‘Moloka’i’: About the Author
Friday, April 13, 2012
About the Author
Alan Brennert was born in Englewood, New Jersey, to Herbert E. Brennert (an aviation writer who contributed to such magazines as Skyways and American Helicopter) and Almyra E. Brennert. Since 1973 he has lived in Southern California. He holds a Bachelor's degree in English from California State University at Long Beach, and also did graduate work in screenwriting at UCLA.
His work as a writer-producer for the television series L.A. Law earned him an Emmy Award in 1991. He has been nominated for an Emmy on two other occasions, once for a Golden Globe Award, and (three times) for the Writers Guild of America Award for Outstanding Teleplay of the Year. He received a People's Choice Award for L.A. Law, and his short story "Ma Qui" was honored with a Nebula Award in 1992.
He has written four novels, Kindred Spirits, Time and Chance, Moloka'i and his newest, Honolulu.
An Interview with Alan Brennert
(courtesy of MacMillan Publishers)
Q: What inspired you to write Moloka'i?
A: In a roundabout way, it was a book by Harriet Doerr called Consider This, Señora — a wonderful novel about a group of expatriate Americans living in Mexico — which got me thinking about exploring the bonds of community in an exotic locale. Since I’ve been in love with Hawai'i for half my life, that seemed a natural choice. When I visited Moloka'i for the first time in 1995, I found it a unique and beautiful place, even for Hawai'i, and thought about setting a contemporary story there. But the more I researched Moloka'i, the more I learned about Kalaupapa and came to realize that this was the community I should be writing about.
Q: What prompted you to make your main character a woman?
A: The novel crystallized in my mind the moment I read that whenever residents of Kalaupapa had a child, that child had to be taken away from its parents, or else risk coming down with leprosy as well. In that instant, literally, I knew I would write about a young girl taken from her family, who grows up on Moloka'i, falls in love, gives birth to a child...and then has that child taken from her, even as she was taken from her own mother. I wanted to tell the story of the ordinary people who had to make such heartbreaking sacrifices. People torn from their home, their careers, who had to forge new lives for themselves under difficult circumstances. There were scores of books about Father Damien, but few about the patients who were sent to Moloka'i against their will. Damien was a great man, who did great good at great cost to himself...but because he was white, and a priest, his story commanded the world’s attention almost to the exclusion of all others at Kalaupapa. I think he’d find this as unjust as I do. In writing Moloka'i I felt that I was in some small way giving voice to those whose voices have been lost to time, and I hope they’d approve of what I’ve done.
Q: How did you go about your research?
A: At first I searched for a single book that would present a detailed overview of the history of Kalaupapa. No such luck: There was information out there, but scattered among hundreds of disparate sources—books, newspapers, magazine articles, and the files of the state archives. It took about a year before I could see Honolulu in the 1890s in my mind’s eye, including six months cobbling together a twenty-seven-page chronology of the settlement: the names of patients, administrators, doctors; the construction of buildings, the opening of stores—not merely pivotal events but the progression of everyday life at Kalaupapa. (When I mentioned what I’d done to the helpful librarians at the Bishop Museum, they asked for a copy for their archives; and I’m proud to say there’s one there now, along with a copy of Moloka'i.)
Q: Do you start from page one and go from there, or do you write a scene from later in the story and fit it in later?
A: I know some writers who can skip around, but I’m too linear for that; I have to start at the beginning and plow on through to the end. Still, I always knew that the story would end on the beach at Kalaupapa, with Rachel’s daughter looking out at the waves breaking on “the peaceful shore.” I even knew I’d use that exact phrase, in deliberate contrast to the line in the Robert Louis Stevenson poem. (I didn’t know, however, that Rachel’s granddaughter would also be there; she invited herself along later.)
Q: So do you find that your characters—as some writers claim—surprise you by doing things you hadn’t planned?
A: What writers usually mean is that you get to know your characters better in the course of writing about them, which may require some later adjustments. That happened to me with Rachel. Originally I considered having her move back to Kalaupapa at the end, as some patients did in real life; but by the time I reached that point in the story, she told me, “Forget it, pal! I’m staying on Maui with my sister.” It went against her character to go back after finding some of her family.
Q: What was it like to write from the point of view of a different culture?
A: I’ve gone to Hawai'i so often, and for so many years, that it feels like a second home to me. I’ve always been fascinated with its people, its history, and mythology...for me there was no greater joy than in reading and writing about it. Every day I got up and couldn’t wait to get started working on Moloka'i. It truly was a labor of love, and I hope that that love shows in the writing.