Author Darien Gee on Writing in Hawaii

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Author Darien Gee on Writing in Hawaii

Posted by: Kim Steutermann Rogers
Destination: Kauai , Hawaii Island
May 22, 2012

“Lore from the past always becomes the seed of imagination and source of invention for the present,” says Dr. M. Puakea Nogelmeier in Don’t Look Back: Hawaiian Myths Made New.

And Darien Gee has done just that in her short story, “Pele in Therapy,” in which a client appears on the doorstep of a therapist whose husband recently left her for his secretary. The client, a red-haired, red-dressed, serious-faced woman flops on the therapist’s sofa. “My love life,” she says. “It’s on the rocks.”

Darien is one of 17 writers who have reimagined and retold some of Hawaii’s favorite legends in this new anthology published by Watermark Publishing. She visited me last week on Kauai, made an appearance on the local public radio station, KKCR, and led a discussion on the use of mythic construction, the hero’s journey and archetypes infuse writing at Small Town Coffee on behalf of Kauai Backstory. Darien resides with her family in Kamuela on Hawaii (Big) Island. Her most recent novel, Friendship Bread, was released in 2011. She published previous novels, Sweet Life and Table Manners, under the pen name Mia King. I weaseled her into answering a few questions of my own.

1. How did you come to live on Big Island?

In 2000 my husband Darrin Gee and I came to the Big Island on vacation. We were living in northern California at the time, married a year and expecting our first child. We felt a connection the minute we looked out the airplane window and saw the island come into view. We landed in Hilo and over the course of two weeks made our way around the island. We had a strong, inexplicable feeling that we were supposed to be here, and returned to the Bay Area to tell friends and family that we were moving. Two months later we sold everything and landed in Kona with four suitcases and a few banker boxes that would arrive by mail in the following week. We came straight up the hill to Waimea and haven't left since. My daughter was born two months after we arrived.

2. What are the advantages/disadvantages to being a writer in Hawaii--from the creative to the publishing process?

My agents and publishers are in New York, so if there was any downside I would say it's the time difference, but that's not specific to writers or writing and it's a small price to pay for paradise. I find great freedom in living in the middle of the ocean, where the closest continental land is 3000 miles away. 

For me, living and writing in Hawaii is truly a gift. One of the biggest advantages is being physically distant from the business and "busy"ness of publication. It gives you the space to slow down and keep your attention on your craft. It's so easy to get distracted on the mainland, to find things to do or have those things find you. Here, those excuses melt away. And there's the sheer beauty of the islands, the simplicity. Your days may be full, yes, but you don't have things constantly buzzing in your ear, demanding your immediate response or attention. It's easier to let go of things that don't matter, and that's a huge boon to any person, writer or not.

3. What surprised you the most about living in Hawaii?

I hadn't expected to feel so at home and so loyal to this place. My father worked in oil and gas so growing up I was accustomed to moving a lot--I've never lived in one place for more than three years until I came to Hawaii. We've been here now for 12 years and I can't imagine ever leaving. I love traveling but I love coming home. I am always ready to come home.

4. What one piece of advice or pearl of wisdom would you give to aspiring writers?

Write. That may seem like odd advice, but there are lots of writers (myself included) who like to talk about writing, think about writing, and don't actually do a lot of writing in the course of a day. If you truly want to write, then write. Sit down in front of your computer or with a notebook and start writing. Don't lose yourself in research or interviews or conferences or excuses. You have everything you need already. So write.

5. Where do you find your creative inspiration?

In the small details, in the seemingly innocuous exchanges between people. When I was flying back to the Big Island from Kauai the other day, I found myself staring at my car keys (see how ready I was to be home?) and in particular the red alarm button on my key fob which had the word PANIC on it. My first thought was why on earth would a car company choose that word over HELP or ALARM or even a picture of airwaves or something to indicate the sound. The red color is a dead giveaway, too -- you just know it's an emergency button. But why the word PANIC? I started thinking about a woman noticing this same thing as she's on her way to receive some bad news (only she doesn't know that just yet and she isn't overthinking the word like I am, just lingering on it). That night I had a intense dream and woke up seeing how my dream and this woman and this PANIC button on the key fob were all connected. It doesn't always happen that way, but most of my books and ideas are triggered by something small and simple. And then...look out!

6. Most of your books are set on the mainland, tell us why you decided to set Sweet Life on Big Island?

I wanted to capture the beauty and mystery of Hawaii, about the draw that many of us experience when we first come here. I played with the idea that the island chooses you and when that happens, all sorts of things go into motion. This is a deeply spiritual place and a lot of inner and spiritual work happens here whether you want it or not. I also wanted to showcase local chefs and food purveyors (all of my novels have recipes in the back that relate to the book). The Hawaiian concept of 'ohana which extends beyond your immediate family was also a theme I wanted to have in the book. There's also all the funny mishaps that come about when you have a native New Yorker move to Hawaii, as is what happens in my book. You just know it's going to be a journey.

7. In "Pele in Therapy," published in the anthology Don't Look Back, your protagonist experiences an encounter with the goddess Pele. Have you had your own encounters?

I'd have to say that my encounters are more elusive than obvious. Unlike most people who come to Hawaii for the beaches, I was drawn instantly to the volcano. I love the lush, green hills of Waimea where we live, but I am here for the volcano. No question about that.

I am aware of a constant communion between Pele energy, the land, and my own experiences here. I also know that Pele is not an "on-demand," spectator sort of goddess. When I'm in volcano, I tend to listen more, to tread carefully, to feel more. I am reverent. I am very aware of the energy of the earth below my feet. I watch my words, and my thoughts. I'm still taken by the breathtaking expanses of lava fields. That's probably about as much encounter as I can handle.


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