Susanna Moore

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.

 

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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]

 

 

 

LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX
Susanna Moore

 

Original air date: Tues., Jan. 8, 2013

 

Leslie Wilcox talks with Susanna Moore, Punahou graduate and author of the novels In the Cut and The Whiteness of Bones. Susanna talks about how her mother’s mysterious death affected her as a child and into her adult years.

 

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Transcript

 

I’m not saying that I wouldn’t have had problems, or I wouldn’t have been … tormented, or I wouldn’t have been driven, or … neurotic. But … I don’t think the suffering, the great suffering that I and my brothers and sisters endured made me a better writer.

 

Scratching the surface with author, Susanna Moore, next, on Long Story Short.

 

Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox is Hawaii’s first weekly television program produced and broadcast in high definition.

 

Aloha mai kakou. I’m Leslie Wilcox. Susanna Moore is one of the most acclaimed novelists ever to come out of Hawaii. Critics call her work brilliant, sensual, and sly. For over three decades, Susanna has written novels like, My Old Sweetheart, The Whiteness of Bones, and In the Cut, which was made into a 2003 moving starring Meg Ryan. From afar, it would seem like Susanna had a comfortable childhood here. She grew up in the upscale Honolulu neighborhoods of Tantalus, Kahala, and Portlock, and graduated from Punahou School. Household servants tended to Susanna and her four younger siblings. Scratch the surface of this glossy image, though, and you’ll find that Susanna’s childhood wasn’t as easy as it may have looked.

 

My father was a doctor who came here after the war. He had been in Japan, sent to Japan as a captain in the Army, ‘cause he was a radiologist, and he was study the effects of radiation after the bomb was dropped. In many ways, I think he never went back, emotionally, I imagine, after his experiences in Japan. He never talked about it, and I may have romanticized that.

 

But he was closed off?

 

Well, he was like a lot of fathers in the 50s. Fathers did not change diapers, or take you to ice skating lessons or —

 

They just gave you —

 

— go to the movies.

 

— your allowance if you lucky enough to have that, and —

 

Yes. Fathers were quite distant and quite removed, and because of that, probably mysterious and probably not good for girls. Probably not good for boys either, to have a father that was so distant. ‘Cause there was not a lot of intimacy in households between fathers and children. And there were five children. My mother died when I was twelve.

 

I can’t imagine what that must be like for a twelve-year-old girl, or boy, to lose your mother. Was it unexpected?

 

It was unexpected, and she was very young. She was only thirty-five. She had been ill, and there was is some mystery about how she died. I will never know what happened. I suspect it was an accidental suicide. I suspect that maybe she took some pills and then forgot, and went back. I don’t know.

 

How did that change your life? And that’s a big question, but if I you could give us a sense of it.

 

Well, I adored her and was very close to her. I was the oldest child. Also, I was born when my father was still in Japan, so I didn’t meet my father like a lot of children until I was almost three. So, I think there was a very strong bond. I’ve always thought I must have minded it tremendously when this man turned up. It changed my life completely. It was awful for all of us. There were, as I said, five children, and the youngest was two. I had been a mother to the other children for a while, for a few years probably, because of her illness. And so that increased, of course, after she died.

 

Some parts of your upbringing, which you relate in a book, I have trouble identifying with, ‘cause you lived in a more privileged world, and you have parents and kids not eating together. And that was common with your friends, right? Everybody ate in different rooms.

 

I don’t know if it was …

 

And you had servants.

 

Yes. Yes, but I don’t know if the eating part was common. We ate different food. We ate children’s food. Creamed hamburger on toast and rice —

 

And what were the parents having?

 

I think they had something much better, but we would not have considered it interesting as children, of course. No, we did eat at different times, and then after my mother died, we would eat only with my stepmother and father, say, at Christmas or maybe Easter. And it was torture, it was agony.

 

Because?

 

Our stepmother was not very kind. It was awkward. We couldn’t wait to be finished, and it was not happy.

 

So you had more bonding with the servants than with, say, your stepmother?

 

I remember going to the old Queen Theater in Kaimuki that showed foreign movies to see something called Sundays In Seville. And I was taken by the housekeeper’s husband, and I was thrilled, of course. I still remember the movie very clearly. But yes, my relationship was with the housekeeper’s husband, not my own father.

 

Through her teenage years, Susanna Moore’s father and stepmother remained distant from the children. She says neighbors knew about the neglect taking place in the Moore home, but avoided confronting Susanna’s parents. However, the neighbors found ways to reach out to the Moore children. One of the adults who looked out for Susanna was Alice Chester Kaiser, wife of industrialist Henry Kaiser, who developed Hawaii Kai and the health insurance plan named after him.

 

Mrs. Kaiser was enormously generous, and played a very important part in my life as a young girl. And other neighbors; I would spend a lot of time at the neighbors’. I was dressed by one neighbor. I had two sets of clothes; I had the clothes that I would wear to school in the morning, which my stepmother had found for us at the Salvation Army, really awful misshapen, ill-fitting clothes, and another set that my neighbor would bring to school, supplied by her mother and by her, into which I would change in the morning for school, and then I would change back in the afternoon. So, things like that. People were very sweet. But never in any direct way. No one ever challenged, no one ever said to my parents, What are you doing to these children?

 

And that was true for all of the kids? There was always —

 

Well, my brother; my brother was a paperboy, the boy next to me, which is my next brother. And there was a woman at Portlock named Frieda Brown, who lived in a house on the seawall, lived on the sea with her aged mother, and she used to prepare food for him. So when he would deliver the paper, he would stop at her house last and rush in, ‘cause he had to get home, and eat the dinner she prepared, which always, I remember, included a can of warmed Le Sueur Peas, you know, in the silver can. He loved those little Le Sueur Peas. And then later, when he ran away from home when he was still at Punahou, he went to live with Frieda Brown, and she took him in. So, people were kind that way. And then, my sister also ran away and went to live with him at Frieda’s. Quite an eccentric arrangement, and I think rather crowded, but —

 

And your father said, That’s where they want to live, that’s okay with me?

 

I’ve asked my brother about that. Like, how did you get to school, how did you … did you have any money, what about your clothes, did our father ever call Frieda or come looking for you? He said, No, never did.

 

So, there was no arrangement between your father and —

 

Frieda; no, no. None. No discussion. No thank you, no … Send them home. Nothing.

 

I notice when you graduated from Punahou, you did what many Punahou grads do not do. And that is, you didn’t go to college at all.

 

No, it was made clear to me that I could go to UH, or I could work. I was not very much encouraged, and also, my grades at Punahou were very bad. After my mother died, I really lost interest in that, in school. I had loved school, did love school, but that disappeared, that discipline and I suppose, wish to please her. And so, the day after I graduated from Punahou, I left, was sent and I had a feeling that I wouldn’t be back for a while. It was quite heartbreaking. And especially to leave my brothers and sisters.

 

Did you feel sent away?

 

I did feel sent away. And I went to live with my grandmother, my mother’s mother, who was an old Irishwoman who lived in Philadelphia, very, very modestly. And then, for a long time, I lived with very, very little. If I wanted to eat the next day and was fortunate enough to be taken to dinner, I would have to take home the bread and whatever I could.

 

This was when you —

 

Packets of sugar.

 

— were living as a young adult on the mainland?

 

I went to New York when I was eighteen, nineteen, and again, through Mrs. Kaiser. And I was very poor, and often didn’t have food.

 

What did you do for a living?

 

Mrs. Kaiser was the largest customer of Bergdorf Goodman, and so, she called Andrew Goodman and said, I have a young friend who’s coming to New York and needs a job. And I worked as a salesgirl.

 

Susanna Moore always had the writing bug. As a child, she wrote plays, stories for Punahou’s student newspaper, and what she calls really bad poetry. Although she spent her childhood in Hawaii, life as an adult took her all over the place. From New York City, she moved to Los Angeles, where she worked as an assistant to Warren Beatty and Jack Nicholson. It’s also where she met her future husband, Richard Sylbert, a Hollywood production designer, with whom she’d have her only child, Lulu. That marriage ended in divorce. Life then took Susanna to London, and back to New York, where she lived for over three decades. Despite her wanderlust, Hawaii was always with Susanna. Many of her books, including her memoir, I Myself Have Seen It, take place back home in the islands, and in nature.

 

In growing up on Tantalus, I think it’s in the foreword or the first chapter of your book, I Myself Have Seen It, you talk about being very aware of and believing in spirits about, when you go into the forest, you ask permission of the gods.

 

Yes, asking the moo, the lizard god who lives in waterfall pools whether it’s safe to go in, yes, and beseeching not his protection, but his indifference. Yes, one of my childhood friends was Tommy Holmes, who died in a canoe, but he grew up to write the great book about the Hawaiian canoe. He lived in Tantalus, and he and I spent our childhood exploring those woods. And the smell of Tantalus is still very vivid in my head. Its decaying leaves, mildew, eucalyptus, mud … lovely smell.

 

[CHUCKLE]

 

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. That Hawaii was meaningful to me in a way that was profound. Still is.

 

And yet, once you moved to New York City, that’s where you stayed.

 

Yes.

 

Except for sojourns here and there.

 

Yes. I mean, I would come back almost every year, but no, I had been in New York, to my own astonishment, more than thirty years. I moved there because my daughter had not been school, I had been living abroad, I had been living in London. But no, I stayed away. I did stay away, it’s true.

 

Well, not really, because you came back every year.

 

Yes, but I never quite made the leap to … and friends of mine have said, Why aren’t you here? What are you doing? And my brothers; Why aren’t you here?

 

Why were you wandering?

 

Well, in some ways, I didn’t have a home. I had been really on my own since I was seventeen; much too young to be on my own. Made awful mistakes and took a long time to grow up. I was also really … avid, keen, greedy, desperate for the world, and for things that I knew that I couldn’t, wouldn’t find here. So, I had to find those things, ballet, and opera, and traveling, and different cultures, and different sorts of people. That period in which we grew up too, there was not ever any consciousness, even though it was privileged, of money. Women wore muumuu’s, women were not like I see them now in Chanel suits and high heels and stockings. You know, women were in muumuu’s, or men in aloha shirts always, not tucked in. No one had fancy cars, no one went to Paris, for Christmas. It was very modest. Houses were modest. I mean, I’m sure there was land, of course there was money in some families. But it wasn’t evident, it wasn’t talked about, it wasn’t …

 

Not much consciousness about wealth. What about race?

 

That was always interesting, too. Because when I grew up, I discovered that the places where we lived, like Kahala, had racial restrictions. I was quite shocked by that. I had no idea. And obviously, that changed.

 

As a matter of fact, I recall James Michener, who was married to a Japanese woman, couldn’t live in Kahala.

 

Yeah. I didn’t know that. I didn’t know that growing up. And that’s quite shocking, that that happened. And there was also, the races were quite separate, especially Japanese. There was not a lot of mixing. I remember Japanese girls would now and then disappear, because they had become involved with a Haole boy or another Asian boy, but not Japanese, and were whisked back to Japan to live with their grandparents. There was much more of a separation. You didn’t see Asian girls at the beach.

 

Were there Hapa Haoles around at Punahou?

 

Hapa Haoles, yes, and I was always and still interested by the fact that Hawaiians had a certain prestige, always, always. To be certainly part-Hawaiian was privileged, but there were none of the prejudices against and of course, unspoken, maybe even unconscious prejudice. There wasn’t outward discrimination against Japanese or Chinese, or Filipinos. Although later, of course, I realized it was there.

 

And Hawaiians would tell you they felt discrimination, they felt …

 

And of course, they were discriminated against; of course. And they were certainly discriminated against in that their culture had no value. If we learned a hula at Punahou, it was … Little Grass Shack, or something equally insipid.

Hapa Haole.

 

Yes; Lovely Hula Hands, or something.

 

Susanna Moore’s first novel, My Old Sweetheart, takes place on Kauai. Its main characters are based on Susanna and her mother. Female relationships, particularly mothers and daughters, are a recurring theme in Susanna’s novels.

 

As the subject of, I think, almost all of your books, you’ve chosen mothers and daughters in stupefying variety. I mean, you even have a mother who murders her child.

 

Well, that book began because I realized I had written endlessly about what it is to be a daughter. And I thought, Well, I haven’t really written about what it’s like to be a mother.

 

And you are a mother.

 

And I am a mother. And of course, my daughter teases me that the character that I chose to write about is someone who murders her children.

 

[CHUCKLE]

 

She thought that was a bit revelatory. But I thought, that extreme situations often serve a writer very well in that they cause a character to display qualities, or to summon aspects of their personality that might otherwise remain hidden. So, extreme situations are easy for a writer.

 

I’ve heard authors say before that their books are like children, they can’t choose among them. Is that true of you, as well?

 

No, I don’t think of them well, first of all, I think people do have favorite children, so that’s a bit disingenuous. No, I think that my books are so different, really, that I like them for different reasons. In part, I wrote In the Cut because I was so exasperated by hearing, after the 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 … is that how I’m seen? So, I very, very purposefully wrote In the Cut to dispel that notion. It was a bit …

 

I’ll show you. [CHUCKLE]

 

It was a bit adolescent in that, Oh, yeah? Well …

 

And then, you later said —

 

— look what I can do.

 

You later said, there was so much titillation —

 

Oh!

 

— by that book, that it —

 

Yes, I would never, ever —

 

— became a distraction for you.

 

And I would never want to do that again. It’s been very … I’ve very deliberately not written about sex again.

 

So many people think that when you are a successful, critically acclaimed author, you make bunches of money, you don’t have to worry.

 

I know.

 

And of course, the book business is changing, so that’s an additional dynamic now. How hard has it been to make a living, even though you have these books that are well reviewed?

 

Well, it’s impossible as a writer. I did not receive a royalty until In the Cut was published. And then, I would say maybe the royalties that I’ve received over the last twenty years amount to maybe five hundred dollars. So, very, very little.
So, you do it for love.

 

I do it in part because there’s really nothing else I can do. I’ve thought of it. What could I do, what could I be? It’s too late.

 

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 when 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 painful for her. She would start it, and then she’d have to stop.

 

What did she say after she read it?

 

Thank you.

 

In addition to writing, Susanna Moore has taught creative writing at Yale, New York University, and Princeton. It’s the quality of her books that has led to her hiring at such prestigious schools. Other universities turned her down, because of her lack of a college degree. But she does not regret taking the path that led her where she is today.

 

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 herself 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 would 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. I don’t believe 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.

 

But, I mean, how interesting are happy, open you know, no problem people? If there is such a thing.

 

Yes. I’m not saying that I wouldn’t have had problems, or I wouldn’t have been tormented, or I wouldn’t have been driven, or neurotic. But I don’t think the suffering, the great suffering that I and my brothers and sisters endured made me a better writer.

 

Writer Susanna Moore, who draws from her Hawaii upbringing in many of her novels, is nationally known and well regarded for her powerful treatment of mother-daughter themes. Our conversation took place in 2012, when this longtime New York City resident returned to Hawaii for a visit. Quite unexpectedly, she fell in love with a man whom she’d known back in her days as a Punahou student, and she decided to move back to Hawaii. She also published a new book, The Life of Objects, a departure for her; it’s a coming of age novel set in wartime Germany. Mahalo to Susanna Moore for sharing her story with us; and mahalo to you for joining us. For PBS Hawaii and Long Story Short, I’m Leslie Wilcox. A hui hou.

 

For audio and written transcripts of this program, and all episodes of Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, visit pbshawaii.org.

 

Worked for a while as … I was Miss Aluminum, which was not a great job.

 

What did you do as Miss Aluminum?

 

Oh; I had to wear a tin foil dress.

 

[CHUCKLE]

 

And go to trade shows, like for boats, and stand there with a tin foil trident. And I cried a lot. I was eighteen, standing in the New York Coliseum with eight thousand men … in a tin foil dress, holding a trident.

 

[CHUCKLE]