A fiction steeped in facts
Mark Twain's isle visit inspires an isle writer
It's one of the saddest pieces of absolutely true literary irony in existence. Samuel Clemens, a k a Mark Twain, fell in love with Hawaii during a four-month sojourn in the islands as a travel correspondent, wrote glowingly of the place for the rest of his life and yet, during his one chance to return, a cholera epidemic quarantined the islands. Clemens was forced to stay aboard ship, staring longingly toward shore, never to return.
Mark These Words
Books that will help you follow in Mark Twain's footsteps:
» "Mark Twain's Letters from Hawaii" (University of Hawaii Press): The complete collection of Twain's dispatches to the Sacramento Union.
» "Mark Twain in Hawaii: Roughing It in the Sandwich Islands" (Mutual Publishing): Taken from "Roughing It," Twain's book of Western travels, these are basically the Hawaii letters in polished form; Twain added some material and left out the cruder parts.
"He came tantalizingly close," notes Hawaii writer Mark Hazard Osmun. "I thought that was heartbreaking and feared something like that -- what if I could never return? -- for myself."
At the time, Osmun was living on the mainland and writing a well-received first novel, "Marley's Ghost," which followed a nonfiction account of the Honolulu Marathon. To "feel a connection with home," he reread Twain's "Letters From Hawaii," and then "Roughing It" and then his "Following the Equator."
"Each book referenced his love for Hawaii and the time he spent here. I started daydreaming about Twain's visit and noted a great many inconsistencies in his letters and many overly spiteful comments about some of the people he encountered -- it suggested room enough to invent a story between the lines. So, I started to consider the possibilities."
The result is "After the Bones," a rollicking adventure set largely in 1866 Honolulu, a "Casablanca"-like den of foreign agents and provocateurs seeking to undermine the Hawaiian kingdom when not double-crossing each other. We're talking actors on the lam from the Lincoln assassination, a federal agent with a Zen fixation, Confederate pirate ships, ancient Hawaiian curses, the bones of Kamehameha, a crustily shady, hard-to-pin character with a Doc Holliday cough, a beautiful Hawaiian-American translator who's hit the glass ceiling at her consulate, an unstable volcano -- the usual stuff.
It's a brisk, entertaining read, and it's no wonder that Osmun says there's film interest.
He also went the print-on-demand route after unsatisfactory experiences with larger publishers.
Question: Mark Twain started the ball rolling?
Answer: On trips home I would visit the Bishop Museum or the UH and pick up a few hints from the times, and gradually the story began to form. ... Originally, the story was to have been a buddy adventure between Twain and a quite different "Mr. Brown." But as the writing progressed, the Brown, Ducain and Flinn characters became much more important and took over the novel. Nonetheless, the entire time line in "After the Bones" was based on Twain's actual 1866 itinerary. Twain's voyage on the Ajax, his arrival in Honolulu, the ride through the Diamond Head boneyard and his Kilauea journey were springboards I used to help me imagine the full novel. I kept asking myself, What else might have been going on between the lines?
From what I've studied about Honolulu in 1866, one could certainly liken it to Bogart's early-WWII Casablanca -- many nations, individuals, companies and kings, vying for power, maneuvering each other, often clandestinely to advance their own agendas. One of the most notable accomplishments of the Hawaiian monarchy throughout the 19th century was its ability to play one major power off against another and prolong its fragile hold on power. ...
In his news dispatches, Twain made up a person named "Brown," a supposedly crude, good-natured friend who said things Twain himself may have wished to say but didn't dare. As things turned out, "After the Bones" became Brown's story as much as anyone's.
Q: How much research did you do, or did you keep it mostly out of your imagination? Were you trying to stay true to the public characters of the real people?
A: I like to research a work of fiction as though I were writing nonfiction. I want to believe that what's happening on the page is real. Research is my crutch. The more I do -- whether that entails going to a place and writing notes about what the trees look like, or reading volumes of history or biographies -- the less burden is placed on my imagination!
An example: When creating a back-story for the British agents, I studied British military history. That led to the Crimean War. Reading about that, I learned that British troops had been poorly supplied and poorly commanded. That suggested to me that those men -- the soldiers who survived -- might feel angry and betrayed, leading to twisted interpretations of patriotism. ...
The same rationale applies when it comes to the actual, historical people in the novel. What I wanted to do was not contradict accepted historical facts, just add to them. Twain is another example. Though he is a relatively minor character in the book, I tried to portray him pretty much the way his biographers suggest. During that period, Twain was searching for himself; he was given to depression as well as frivolity and recklessness. He was not above bending the facts in his reporting if that would make a better story.
Do the characters and action take on a life of their own?
A: It ended up being nothing like what I had imagined. I think that once you set these things in motion, it's best to let them run, stay out of the way and let the characters live through the strange situations you've dropped upon them and hope they'll forgive you in the end. I was very surprised to discover that in the end ... Never mind -- that's a spoiler!
Q: Do you find that writing fiction is an immersive process? Does it come easily or is it work?
A: I've heard of writers who can hold a normal job, get on the bus, take out a pad of paper or a laptop and write best-sellers as they commute or as they have lunch. I envy them. I cannot compartmentalize that way. I have to think about my "grand lie" every waking moment and even in my sleep.
The process is both difficult and exhilarating, not unlike preparing to run a marathon. Since it doesn't come easily for me, I rely on discipline: Get up, make coffee, write. Stay at it until exhaustion. Spend the afternoon recovering, doing errands or playing, then resume at around 7 p.m. to about 10.
Even while running errands, thoughts about the writing intrude, and you stop and click on the voice recorder and leave yourself messages. What's really exciting is when you wake up and a voice in your head tells you exactly what the solution is to whatever puzzled you the day before. It's as if elves had been cobbling something together for you in the night.
Q: Has print-on-demand been successful for you?
A: I experienced publishing in three different forms: a big New York publishing house, a publishing company of my own and now print-on-demand. A traditional publisher puts up the money to get the book into stores. After that you are on your own. You must create the buzz.
The same is true if you start your own publishing company; the only difference is you are using your own money and going through a much more tedious process of arranging distribution. Enter Amazon.com. At first Amazon seemed like a godsend to writers: an easy way for the public to buy one's book (assuming anyone has heard of it).
Unfortunately, Amazon and Barnes & Noble soon began selling used copies of books for as little as a dollar a copy, on the same Web page as the new copies, effectively killing sales. My first novel, "Marley's Ghost," reached No. 126 on Amazon before the used copies appeared. I did not want to do that again, but did not have an alternative until I read about print-on-demand.
For no upfront fee, I can print and deliver "After the Bones," one copy at a time to whomever ordered one. ... The amount to the writer is at least double what an institutional publisher pays. The more I thought about it, the better it sounded. Since the writer has to create awareness of his book anyway and drive consumers to the marketplace, he can just as easily drive them to a Web site. ...
"What is also attractive is the control. If I find a typo after publication, no problem, I can make the correction in minutes. ... It's too early to say whether "After the Bones" will be any more financially successful than the other two books, but since my financial investment is so small, it won't be hard to break even.
A: I don't have any plans to offer "After the Bones" to a traditional publisher. It is, however, already being considered for a feature film.
What's next for me will be to reintroduce the running community here to the print-on-demand version of "The Honolulu Marathon," the story of the beginnings of that race. Then I might start work on a story I've been slowly hatching that would be based on Robert Earl Keen's song "Feeling Good Again."
Q: Hmmm ... Dan and Margarita were swayin' side by side / I heard they were divorcin' / But I guess they let it slide / And I wished I had some money / with which to buy a round ... Yep, there's a story in there somewhere.
"After the Bones"
is available through the self-publisher Lulu. Visit www.lulu.com/content/271964
. Cost is $16.95, or $5.15 to download. Osmun's other two books, "Marley's Ghost" and "The Honolulu Marathon," are also available at www.lulu.com