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Debut Author Interview: Kristiana Kahakauwila, Author of THIS IS PARADISE

It's time to meet another awesome debut author who found success and explains how you can, too. This newest debut author interview is with Kristiana Kahakauwila, author of the literary short story collection, THIS IS PARADISE, which was chosen as a Barnes & Noble Summer 2013 selection of the Discover Great New Writers program as well as for the Target Emerging Author program. Kristiana is a native Hawaiian, was raised in Southern California. She earned a master's in fine arts from the University of Michigan and a bachelor's degree in comparative literature from Princeton University. She has worked as a writer and editor for Wine Spectator, Cigar Aficionado, and Highlights for Children magazines and taught English at Chaminade University in Honolulu. An assistant professor of creative writing at Western Washington University, Kristiana splits her time between Bellingham, WA, and Hawai`i.

It's time to meet another awesome debut author who found success and explains how you can, too. This newest debut author interview is with Kristiana Kahakauwila, author of the literary short story collection, THIS IS PARADISE, which was chosen as a Barnes & Noble Summer 2013 selection of the Discover Great New Writers program as well as for the Target Emerging Author program.

Kristiana is a native Hawaiian, was raised in Southern California. She earned a master's in fine arts from the University of Michigan and a bachelor's degree in comparative literature from Princeton University. She has worked as a writer and editor for Wine Spectator, Cigar Aficionado, and Highlights for Children magazines and taught English at Chaminade University in Honolulu. An assistant professor of creative writing at Western Washington University, Kristiana splits her time between Bellingham, WA, and Hawai`i.

(Can you query an agent for a short story collection?)

Kristiana2-Kahakauwila
Kristiana-Kahakauwila

Please describe what the story/book is about.

Set in Hawai`i, the stories in This is Paradise explore the deep tensions between local and tourist, tradition and expectation, façade and authentic self, to provide an unforgettable portrait of a place as complicated and varied as the people who call it home.

Where do you write from?

Hawai`i and Bellingham, WA

Briefly, what led up to this book?

I grew up in California, where my parents and maternal family live. Even though I spent a lot of my childhood on Maui with my paternal family, I wasn’t connected to Hawai`i like I was to California. So when I started writing, my stories were rooted to the mainland.

At the University of Michigan, where I earned my M.F.A., I happened to enroll in a Pacific history course in their American Studies program. For the first time, I was really learning about Hawaiian history, what it meant to be Native, who I was. I took almost as many courses in American Studies as I did in Creative Writing.

I moved to Hawai`i after earning my M.F.A. I wanted to live there as an adult, on my own terms. I chose Honolulu because I could find work easily, but I flew to Maui every six weeks or so and spent time with my family there. I didn’t write for the first year. I just lived, explored, made friends, talked story.

(What are overused openings in fantasy, sci-fi, romance and crime novels?)

What was the time frame for writing this book?

At the end of my first year living in Honolulu, my paternal grandmother died. When I returned from the funeral, I sat down to write an email to a close friend. I wanted to capture what the funeral had been like, the crowdedness of all that family, the celebration of who my grandmother had been, and my own feelings of initiation into the life of a contemporary Hawaiian.

I’d later heavily fictionalize that email and make it into “Thirty-Nine Rules for Making a Hawaiian Funeral into a Drinking Game,” but even in the moment, I knew that email was important. It loosened something inside of me. I didn’t want to hold back. I was sad, angry, joyful. I was on a tear. Within a year I had drafted most of the other stories in the collection. At the end of the second year, to the day I had written that email, I signed with Regal Literary.

How did you find your agent (and who is your agent)?

In 2009 I applied for a residency at Writer’s OMI at Ledig House. Markus Hoffmann of Regal Literary was one of the residency judges. Apparently, he heard another judge reading aloud a portion my story, and he wanted to hear more. Later, he emailed me, asking if he could see some of my work.

I was terrified! I didn’t have other polished work at that point, just early drafts. I didn’t know when the collection would be finished. I responded with a polite email saying I’d be in touch when I felt my work was ready for him to view.

I had been told by another writer friend to stay in touch with anyone who voices interest, so I did just that. At the six month and one year marks I sent Markus “it’s coming along, thank you for your earlier interest” emails. I finally sent the full manuscript a year and a half after our first contact.

I tell my students, it’s not risky to ask an agent to wait that long; it’s risky to send them anything less than your best, most polished work.

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What were your 1-2 biggest learning experience(s) or surprise(s) throughout the publishing process?

Listen to your gut-- but still do your homework.

Before writing This is Paradise, I had written another collection of short stories and a novel draft. I was--and still am--proud of both those books, but I saw where they lacked. By contrast, when I wrote “Thirty-Nine Rules” and then “Portrait of a Good Father,” I knew I had found “it”-- my voice, my vision, my book.

Something similar happened when I met Markus in person for the first time and was considering signing with Regal. I knew Markus truly understood my work, but I still researched his and other agencies, I asked for other writers’ opinions, I even queried elsewhere (and was open with him that I was doing so). That extra homework meant that my intellectual side agreed with my gut, and on every level I was sure that this was a good fit.

Looking back, what did you do right that helped you break in?

I was fearless. Not with the process of querying or shopping the book-- then I was a nervous wreck! Rather, I was fearless in my writing. For the first time I let my stories access all my anger, my sadness, my confusion, my hopefulness. My characters, if they’re raw, are so because I was raw. I had never written at such a brink before. I had to come to terms with what it meant to be hapa, half-Hawaiian and half-haole. I had to put myself on the line, even if it was through the guise of characters

I think readers respond to that honesty of emotion, that that level of writing is what helped me break in.

On that note, what would you have done differently if you could do it again?

Write more thank-you notes. Don’t get me wrong, I wrote a lot of thank-you notes, but I could write even more. I am fortunate to have wonderful teachers, mentors, other writers, and `ohana who support me. I’ve got a long list of people who deserve thank yous.

Did you have a platform in place? On this topic, what are you doing to build a platform and gain readership?

(The term "platform" defined -- learn how to sell more books.)

I’m building my platform right now! I didn’t have one in place until we were at the final proofs for the book. Then I had to hustle: I set up an author’s page on Facebook, hired a friend to build my website, looked at where I could place articles around on sale. The amazing marketing and publicity team at Crown have helped in every way.

Most importantly, I had to think hard about what I’m good at and what I have time for. I was already on Facebook, so building an authorial presence there made sense. Twitter, on the other hand, is exhausting to me, so it’s not part of my platform. In my mind, a successful platform is one that gains readership but doesn’t take away from writing time.

(Meet a lot of fiction agents looking clients.)

Best piece(s) of advice for writers trying to break in?

Don’t be afraid to move on to the next work. Some writers are lucky and their first book blows everyone out of the water. But if that’s not the case, don’t think that you’ve wasted time; instead, look at how much you’ve learned. I learned a ton from writing my first collection of stories. And even more from my first novel draft. By the time I wrote This is Paradise, I felt I controlled the story, and not it me.

Something personal about you people may be surprised to know?

I prefer skiing to surfing. My Norse blood runs strong, too.

Favorite movie?

Meet Me in St. Louis. I can sing the entire score. Not well, but with enthusiasm.

Website(s)?

kristianakahakauwila.com

What's next?

A novel set on Maui. It’s a family-saga that interweaves historical fiction with contemporary Hawaiian life, and its backdrop is an actual lawsuit over water rights that a group of Native taro farmers brought against the A&B sugar cane plantation. I like to think of it as Edward P. Jones’s The Known World meets Chinatown.

Other writing/publishing articles & links for you:

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