with Kawai Strong Washburn 

The following interview with Kawi Strong-Washburn was conducted in-person with the Runestone editorial board present and a virtual public audience on November 17, 2021. The interviewer was board member Cal MacFarland who was assisted by faculty editor Halee Kirkwood.

Kawai Strong Washburn was born and raised on the Hamakua coast of the Big Island of Hawai’i. His first novel, Sharks in the Time of Saviors, Won the 2021 PEN/Hemingway award for debut novel and the 2021 Minnesota Book Award; it was also longlisted for the 2020 Center For Fiction First Novel Prize and was a finalist for the 2021 PEN/Jean Stein Book Award. Former US President Barack Obama chose it as a favorite novel of 2020, and it was selected as a notable or best book of the year by over a dozen publications, including the New York Times and Boston Globe. It has also been translated into eight languages and counting. Washburn lives with his wife and two daughters in Minneapolis.

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Kawai Strong Washburn

with Kawai Strong Washburn 

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Kawai Strong Washburn was born and raised on the Hamakua coast of the Big Island of Hawai’i. His first novel, Sharks in the Time of Saviors, Won the 2021 PEN/Hemingway award for debut novel and the 2021 Minnesota Book Award; it was also longlisted for the 2020 Center For Fiction First Novel Prize and was a finalist for the 2021 PEN/Jean Stein Book Award. Former US President Barack Obama chose it as a favorite novel of 2020, and it was selected as a notable or best book of the year by over a dozen publications, including the New York Times and Boston Globe. It has also been translated into eight languages and counting. Washburn lives with his wife and two daughters in Minneapolis.

The following interview with Kawi Strong-Washburn was conducted in-person with the Runestone editorial board present and a virtual public audience on November 17, 2021. The interviewer was board member Cal McFarland who was assisted by faculty editor Halee Kirkwood.

Cal MacFarland: Thank you so much for being here tonight. So while I wouldn’t hold this person up as the pinnacle of who writers should aspire to, Stephen King says that he doesn’t write his ideas down. He finds that an image, a concept, or story ideas that are worth pursuing are something that’s going to essentially haunt you, it’ll come back to you again and again. Each time will unravel a bit more. Is this something you can relate to? If so, could you elaborate on how Sharks in the Time of Saviors developed over time?

Kawai Strong-Washburn: Yes, I agree with that, conceptually, really just in the sense of not trusting your first instinct for writing in general. Not only is it for new ideas that pop into my head that I think that way, but even in the middle of a scene. If I’m writing a character’s reaction, dialogue, a plot point, or the way something might change in the story, I almost always immediately discount the first several ideas that come into my head because I don’t trust them. I think that they’ll most likely be patterns that are unconsciously influenced by other books that I’ve read. I really push against the initial idea and try to dig deeper to look for the second, third, or fourth idea. 

In terms of Sharks in the Time of Saviors, I started in 2010 with the image of a child being saved from drowning by sharks. It showed up and I thought, that’s really interesting. Then I went on with my day, and it kept showing up. I’d just be staring out the window and the sharks would show up while I was washing dishes. Finally I started asking questions about the image. What is this image? Where is this kid? After I asked enough questions, I started engaging. I pretty quickly realized that it was going to be about family and it started to suggest a novel. 

CM: Interesting how those moments kind of come out of nowhere in the most mundane time. So speaking of the journey of cracking the novel, and writing in general, I understand that you have or had a day job as a software engineer. Many of us college students who have a desire to write for a living full time will probably have to face the reality of the modern world that we probably won’t be able to support ourselves. How is that process of trying to write a novel with a day job?

KS-W: There are good things and bad things about trying to write and work at the same time. Also, I don’t know who is a full time writer, and that is their only job. That’s probably 1% of writers, and they’re very prolific. They write books that sell well. For just about all the rest of us, you’re gonna have to have a job. That’s good, actually, because it gives you a break from writing and gives you something else to do. I like the fact that I don’t have to worry about cranking out another novel to keep food on the table. In my opinion, I think that that incentive structure would get in the way of making the writing as good as it can get.

CM: I believe that anyone who writes stories must be a huge fan of them as well. Perhaps someone’s gonna prove me wrong someday but until then, I like to presume that storytellers are also consumers of stories and vice versa. What kind of stories did you enjoy growing up, and have those influenced you and your desire to become a writer yourself?

KS-W:  When I started out, which I think is the case for most of us, I loved stuff like fantasy and science fiction. I was reading from my public library a lot, which is great because you can walk in as a ten year old and read books with lots of violence and sexual content. I started out in genre books. I don’t think I read big “L” literature until I was in college. Before my freshman year was the first time I read something that was literary canon literature.

CM: I definitely agree with that, at age 13, the Stephen King books in my school’s library were a big adventure for me. So Sharks in the Time of Saviors is your debut novel, what kind of stuff did you learn about your own writing in the publishing process?

KS-W:  There are a lot of questions I wasn’t asking as a writer. It’s very nice, the publisher may come back and just tear apart an entire scene and ask all these questions. Like, why is this thing here? Why is that important? Editors come back with a lot of really good, pointed questions that really force you to make hard decisions. I think that I could never have that level of investment in my writing. There are all these things I had to learn. I didn’t know what questions to ask or things to consider. 

I learned that there is a lot to learn.

CM: Earlier, we were talking about genre fiction. Your story contains elements of what could be described as magic. I’d almost argue that magic is just a word to describe things that we don’t understand yet. Noah’s abilities, for example, while appearing to be magic, could perhaps more accurately be described as a broad connection to the world around him. I would personally classify your novel as literary fiction. If you had to classify your novel, what would you choose? And why?

KS-W:  I don’t like genre. I resist categories in general, which I know is cool but they’ve got to put it somewhere in the bookstore. For me, I guess I let the marketing team figure it out. I just write the best version of the story that I’m trying to write that I can. The thing that happens is good books from any genre transcend that genre. If I read a good thriller, or mystery, crime, whatever, it’s only going to work for me if there’s the sort of things I look for in big literary fiction, which would be the interiority and complexity of the characters.

I’m always excited to read books from genres that I don’t normally read. Though I find that a lot of times, the readership that comes to those books is often comforted by formula. And so that book might be popular in a certain genre for certain reasons, and those don’t tend to be things that appeal to me as a reader. The books that I love can come from every genre as long as they’re well-written. Your book will find the readers.

CM: That’s something we’ve been learning; whenever we’re thinking critically about the literature genre, we think about how a story can conform to genre conventions, but also how it breaks them. I forget who said it, but if genre has been created, then it’s time to break those boundaries and definitions.

KS-W:  Yeah, it’s certainly tricky. A friend of mine was in a class with the poet Terrance Hayes, who’d said if you can breakdance that’s cool. But if you can breakdance in a straitjacket…

I think that you can embrace the conventions of a genre, and then figure out how to make those work the best way possible, and at the same time to push beyond those boundaries, right? I also think, for instance, if you push too hard to say, I don’t care about rules and then you go out and write something plotless with a lot of esoteric symbolism, it’ll probably find a small readership. But there’ll be a lot of people that’ll get lost really easily. I think that having some understanding of why the conventions work, then looking for ways to transcend at the same time, is probably the most effective way. 

I mean, take science fiction, for example. The reason a lot of people like science fiction is because they like to imagine themselves into a world with very convincing technology, or applications of science that they can believe in, that are giving them this new world. Maybe you’re not writing science fiction, but you should pay attention to the fact that the reason it works for people that love those kinds of books is because they’re convincing them of a way the world could be. That’s a rule you can use in whatever you’re writing. It’s your job as a writer to convince the reader. It’s a lesson from genre that can be applied to anything.

CM: Absolutely. Well, speaking of breakdancer with a straight jacket, what can really make powerful stories sometimes is taking two things that usually don’t go together and asking, what if? Even better, take two contradictory points and bring them together. In Sharks in the Time of Saviors, you can combine multiple aspects from life and culture and ask what if? Where there any ideas or larger concepts that you had in mind that felt central to what you were writing about?

KS-W:  Yeah. One of the things that drove me to write it was a sense of anger about having grown up in Hawaii and then having left those islands to live in the continental United States. I saw the depiction on the islands be so far removed from the reality that I experienced out there. I could feel who was defining that narrative in the continental United States about Hawaii being this product for consumption. 

Generally, it’s an idea of an exotic vacation. You get to go on the islands and get what you want from the islands. Even in the movies and a lot of the books that I’ve read, Hawaii is a backdrop for a story about people that aren’t from where they’re going, they’re there just for this nice, exotic location. It gets tied up in this national story about the United States defeating Nazis and the impact of Japan and Hawaii is just a backdrop to further enhance the nationalist narrative.

It’s totally different from what I experienced. Over the course of this book coming out, I’ve met so many people who had no idea about the annexation, or the fact that the United States stole Hawaii when it was a sovereign nation standing completely independent. Essentially, a group of wealthy white men decided that it would make really good profit to steal a place and use it as an agricultural export during the time of the Civil War. Those are the sorts of things I think about and I knew growing up in the islands. It just made me really angry to constantly see the islands depicted like that. 

Hula as well. I put it in there, because I wanted to represent the form of hula as a way that I’ve experienced it. It is literally the living soul of the island, it contains the entire history and perspective and relationship of a people to their land and to their environment. Most people are like, isn’t it that thing they do where I drink a Mai Tai on the beach and people shimmy and shake? For me, those sorts of things drove me to write.

Within that, I wanted to talk about the friction that brings, being from the islands when the islands are part United States but not really. Those things all get mixed up together with the reality of late modern capitalism and how it comes into direct contradiction with basic things like trying to be a good person. In the book, Dean hates being broke. But when you’re broke and on the edge of homelessness, the country has a boot on your neck just waiting to break you. Dean’s character, in a lot of ways, is a really good person, and also a bad person in a lot of ways. But he’s also pushing the terms of capitalism to its edge. We all talk about things like drugs and where these things come from. This is the natural conclusion of being pushed into situations when you don’t have money and you don’t mean anything. Dean recognizes that and he takes that as a terms of his life. That sort of world is being placed against the love of a family and an intimacy of individuals. I put those forces up against each other. 

CM:  Thank you so much. Literature is a way that people exemplify the natural world and also critiquing it. You accomplish both in your book. We see instances of exemplifying humanity’s relationships, the natural world, while also the love that exists, albeit never without some effort, between family members. You critique it by showing the impacts of things like colonialism and the treatment or dismissals of Indigenous peoples in such enterprises. Obviously, this was a conscious effort that you’d made going into the creation of your story stuff. Could you speak more towards these ideas and relationships with your writing?

KS-W:   Growing up in the islands, and just in general in my life, I’ve had these truly transcendent experiences in the natural world. I can still remember, one morning a friend and I were surfing this point break off a beach where I grew up. We’re floating out there, the waves are really bad, but we go out anyway. It was a really sunny day and the water was just a gorgeous blue. Around 30-40 feet, a pod of dolphins showed up. They were just launching themselves out of the water and doing these backflips. It was so cool to be sitting on our boards and to watch joy present itself. One of the things that I wanted to write about is to try and capture that feeling, especially within nature in Hawaii. 

I tried to render complex family dynamics in a way that they felt real. This happens to most child movie stars and gifted children, a lot of them don’t turn out correctly, and they become really arrogant and entitled. Partly it’s because you’re a kid and your mind isn’t developed. You’re thrust into this position of power and influence. I really wanted to find a way where that happened in a normal family, where if nothing else, you love each other, and at the same time, can’t stand each other. All those things exist in that space. I just want to write something that tried as faithfully as possible. At the same time, one of the things I was really conscious of, particularly with Malia and Auggie, the parents in the family, even in the midst of poverty I wanted to push back against the stereotype of a broken home. They’re still really into each other. I’ve had to deal with what I would consider pretty rough circumstances. I have found that I still need to maintain a level of joy. You still have good days. Absolutely. 

CM: Speaking of Auggie and Malia, there are so many heartbreaking moments with both of them that are juxtaposed with genuine humor. One time, Auggie says something around the lines of “your mom and I are still hot for each other” and it’s funny to see those moments in the story. Speaking of the family dynamics, they always struck me as nothing short of authentic. There was one particular place in the story in Chapter 9, in Kaui’s perspective thinking about Noah: 

“But Noah was gone by then in a way, or at least it felt like that. Like he was back out in the ocean with the sharks, bobbing in the water. I could see him there. The waves, the tides, and gods dragging him around. But I’m in the water too, I wanted to say. There are plenty of eyes on you. Nobody’s watching to see if I stay afloat.” 

And that genuinely hits home, it makes me want to cry every time I read it. Did your own family dynamics help to influence the novel? Where did you develop this perspective?

KS-W: It was definitely not my family. My family’s boring. When I was writing this book, I would look back on a certain decision the characters would make and I would say, well that’s not what I would do. I consciously wrote as far away from myself as I could. None of the characters or situations are from my experience. I think the challenge is to do that and to be in a space that’s totally different, to push through to really render the interiority of the character in that moment that feels truthful. By the time you’re 18, you’ve probably had just about enough emotions to write anything, You’ve had fury, loneliness, joy, boredom. I think it’s about taking the kernel of that feeling and then applying it to the experience that you’re writing about. If you’re writing fiction, it’s really nothing outside of yourself that you haven’t already experienced. 


CM:  You talked earlier about avoiding your first instinct. Speaking of, stories are a way to live experiences. Your novel is told through rotating perspectives. Can you talk a little bit about your perspective and your inspiration to rotate characters?

KS-W:  It was a mistake. Don’t ever do that. I mean, write whatever you want, but it took so much work. It took a year to just try and make the characters feel real, and even up until the late stages of the editing process. I would read a chapter and then read another chapter with that same character, and there would be inconsistencies. The language would fall off because I wouldn’t pay enough attention. I never knew if I would get this book published!

Some of the books that have hit me the hardest are in first person and I think that’s because it represents what you can do in writing that you can’t really do in any other art form. Which is, you get to inhabit another consciousness. The first person perspective is an incredibly intimate perspective. I wrote in first person perspective because of that. I spent all this time trying to make up a language for each character.

CM:  That’s challenging. Speaking of writing characters, there are moments of grief and loss that are thematic to the story. You can feel that pain in each character. We see each character struggle with their own loss and abandonment. There’s a profound sadness sometimes when you show other issues that exist. How would you describe grief and loss as being a central issue in the story?

KS-W:  Partway through the first draft, I was starting to question the novel as a whole. I kind of knew where I was going to go but not really. I was reading what I had and thinking, is this going to turn into Harry Potter? Like, he has special powers. What’s he going to do? Is he going to save the world? You know what’s always bothered me about those kinds of stories? Why do the bad guys want everything to be so awful? Sometimes I can understand if you want to be really powerful, but sometimes they just want the world to look like a hellhole. If you think about Voldemort’s world, who would choose to live in that? 

Anyway, I was halfway through writing the book and I asked myself what I wanted to accomplish. I didn’t want to reinforce a narrative of the world that I don’t necessarily support. It seems like a very particular American identity or thesis: problem happens, individual solves problem. Or, just as problematic, I must be the person to solve this problem. If you look back on history or even just survival, it has to do with strong community and building relationships, which has taken place with women especially. I wanted this book to question that. So it becomes a book, in part, about grief because I think this grief is grappling with the falseness of individuality. The family is telling itself a story about itself. I found Kaui’s arc in particular to be the answer to that.

CM:  You touch upon ideas about poverty. In chapter 16, Malia says, “We were eventually made to pray to it. Your father and I still pray to it.”

We see the family struggle with poverty and how so many other decisions are financially motivated. There are several occurrences where, if the resources were there for them, their struggles wouldn’t be there. It speaks about America, Western culture, and how these systems disenfranchise people. Whether this was something you meant to address in your story, could you speak more on that?

KS-W:  I think we touched on a lot of it already. One of the things I wanted to do was to render the full complexity of that sort of situation. Yes, they are struggling with poverty, but they also make bad decisions. We all make bad decisions and it wasn’t in a sense of judgment that I did that, but it would have been easy to make them simply victims. First of all, I think everyone has some level of agency, and rendering people in difficult situations as victims is not true and not pleasant to read. I wanted to show the complexity of that. I get tired of all the stories I hear. A lot of the stories America tells itself about itself are hard for me to swallow. 

In my writing, I wanted to push back against those and really show the reality of poverty and what it’s like. There’s really no room for mistakes. If you make one, it could take several years to come back from. There’s a lot of things you can’t do without a basic address, and you’re shut out from a lot of things if you get evicted. In a lot of cases, it’s easy to say, you did that. I just wanted to push back against that without turning the characters into innocent victims. 

CM:  You mentioned the family having some flaws and we see how their needs are driving them to make those mistakes too, and we see how their needs are driving this narrative. We see lots of things break that are hard to put back together, but we also see healing in this story, a give and take, a cycle. Can you speak about when you knew that ending where it all began was going to be the structure of your story? 

KS-W:  I think that particular part happened during my first draft. It’s also just a cool image. I like writing about the Night Marchers and how they have this breath of fire. It was just another excuse to write some of those things I liked as far as imagery, but it’s interesting hearing you talk now about the self-sustaining garden and that environment that is created. It could be another version of the cycle that’s created. Some of those things just happen, which is cool because when you write things, sometimes people like it so much that they find cool things in it. And then you get to take credit for all of it. So yes, the symbolism of the self-sustaining garden is actually a message about human nature.

CM:  Well, Kawai, I can see where your novel gets its humor from. Thank you once again for your time. I have one more question. Would you speak on what it is you hope readers will take away from your novel, and is there anything else you would like to share before we wrap up?

KS-W:  I don’t think I set out with a reader in mind. I think it gets hard if you get caught up on readers that are going to read it. I remember a draft or two in I realized my parents are going to read this, and there’s sex in it! It’s really weird. You have to stop thinking about it altogether. The thing that I’m realizing now is that I wanted to unsettle people’s ideas about the islands more than anything. If some people walk away from it feeling a little uncomfortable or feel implicated, then I am not angry at you but I think it’s important for us to rethink Hawaii. I hope people laugh at some point. I hope people enjoy Malia and Auggie. I worked really hard to create a couple going through really hard things but still really love each other.

CM:  Well, Kawai, thank you so much.

Ks-W:  Yes, thank you.

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