Novelist Kaui Hart Hemmings reads at Frank Manor House

Photograph of Kaui Hart Hemmings speaking at Frank Manor House
Fionn Ensor-McDermott / The Mossy Log

As the first event in Lewis & Clark’s Spring 2023 Reading Series, author Kaui Hart Hemmings spoke to a packed Frank Manor House on the evening of Jan. 24. 

Hemmings, who was born and raised in Hawaii, has published a handful of popular novels. Much of her work is rooted in this connection to Hawaii’s people and culture, including her novel “The Descendants,” a narrative of family grief and bonding, which was recently adapted into a movie. 

At the Frank Manor House, Hemmings read an excerpt from the beginning of her book “The Possibilities.” The book, similarly to “The Descendants,” is an exploration of family and grief, in which a mother deals with the aftermath of her son’s death in an avalanche. 

Professor of Creative Writing Audrey Gutierrez introduced Hemmings, mentioning her accolades and recent movie deal. Students from Gutierrez’s Introduction to Fiction class were required to attend for credit, after having read and discussed a short story by Hemmings.  

“There’s a subtlety to her writing, but also a richness in her descriptions and scenes, a clear awareness of the human condition,” Gutierrez said. 

In the excerpt Hemmings read, the protagonist runs into another woman who also lost her son to an avalanche and who tries to coerce her into joining the support group MAAD (Mothers Against Avalanche Death). Hemmings’ narrator has a self-consciously wry, pragmatic attitude, making the writing a breath of fresh air despite its tragic subject matter – some lines had the room laughing out loud.

After the reading, Hemmings welcomed questions from the audience, which varied from inquiries about the publishing process to her writing routine and inspiration. 

Students were curious about many aspects of Hemmings’ creative process. For those wondering how she finds inspiration or motivation, Hemmings said bluntly, “I don’t get inspired,” explaining that the process is something she does habitually, regardless of creative impetus. 

“I treat it more as a job … I don’t wait for the clouds to part, or a muse, or anything,” Hemmings said. “It’s mainly just, this is what I do now … I have to clock in now and do my work.” 

Later, however, she admitted that despite this pragmatic attitude toward her craft, certain things do compel her to write, especially setting. 

“When I’m living in a place, and I love a place, I want to tell a story about that place,” Hemmings said. “How can I interweave a story? (And) characters who clearly come from this place, and their story would be completely different if they came from anywhere else … I think, actually, every place I’ve lived, I’ve written some work about.” 

Hemmings feels that she has to leave a place to fictionalize it. “I feel like the distance from a place … gives you that permission to recreate it. Since you are dealing with fiction … you’re writing based on your memory and impressions, which can sometimes be a stronger way to reveal a place.”

One student asked how Hemmings constructs dialogue. She said it is difficult.

“It has to be dynamic and lively and convey information, and also just show your character,” she explained.

Nevertheless, she enjoys giving a voice to characters. Her source is real life; she listens to the real conversations people have when they think no one is listening and tries to emulate their speech patterns in her writing. 

Hemmings said that she thinks of writing as playing a role, which she allows herself to use her imagination and creative license to embody. 

“A lot of it has to be settling into that person and realizing that there’s no right way to express that because everyone’s gonna do it differently,” Hemmings said. 

However, she also revealed that her least favorite part of her creative process is writing the first draft. 

“I love to rewrite,” Hemmings said. “And so that’s my motivation to write, because, okay, if I get all this done, I get to go back and rewrite … Because, yeah, it’s a chore, but it’s also where you can sort of settle in and mold the things that you have in front of you.”

Two novels that Hemmings loves and said she keeps coming back to are “Crossing to Safety” by Wallace Stegner and “The Secret History” by Donna Tartt. On the topic of writing, her recommendations are “The Elements of Style” by William Strunk Jr and E.B. White, “The Craft of Fiction” by Percy Lubbock and “On Writing” by Stephen King.

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