It’s easy to recognize Kaui Hart Hemmings, author of The Descendants, of which the movie version opens this month, in Morning Brew, a Kailua coffee house. Standing a bit apart, wearing a faded jean jacket, she is slight of stature, but has the outsize presence of the extra pretty and smart. With her freckles and curly black hair, taking in her surroundings with clear, alert brown eyes, Hemmings looks just like the writer she is.
Did you grow up in Kailua?
No. In Kahala.
I got lost trying to find this place, and ended up driving around Kailua neighborhoods, and they look like the Kahala I remember from childhood, unpretentious wooden cottages, no sidewalks, big open yards.
[Smiles.] It really does look that way! I think that’s why I love living in Kailua now.
In your fiction, the Hawaiian landscape provides an emotional resonance that lets us see into the characters through what they see. Did you start out by writing about home?
No. I sort of wasn’t writing about Hawaii at all. I went to Colorado College, and then to Sarah Lawrence. I was working on a collection of stories but [my writing] never really came together until I chose Hawaii as a subject. I wanted to write about something exotic, what I was reading: Cheever and Updike. I had a desire to write serious fiction and Hawaii was not exotic to me.
I guess you read Naipaul’s essay about growing up in the islands and believing that his true literary landscape was that of England.
How did that change for you?
This was in about ‘98, when I graduated from Sarah Lawrence. I had been reading the essays of James Baldwin about rejection and acceptance of race and where you’re from. It made me think about place–how it defines and doesn’t, especially when you’re writing stories, and it made me go back to Hawaii as a setting. It was unique and tied everything together, so that the stories were naturally interconnected.
Would you recommend writers’ workshops to others?
Yes. They were good for me. I finished my MFA back in Denver. [ When I started out,]I didn’t know how to write–I was enamored with my own voice, and didn’t understand craft, structure. [The workshop] bought me some time to learn how to do storytelling. Then I went on to Stanford, on a Stegner Fellowship.
Was the Stanford creative writing department as tough as it’s reputed to be?
Yes. Sarah Lawrence was nurturing, but the Stegner program was very hardass. [One of the top professors] hated my work. I thought he hated me, even though I tried my best to write what would please him. But it was there that I discovered that rejection helps me sometimes. And Tobias Wolf and David MacDonald were really supportive.
How did rejection help you?
At Stanford I finished my Hawaii story collection and it sold right after I left the program. I was also working on a novel, which didn’t sell–it’s set in Colorado. It’s being rewritten. I’m glad it didn’t sell because I kept thinking of my story “The Minor Wars,” and I began to turn it into a novel. I wrote “The Descendants” in six months.
How did you write it so fast?
It’s a direct story, and I was enjoying the voice of Matt King. And I was under pressure–I had a one-year-old baby. When I first started the book I knew nothing about being a parent, but I think not knowing gives you freedom to make it up–in a sense, to get closer to the truth. “The Minor Wars” was about a dad trying to comfort his youngest daughter in a time of need.
There’s been a lot of speculation about your real-life model for the King clan. You’ve written about being a missionary descendant, a Wilcox, yourself. Who are The Descendants, are they your own family, or a composite?
My own family is Hawaiian, English, French, Irish, Chinese. Who are the Campbells? I read about the Damons, the Wilcoxes, yes, they all had huge properties. It’s about all of them and none of them.
Aside from the miffed reaction of some who assumed the book was about them, what other feedback did you get from Hawaii readers?
A lot of complaints. “It’s all white people. [King] doesn’t support Kamehameha School, the way he thinks is elitist.” Yes. I’ve been in that world. I’d give readings on the Mainland, and people would laugh. they’d get it. I read the same passages here in Hawaii, and the audiences, sometimes they’re blank.
When did you move back home?
I left when I was 18 and moved home with my husband and daughter four years ago. She’s 7 now, and we recently went to Ethiopia and adopted a baby boy. He’s 14 months.
What do you hope your daughter will get from growing up in the places you love, have they changed much since you were a child?
I love seeing her grow up in Maunawili. She goes to Hana Hauoli school. We lived in San Francisco until she was three. Now she boogie boards. I like to think there’ll be more than the Outrigger and Punahou. My parents didn’t define themselves as socialites. They liked to hike, to get dirty. Kids are tough and capable here, she’s exposed to such a variety of people here, among the kids in her class, not just in terms of race, but economically.