And Why Now?

Lunch on the Mekong River, while writing One Last Look, Laos, 2010
Lunch on the Mekong River, while writing One Last Look, Laos, 2010

It is true that in the beginning, most writers are by necessity content — more than content, preoccupied — with their own stories. Some writers never outgrow this. Ideally, at a certain point, usually after a writer’s third or fourth book, and somewhat to his surprise, his own life catches up with him. There are fewer stories to tell about himself. He has exhausted his own mythology. Twenty years ago, when I finished my third novel about Hawaii, I realized, somewhat forlornly and certainly with a sense of panic, that I’d come to the end of my own particular tall tales. I’d reached, so to speak, my present self, and I began to cast about anxiously for a subject. In the end, it was a good thing. It compelled me to leave my childhood. It required that I leave Hawaii, at least figuratively. It forced me into the world. I had to make things up.(Upon reaching this stage of experience, a writer is fortunate if lost anecdotes, forgotten stories, memories idly stored rise mysteriously to the surface — mysterious because you inevitably ask — why this particular story? And why now?) My new book of non-fiction, Paradise of the Pacific, a history of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Hawaiʻi, has been nominated for a National Book Award. Because of this, I have been asked — all writers are often asked — how it is that I became a writer. I used to wonder if the islands of Hawai’i had made me a writer. My first three books, whose subject is my family, are known rather dramatically as the Hawaiian Trilogy. They are taken, incorrectly, to be more memoir than fiction. Nietzsche defined truth as a mobile army of metaphors, which is a very good description of a book, fiction or otherwise.

Writing My Old Sweetheart, St. Barthʻs, 1981
Writing My Old Sweetheart, St. Barthʻs, 1981

The novelist must know everything about his characters, but choose not to tell us all that he knows. Many of the facts may be — in truth, should be — hidden. In our own lives, we cannot expect to understand one another fully, but in the novel we can attempt to rectify this mystery. The secret life of a character may or may not be visible, whereas in real life, secret lives are concealed. That is why novels comfort us —they suggest a clearer and thus more manageable race of human beings. The novelist Eudora Welty once said of her mother that she read Dickens as if she were going to elope with him, and I know that feeling (I have spent most of my life in love with the lawyer Gavin Stephens in William Faulkner’s novel Knights Gambit, and am deeply attracted to Trollope’s Irish gentleman, Phineas Finn, but that is about fantasy, not reality.

Moʻokini heiau in North Kohala, once used for human sacrifice,  with Jonathan and Tenoch, 2014
Moʻokini heiau in North Kohala, once used for human sacrifice, with Jonathan and Tenoch, 2014

While it is possible to do absolutely anything with the novel — it is one of its charms (and terrors) — the one thing that I do not want is to propagandize either for a cause or a point of view. It is in my interest — it is always in the interest of a writer — to be without an opinion at all — a position that causes me to disappoint some critics and readers. But the writer’s work is to render the world, not to alter it. Some readers of my new book of history prefer those books of mine (not only novels) in which I am more present, more exposed, and more subjective. This would indicate a less than subtle reading. In any book, whether fiction or nonfiction, the writerʻs every choice — subject, tone, language, setting, adjectives, adverbs, even punctuation — reveals all that you need to know.

The basis of almost any book is simply a story, and a story is a series of events arranged in time. A memoir, ideally, is history based on evidence. Historians deal with the character of an individual only in so far as they can deduce meaning from his actions, however tenuous the interpretation. The historian may be as much concerned with character as is the novelist, but he can only know, actually know, what exists on the surface. In the end, it is never the facts that excite me, but all that is left unexplained. It is the unspoken  that awakens my interest. In my novel One Last Look, I transformed a sister’s fervent affection for her brother into incest (like bigamy, I suspect that it was more common than we know), much to the irritation of some readers familiar with the life of Emily Eden, the nineteenth-century English blue-stocking whose letters were the provocation for the book.

What is fictitious then in the novel is not the story but the way in which thought becomes action; character becomes plot — not something particularly knowable in everyday life. Proust said that in fashioning a work of art we are by no means free — we do not choose how we shall make it — it pre-exists and therefore we are obliged, since it is both necessary and hidden, to do what we should have to do if it were a law of nature, that is to say, to discover it.
At the Kutub Minar in New Delhi, while writing One Last Look, 2003
At the Kutub Minar in New Delhi, while writing One Last Look, 2003
Teaching a seminar on myths, fairy tales, and legends at Princeton, 2013
Teaching a seminar on myths, fairy tales, and legends at Princeton, 2013
Hiking with W. in Kohala, while writing Paradise of the Pacific, 2014
Hiking with W. in Kohala, while writing Paradise of the Pacific, 2014
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One thought on “And Why Now?

  1. Toni Withinton October 13, 2015 / 10:19 pm

    I read several reviews of Paradise of the Pacific bemoaning the lack of Susanna’s self in this book of history. My response is the reviewers did not look close enough to see her skillfully setting the scene for the extensive quotes by helping us understand the headset and likely motives for the writers’ words. To me she deliberately kept her own ideas suspended. So when I got to page 253 my whole view of the collision of Hawaiian and western culture came to view like photo paper revealing a new image in the developing tray. No writer of Hawaiian history had done that before. And with such tender words. Mahalo.

    Like

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