a kind of street cred in order to show I know Hawaii, and that seems to be the purpose of using lots of Hawaiian phrases. I also wanted to avoid making my work exotic and to avoid the reaction, “oh, listen to the natives talk! How fun and quirky!” I don’t really talk pidgin or use Hawaiian phrases. In Ancient Weapons, Max uses Pidgin English when he speaks to the gardener, and I wanted to show this, how the people I’m writing about use this language to communicate with people they’re unfamiliar with, or to show that they’re down or cool. Pidgin politics.
Slushpile: Much is made of the storytelling tradition in the South and its influence upon southern writers. Hawaiians also love to talk story. Do you think this oral tradition influences or improves the work of Hawaiian writers?
Hemmings: I’m not that familiar with the work of Hawaiian writers, but if a writer can dramatize the oral tradition and weave it into a story so that it keeps its momentum, then that’s great. Louise Erdrich does this brilliantly.
Slushpile: In the title story, the narrator is twelve-years-old and says “I’m a writer and a diarist and also an actress at the Diamond Head Theatre so sometimes I see things that aren’t really there.” Writing a child narrator can be difficult because you have to provide enough intellect and insight to make them interesting to an adult reader, but yet they can’t be too precocious or they come across like 45-year-old adults trapped in little bodies. How did you approach achieving the proper balance for this character?
Hemmings: I didn’t really strive for proper balance. She is precocious, most kids are, and precociousness is interesting to me. What makes a child act like a 45-year old trapped in a little body? What circumstances in her life cause this?
Slushpile: What do you think is your biggest strength as a writer? And what is your biggest weakness?
Hemmings: I think my writing is funny (I hope others think this as well), and I think my humor is a strength and a weakness. I get carried away sometimes with being funny and sometimes it gets too cute and perhaps distances the reader from the emotional truth of a character.
Slushpile: Many literary writers art starting to incorporate elements of caper, mystery, thriller, or even horror into their short stories. Plot twists, surprises, and excitement is becoming more important. But your work seems to me to be kind of a throwback in that you manage to write an enthralling story that is fully developed while keeping plot twists and turns to a minimum. Ancient Weapons revolves around a single dinner party. Final Girl focuses primarily on a young man and his mother on Halloween night. Location Scouts details a trip to a wake. These stories are surprisingly long and manage to spin a lot off of a very simple plot line. What are your thoughts about building a story around a “simple” or “ordinary” plot?
Hemmings: I think that twists and surprises and mystery are essential in good fiction, and I hope my plots do contain some surprise and excitement, though I know what you mean in terms of literary writers genre-hopping. Like Cunningham’s new novel. Sometimes it works. I especially like when literary writers incorporate mystery or thriller-like elements into their plots. (I’m thinking of The Secret History, Andorra, Cracks, Asylum. All brilliant novels.) I can do without horror and magic realism though.
Slushpile: Secret Clutch focuses on a young man smitten with the nanny that was responsible for raising him. The final climax of the story is a fantastic wrap-up of the elements in this story. Tell us how you conceptualized this story and ultimately wrote it. Did you have the ending in mind when you began writing?
Hemmings: In the first draft, the Grandfather is alive and the fireworks are one of Kent’s stunts and they end up just watching the fireworks together and they reflect on life and whatnot. This is the last story I wrote in the collection, and the more I write the more I want something to happen in my stories. I want to take the characters into unexpected territory. Unfortunately this often leads me into fistfights. Anyway, I rewrote, added a sexy nanny and a darker tone. The fighting moves are based on a book called Get Tough! With Your Bare Hands you can Beat the Man who is Trying to Kill You.
Slushpile: In Begin with an Outline, there is a great line that states “pot growers and trophy wives are decent professions-they’re practically recession proof and they get awesome fringe benefits.” Other than writing, what do you think is the coolest profession?
Hemmings: Tony Hawk has a very cool job. Pro skateboarder–that would be so cool, and your colleagues would be the funniest people in the world, although they’d be the horniest colleagues in the world, too. I’ve found that skaters are very funny, irreverent and promiscuous.
Slushpile: The names in House of Thieves provide some interesting combinations. In Island Cowboys, two brothers are named Pete and Kimo. In Ancient Weapons, Max and Lilly have a daughter named Mele. In Final Girl, Ben and Emma have a child named Keoni. What was your intent in portraying these combinations of island names with, for lack of a better term, mainland names?
Hemmings: That’s just how it goes. My parent’s names are Suzy and Fred. My biological dad, who’s Hawaiian, his name’s Harvey. His parent’s names are Janice and Danny. My intent was just to show that everyone is borrowing and appropriating and not even on a conscious level. Even the monarchy, you’d find Princess Kaiulani and also Queen Emma. Hawaiians are named William. Haoles are named Leilani.
Slushpile: The short story market has gotten increasingly tough. More and more magazines are dropping their short fiction sections and it often seems like the only people buying the literary journals are other short story writers. Someone recently said to me that if the MFA programs closed down, the short story would die an almost immediate death. Do you agree with this gloomy outlook on the health of the short story? What would you prescribe to improve the story’s place in our current literary environment?
Hemmings: I think it would be great if more mainstream magazines published short stories every month. Esquire does it, GQ, who else? Oprah’s magazine should do it, Jane, Vogue, Elle. Everyone loves a good story. Sometimes I think that the tough market is making people go to unnessacery lengths to stand out and the things that get published are short and crazy and bizarre and aren’t accessible to the majority of readers. I know I don’t really read stories anymore in literary journals. I read Zoetrope. I like stories in the Atlantic.
Slushpile: What writer do you wish was more well-known and well-received?
Hemmings: Peter Cameron is well-known and well-received, but he’s not known in the way, say, Michael Cunningham is known, and his writing is gorgeous. He’s truly a master. Sheila Kohler is another writer who I wish everyone has read. Cracks is one of my favorite novels.
Slushpile: What are your future career plans? Are you teaching now? Do you plan on teaching in the future?
Hemmings: I’m not teaching right now. I may teach in the continuing studies department at Stanford, a once a week gig. I’m a stay-at-home mom. I’m a run-around mom. Teaching isn’t a goal of mine. I’d rather start a business. I like Sherman Alexie’s gig, he’s a script doctor, I think.
Slushpile: My favorite beach was a spot in between Waimanalo and Bellows. What’s your favorite beach in Hawaii?
Hemmings: That’s close to my favorite spot! Mine was Waimanalo, the access near McDonalds. I’d go there all the time to do homework and work on the tan.
Slushpile: What is your single-best, most-important, can’t-live-without writing tip you would offer to aspiring authors?
Hemmings: Write what you want to know. Then rewrite what you want to know. Then rewrite some more.
Slushpile: What is your single-best, most-important, can’t-live-without publishing tip you would offer to aspiring authors trying to break into print?
Hemmings: Don’t send your work out until you’re sure it’s done. You can’t send revisions so make like a hen and sit on it.