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Wendy Merrill: Magic on Maui
Hawaii’s second largest island goes by the nickname, “The Magic Isle.” There’s no doubt the moniker derives from the demigod who inspired the island’s name. Stories of Maui abound around the Hawaiian Islands, as well as throughout all Polynesia. Part-man and part-god, he is known as a trickster, a rogue, a thief and a cultural hero. In his day, Maui was as inventive as Thomas Edison and as playful as Robin Williams.
Maui just couldn’t sit still. He was always on the move, always risking his partly mortal life. He couldn’t seem to turn down a challenge. And the thing is he always rose to every occasion and, at the same time, improved the life of his friends and family. Of course, he did descend from deity. His mother was the goddess Hina. In many tales of Maui’s feats, though, there was a man who trailed behind him, taunting him, saying, “Who do you think you are? You can’t do that.” That was his human side—the little voice in our heads, the critic, the devil that sits on our shoulders. But Maui never seemed to let it stop him. Maybe the man even spurred him on.
According to the many legends, Maui discovered the secret of fire. He raised the sky and snared the sun to slow its journey across the sky. He used a magic hook to fish the islands from the sea. He harnessed the wind for his various needs. He invented kite flying. He bested strong men, and rescued beautiful maidens. His lifelong deeds earned him the nickname, “Maui-of-a-thousands-tricks.”
For Wendy Merrill, the island of Maui has conjured one alluring literary trick after another. Wendy always wanted to publish her writing, but, like many of us, she was afraid. She had no idea how to go about it. Now, after realizing her dream, she still isn’t quite sure how it happened.
“What I intended for my life manifested in Maui, but how I got there was a mystery,” she says.
Now, we all know that when it comes to magic, the first rule is to never share the secret, to keep mum, to clench our jaws tight when someone asks, “How did you do that.” And, yet, we are going to try to figure out just how Wendy went from a newbie attendee at the Maui Writers Conference in 2006 to published author and presenter in 2008.
It all revolves around the magical island of Maui, located in the middle of the main Hawaiian island chain.
It started one evening in northern California where Wendy lives. She tagged along with a friend to a reading at the San Francisco Public Library where she struck up a conversation with a representative of the then Inner Ocean publishing imprint. “I was talking about whatever horrendous dating experience I had just been through,” she says. If you read her book, you’ll find Wendy isn’t shy about sharing her most embarrassing moments. And she isn’t afraid to laugh at herself, either.
After entertaining the rep with her tale of woe, he told her she’d be perfect for an upcoming anthology of theirs, Single Women of a Certain Age. “He said, ‘Oh, our editor would just love to meet you.’” The only problem was the editor was located halfway across the Pacific Ocean on a tiny island called Maui.
“That’s so interesting,” Wendy said. “I’m going to be in Maui next week.”
So the editor and the would-be writer met for coffee. They chatted and laughed a bemoaned the fact that the book had just closed.
Undaunted, Wendy asked, “How closed is it?”
“How fast can you write,” the editor responded.
So, Wendy spent her first weekend on Maui that trip writing an essay titled, “Falling into Manholes” and emailed it to the editor on Monday. Twenty minutes later, the editor emailed back saying, “You’re in, baby.”
She kept coming back.
It was the allure of a man that got Wendy to Maui Writers Conference two years ago this Labor Day weekend. The man was probably charming and mischievous, as much a mythical creature as Maui himself. The writing conference was her excuse to jet back to the island of Maui and the arms of her hopeful.
Once she arrived, though, the man stopped returning her calls, so Wendy actually went to the conference. She attended seminars, workshops, keynote addresses. She pitched her book idea—what she calls a “funny, insightful, coming of middle-age story of looking for love in all the wrong places and finding it in myself”—to a production crew from Jay Leno. She even met with an editor, who was, in fact, Neil Nyren, the editor in chief of Putnam. “I didn’t understand then that he was a superstar,” Wendy says.
Neil asked her to email him the two essays she had, by then, published. She did. The conference ended. Neil flew back to New York, and Wendy stayed on Maui. She met another man—a musician—and headed off to Hana in east Maui with him.
Two days after the conference ended, Neil emailed Wendy. He loved her essays. Did she have a book proposal?
She did. She sent it.
Two days after that, he emailed again. He wanted to buy her book.
Within two weeks of leaving the Maui Writers Conference, Wendy had her first book deal. A year-and-a-half later, Falling into Manholes published in hardback.
Wendy attributes much of her success to Maui. The conference. The island. The man, er, men. (Without them, she wouldn’t have a story, after all.)
“All I know is I feel safe in Maui. Before I went to Maui, I didn’t have any confidence in my writing,” says Wendy. “I have a lot of voices in my head that tell me I can’t do things and the reasons why. But the sound of the ocean, the humidity being held by the air, there’s something very sensual, very nurturing and very powerful about those islands. I slow down and I inhabit my body and I occupy a different part of my brain. I don’t know how to even describe it. The thing I like about Maui is I am allowed to create from whatever’s inside of me. When I am here in Sausalito, my head gets really crowded. When I am on Maui, I am not in the same crazy, distracting head space as when I am at home.”
One word of caution, though, says Wendy. “I can’t stay too long. It’s like there’s all this power there and if one is susceptible to it, it can affect you in good ways and in bad ways. It depends on what your intentions are when you are there.”
Perhaps the mythical Maui could relate. One story that recounts Maui’s only defeat is that after he snared the sun, snagged the islands out of the sea and saved a slew of maidens in his life, he died while trying to snatch immortal life from a sleeping goddess.