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LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX
Tom Vendetti

 

Meet Tom Vendetti, a Maui-based psychologist and filmmaker who has turned a series of unexpected life twists into two intertwined careers. He shares how his unlikely journey has unfolded, all driven by his quest for happiness.

 

This program will be rebroadcast on Sunday, Dec. 1, at 4:00 pm and 11:30 pm.

 

Tom Vendetti Audio

 

Download the Transcript

 

Transcript

 

People often say to me: When you go to Tibet or Nepal, do you have culture shock? I say: No, the shock is coming back here.  And I truly mean that.

 

Meet a man from Maryland who became a mental health professional and advocate on Maui, and also produced about thirty films, so far.  We’ll show you how his unlikely journey unfolded, and what he’s learned along the way about the search for happiness, next, on Long Story Short.

 

One-on-one engaging conversations with some of Hawai‘i’s most intriguing people: Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox.

 

Aloha mai kākou.  I’m Leslie Wilcox.  I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing individuals over a period of decades, and I’m still struck by how often the element of chance plays a role in remarkable life stories.  The man you’re about to meet is no exception.  In fact, serendipity is a recurring theme in the story of Dr. Tom Vendetti, of Wailuku, Maui.  This psychologist and Emmy-winning filmmaker turned a series of unexpected twists into two intertwined careers that have enabled him to do good in the world, while pursuing his personal quest for happiness.  On this edition of Long Story Short, we learn how Tom Vendetti’s lifetime of journeys add up to the journey of a lifetime.

 

You were adventurous.  You were hitchhiking far away at age, what, seventeen.  You were heading out with your thumb and friends, and going to rock concerts, and spring break and other experiences.

 

Yeah; I always had this drive to see the world.  And surprisingly, my parents were okay with that.  But it was nothing for me to hitchhike to New York and see the play Hair, or go to a rock concert in Indiana, or even New Orleans to the Mardi Gras.

 

Did you start working early?

 

I started working right out of high school.  Primarily, it was during the Vietnam War days, and I was going to be drafted.  So, I applied for a conscientious objector status, and I only had a couple weeks before I was going to be shipped off, so the clock was ticking; right?  So, anyway, I went in front of this panel, and it was community members, some clergy, and military, and they just interrogated me, this kid, eighteen years old.  You dong love your country?  You don’t want to fight for your country?  And I tried to explain to them that it’s not that I wouldn’t want to fight for my country.  I would; it’s just this particular war that I didn’t believe in.  And within a couple weeks, the letter came, and it said that I was still 1A active, going to be, you know, drafted.  My mother said: I can’t believe that this is happening.  I said: Well, Mom, it’s happening.  She goes: I think it’s a mistake.  I said: Come on, Mom, they don’t make mistakes like that.  She said: Well, I’m gonna call them tomorrow and see.  And I was working construction with my father at the time, so we went to work.  And then when I came home, she took this sheet and put it out in the front of the house, and must have taken a spray can or something, put one, zero on it, which meant conscientious objector.  And I walk in the house and said: Mom, what’s going on? And she said: Well, it was a mistake; they made a typographical error.

 

Wow.  That’s a huge error.

 

That’s a huge error.  And again, I was just elated.  And because of that, though, I still had to serve my country for two years.  So, I had to find a job in the helping field either, you know, doing community service or something.  And that’s where I got a job working at Sheppard Pratt Hospital as a psychiatric aide.  And at the time, I had no interest in psychology.  Which again, it just opened this door up that I’ve been, you know, doing my whole adult life.

 

And you ended up getting a PhD.

 

PhD, and I also got a master’s degree in clinical social work from the University of Maryland.  After that, I decided to move from Maryland to Flagstaff, Arizona.  Back then, there were very few services for the mentally ill, so we created a program for them that got a lot of attention.  And a lot of that attention came from a program called Adventure Discovery, where we would take the mentally ill people hiking and on river trips, and things like that.

 

Why?

 

Well, again, there was some research coming out at the time that it was very therapeutic.  And we actually did some testing to verify it, which started my film career, by the way. We took ten mentally ill people on the San Juan River, and prior to doing that we did some pre and post tests for anxiety and depression.  The filming part came where I asked a friend of mine who bought a new camera back then. We did our testing, and made this documentary film, and the research that we did showed that not only the clients benefited, that the depression dropped and anxiety, but also the staff.

 

That is interesting, because what you’re telling me is that by seeking not to fight in Vietnam, it led you to your career and to your vocational passion.

 

Right; exactly.  So, I came back, and I put this film together.  And then, I became hooked.  So, I was the kid that was very shy in school.  You know.  I would know answers to questions, and wouldn’t raise my hand.  And when I realized through film that I could actually communicate, because I had a lot to say, you know, that this was my ticket for achieving that.

 

At the same time he was building his psychology career and developing his passion for filmmaking, Tom Vendetti yearned to see the world.  And that’s what first brought him to Hawaii, initially drawn to the Big Island of Hawaii because of his fascination with mountains.

 

It gets back to my early hitchhiking days.  I always wanted to see the world.  I had a girlfriend at the time, and we decided that we were going to travel around the world.  The first stop was Hawai‘i. So, we arrived in Hilo, because of Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa.  We ended up spending two years there, because, you know, we needed to make some money. So we started one of the first halfway houses for the mentally ill over there, which is part of the Mental Health Kokua system right now.  And then after we got the money, we ended up in New Zealand.  And someone at that point said: Where are you going next?  I said: Well, I really love mountains.  They said: Well, you need to go see Mount Everest.  I said: Where is Mount Everest?

 

You didn’t know where Mount Everest was.

 

No; I was so naïve.

 

And look at where much of your life has been focused now.

 

That’s right.  I had clue. And they said: Well, you have to go to Katmandu, and Nepal.  And I said: All right.  And it was May.  The monsoons came in a little early that year, so people were saying: You shouldn’t go up to Mount Everest; you’re not going to see anything.  You know, there’ll be too many clouds, and be socked in. I said: Well, I came all this way; I’m gonna go anyway.  On the plane, there was this man sitting in front of me, and he was in English, kinda broken English, pointing out all of the mountains.  And I noticed a lot of other people were paying attention to him, like he was somewhat knowledgeable.  But I didn’t pay much attention to it.  And then, when we got off the plane, he and his daughter walked up to me and said: Where are you going?  I said: I’m going to Mount Everest.  He said: Well, would you mind if walk with you?  And I thought he just wanted to practice his English, or something. As I look back at it, I am sure he was, you know, trying to protect me and take care of me.  But as we were walking on the trail, people were just going: Namaste!  Almost in reverence to this individual.  And then finally, I heard someone say: That’s Tenzing Norgay.  I went: Tenzing Norgay?

 

He was a Mount Everest rockstar.

 

He was. And in that part of the world, he was a hero, you know.

 

Because he was the Sherpa who went up Everest with Sir Edmund Hillary.

 

Tenzing Norgay and Hillary were the first two people to summit Mount Everest. So, when I heard that, I said: What are you doing here?  He said: Well, I’m on my way to meet Hillary; National Geographic is doing a thirty-year special about us summiting the mountain.  Would you like to be my guest?  And I said: Of course.  For a week, you know, we hung out together.  And then, when we were getting up to Kunjan, where Hillary was, first they walked up and embraced; the cameras were going, and so forth.  And then, he introduced Peter—that’s Hillary’s son, was there and then, Deki, Norgay’s daughter.  And then he said: I want you to meet my friend Tom.  And here I am, shaking hands with Hillary, going: What is this all about? Right?  And then, from that day on, it just changed my whole life, and I’ve been going back now for thirty years.

 

So, you were living on the Big Island, went away to see the world.  And then, what?  How’d you get back?

 

Then, I ended up back in Flagstaff.  And when I returned, I got a job at the Guidance Center again.  My girlfriend and I split up at the time, and my wife Nancy was also getting a divorce from her husband.  She was working there, so, it all seemed to kinda click at the same time.  And then, we fell in love.  And we decided to get married on Maui.  When we got back to Flagstaff, we started contemplating the idea of moving to Hawai‘i.  Before we knew it, we applied for jobs, landed them, and we’ve been living on Maui now for twenty-six years.

 

And did you say she’s in the same …

 

Yeah; she’s a clinical social worker.  We’re very happily married, and it’s been a good thing for me.

 

Among Tom Vendetti’s talents is a background in music.  This expertise serves him well in filmmaking, helping him to craft just the right mood for each project, as well as build bonds with exceptional composers and musicians.

 

In high school, I understand, you were not just a jock; you were a band geek, I think is the expression people use.  You did both.

 

Yeah; I played the trumpet from third grade all the way into college, and was on the Baltimore Colt marching band.  So, I got to see my heroes Johnny Unitas and Raymond Berry back in those days, which was quite thrilling for me.

 

And that’s another of the things you discovered early in life, that you continued on.  Music has just been a continuing theme, and you use it in all of your productions.

 

Yes.

 

Original music, too.

 

And in terms of editing, that’s my favorite part; putting the music to the scenery, especially beautiful scenery like, you know, the Himalayas and so forth. And I was so thrilled to have Keola Beamer, you know, work on this latest film.  We went to Katmandu, and he had the opportunity to record original music with seven local Nepalese, you know, musicians.  And it was just fascinating to watch, and also beautiful to listen to.  And it literally brought the film to life, as far as I’m concerned.

 

I wasn’t surprised to find out that they had partnered with you, because when Keola was a guest on this program years ago, he told me that he had become a Buddhist.

 

Right.

 

And that his mother, you know, Auntie Nona Beamer, had become a Buddhist, and they both said it was very Hawaiian in its values.

 

Right. Yeah.  Being around Keola Beamer and Moana as friends, again, that’s such a treasure, something that I, you know, love both of them dearly.

 

[MUSIC]

 

And who’s Paul Horn?

 

Paul Horn is a very famous flautist, flutist.  He’s known as the father of New Age music.  He’s a Grammy Award winner and has probably forty-six albums out. And he passed away not too long ago, but he literally said: Tom, if you ever want to use any of my music, it’s yours. We became that close over the years.

 

You traveled with him quite a bit.

 

Yeah. We traveled to Tibet.  I think it was 1992, I asked Paul, because he had played in the Taj Mahal and the Great Pyramids, if he would like to play in the Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet.  He said: Man, if you can make that happen, we’re there.  And I said: Okay.  And believe it or not, we pulled it off.  And that was my first documentary film, Journey Inside Tibet, that was picked up by PBS Plus.

 

Which is one of the programming streams on PBS.

 

Yes.

 

[MUSIC]

 

So, I needed to find someone to narrate that; right?  And I always really liked Kris Kristofferson.  He was a person that I looked up to.  And I knew that he lived on Maui.  So, I had a VHS tape of what I shot, and the music, but I didn’t know Kris’ address.  But I, again, knew that he was on Maui.  Put it all in a package, and I wrote: To Kris Kristofferson, Hana, Hawai‘i, without a zip code.   ‘Cause I was fairly new to Maui at the time.  Put it in the mail, and several weeks later, I get this call from this man, Vernon White.  He happened to be Kris’ manager, and he was calling from L.A.  He said: Kris said he’ll do it.  I thought it was a friend joking, or something.

 

 

I said: Do what?  You know. He said: He’ll narrate your your film.  And I said: Really?  And I said: Well, how much will it cost?  ‘Cause Kris Kristofferson.  He says: How much money do you have?  I said: I don’t have anything.

 

He said: That’s what it will cost you.

 

Oh …

 

Yeah. And Kris came over to Kīhei, sat in the recording studio and did that, and was so gracious, and it was humbling for me to be in his presence, that again, it just kept me wanting to make more films, especially after it got on PBS.

 

I think you’re the first filmmaker I’ve ever met who doesn’t raise funds, but who earns the money in another job and pays for it himself.

 

Right.

 

That’s a lot of money, that’s a lot of travel bucks.

 

It is. But I would be doing it anyway. Traveling, doing it my whole life.

 

[CHUCKLE]

 

With psychology, of course, I had to go to college and get degrees, and so forth. But I’m self-taught when it comes to filmmaking.  So, put a lot of energy into it, and again, it’s just a passion that I love doing, and it’s become a voice for me.  So, it fills that need, too.  The editing part became more like therapy for me.  It was extremely therapeutic.  Because of the content and the people, you know, that I interviewed and so forth, hearing their words, and then getting to relive it again through the images, you know, that I shot, I never considered it, even to this day, being work.  The bottom line with making the film was, like I said, I would get a bunch of friends and we would make it slash, vacation shoot.  My wife has been very supportive in that too; Nancy.  In fact, she’s gone on all of these journeys with me.  She loves the outdoors, she loves hiking and trekking, and so forth.  So, we invite friends.  And hopefully, you know, I have a plan, an idea in mind in terms of what I was trying to tell, in terms of the story.  In places like Nepal and Tibet, if you go in with a fixed plan, you’re really setting yourself up for disappointment.  You need to be open and just kinda let it all unfold.  And if you do that, it’s amazing; it often turns out better than the original plan.

 

Is that right?

 

At least, that’s been my experience.  Yeah.

 

So, you don’t create at least a Plan B first?

 

In that part of the world, it’s better not to be that attached to anything.

Oh, that’s interesting.  That sounds very Buddhist of you.

 

It’s very Buddhist.  Buddhism and even today’s world of psychology just go hand-in-hand.  If you get into a lot of what the Dalai Lama says about negative thoughts and, you know, and so forth, that’s cognitive behavioral therapy, that’s what therapists do.

 

Training yourself not to have negative thoughts.

 

Exactly.  And reframing things in a positive light, along with the buzzword in psychology now is mindfulness.  It’s a Buddhist term; right?  I could relate to that on both levels.  This last trip that we took with the Beamers in Nepal to film Tibetan Illusion Destroyer was about exactly what I’m talking about.  They have a festival up there every year called the Mani Rimdu Festival with the purpose of destroying illusions, thoughts, or you know, the way you perceive things, that lead to human suffering.

 

Tom Vendetti of Maui has seen plenty of that suffering through several decades practicing psychology, as well as fighting to improve Hawaii’s mental health services. And then, came a time when his own mental and physical health was challenged with a diagnosis of prostate cancer.

 

Basically, when I found out that ninety-nine percent of my prostate had cancer in it, it was like being hit in the head with a two-by-four, a wakeup call.

 

How old were you?

 

Fifty-five.

 

You were fifty-five.

 

So, I went and had the radioactive seeds, a hundred and twenty-two of them, put in my prostate.  And at that time, I got pretty depressed, to be honest with you.  I was lying in bed, and I said: I need to go Nepal—I was talking to my wife, even though I felt kinda weak and so forth.  But I just said I needed to go to there.  When I got up into the mountains, it was that quiet time again, and being able to hike and be into nature that just brought me back to life. In fact, that’s when I made When the Mountain Calls, on that journey, and reflecting on all of these … you know, the thirty years of my travels in Nepal.  I’ll never forget; when I got back from basecamp, I made it all the way there and back.  I was in Lukla again at that airport.  And I called my wife, and she said: I’ve never heard you sound so happy.

 

I felt a true sense of inner peace, true happiness.  I contemplated the meaning behind all the wonderful experiences I’ve had, and of how the mountains kept calling me.  They have taught me that life’s magic is always right here in front of us.

 

Well, there, they base it on four pillars.  One is an honest, transparent government.  Another one is respecting nature.  And they basically say if you get up in an environment where all the trees are cut down, and the rivers are polluted, you’re not going to be happy. The other one is preserving culture. That’s something that they cherish in Bhutan, and they don’t want to lose it with Western influence.  And the other one is economic stability.

 

Stability; not growth, but stability.

 

Yeah. There have been many, many studies saying that above your basic needs being met, happiness improves a little bit above that with income, but beyond that, there’s no correlation at all.

 

Income doesn’t bring you more happiness.

 

Exactly right.  And when I went over to the Bhutan initially, I was very skeptical.  I thought: Is this for real?  But I came back a believer, and I think it could be a model for the world. In different places, like Norway and that part of the world, they’ve embraced it.  But in terms of Western capitalistic types of societies, we have a long way to go if we want to take that on.  But that film won an Emmy too, which was kinda cool, you know.

 

You came home as an Emmy-winning filmmaker.

 

Yeah, yeah.  That was surreal.  You know, when you’re sitting in the audience and you’re thinking: Well, I didn’t have anything really prepared.  But when the spotlight hit me, I thought: Oh, my god.  I walked up, and there were these two big, giant television screens; right? And I looked up and saw myself up there.

 

I just kind of focused on one person in front of me and started talking.

 

Because you’re the filmmaker who wants to be on the other side of the camera.

 

Exactly right.  Here’s the kid who didn’t want to put his hand up in school, you know.

 

You know, I know that that airport that you went to at Everest is very small.  But what are the chances, you know, that you’d get together with the Sherpa who summited Everest with Sir Hillary?

 

See, that’s really an interesting question.  I wasn’t one of those people that just thought things happened by chance. But I’ve come to the conclusion, and it took me a long time to get here, that things do happen.  Again, it can be on a spiritual level, or it can be on a different plane than this objective level.  And that was a real awakening for me.  And that’s the only way I can explain meeting, you know, Norgay up there, and Hillary.  You know, when I walked away from that experience, I was thinking again, you can’t explain these things.  You know, you just gotta be open to ‘em.

 

What do you make of it?  Because you know, we hear stories that appear to be accidents and random chance all the time.  But these happenings take people to places they otherwise never would have gone.

 

Part of what I learned is that, number one, you need to show up.  Just simply put yourself in a situation to allow things to happen.  And if you do that, they often do.  It’s something that, you know, you can’t necessarily measure.  It’s got to be probably more on a spiritual level that I’m trying to get in tune with.

 

Have you found a spiritual path?  Are you still deciding?

 

I’m always going to be on that path.  I’d be the first to say that I really don’t know what’s going on.  I’m still working towards that so-called enlightenment or nirvana, or whatever, however, whatever term you want to put it in.

 

Have you stopped going back there now?

 

To uh …

 

To the Himalayas.

 

No; in fact, I just got back.

 

Oh; okay, then. 

 

When I had the opportunity to film His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, a few years back, I asked him what the significance of Mount Kailash was.  So, I’m making a film right now that’s focusing on three areas—preserving the Tibetan culture in China was the first question, the second one was the significance of Mount Kailash, and the third one was happiness. In fact, I’m almost finished that one.

 

Well, what does he say about happiness?

 

Well, he said he has no way in the world to know how to fix happiness on a global level, but on an individual level, it’s possible.  And it gets back to what we were talking about; calming you mind, again, ridding yourself of negative emotions or thoughts that create negative emotions, and back to that kind of basic Buddhist teachings.

 

Did you see your Sherpa friend again?

 

I asked him; I said: Is there any place in the world that you would like to see or to hike or trek?  And he said: The Grand Canyon.  I said: Well, that’s where I’m from; when I get back, I will write to you and we’ll hike the Grand Canyon together.  And by the time I got back, he had passed away.

 

Oh …

 

Yeah.

 

Too bad.

 

Yeah. But I was thinking, you know, here I am, traveling all the way to Nepal to find happiness, and he’s saying the Grand Canyon.  Is it right in my backyard?  You know.

 

Do you think that both your career—your dual careers, really; do you think those were all about finding happiness?  Or defining it?

 

Well, it certainly ended up that way.  Initially, like I said, I had no desire at all in psychology.  And I always wanted to see the world, but I really didn’t even know about Buddhism or, you know, the teaching of Buddhism or the philosophy behind it.  But that’s really what has impacted my life in terms of the way I see the world now.

 

At the time of this conversation in 2019, Tom Vendetti has retired from fulltime psychology practice, and devotes most of his time to filmmaking.  He’s working on new projects, and we’re proud to give some of his films a home here on PBS Hawaii.  Tom Vendetti has learned from prominent people in different parts of the world.  He says he’s also gained insight from the years with his Maui patients, whom he admires and respects for their strength and intelligence.  We want to thank Tom Vendetti of Wailuku, Maui for sharing his search for happiness.  Perhaps he’s inspired you to focus on what’s truly important in your own life, and to show up in life, because that’s where chance, serendipity, can take you on an unexpected, life-changing journey.  For Long Story Short and PBS Hawaii, I’m Leslie Wilcox. Aloha nui.

 

I’ve been asked by Keola to make a film about Auntie Nona Beamer.  And it’s something that I’m really looking forward to. That’ll be my next film.  So, I feel honored to make the film.  She’s had other films made about her, but it’s been primarily, you know, talking heads, people talking about her.  The goal of this film would be to capture her spirit, and to capture it through her words, through her, you know, hula and chants, and the songs that she’s written, and the beauty of the islands.

 

For audio and written transcripts of all episodes of Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, visit PBSHawaii.org.  To download free podcasts of Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, go to the Apple iTunes Store or visit PBSHawaii.org.

 

[END]

 

 

 

HIKI NŌ
Dancing Goat Sanctuary on Hawaiʻi Island and other stories

HIKI NŌ: Episode #1003 - Dancing Goat Sanctuary on Hawai‘i Island and other stories

 

TOP STORY

 

Students from Konawaena Middle School and Konawaena High School in Kealakekua join forces to tell the story of the Dancing Goat Sanctuary on Hawaiʻi Island. The sanctuary is situated on an organic farm and is dedicated to providing abused, orphaned and abandoned goats with a safe environment in which to thrive. Youth and animal advocate Shawna Gunnarson utilizes the goats for an afterschool program at the sanctuary that teaches students how to treat animals compassionately, setting a path for both animals and youth to build lasting connections.

 
Program

 

ALSO FEATURED

 

–Students from Kapaʻa High School on Kauaʻi show how to take simple steps towards developing your own personal style.

 

–Students from H.P. Baldwin High School on Maui show how to get started learning American Sign Language.

 

–Also from Baldwin, the story of a fitness coach who overcame his own personal struggles to become a motivating force in peoples’ lives.

 

–Students from Waiʻanae Intermediate School on Oʻahu introduce us to a teacher who has turned a sustainable garden into a special place of learning.

 

–Students from Pomaikaʻi Elementary School on Maui tell us the history of the musubi in Hawaiʻi and show us the right way to make one.

 

–Students from Maui High School tell the story of Maui-based painter Philip Sabado and how he re-connected with his Hawaiian culture.

 

 

ANTIQUES ROADSHOW
Vintage Madison

ANTIQUES ROADSHOW Vintage Madison

 

Journey back 15 years and learn how fantastic finds from Madison, WI, have fared in today’s market. Highlights include an 1875 Norwegian Hardanger fiddle, Winsor McCay comic art and an Eanger Irving Couse oil. See which item doubled in value to $80,000-$100,000.

 

 

 

INSIGHTS ON PBS HAWAIʻI
How Cyber Secure Are You?

 

There is an almost endless list of activities that can be done digitally, including email, banking, shopping, sharing and liking. But lurking out of sight are predators waiting to strike, to steal your credit card number, your password, even your identity. How can you be sure which websites or activities are safe? How do you protect yourself online? How Cyber Secure Are You?

 

Phone Lines:
462-5000 on Oahu or 800-238-4847 on the Neighbor Islands.

 

Email:
insights@pbshawaii.org

 

Facebook:
Visit the PBS Hawai‘i Facebook page.

 

Twitter:
Join our live discussion using #pbsinsights

 

 

 

 

PBS HAWAIʻI PRESENTS
Lahaina: Waves of Change

LAHAINA: 
Waves of Change

 

In 1999, Lahaina’s plantation era came to an end with the closing of the West Maui town’s Pioneer Mill, the beating heart of Lahaina’s sugar industry. This film documents the last harvest, the last cane burning and the final days of operation at the mill, revealing a town with great historical and sacred significance, as well as the persistence to thrive into the future.

 

 

 





LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX
Wordsmiths

LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX: Wordsmiths

 

On this special episode of Long Story Short, we look back at conversations with three of Hawai‘i’s contemporary authors. We revisit our 2011 interview with Chris McKinney, whose gritty, semi-autobiographical novels, like local best seller The Tattoo, depict the dark underbelly of paradise. Acclaimed novelist Susanna Moore, whom we interviewed in 2012, draws inspiration from her Hawai‘i upbringing, calling forth both beauty and danger in her writing. Our 2008 guest, storyteller and historian Gavan Daws, has made a lasting impact on Hawai‘i’s literary scene with his book Shoal of Time: A History of the Hawaiian Islands, which remains the bestselling history of Hawai‘i. These “wordsmiths” have built careers weaving stories of Hawai‘i in distinctive, personal ways and have proven exceptional at bringing these stories to the page. Hear how they approach their craft and get a glimpse into their literary lives.

 

Program

 

This program will be rebroadcast on Sunday, July 7, at 4:00 pm and 11:30 pm.

 

Wordsmiths Audio

 

Download the Transcript

 

Transcript

 

I did a calculation a couple years back. Someone, somewhere in the world has bought a book of mine every forty minutes since 1968.  And you used the word academic about me.  I am a recovering academic.  Put it that way.  I never wanted to write like an academic.

 

In part, I wroteIn the Cutbecause was so exasperated by hearing, after three Hawaiian books, that I was a woman’s writer, which meant that I wrote poetically about children, and flowers, and mothers.  I remember thinking: Oh, is that all I can do?  Oh, is that how I’m seen?  So, I very, very purposefully wrote In the Cut to dispel that notion.

 

Some of the best stuff, some of the best ideas, some of the best things that you can plug into your story will be thing that may be scary, and things that there’s actual risk in sort of hurting somebody’s feelings or making somebody mad.  I mean, if you’re gonna refuse to do that kinda stuff, find another vocation.

 

Those are three of Hawaiʻi’s successful contemporary authors sharing thoughts about how they approach their craft.  These writers have built careers weaving stories of Hawaiʻi in distinctive, honest, and personal ways.  On this episode of Long Story Short, we’ll hear some of the fascinating backstories behind their books.  Island Wordsmiths, coming up next, on Long Story Short.

 

One-on-one engaging conversations with some of Hawaiʻi’s most intriguing people: Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox.

 

Aloha mai kākou.  I’m Leslie Wilcox.  Despite the technology that dominates our lives these days, a good book continues to inspire our imagination and transport us to new places, far away and even within ourselves.  Here in Hawaiʻi, we have fascinating stories to share, and writers who’ve proven exceptional in bringing these experiences to the printed page or screen.  On this edition of Long Story Short, we feature some of the wordsmiths with whom we’ve talked story over the past decade: Chris McKinney, Susanna Moore, and Gavan Daws.  Perhaps not surprisingly, all three have been teachers, as well as writers.

 

We start with our youngest author.  Chris McKinney of Honolulu was thirty-eight, with four books under his belt, when I interviewed him in 2011.  A writing career seemed unlikely when Chris McKinney was growing up in rural Kahaluu in the 1970s and 80s.  School-assigned books sparked his interest starting in middle school, and little could Chris McKinney guess then that his very first novel, The Tattoo, would one day become assigned reading in many Hawaiʻi schools.

 

You know, especially in Tattoo, part of the story is about a father seeking to toughen his son.  I just make this wild, random guess and figure it’s autobiographical.  So, which father?

 

Oh, stepfather.  And I can’t remember it, but I can just imagine what must have been the look on his face the first time he saw me, when I was about two or three years old.

 

Because of the leisure suit?

 

Because of the way my mom had dressed me.

 

And he said: I’m gonna do something with this kid.

 

Yeah; he just must have taken one look at me and thought: What in the world is this woman doing to this poor kid?  It almost felt like, you know, even though it was the 1970, early 1980s, that we were living in some sort of time warp plantation, sort of the way you were brought up thing.  And even the stories that he seems to enjoy telling the most are stories that involve people doing spectacularly crazy things.  And so, I think for him at least at the time, is part of what being a man is about.  To not show the next guy that you’re not just tougher than him, but you’re crazier than him, that you’re willing to go further than he is willing to go, and he better recognize that before he messes with you, basically.  So, if it wasn’t for my stepfather, The Tattooprobably would not have been The Tattoo.

 

So, you obviously had material to be a writer, but were you thinking about being a writer?

 

Absolutely not.  Again, remember, in some ways, I am my mother’s son.  And it is that cliché immigrant Asian story, or that philosophy, in that they want their children to succeed financially.  I mean, that is the most important thing you can do in life, is you get a good job and you make a lot of money.  And I think that hearing my mother and my grandparents and stuff talk like that all of my life, that I bought into that more than anything else. Art; you know, art, that’s not what I’m gonna do.  I’m going to make money.  So, for a long time, the plan, at least from about high school and for most of my undergrad, I was going to become a lawyer, an attorney.  And then, what had happened was that I spent probably too much time playing ukulele and drinking beer, and playing Nintendo during my undergrad that I needed to go to grad school in order to get into a good law school.  So, yeah, you know.  And at the same time, I had my bachelor’s degree in English. During my bachelor’s degree in English, I was parking cars for a living.  After I completed my bachelor’s in English, I was still parking cars for a living.  So, either way, I thought that grad school, whether it would be an avenue to law school or anything, was probably a good idea, ‘cause I didn’t want to park cars for the rest of my life.  Which was what it felt like.  So, it wasn’t until I went to grad school as an unclassified graduate student.  And again, I was very lucky because the professors who would take me, one being Joy Marcella, and the other one being Phil Damon, and another one—all three of them in the same semester, Ian MacMillan, when I wrote for them, they were all very encouraging.  And I thought: Maybe I can do this.

 

Did you have a sense that your writing was fresh, and that you knew a world that most people hadn’t written about?  If they knew it, they didn’t write about it.

 

Yeah.  Quite honestly, it’s because if you were to look into the sort of educational background of, let’s say, all of the kids my age within that square two miles of where I grew up, I would put money down on the fact that I may be one of three that actually graduated from college.  If that. So, in the sense that I was sitting there and I was writing stories among whatever, you know, seventeen, eighteen other people, yeah, there was definitely nobody else writing the kinda stuff that I was writing.

 

Would you talk about more of the influences on your writing?  What, and who have influenced your writing?

 

There’s a list of teachers that I’m thankful that I had. The first great teacher I had was a guy named Mr. Guerrero.  And this was when I was living in California.  He was fantastic.  He assigned the class a book, Animal Farm, that was the first novel that I had read that just totally resonated with me. And at the time, I wasn’t thinking that I wanted to be a writer, but it was the first time that I saw, and I was in awe of what you could do with a book.  At first, we read it, and then of course, it was thig thing, this power corrupt scheme and all of that.  And you know, I’d seen that before.  But when you find out that it’s based on the Bolshevik Revolution, that just blew my mind. Wait a minute; so this guy took history, he put it on some generic farm, and in that last moment, of course, when the animals are looking through the window and they can’t tell the difference between the pigs and the farmers, the human farmers, I mean, talk about an ending that I will never forget.  So, that was the first book that blew me away.  And then, in high school, I had a couple of good English teachers.  I think one of them still teaches at Mid Pac. Mrs. Takeshita, Mrs. Takabayashi; they were really good, and they were always encouraging.  So, I had teachers, and then there were books that influenced me. Shakespeare, Mac Beth particularly resonated with me when I read it in eleventh grade in high school.  So, that was the second story that just sort of blew me away.

 

How do you feel about high school students getting The Tattoo as required or recommended reading in many schools?

 

Thankful.  I mean, at first, it was weird.  So, when the book first came out, and people would come up to me and say: I don’t read, but my teacher assigned this book and I had to read it, and it was The Tattoo.  At first, I didn’t really know what to say to that, ‘cause I just thought it was strange. But at this point, ten years later, eleven years later, I’m grateful.  Something like that would never have occurred when I was in high school. I mean, high school, you were taught The Canon, you know, Dead White Males.  So, I think that it’s interesting to see that there’s more of a progressive thing going on in high schools, where teachers are allowed, and some of the language in that book is kind of foul.  So, it’s gratifying to see that they have the courage not only to buck the idea that everything has to come from the Western canon, but also that they can take a little bit of risk with what they include in the curriculum.

 

Since this interview first aired in 2011, Chris McKinney has published more books, bringing his total to eight.  He continues to teach writing courses at Honolulu Community College.

 

I spoke with our next critically acclaimed author in 2012.  At the time, she was living in New York City.  Susanna Moore’s tenth book is expected out this year, 2019.  Her repertoire includes two memoirs, one history book, and seven novels, including one called In the Cut, which was made into a 2003 movie starting Meg Ryan.  Susanna Moore grew up on Oahu, attended Punahou School, and lived what appeared to be a privileged life in Tantalus, Kahala, and Portlock in the 1950s. However, her mother’s untimely death led to an unhappy upbringing.  That experience would later compel Susanna Moore to explore family dynamics in her writing.

 

When did the writing bug come?  Or had you always had it?

 

I’d always had it, and wrote as a child, and wrote plays, and really bad poetry.  You know, I was a reporter for Ka Punahou, the newspaper.

 

Did you write more after your mom passed away?

 

No, I don’t think so.  I think about the same.  And also, really a bookworm.  You know, reading early, and reading insatiably and incessantly.  And then I stopped, because I had to work, I had to support myself.  And writing certainly was not going to be a way to do it.  And still isn’t, you know.  Like a lot of writers, I had to teach in order to write.

 

How did you find your voice in the first place?

 

With the first book, I’d had a baby, a girl child.  So, I’m sure there was some identification there with myself and my mother, and my mother with her mother.  And I was approaching the age, the same age as my mother when she died.  And I felt a bit shaky, and I wanted very much to just get down in writing what had happened to me, and to my daughter’s grandmother.  And that’s really how it began, just to record it.

 

And who were you imagining would see it?

 

She; I was imagining my daughter, when she grew up, would find this helpful in understanding who I was, and who her grandmother had been. And then, of course, it took her years, and years, and years to read it, interestingly.  She could not read it for the longest time, not until she was maybe seventeen or eighteen, because it was too pain for her.  She would start it, and then she’d have to stop.

 

What did she say after she read it?

 

Thank you.  She understood.  I think certain things were made clearer to her.  Some, perhaps more mysterious.

 

And what’s the name of that book?

 

My Old Sweetheart.

 

Which is really the story of you and your mom.

 

Yes.

 

As you say.  The Whiteness of Bones; I mean, I didn’t have this background as far as you talked about a little girls growing up on Kauai with a land-rich family, but very much a creature of the ocean and the forest, and you know, hanging out with the cook. How did you get that?  That was such beautiful imagery.

 

Well, of that came from spending summers on Kauai, particularly in Waimea.  And there were bits of that from my own childhood, although those weren’t my parents. The relationship with the gardener was our gardener at Tantalus; that was real.  The mongoose; my sister did have a pet mongoose.  There were things that I took, and then things that, of course, I made up.  I always thought that in a way, nature took the place of my mother.  So, I was very, very grateful and conscious of it, even I think, as an adolescent that it was playing a part in my life that was significant. But Hawaiʻi was meaningful to me in a way that was profound.  Still is.

 

I find it just really wonderful and refreshing that you have taught at Yale, at New York University, at Princeton, and you haven’t attended college. But you’ve been hired by Ivy League universities to teach.

 

It’s because of the books.  You know, if I hadn’t written these books, I would not be hired.  No; and I don’t think I could teach in the English department.

 

Creative writing is what you teach.

 

Creative writing is such a made-up thing, and ill-defined.  I mean, yes, I can get away with that, teaching creative writing without a degree, but even if I knew everything there was to know about Emily Dickinson, I would not be hired for that.

 

Do you regret not going to college?

 

It would not be unlike the way my life would have gone if my mother had lived.  I think if I had gone to college, it might have been harder for me to get started on the path that became my life.  My path to becoming a writer, or to becoming independent and free, the way I did become, would have been much, much harder, if not impossible, had she lived.

 

Why?

 

Well, she would have wished for me a more conventional life, I’m sure.  To marry, to have children, to be near her, station wagon, house in Kahala; all of those things to which she aspired.  And a bohemian life would have seemed to her probably frightening and impractical.

 

Are you saying the wandering, the bohemian lifestyle is really you, and if your mom had been alive longer, you wo7uld have taken longer to find that?

 

If ever.  Yes, I think it is really me.

 

It is really you.

 

Yes.

 

So, that raises an interesting question.  Would you rather have had your mom with you longer, or …

 

Yes; always.  Always.  I would much rather have had my mother.  And I am one of those people who, I don’t believe that suffering makes you an artist. In a way, I’m saying the reverse of what I just said, that I don’t think the things that happened to me as a child, or as an adolescent, or a young woman, made me a writer.  I think that was there.  I don’t think suffering is ever an advantage.

 

Really?

 

No; I don’t think so.  I might have written different kinds of books, my interests might have been different, I might have been less interested in mothers. Clearly, I would have been less interested in mothers.

 

Since this interview took place in 2012, Susanna Moore has moved back to Hawaiʻi from New York and married a former Punahou Schoolmate.  She also has published a history of Hawaiʻi called Paradise of the Pacific.  Susanna Moore lives in Kapaau in North Kohala on Hawaiʻi Island, but returns every fall to Princeton University on the East Coast, where she’s been teaching for the past ten years.

 

While Moore is an author who became a university instructor, our next guest was an academic who became an author.  Gavan Daws of Manoa, Oahu says he never planned to move to Hawaiʻi, let alone become an authority on Hawaiʻi history.  He left his native Australia, and just happened to get off the ship here.  He was teaching history at the University of Hawaiʻi in the 1960s when he wrote and published his first book, Shoal of Time, which has remained the best-selling history of Hawaiʻi, ever since. This acclaimed author and historian has written shelf full of meticulously researched and sometimes controversial books, including Land and Power in Hawaii.

 

So, you accidentally came here, in a sense.  And then, you accidentally got a PhD in Pacific history?

 

It was like breaking the balls on a pool table. You know, things just went everywhere, and one of ‘em went into a pocket.  And that was the academic life.  It could have been anything else.  It just kinda grew from there.  I got offered a job, I kept the job, I got tenure, I wrote a book, and so on, and so on. But I’ve also done other things outside Hawaiʻi, and other things other than academic work, you know.

 

Within just, what, a decade or so of coming here, you’re writing a history of the Hawaiian Islands, Shoal of Time.  Is it still a local bestseller after all these years?

 

Yeah, it is; it’s forty years in print.  Which is amazing.  Eighty percent of books disappear after a year.  They’re like restaurants, you know; they fold.  And I had no idea, doing that, what kind of life it would have, or even if it would get published.  Which you never know.  And just a little bit of the history of that; Honolulu Book Shops, which was the only bookshop in town in those days, they ordered twenty-four copies.  And when they sold them, they didn’t reorder; they thought that was about the demand.  But here it is, forty years later.

 

It’s required reading in many courses.

 

Which I don’t want; I don’t want to be required reading.  I want to be read by, my phrase, consent adults.  I want them to choose to read it.

 

Have you heard that in the intervening decades after the book came out, there has been some perception on the part of Native Hawaiians that there’s a colonial tone here in the book?

 

Oh, sure.  Yeah.  I think every writer writes as someone of his or her own time.  I certainly had no great ability beyond anybody else’s to look backward or forward, or sideways.  I breathed the air that was here to breathe at that time, and wrote that. Now, in the forty years since then, and almost fifty years since the research, there’s two generations. That’s half the people living here now; A, weren’t born then, and B, weren’t born here.  So, the change in everything here is huge, since I started doing that.  Any general history written now will be written by somebody now, looking back at then through the eyes of now.  Totally different.  There wouldn’t be a sentence in this book that would be the same, if I were doing it now.

 

Is that right?

 

Oh, yeah.  Or if anybody were doing it now.  Now, I that forty to fifty years, we’ve now got more than thirty years of the Hawaiian renaissance.  Now, think what a difference that’s made in the air that everybody breathes. Okay.  The next book that’ll be done, and I wish done soon, will breathe that air.  Fine. Thomas Jefferson says: History needs to be rewritten every generation.

 

When you were researching Shoal of Time, how did you put yourself in mind of what, say, Native Hawaiians were doing at that time, and how’d you learn to characterize certain things?

 

With difficulty.  What I try to do with writing, and it’s not just for Shoal of Time, but anything at all, I try to keep people interested in turning the page.  If you’re not readable, then what?  If I put you to sleep by page ten, even if I’ve got something interesting to say on page fifty, and you don’t get there, what have I done?  So, first thing; be readable.  And then, you’ve gotta dance with nonfiction.  With fiction, you can say anything to be readable; you can have sex every three pages or a mighty explosion every five, or whatever.  But with nonfiction, you can’t really take those liberties.  So, what you’ve gotta be able to do is, do that dance between readability and reliability.  And that’s a dance.  And it’s a solo dance; only one person’s name is on the book.  And everybody’s dance with readability and reliability will be different.  And that’s why they’re my books; that is to say, that’s my name on the title page.  But they’re only my books.  There’s always room for another book and for a better book, always.

 

What other ways have you told stories in your life?

 

Well, if it comes down to twenty-four words or less, I suppose that all my life has really been about words and audiences. Words is all I have.  I have no other skills of any kind, either creative or financial.  So, it’s words; words are my currency.  And I kinda grew up on the edge of the Outback in Australia, where when I was a kid there was no radio, and where for a long time there was no TV.  And storytelling was what everybody did.  And when you got old enough, which was around sixteen, you’d go into the pub two or three years below drinking age, and that was storytelling territory as well.  And on top of that, I’m about five-eighths Irish in books and in stage plays, and in song lyrics.  And I’ve done the libretto for an opera, and I’ve made documentary films which are not my talking, but other people’s talking.  And I’m a huge admirer of standup comedy; I just love standup comedy. So, words are the way that things come to me, and on a good day, they’re the way that things come out of me.

 

You’ve been on bestseller lists, and you’re an academic whose books have been reviewed by the New York Times, which doesn’t happen to most academics, because they like to point that out.  Would you talk about that a bit?  You’ve drawn the attention of major reviewers and major audiences and readerships.

 

I did a calculation a couple years back. Someone, somewhere in the world has bought a book of mine every forty minutes since 1968.  And you used the word academic about me.  I am a recovering academic.  Put it that way.  I never wanted to write like an academic.

 

And you didn’t.

 

No; and for cause.  Because bless them; for all their virtues, most academics do not write to be read.  They write to demonstrate that they know something.  That’s a very different thing.  And they write for other academics.

 

Does that mean other academics might consider your work lighter than others, because it is, quote, commercial?

 

They’re welcome to; perfectly welcome to.  But I don’t see any necessary contradiction between writing responsibly and readably.

 

This multi-talented wordsmith has also written for film, television, stage, and has even written songs.  In 2018, his most famous book, Shoal of Time, celebrated its fiftieth anniversary.  The e-book version has now outsold the many hardcover and paperback editions.

 

Mahalo to all of these accomplished wordsmiths—Chris McKinney, Susanna Moore, and Gavan Daws—for giving us a peek into their literary lives.  And thank you for watching.  For Long Story Short and PBS Hawaiʻi, I’m Leslie Wilcox.  Aloha nui.

 

For audio and written transcripts of all episodes of Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, visit PBSHawaii.org.  To download free podcasts of Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, go to the Apple iTunes Store or visit PBSHawaii.org.

 

I said to my editor this time, who’s Sonny Mehta, who was also the publisher of Knopf, that I’ve always felt my books were covers that would only induce a woman to pick up the book in a bookstore, you know, that I know that women are the primary buyers of fiction, but it would be awfully nice to have a book that a man might want to read from the cover.  And I think covers do make a difference.  And he said: Yes, yes, I agree that would be good, especially as it might be your last cover.  And I thought: [GASP] What does he mean?  He saw my face, and he said: No, no, I will always publish you; I don’t mean that, I mean that it might be the last …

 

Paper book.

 

–book in which you’ll be able to hold it in your hands. So, it’s changing.

 

[END]

 

 

 

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On its approach to the Hawaiian Islands last year, Hurricane Lane dumped an historic amount of rain on the Big Island, causing major flooding that damaged homes, roads and other infrastructure, without even being a direct hit. The storm also caused flooding on Kauaʻi. At one point, Lane intensified to Category 5 strength and was one of two tropical systems to cause damage in Hawaiʻi last season. A new hurricane season starts June 1. Is Hawaiʻi prepared? Are you?

 

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