Nov 14, 2011

Interview with Kirby Wright

Kirby Wright's creative non-fiction story, "The Ethel Merman Show" appears in issue 11.1. Wright was born in Hawaii, and is best known for his two novels, Punahou Blues and Moloka'i Nui Ahina. Harpur Palate intern, Claire, interviewed Mr. Wright in conjunction with the release of our latest issue.

When and how did you get started as a writer? What is your writing
process typically like?

KW: This may sound weird, but I wrote my first creative nonfiction piece at age 9 on the island of Molokai. In that story, I am picking purple and red beetles out of horse manure and feeding them to my big brother, pretending they are M&Ms. Needless to say, there was sibling rivalry there. (What I actually fed my brother was onion gum, but that's another story). Anyhow, I sent the Beetle story to my mother in Boston and she got such a big charge out of it that I realized writing was a powerful thing. She shared it with all her Boston relatives and they liked it too.

My process is erratic. Sometimes I'll jam on something 12 hours straight, other times I won't lift a pen. I'm also a terrible reader. I know teachers say to read everything, but I think the voices of certain writers are boring. The poet in me demands fresh observation and travel, so that's why I went to the Czech Republic and Vienna. I don't necessarily write everything down immediately--I capture poetic images the way a man throws a net to catch fish. And I try to link those images later.

Hawaii features prominently in many of your works, including “The
Ethel Merman Show” and your novels, Punahou Blues and Moloka’I
Nui Ahina. How has the cultural experience of growing up in Hawaii
influenced you as a writer?

KW: I think my biggest influence was my part-Hawaiian grandmother. She had such incredible stories about the Roarin' Twenties in Waikiki and her cowgirl life on the rural island of Molokai that I probably spent more time listening to her than riding horses or fishing. She also told great ghost stories. Once I caught her talking to her dead mother. I did devise a way to fish and listen to her stories by finding a 100-pound cord line in the Wash Room with a giant hook. I strung an octopus leg through that hook and dropped it 100 yards out near our barrier reef, tethering the end to my bed post on the lanai. I would wait for the bed to jump from a strike while listening to my grandmother ramble on. I think it was important for me to have the experience of both a suburban lifestyle in Honolulu and a rural one on Molokai, and in a way I had 2 mothers since my grandmother watched over me for 14 straight summers. I carried rural and suburban/city stories between these 2 mothers, and naturally I exaggerated a few things to get their fur up.

In your experience, is it more challenging to write creative
non-fiction or fiction? Which genre do you prefer to write, and why?

KW: Both genres are challenging. Sometimes a small canvas fiction piece comes fast, and I just write it down like a court reporter. Often that piece comes in a dream. I'm really enjoying flash fiction right now. I'm actually using this form of fiction to procrastinate on my futuristic novel, telling myself, "Oh, maybe you can use these flashes in the novel." Sure. So, it depends what kind of fiction we're talking about.

I prefer to write non-fiction. I get such a charge out of going back in time and resurrecting those moments that shape a child's existence, such as my kid sister's struggle to make my father less of a tyrant. There's a tremendous sadness in her today, and I want to go back and figure a few things out for her and for me too. Writing it down is the best way for me to do that. I often use humor to help balance the sadness.

What advice do you have for young writers?

KW: Get away from the computer and go out and experience life. Don't let television and movies shape your creative self. Hear that bird chirping? Check out the shapes of clouds. The lean of a tree. Your singular voice is what's powerful, and you need to connect to your inner world by doing simple things, such as writing in a journal or drawing, or doing anything that only you could do. I would say that making short movies would be creative also because you'll learn how to direct and place characters, even if those characters are only dolls or household pets. Also, don't be afraid to lie. I'm not kidding. Lying is a good thing because, if you're challenged, you'll be required to continue lying to support that initial premise. That continuation process both stimulates the creative side of our minds and allows us to think on our feet. Now go out and tell a few fibs.

What are you currently reading?

KW: Kafka's prose poems/short shorts. I'm also reading Plath, Eliot, and a little Truman Capote.

What writing project are you working on now?

KW: A futuristic novel, due out in late April 2012. Want to come to my book party? I've got 2 former American Idols who'll be singing a duet.

Here at Harpur Palate, we look forward to reading Wright's latest novel, and are left wondering which American idols will be performing at the party...