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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, December 23, 2008

MacMillan works an inspiration

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Ian MacMillan

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The list of Ian MacMillan's published works stretches on for 11 pages. As a creative writing professor at the University of Hawai'i for the last 43 years, MacMillan inspired countless students to dare to put their ideas on paper, and he led by his own prolific example: Eight novels, six collections of short stories, over a hundred appearances in literary and commercial magazines and a long list of awards and honors.

MacMillan, 67, died on Dec. 18 of pancreatic cancer. His death came just 20 days after his wife, Susan Bates MacMillan, died, also from cancer. Susan had a Master of Education degree from the University of Iowa and was editor of MacMillan's writing. Their daughters said in a statement that the two never liked to be apart for very long.

MacMillan was born in Teaneck, N.J., and got his Master of Fine Arts at the University of Iowa Writers Workshop in 1966. He came to Hawai'i that year, started teaching at the University of Hawai'i-Manoa English Department, settled in Kailua, and became fascinated with spear fishing and canoe paddling. Several of his stories employ a koa canoe or ocean voyages as a metaphor.

MacMillan was diagnosed in January with stage four pancreatic cancer. He chose to fight though the odds were against him. He traveled to Baltimore for treatment at Johns Hopkins Hospital.

Though far from home and receiving cancer treatment, MacMillan continued to write. A collection of short stories called "Our People" was published this year by BkMk Press of the University of Missouri. A new novel, "Bone Hook," will be released by Mutual Publishing in 2009.

His first book, a short story collection called "Light and Power," came out in 1980. In Hawai'i, perhaps his best-known title is "The Red Wind," a novel published by Mutual in 1998. It marked the first time the long-time Kailua resident and avid water man wrote about Hawai'i. The story is about a canoe builder navigating the social issues surrounding his family. In the author's note included in the book, MacMillan wrote:

"Although I have lived in Hawaii since 1966, the idea of writing a book set in Hawaii did not seriously enter my mind until the early 90s, and then only as a possibility. I had written books set in places I have never visited, about events I could have no firsthand knowledge of, had even written a science fiction novel set in the future. The other things I wrote, short stories mostly, were set in upstate New York, a place I had lived in only about seven years. But then at the back of mind I reasoned that more than a quarter of a century of familiarity with Hawaii stood for something. ... As I tell my writing students, stretch your imagination and take it as far as you can, but start with something you know. For me, the old-fashioned spear and that forty foot object of carved koa became the focus of this novel."

His writing garnered numerous awards, including the Cades Award for Literature in 2007, the O. Henry short story award in 1997 and in 1992, the Hawaii Award for Literature, the highest honor given by the state to a Hawai'i writer. His teaching was equally honored with significant awards including the Award for Excellence in 2005 and the University of Hawai'i's Distinguished Mentoring Award in 2006.

The Hawaii Review, a literary journal MacMillan started in 1973 at the University of Hawai'i, recently honored him with a tribute issue. Dozens of writers contributed their stories of how MacMillan inspired them.

"That's one of the things I love most about him: how he does not elevate writing, but rather grounds it into his everyday life, seemingly seamlessly integrating teaching and writing and living," wrote author Nora Okja Keller. "When one student asked how he found time to write, he said he simply carried around a notebook and pencil and often wrote in the car while waiting for his children to finish school."

"I remember sitting in 313 listening to Ian refer to us as authors and I sat up a little straighter, feeling braver," wrote Desi Poteet, now a lecturer at Windward Community College.

"After I learned that he disciplined himself to write at least one story a month, I did the same. When he mentioned how he wrote in airports, I too began to write when I traveled. Ian breathes writing. Just being in his presence made me want to rush to my computer to finish a story," wrote Samrat Upadhyay, now associate director of creative writing at Indiana University.

The MacMillans' daughters, Julia MacMillan and Laura Crago, will be holding a service for both their mother and father here in Hawai'i early in the new year. They are also planning memorials in Syracuse, Long Island, and Colorado.

In lieu of flowers, contributions may be made to the Ian MacMillan Creative Writing Scholarship for Morris Central School, in care of:

Judy Matson
District Clerk
Morris Central School
P.O. Box 40, 65 Main St.
Morris, NY 13808

Friends may contact the family at familymacmillan@yahoo.com.

Lee Cataluna's column runs Tuesdays, Fridays and Sundays. Reach her at 535-8172 or lcataluna@honoluluadvertiser.com.