Kaui Hart Hemmings
Literary ‘It Girl’
What happens when an aspiring writer moves to the big city and pens her first novel? More than she ever dreamed. Especially when one of the most respected film directors in America stumbles upon the story and decides to turn ‘The Descendants’ into a major motion picture – Hollywood style, starring none other than George Clooney.
Asia Dreams: The backdrop for your novel, ‘The Descendants’ is set in your childhood home of Hawaii which is a multi-cultural mix of Polynesian, European and Asian influences. What have the people of Hawaii adopted from Asian culture that is prevalent in everyday island life?
Kaui: I feel we have adopted so many aspects of Asian culture that the elements are almost difficult to identify because they have become part of the fabric of what I see as Hawaii’s culture. From food to art, mannerisms and celebrations: we go to bon dances, celebrate ‘Boys and Girl’s Day’, and pound mochi. At my daughter’s school they participated in a Burmese water festival. We don’t think of it so much as adopting culture, but of embracing the culture of our friends and neighbors.
Asia Dreams: Hawaii is experiencing record tourism numbers this year and there’s a rumor going around that the success of ‘The Descendants’ has contributed significantly to reviving Hawaii’s visitor industry.
Kaui: It’s great – and not a rumor, either, but something the industry has acknowledged. There are tours on Kauai to show the spots in the movie. The St. Regis has a package I think for around fourteen thousand dollars that showcases sights from the book and film. I like how the book and film showcase not only Hawaii’s beauty, but true life, which is complicated. This is what has appealed to visitors – finding something true, which is always a goal when you travel.
Asia Dreams: When you were writing the novel, did you ever imagine your story and the characters involved would make such a perfect fit on screen as well?
Kaui: I had a lot of dialogue in the book, a plot that was pretty cinematic, that characters and actors could really have fun with so yes, I thought it would work on screen. I thought it could be really awful on screen, too, because of the plot and snappy dialogue, but once Alexander Payne got a hold of the book I had nothing to worry about.
Asia Dreams: Most authors don’t experience the hands-on involvement you did while filming ‘The Descendants’. You helped with everything from set design to wardrobe to ensure the movie felt and looked authentic. Would it have been a different film without your influence?
Kaui: I think Alexander would have been just fine without me, but I’m glad he asked because we had fun. I enjoyed it. I enjoyed seeing my suggestions in the script and film, as well as his changes and interpretations.
Asia Dreams: You experienced many exciting moments during your journey from writing the book to actually appearing in the film. Was it working closely with George Clooney on the set or being thanked by Alexander Payne in front of millions of viewers at the Academy Awards that you realized the extent of this new found success?
Kaui: I don’t think I’ve had the feeling of new found success yet. I separate my small writing career from the success of Alexander Payne and George Clooney’s movie. I do, however, realize how unique this experience has been, how wonderful. My daughter was watching the DVD and almost every scene had a person in it whom she knew or took place in a familiar setting, and I thought, ‘What a gift this is – to sit back and have someone make this kind of keepsake out of your words’. I am also pleased by the foreign editions in Japan, China, Taiwan, etcetera.
Asia Dreams: ‘The Descendants’ is originally inspired by a short story in your first published collection of short stories, ‘House of Thieves’. Do you see any other intriguing subjects or characters lurking around in there?
Kaui: I do see them lurking – I’ve been going back to the story ‘Island Cowboys’, seeing its possibilities.
Asia Dreams: What happens to an author after her book becomes an international film success? Are you busy with public speaking engagements or have things settled down enough to enjoy some beach time with your family?
Kaui: Again, my success is entirely different from the film’s. So besides a few speaking engagements my life is pretty much the same as ever.
Asia Dreams: What has been the most positive gain from this experience and if there are any, have you experienced any drawbacks?
Kaui: Most positive aspects: meeting the people who worked on the film, getting to see a film being made by a superb individual. Drawbacks? The high expectations.