No place like home


POSTED: Sunday, October 04, 2009

A central theme to anchor author Kaui Hart Hemmings' work eluded her for years. Growing up in Hawaii made her believe that writing about life in the islands would never be interesting or exciting. So she explored other possibilities, only to discover that “;it wasn't my material, in the end.”;

She returned to what she knew best with her first published short story, “;The Minor Wars,”; a title taken from the 10-year-old protagonist's slightly muddled interpretation of Portuguese men o' war. It grew into “;The Descendants,”; her critically acclaimed debut novel, published by Random House in 2007. But she doesn't remember coming up with the idea. “;It just started as a seed,”; she said in the Random House Reader's Circle. “;I cared for it, and then it became something different each day.”;

It's evolving once again now that producer and director Alexander Payne (”;Sideways,”; “;Citizen Ruth,”; HBO's “;Hung”;), who optioned the book for his production company before it was published, decided he will direct the Fox Searchlight picture and recently visited Hawaii to scout locations on Oahu, Kauai and the Big Island. Production is slated to begin later this year or in early 2010.

“;(Payne) making it his next film was huge,”; Hemmings said after closing her laptop computer at a local Starbucks. “;He's so sweet, so nice, so easy to work with.”;

When Payne and other production staff came to Hawaii to meet with Hemmings, her father, legendary surfer and Hawaii state Sen. Fred Hemmings, took them canoe surfing.

“;They're so eager,”; Kaui said of their exploration of Hawaii and its culture. “;They just want to immerse themselves and jump right in.”;

Many authors battle the changes that inevitably take place from book to film. Will Payne preserve the authenticity—especially in terms of portraying Hawaii accurately?

“;I have no worries whatsoever,”; Hemmings said. “;I know he'll get the tone right.”;

IT WILL TAKE someone of Payne's talent to capture the tenor of a story that is complex and unpredictable, acerbic and wildly humorous in places yet deeply tender and evocative in others.

The story follows Matt King, a wealthy Honolulu attorney and landowner struggling with his legacy, his two daughters, ages 10 and 17 (whose interactions with him are usually hilarious), and a beautiful, vibrant wife, Joanie, who is lying in a coma after a boat racing accident. The twist comes when Matt discovers that Joanie had been having an affair with another man before the tragedy.

Kaui also takes comfort in Payne's motivations, which revolve around characters and story rather than box office receipts and mega-celebrities. He's even talked about hosting casting calls for Hawaii residents who might fit into minor roles.

Anyone familiar with Hawaii will recognize more than a few details in the book—notably the Outrigger Canoe Club (referred to as “;The Club”;), Queen's Hospital and several locations on Kauai.

“;While I don't know exactly how Hawaii has shaped me, I know that it has,”; she said in the Random House Reader's Circle. “;It's not so much a character in my novel as it is a silent force—something that stealthily moves the characters from action to action, confining them, manipulating them, inspiring them.”;

Some readers claim to recognize actual people in those characters, but in fiction there's always a mercurial blend of reality and creation—imagination filtered through the author's own experiences, she explained—but none of it is meant to be hurtful to anyone.

“;Once the pen hits the paper, it turns into fiction to me,”; she said. “;In the end I'm just trying to tell a story, to create credible characters who jump off the page.”;

KAUI HART Hemmings, who, at 33, still looks as youthful as a college student, grew up in Maunawili, often paddling and surfing in her spare time. After graduating from Punahou and Colorado College, she earned her M.F.A. in creative writing from Sarah Lawrence College and became a Wallace Stegner fellow at Stanford. Because she went into the extremely competitive fellowship unpublished, she said the experience “;kicked me in the butt a little bit; when you feel a little behind, it forces you to work harder.”; The result was “;House of Thieves,”; a short-story collection.

She and her husband, attorney Andy Lautenbach, then settled in San Francisco, where she worked at the Writer's Grotto, a cooperative workspace for writers and filmmakers.

“;In San Francisco you're surrounded by writers and support for the arts,”; she said. “;It just keeps (the work) present and a little more urgent.”; But she and Lautenbach, now parents of a kindergartner, decided to move back to Oahu a couple of years ago. And she's loved every minute of it.

Currently, Kaui is working on two different novels simultaneously, writing on what she calls the “;coffee shop circuit,”; rotating between venues in search of fresh surroundings.

But when Payne and his crew come back to town to shoot, she'll undoubtedly take a break to visit the set. And who knows? There might even be a cameo.