Author Interview: Mark Panek

Mark Panek


Mark Panek is a Hilo-based scholar and author and a professor of English.  He is the author of two books on sumo: Gaijin Yokozuna: A Biography of Chad Rowan (A Latitude 20 Book) and
Big Happiness: The Life and Death of a Modern Hawaiian Warrior, which won the 2012 Hawai’i Book Publisher’s Association’s award for excellence in nonfiction. Mark was recently honored with the Elliot Cades Award for Literature.


Mark stopped by to discuss his latest novel, the controversial and highly readable Hawai’i.


Q: Your most recent novel, Hawai’i, has been hailed as “our Bonfire of the Vanities” by the Honolulu Weekly. The novel clearly rings true, and it’s obvious that a good deal of research went into it.  What initially gave you the idea for Hawai’i, and what was your process for writing it?


A:  My prior nonfiction book, Big Happiness: The Life and Death of a Modern Hawaiian Warrior, is partly a biography of a friend who was killed as a result of a drug epidemic that is now decades old and showing no signs of getting fixed.  That research taught me much about a real range of issues: how addiction works, post-statehood Hawai’i history, the impacts of development on local communities, who profits and who loses–all these things turned from abstractions into concrete reality thanks to research.  Soon after, I was attending a fundraiser for a local drug treatment center in this Waikiki hotel ballroom, because among what I’d learned was that treatment really works and these places should be supported.  At one point a group of recovering addicts was brought on stage to perform a hula, every one of them clearly Hawaiian, each of them heroic for what they had done to free themselves from meth addiction.  Then I looked out at the ballroom, and all I could see were corporate tables–each had a sign–representing the same interests, I’d learned, that had contributed most to creating a stage full of Hawaiian recovering addicts: tourism, development, finance, and a few show-face legislators who had done little over the decades to effectively address the meth problem or such root causes as public education, the brain drain, absentee land ownership leading to so many multi-generational households, etc.  And all of these people were going to drive home later feeling as though they had really done some charitable good to help the meth problem.  The eighty dollars they’d paid would certainly help the treatment center holding the fundraiser, but that disconnect–it made me feel like something needed to be said.


As far as the process goes–I did what I always do.  I bought a few marble notebooks at Long’s and started writing.  Hawai’i required a lot of additional research, of course, but I had a basic idea that I needed some kind of central conflict, POV characters representing different points of local power, and symbolic settings.  After that, I blasted out a draft of set pieces and met with my writing group–Chris McKinney and Robert Barclay–about once a month for two years–one to draft it and a second to revise it–and then had several other people read and discuss drafts as I trimmed it down.


Q: In the course of doing your research, did you turn up anything that surprised you?


A:  I think what surprised me most in the combined research for both Big Happiness and Hawai’i was what a small town Honolulu is, and how its small-town nature so often contributes to the illusion of corruption.  As a storyteller, you go into these things wanting to uncover the dirt and name names and call out the bad guys, but everyone I interviewed was a really nice person with very good intentions, and not at all “corrupt” in some evil scheming sense of that word.  This complicated things in ways that made for a much more interesting story that tries to get at how all of us justify actions we know have negative consequences for somebody–it could be as simple as failing to choose to buy the more fuel efficient car, but we’re able to justify a choice like that, rationalize it, drive away feeling good about ourselves because maybe (to stick with this example) we’ve just installed solar panels on our roofs to compensate.


Q: There are few heroes in the book. It’s scathing, because it’s so spot-on. Of course all characters are works of fiction and so forth, but: Do people recognize themselves? And of those that have, how many are still speaking to you?


A: Hawai’i is a work of fiction, and because it aims to be completely realistic in depicting a real place and real institutions, I even took steps to further push my first-draft characters away from resembling any real waiter or MMA fighter or legislator, etc., if it was even close.  Having a clearly recognizable character would detract from the book’s value, because it would allow readers to single out a culprit and then assume the problem could be fixed by removing that particular culprit.  If it’s a politician, for instance, I would rather have a character who stands for a type of lazy-lifer politician, because from a social commentary standpoint, it would cast a wider net.


The second half of the “character” concept in fiction is kind of wrapped up in what I said above about “justifying” things.  You want to create characters that are deep enough that readers will recognize themselves in all of them–especially those who work in professions and are in circumstances far different from their own.  When readers tell me these very flawed characters in Hawai’i are somehow likeable, I feel as though I’ve gotten it right.


As far as folks not speaking to me anymore goes…well, while nobody’s said anything to my face yet, I can assume the book has pissed some people off.  I certainly hope it has.  I do know that the editor of Hawaii Business just declined to hire a friend of mine because his story pitches made him sound “just like Mark Panek.”  But if the book has ruffled some feathers, I would hope that the afflicted at least understand how the fiction technique of Point of View works.  I would hope further that such readers examine exactly why the book might have angered them.


Q: While Hawai’i isn’t a sunny book, there’s some sly humor. For example, the restaurant scene and the thing about the octagon near the end were hilarious. Do you think most readers pick up on this? It seems that most people who review the book focus on the serious themes.


A: Hawai’i is funny, and I had a lot of fun writing it, and truly enjoyed listening to the readers of early drafts discuss it and point out all the “LoL” parts.  But yeah, you look at the reviews, and it seems like the humor did the job humor is supposed to do as the ultimate pathos appeal: it seems to have softened readers up for the big blows, the thematic stuff about how this place has surrendered its power to outsiders, and who’s been complicit in it the whole time, which is all of us.  Look at the UH/Cal Tech relationship.  Hawaiian Electric now based in Florida.  The public hospitals are about all we have left, and they’re next on the auction block.  So in a way, I’m glad the reviews focus on the serious thematic issues, but I’m sure more people would pick up the book if they were aware of what a fun read it is at the same time.


Q: Hawai’i opens with football, and football continues to be an important thread throughout. Any comment on the current state of UH football? Do you think Hawaii will follow University of Alabama-Birmingham’s example?


A: Football, as you know, is a tremendous waste of UH resources, time, attention space, media real estate, donation efforts, etc., at a time when the flagship campus is crumbling, faculty lines aren’t being filled, students are being charged more and more, and so on.  An athletic program pitting the ten UH campuses against one another, maybe divide UHM into separate college teams, maybe even invite HPU and BYUH into the league–I’d be all for that kind of replacement.  I just read a great book called Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk that does on a national level (with “America’s Team”) what I try to do with UH football, which is detail how it distracts us all from far more important matters, all at the expense of the athletes themselves.


 Q: What are the advantages and disadvantages of being a Hawai’i-based author?


A: If I have developed any “insider” status after over two decades here, it’s probably helped most in its effect on the dynamic of the many interviews I’ve done for these books, and on my overall grasp of the context of such seemingly simple events as, say, the TMT protests, or the Superferry.  So from a research standpoint, the advantages are many.  We are also blessed here in Hawai’i with a thriving local publishing industry, which means somebody like me can at least count on having my manuscript read by an editor, even if it isn’t published, and if it is published, that it will be reviewed, or I’ll be invited to wonderful events like the Hawai’i Book and Music Festival.  UH Press, Lo’ihi Press, Mutual, Watermark, Bess, Bamboo Ridge, Island Heritage, Bishop–that’s quite a list for such a small town.


The downside to being from here is that a national agent or publisher would rather send a writer way out here like some kind of anthropologist who then returns to “civilization” with the “real story” about Hawai’i–that seems preferable to me or Chris McKinney or Ku’ualoha Ho’omanawanui or Lisa Kanae or any of a number of talented local writers who would know far better about their subject.  Hopefully e-books will catch on and we’ll have less need for national distribution.


Q: What’s next for you?


A: Next up? I’ve got a manuscript on Hawai’i ag I hope to send to UH Press in a couple of weeks.  We’re working on an audio version of Hawai’i.  But there’s always more to say.


Hawai’i is available from Basically Books in downtown Hilo, the UH Hilo campus bookstore, Amazon, and Barnes & Noble.


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