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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, September 15, 2002

'Makai' author answers questions

 •  'Makai' a stirring work
 •  'Year of Wonders' next Book Club selection

By Wanda Adams
Advertiser Books Editor

As promised, here's our Q&A with "Makai" author Kathleen Tyau.

Q. Several readers commented that they loved the key character, Alice Lum, but found her a bit unknowable. Please comment.

A. I had not intended for Alice to be the world's best authority on herself. First-person narrators are notoriously unreliable, and Alice is no exception.

In fact, I chose to write from her point of view BECAUSE of her reticence. I couldn't resist the challenge of giving voice to this "quiet auntie" who is not about to reveal all. But just because she's silent and stays home, that doesn't mean she can't have a complicated and passionate life and long to be a Free Spirit.

We don't know each another as well as we'd like to think we do, even those who are close to us. Especially those who are close to us. That's why I write fiction, to "guess" as close as I can.

Q. Was this book written in pieces? That is, did some pieces of it get written as discrete short stories or poems or works of that kind, then get woven into the book?

A. I began with a collage about beaches and water that consisted of short prose pieces, a combination of fiction and memoir, which was similar to the way I began writing my first book. However, unlike my musings over food, these pieces didn't produce characters or a story. So I added a fictional biography to the soup, which helped me cook up an early version of Alice's daughter Lurline, and from there the cast grew. I didn't use anything from the earlier collage in the final manuscript, but what I wrote then firmly rooted my desire to write about "makai" and kept me from giving up.

One year I tossed out all but one page of the hundreds I'd written. There was one paragraph on that page, and only two short phrases of the paragraph made the final cut, but that page held Alice's voice and my fear of water that triggered the writing of this book in the first place.

Q. Is this book based on real people, real incidents?

A. I read a lot of novels and often wonder about this myself. Now that I write novels, I think I have an answer: The smallest and weirdest quirks and incidents are the ones most likely to be based on real people and events, but I wouldn't count on them to be Nothing But The Truth.

For example, my mother and her best friend worked for the Army Corps of Engineers at Punahou and sneaked off to dances at the USO during World War II, and I have an auntie who taught dancing to the troops Arthur Murray-style, but none of them ran off with a truck driver from Georgia or got caught in a flash flood or went to St. Andrew's Priory.

Even if I start out inspired by what I think is true, what I end up with is what I imagine to be true —Êwhat I hope will be truer than the limited truth I know.

Q. Several readers commented that they weren't sure what happened in the end. Can you respond with what your thoughts were in ending the book?

A. I wanted to end the book sooner, at Big Makena, but my editor asked about what happened to everybody else, so I kept on writing. What I ended up with is what I thought Alice knew and was willing to admit. I'm sorry if this sounds cryptic, but it relates to the limitations of the first-person narrator that I mentioned earlier. Alice sees and does what she needs to in order to survive.

Q. Do you consider yourself a poet? Readers noted the poetic nature of your writing. Do you write poetry? Where is the line between poetry and narrative for you?

A. I have written poems in the past, but I don't think of myself as a poet. At least, I don't deliberately set out to write poems. I do read and collect poetry, and I love fiction writers who are also poets (Michael Ondaatje, Sherman Alexie).

To me, poetry is more than a way of writing; it's a way of seeing. For example, one night I picked up my toothbrush and didn't recognize it. Weird, so of course I wrote about it, and that toothbrush ended up in a poem about shedding a past life, a mid-life crisis poem. Huh? I don't set out to be poetic when I write stories or novels. I think about my characters and what lies around them and what's going on in their lives at the time, and then I write down what I think they are seeing and feeling. I guess I naturally gravitate toward rhythms and sounds and metaphors, and that's why music has become as important to me as writing.

Q. Do you think you'll ever return to Hawai'i? Do you think you'll keep writing about Hawai'i?

A. At this point in my life, I'm pretty firmly transplanted here in Oregon, but Hawai'i will always, always be where my soul lives. Writing about Hawai'i is my way of going home, of being at home. Maybe someday I'll move back, but for now, writing is my way of returning.

Thank you for reading my books. I'm honored by your generous, big-hearted comments.