Mcmahon Family Interview Essay
In 1954 the French philosopher Roland Barthes produced a learned essay about the "mythology" of professional wrestling. Among other things, he wrote, "The virtue of wrestling is that it is the spectacle of excess. Here we find a grandiloquence which must have been that of ancient theaters.... Even hidden in the most squalid Parisian halls, wrestling partakes of the nature of the great solar spectacles, Greek drama and bullfights: In both, a light without shadow generates an emotion without reserve."
Which brings us directly to WrestleMania VII. For in the latest of the World Wrestling Federation's annual editions of mad, mad, mad myths-on-a-mat, we will indeed experience another spectacle of excess—unfortunately, however, minus the prescribed "light without shadow." The event will take place indoors in the Los Angeles Sports Arena this Sunday before a sellout crowd of 16,000. Originally, Spectacle of Excess VII was scheduled to unroll in all its absurd glory on the sun-drenched floor of the Los Angeles Coliseum before some 100,000 spectators. Due to the gulf war, the attendant fear of terrorism and the necessity of a complex (and expensive) security system to guarantee everyone's safety outdoors, a decision was made late in January to move the show into the Arena, and everything has been reduced in scale from gargantuan to pretty big.
It is a shame, for revenue expectations at the Coliseum had been marvelously gross: a live gate of $3 million, novelty purchases of $1 million, food and beverage purchases of $750,000. These are totals that have been exceeded by no other Coliseum attractions save the 1984 Summer Olympics and the Super Bowl, which also happen to be the only other major sports spectacles pretentious enough to use Roman numerals to keep track of which is which. In the Arena, the gate for Wrestlemania VII will be about $750,000, novelties about $150,000 and edibles $100,000. However, audiences tuned in elsewhere are expected to produce $25 million in pay-per-view TV (at $29.95 per set), $500,000 from closed-circuit theater locations and $3 million from videocassettes.
Be it myth, sport, spectacle or simply wretched excess, pro wrestling has in recent years emerged from squalid halls and remodeled itself—up to a point. The current WWF version retains the classic mythical images of wrestling—what Barthes called "the great spectacle of Suffering, Defeat, and Justice." But there is another kind of myth on display, an American business myth that has sprung from the brow of a huckster/genius who excels at the non-Greek arts of marketing, television production, merchandising and a unique type of cross-media promotion that combines comic-book hype with hard-core hokum to produce a showbiz package so flamboyant that it makes the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade look like a Russian funeral procession.
The man who has given birth to this garish package is a tall, bulging bodybuilder named Vincent K. McMahon, 44. To fans of the WWF, he is well known as one of the often clownish TV announcers who—in their hoarse efforts to describe what is going on in the ring—seem to sweat, bellow and suffer even more than the wrestlers themselves. But there is nothing clownish about Vince McMahon the businessman.
In 1988, Forbes estimated that McMahon was "easily a centimillionaire," and he has gotten even richer since then. The umbrella corporation that McMahon formed over WWF and its subsidiaries is called TitanSports, Inc. WrestleMania VII is only the iceberg tip of this unique $500 million corporate empire. Titan-Sports competes successfully in a wide variety of industries—including live entertainment, syndicated TV, pay-per-view TV, video-cassettes, magazine publishing, catalog merchandise and children's toys. The corporation employs more than 300 people scattered throughout three different buildings in downtown Stamford, Conn. Next month, TitanSports will move into its brand new $10 million, four-story corporate headquarters, with the Stamford address of 1 Titan Tower: The facilities include a daycare center and a company restaurant.
The single most essential, and most amazing, reason for McMahon's success is that he not only has moved wrestling out of the grim, smoke-choked environments of its past but he also has turned it into high-gloss family entertainment. These days, WWF wrestling shows compete for audiences with the Ice Capades, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, the Harlem Globetrotters and Walt Disney Productions.
Steve Allen once joked while broadcasting a wrestling match in the late 1940s, "Leone gives Smith a full nelson, slipping it up from either a half nelson or an Ozzie Nelson." And this is exactly what Vince McMahon has done: He has lifted this ugly old game to the top shelf of American niceness and launched it into its Ozzie Nelson Age.
If anyone was born to be a wrestling promoter, it was McMahon. His grandfather Jess was the boxing matchmaker at Madison Square Garden during the era of Tex Rickard and later worked as a wrestling promoter in New York and Philadelphia. His father, Vincent J., controlled wrestling over much of the northeastern U.S., from the 1950s until young Vince bought him out nine years ago.
Nat Frank, a language-busting old-style sports columnist for the Philadelphia Observer, wrote this paean to the elder McMahons in 1964: "It was Jess McMahon who held the unique distinction of having put together the initial series of punchfests marking the opening of the then new New York City's Madison Square Garden, the mecca of pugilism. After several seasons in Philadelphia, the powerful and idolized Jess McMahon returned to the Great Fight Way to continue his interest in staging the clouting cards. However, he added the sport of wrestling to his promotions. His chief aide was a son, Vince, who handled all of the details, made the rounds with his father. There was noticed the willingness of the McMahon offspring to learn more and more about the bone-bending art. He made mental notes, thought some of the ideas didn't quite jell with his opinions; but then and there he vowed he would go places in the grip-and-get-gripped field. To make a long story short (because of space limitations) this very same Vince McMahon is the recognized top man in all grappledom."
The young Vince admired the elder McMahons, too. Says Vincent K.: "In a game full of misinformation, my grandfather always told the truth. He was college educated and he kept office hours like a banker. He did business with some pretty tough customers, such as Frankie Carbo, but kept his integrity. My father did some boxing, too, and was more or less New York-based, then opened up in Washington and did wrestling and some rock 'n' roll back when that was first starting. He founded the WWF in 1963. My dad was a fabulous human being, fair and warm."
But times have changed and so have the McMahons. Vince went to East Carolina University, then worked for his father as a wrestling commentator on cable TV. In 1979 he bought the Cape Cod Coliseum in Yarmouth, Mass., which included a 5,000-seat hockey rink, where Atlantic Hockey League teams played in winter and rock bands played in summer. Ambitious and smitten with a then radical vision of marrying rock 'n' roll to rasslin', Vince bought out his father's stock in the WWF in 1982. Vincent J. died in 1984, but by that point his only son had declared war on the entire structure of American professional wrestling as it had been nurtured and loved by promoters since the turn of the century. "Had my father known what I was going to do, he never would have sold his stock to me," says Vincent K. "In the old days, there were wrestling fiefdoms all over the country, each with its own little lord in charge. Each little lord respected the rights of his neighboring little lord. No takeovers or raids were allowed. There were maybe 30 of these tiny kingdoms in the U.S. and if I hadn't bought out my dad, there would still be 30 of them, fragmented and struggling. I, of course, had no allegiance to those little lords."
In 1982, McMahon launched his first massive attack—not with a slogging ground war to capture live audiences from enemy arenas but with the cold, airborne eye of television. "My major step was television on a local basis," he says. "We already had our network in the Northeast and we started selling these shows to stations in other fiefdoms. In Chicago, in Los Angeles, the WWF brand of wrestling was something new. We had better athletes—more upscale and more charisma. The local guys were lazy. They weren't listening to the marketplace. We were so consumer-oriented. We never lifted our ears from the ground. We gave the public what it wanted. We broke the mold."
McMahon's brilliant application of TV in all its forms—broadcast, cable, pay-per-view—was exemplary and ruthless. To place his shows regularly on important local stations in enemy territory, he used wads of money for ammunition, paying stations to carry WWF events, sometimes as much as $100,000 a year. It was expensive and risky, but once McMahon bought his way onto the local tube, the public began to respond to the WWF's jazzy shows. Today, TitanSports has 300 television affiliates across North America, which amounts to the largest syndicated TV network in the world. Some 20 million viewers watch regularly. WWF's weekly syndicated shows—WWF Superstars of Wrestling, WWF Wrestling Challenge, and WWF Wrestling Spotlight—rank third in audience draw behind Jeopardy! and Wheel of Fortune. TitanSports does 185 localized versions of each of those syndicated shows, which are dubbed in seven languages and sent to 40 countries. An NBC late-night show, Saturday Night's Main Event, is broadcast six times per season and is favored by fraternity men and yuppies.
WWF's use over recent years of pay-per-view television for its quarterly extravaganzas—the WrestleManias, Royal Rumbles, SummerSlams and Survivor Series—is the envy of the TV sports world. Those four shows have consistently succeeded better than all other pay-per-view programs, with the rare exception of superstar boxing matches with Sugar Ray Leonard or Mike Tyson. In 1989, four of the top eight pay-per-view shows in the U.S. were Titan productions, and last year Titan had four of the top five. In the decade or so that U.S. pay-per-view programming has been available, no single program has ever been sold to a million homes. But Wrestle-Mania IV (at $19.95 per view) drew 909,000 homes and WM V (at $24.95) drew 915,000, while WM VI (at $29.95) drew 825,000. Lesser WWF extravaganzas for the past three years have averaged over 500,000 (at $19) per show. Recently, however, there have been signs that the frenetic fascination with pro wrestling is fading. Still, with prices per home at an average of $23, the payoff on even the lowest-priced, least-popular WWF event has been well over $8 million. The take from each WWF pay-per-view program is split among the local cable outlets and the WWF, which ends up with 50% of the pot.
Pay-per-view is potentially the richest TV treasure chest ever. Television people see it as the great money machine that might be able to finance big-time American sports in the coming years, after the networks' sports divisions have gone broke paying billion-dollar rights fees. Sports columnists have predicted for years that each of the 40 million houses tuned in to the Super Bowl will have to pay $50, and the NFL will reap $2 billion in one afternoon. The arithmetic is there, all right, but so far, the politics are not. Nor is all the technology. Nor is there a public willingness to pay big bucks for what has so long been free.
Even as his TV empire was growing fatter with every match, McMahon was also running a complex national network of nightly live events. With a peripatetic troupe of some 60 wrestlers, eight referees and 10 publicists, the WWF put on in 1990 alone a total of 663 separate live events, spread over 191 different cities ranging from Yuma, Ariz., to Lake Charles, La., to Duluth, Minn.
To add another dimension to this logistical labyrinth, the WWF also uses its syndicated national TV shows to promote its local live events by inserting individualized promos into the tapes of the syndicated shows. This means that whenever a syndicated WWF Superstars of Wrestling show appears on Utica's Channel 33, it contains promos touting whatever WWF live card is coming to Utica next. Some 1,000 such tapes are sent out each month from the WWF's state-of-the-art TV production facility in Stamford.
Basil DeVito Jr., senior vice-president of marketing for Titan, says, "We are a hybrid—national in scope, but local in impact. The same TV stars you see on the tube come right to your hometown. Vanna White doesn't come to Peoria. The NFL doesn't come to Peoria. But Hulk Hogan comes to Peoria, in person! And unlike big league stars, WWF wrestlers are never in an off-season. Those guys are performing 350 nights a year."
The WWF's relentless warfare has all but destroyed its serious competition. Ted Turner has continued to operate the National Wrestling Alliance in Atlanta, to help fill time on his superstation WTBS. McMahon speaks of Turner's operation with undisguised condescension: "Ted has trouble with the wrestling genre. This is a highly specialized product—unique—requiring skills not available in normal marketing situations. Our competition is not from Ted, it is from the National Basketball Association, from big rock concerts, from Disney."
So we acknowledge McMahon as a master strategist who has conquered just about every bit of territory in grappledom. But in the course of obtaining this near monopoly, he has made radical changes in the esthetics, the ethics and, in effect, the very essence of pro wrestling as the world had previously understood it.
"The difference between Dad's and Granddad's day and my day is pure presentation," McMahon says. "There was too much emphasis on the sports element and not enough on entertainment in the old days. Now we call it sports entertainment. We don't want to de-emphasize the athleticism of wrestling; these are great athletes with great charisma. But in the WWF, entertainment is the key."
As everyone knows, the WWF's idea of entertainment is an often tasteless explosion of high-camp fun starring costumed buffoons the size of zeppelins who ride into an arena on waves of hilarious hype and deafening rock music. It is a unique mix of entertainment, ranging from Saturday morning cartoons to MTV and from Greek drama to bullfights.
Wildly popular as this form of wrestling has come to be, old-timers do not see WWF-style presentations as examples of the bone-bending art at its best. Lou Thesz, 74, who retired from active wrestling in December, after a 55-year career during which he held championship belts in many different fiefdoms, is critical of the WWF. "McMahon's wrestlers aren't wrestling, they're putting on tumbling acts," he says. "On a scale of one to 10, McMahon gets a 9.5 for hype, music, presentation before the match. But after the bell rings, his shows don't rate above zero. He has raped wrestling."
Even more troubling to many old loyalists and purists is the fact that the WWF declared publicly in February 1989 that pro wrestling is not a true sport. In a statement delivered by the WWF to the New Jersey Senate as it was about to vote on a bill that would remove wrestling from the jurisdiction of the state athletic commission (which levies a 10% surtax on profits from sports TV revenues), the WWF said that, henceforth, professional wrestling should be defined this way: "An activity in which participants struggle hand-in-hand primarily for the purpose of providing entertainment to spectators rather than conducting a bona fide athletic contest."
This admission was not big news to most people. As Roland Barthes put it so lucidly some 35 years ago: "The public is completely uninterested in knowing whether the contest is rigged or not, and rightly so; it abandons itself to the primary virtue of the spectacle.... This public knows very well the distinction between wrestling and boxing; it knows that boxing is a Jansenist sport, based on a demonstration of excellence. One can bet on the outcome of a boxing-match: with wrestling it would make no sense."
True enough. Yet, predictably, the WWF's stance—pragmatic as it was—was very disturbing to old-fashioned wrestlers and wrestling aficionados. Art Abrams, 68, a longtime wrestling photographer and currently the treasurer of the Cauliflower Alley Club, a Los Angeles-based organization that has 1,400 wrestling-oriented members, says: "A lot of our people don't like what Vince McMahon has done. They think he went against the code. They think he destroyed the mystique. Sure, these guys all admit in private that it's show business, but they have remained loyal to the credo that you never admit that openly. They all feel you lose the gladiator glamour when you call it entertainment only." Maria Bernardi, 65, a former women's champion who wrestled competitively for 26 years, says, sadly: "I never considered it anything but a sport. To call it entertainment alone is to take away the pride we once had in being wrestlers."
Lots of people rushed to tell McMahon after the New Jersey confession that he had effectively bankrupted the WWF because the world would now reject his shows and return to promoters who continued the fiction that it was all real mayhem. "The doomsayers were everywhere," recalls Steve Planamenta, WWF's media director, "but we did better business for the rest of that year than we ever did before."
In fact, McMahon's most sensitive critics, the men and women who book WWF events into America's stadiums and arenas, have only praise for his decision. John Urban, director of the Family Entertainment Division of Madison Square Garden, which puts on eight or 10 WWF cards every year, says: "Once Vince moved past the big question—Is it real or not real?—they shook off the last vestiges of the old pro wrestling image. It became more respectable than ever. It used to be a cult—you either loved it or you despised it. People used to think, pro wrestling, ugh, Ice Capades, great. No more."
Peter Luukko, 31, until recently general manager of both the Los Angeles Coliseum and the Los Angeles Sports Arena (the Arena also puts on eight or nine WWF cards a year), says: "Wrestling always produced strong crowds, but it was often a very rough night—mostly males who were beer-drinkers and had a tendency to get into a lot of fights. That was as recently as seven or eight years ago. Vince not only called it entertainment, he made it over into real entertainment—rock music, hype, stars, lights—and that brought fans out of the closet from every age and economic group—teens, children under 10, film stars, attorneys, bankers and the blue-collar people who came before."
So attractive is the WWF approach that last year Luukko whipped up a formal—and very flattering—bid to convince McMahon that WrestleMania VII should come to the Coliseum. "We told him that we considered WrestleMania, the Olympics and the Super Bowl as equally great events," says Luukko. "And it wasn't just a sales pitch, we meant it."
Moving the big show from the Coliseum into the L.A. Sports Arena was a great disappointment. Luukko says that 16,000 tickets had been sold two months before the event: "That was an outstanding sale at that point. Now we are really in a bind, because the whole world wants tickets and we were just able to squeeze in the ones we had already sold for the Coliseum." At the time McMahon made the decision to move into the bunkerlike Arena, the gulf war was scarcely two weeks old and fears of terrorism were much sharper then than they are now. Also, the press was heavily critical of the WWF's current villain-champion, Sergeant Slaughter, who used to wave an Iraqi flag in the ring and employed an ostensible Iraqi loyalist, one General Adnan, as his manager. Some writers thought that Sergeant Slaughter's flagrantly unpatriotic behavior might create a dangerous atmosphere at WrestleMania VII, where he was slated to meet Hulk Hogan, the consummate American flag-waver.
Well, no one knows. But, as we have said, what goes on in Los Angeles this Sunday will be actually but a small portion. of McMahon's vast enterprise. WWF realizes $200 million in annual sales of its own merchandise plus licenses. It has over 80 videocassettes on the market, and they have produced more than two million sales over the last five years; six cassettes have gone platinum (meaning 120,000 sales). Nonvideo items include WWF lunch boxes (licensed to Thermos); ice cream bars (Gold Bond); children's vitamins (Solaris Marketing Group, Inc.); and a great variety of video and board games and toys, including Wrestling Buddies (Tonka), which was the third-best-selling toy of the 1990 Christmas season. The WWF Magazine, a slick monthly publication given over entirely to hype, has a paid circulation of 350,000.
And there is more to come. McMahon is moving into bodybuilding. He has formed the World Bodybuilding Federation, the newest subsidiary to TitanSports, and he is prepared to move in with typical flair and grandeur. "We are defining bodybuilding in a much broader way," he says. "If you run or exercise or if you simply take a vitamin every day, that is bodybuilding. This is the market we are focusing on, and it is a big one. Also, the formal competitions are quite dull, and we intend to do them on a much grander, much more glamorous scale. TV and marketing are the keys."
Nevertheless, whatever flamboyant upheaval McMahon may visit on the hitherto arcane sport of bodybuilding, it is wrestling that he knows best. Having conquered the U.S. on almost every front, he is now eyeing the rest of the globe. The WWF has sent its various hulks, warriors and earthquakes on a number of successful foreign tours, and the time could be right for a major international expansion. "Anyone in any country can understand wrestling," says McMahon. "There is no rule book to master. It's not like hockey or soccer. It is as comprehensible in China as it is in Canada. Children love it. Our guys are role models for kids everywhere. These are guys you can take home to mom, even mama-san in Japan or mumsie in England."
Barthes concluded in his famous essay that there was a quasidivine quality to the grip-and-get-gripped set. "In the ring," he wrote, "wrestlers remain gods because they are, for a few moments, the key which opens Nature, the pure gesture which separates Good from Evil, and unveils the form of a Justice which is at last intelligible."
Vince McMahon would certainly agree that wrestlers are universal symbols. Indeed, his vision of the future does not even stop at the boundaries of the planet. "Who knows?" he says. "Someday we may hold WrestleMania on the moon. Full moon, full house. I can see it now."
The six stories that make up This is Paradise, the debut collection by Kristiana Kahakauwila, published this week by HOGARTH, a Random House imprint, all take place in the Hawaiian Islands. Though contemporary in setting, they feature characters consumed and confronted by ancestry, history, and family. The title story shows the friction between locals and tourists in Waikiki Beach. “Wanle” follows a conflicted cockfighter’s daughter in the Maui highlands, as she struggles with her father’s doubled-edged legend. “The Road to Hana” complicates the very definitions of local and transplant—in Hawai`i and beyond. Stories like “The Old Paniolo Way” don’t shy away from a warts-and-all take on tradition.
All of these short stories are, in fact, long and immersive, ambitious in their scope and lush in their atmosphere, relevant, big-hearted, and intensely readable. Kahakauwila’s greatest talent is her ability to move heavy thematic freight at high velocity. Even her most poignant cultural statements crackle with wry humor, sexual tension, and snappy dialogue.
While united by setting, these stories display a wide array of stylistic approaches. It is one of those rare collections that function even better as a whole than any of the stories could in isolation; it uses the prismatic nature of the form to bring a layered and diverse place to life. With this ensemble cast of tourists, hotel maids, cockfighters, and aging cowboys, Kahakauwila manages to show contemporary Hawai`i in all of its breadth and complexity.
Kristiana Kahakauwila is a graduate of Long Beach Polytechnic High School and Princeton University, where she earned a B.A. in Comparative Literature and Creative Writing. She received an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and is currently an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Western Washington University.
Tyler McMahon: You’ve studied fiction at both the undergraduate and graduate level. Do you feel you learned a lot about the craft in academia? Did your education help prepare you to write this collection?
Kristiana Kahakauwila: I blossomed in the academic setting, and I was fortunate to learn about craft from some of the best living writers. Chase Twitchell and David Trinidad, whose poetry workshops were my first formal courses in creative writing, taught me about the importance of the line and literal meaning. Chase had no patience for overly wrought abstraction. Thank goodness! I was firmly rooted in the adolescent poetry that I had been writing in my journals for years, which was all ideas and no images. She jolted me out of that, and David pushed me to take a fiction class to refine my narrative poetry. I think he thought I’d come back to poetry the next semester, but I quickly realized fiction was where I wanted to be.
Without these early workshops, I wouldn’t have been pushed beyond my comfort zone. I would have continued to write in the same vein, with the same faults.
I’ve always been an avid reader, but I learned how to read as a writer while I was in my M.F.A. Obviously, reading can happen outside of academia, but learning to break down a story and see how it functions, how the parts fit together, was a learned skill for me. Peter Ho Davies’ course on the history of the short story did this for me, and it gave me a great base for understanding where my work fit into a larger arc.
Working with Joyce Carol Oates was also wonderful, as she has very specific exercises to help her students focus on individual craft points: dialogue, conflict, character. I could see, within the course of a single exercise, my writing improve. Now, when I teach creative writing, I use many of those exercises that I first learned in her class.
You mention that you started your formal writing education in poetry. Has that colored how you write, or how you teach?
Absolutely. I am focused on the line both in my own writing and when I teach. Yes, I care deeply about creating complex, real characters. Yes, I want a plot that feels taut and suspenseful. But I can be patient with these other aspects of a story if the language is beautiful. If the language is dull, then why keep reading to find out the plot?
In teaching, I ask my students to focus a lot on revision. And while I know that I probably shouldn’t give them too much to revise at once—for fear of overwhelming or confusing them—I can’t help but line-edit their work, even their first drafts. But in these line-edits, these requests for sharper word choice or more concision, is also a request for better logic, more original thinking. So I think that asking for poetry in prose—and teaching it beside prose—is a sure way to improve fiction.
Hawai`i is a place that that’s been represented and misrepresented in so many texts. What do you think it’s important to draw attention to? Were there particular stereotypes or misconceptions that you wanted to set straight?
In popular fiction Hawai`i has often been described from the perspective of visitors. When I was working on this book, everyone wanted to know if I had read James Michener and Robert Louis Stevenson. I hadn’t at the time; I didn’t want to use their perspectives, which are plenty prevalent. I was interested in learning Native and local narratives, from the writings of Haunani Kay-Trask to the stories my uncles and aunties tell.
So, I set out to reverse “the gaze” and have this book value Native’s and locals’ visions of the islands rather than visitors’. The title story deals with this pretty explicitly. I also wanted to draw attention to the fact that even among locals and Natives, not everyone sees the islands the same. Stories like “The Road to Hana” engage pretty directly with that fact.
I was also playing with a lot of common, commercial stereotypes. Hawaiian women as sexual flowers for the taking, like the postcard image of the hula girl. Hawaiian men as either wild, angry animals or playboys. If you look at advertisements from the past century, even in today’s era, these are the sorts of images that sell Hawai`i and its people. I wanted to take these images and very purposefully undermine them. The women in my story are sexual and strong; the men are powerful and compassionate. In other words, they’re fully human.
Are there any fiction writers who influenced these stories? From Hawai`i or elsewhere?
Although not fiction writers, David Malo, Samuel Kamakau, Kepelino, and the other Hawaiians who first commited oral narrative to written text are endlessly fascinating to me. These writers are navigating the gaping cultural divide of the early to mid 1800s, and while they record traditions, they also heavily editorialize the record, sometimes apologizing for a native tradition and other times defending it. Through their writings, you can feel them being torn between their native-ness and the new, settler culture, which is primarily a white, Christian, American culture. I felt those writers’ position is still relevant today, and the way they express being betwixt and between—a feeling I know personally as well—was essential to the development of my work. In some ways, “Thirty-Nine Rules” is a response to this fraught position, but the ideas those writers engender linger elsewhere in the collection.
Do you think that being Hawaiian but having grown up on the mainland lends you any advantage, as an author? Would if be harder or easier to write about Hawai`i if you had lived here all your life?
I’ll answer this question with a story. I have a friend who learned to surf in California. When she was out visiting me in Hawai`i, she’d drop in on people and a couple times cut someone off. I thought, at the time, she’s one of the nicest, most polite people I know. Why is she doing this on the water?
Then, I went to surf with her in Malibu. To me, it was mayhem! Everyone’s dropping in on everyone else. There’s no clear line-up. And I realized, oh, kids who come from California to surf in Hawai`i aren’t purposely being rude. They just aren’t aware of the rules here, how Hawai`i surf community works.
The fact that I’m hapa—half Hawaiian, half European ancestry—means that I inhabit more than one culture. Similarly, I inhabit more than one geographical space: I grew up in Southern California, but spent summers and holidays on Maui. I do feel that hapa-ness, that ability to be betwixt and between, is what allowed me to write this book. I can feel empathy for a lot of different perspectives and see the value in each of them.
Going back to my story about surfing, I also understand someone who wants to do what’s right but isn’t sure what that is. I felt like that a lot during my first few years living in Hawai`i as an adult. I had to come back to my Hawaiian-ness, and I had to be very humble and learn from the community around me. I couldn’t have written this book if I hadn’t grown up on the Mainland, but I also couldn’t have written it if I hadn’t lived in Hawai`i.
Which of these stories was most difficult to write?
“The Road to Hana” was probably the most difficult. The other stories are focused on familial relationships, which feel natural for me to explore, but a romantic relationship was much more difficult for me to excavate. Were my characters too explosive? Were they too passive aggressive? Did I favor one more than the other?
It probably didn’t help that I was writing the story with a kernel of truth in it—I actually did once drive that road with an ex-boyfriend, and we did nearly hit a dog, and it did have more fleas than either of us cares to remember. So I had to distance myself from the real incident in order to shape a fictitious one with fictitious but fully rounded characters.
That’s interesting that “The Road to Hana” was the most difficult. In so many ways, that would seem to be the simplest story—in terms of timeline, point-of-view, amount of characters, etc. The other pieces are generally bigger and more epic in their sweep. Do you find that you gravitate toward those longer, multiple point-of-view stories with an ensemble cast?
I am secretly writing novels—very short novels masquerading as stories. I love the messiness of novels, the multiple strands and ensemble cast and movements across time that novels can contain. My short stories tend toward that vein. They’re the most fun for me.
That’s actually one of the most fascinating aspects of this collection: on the one hand, the stories are mostly long and “novelesque.” But in another way, this collection covers more ground than a single long narrative might. Why do you think this form—by which I mean the collection, as opposed to the short story—is so well suited to your subject(s)?
In the title story and “Portrait of a Good Father,” the narrative is told by more than one person, in more than one perspective. Only by seeing the same events from these multiple perspectives does a physical, intellectual, and emotional truth emerge. To tell the story from one perspective would be to tell a less truthful story.
I say all this because I think the collection is operating in a similar manner. With a collection, unlike with a novel, I can hop among islands, characters, events, and perspectives. I have a writerly freedom in that and an ethical project as well. The most truthful story doesn’t appear from a single objective point of view, as textbooks might have us believe. Truth comes from layering as many points of view together as possible and letting a reader experience them all.
On a side note, as I was writing these stories, I was often asked if any characters reoccur. I thought briefly about linking the stories in that way, but then I realized that would undermine my project. In fact, only one central character appears in all the stories, and that’s Hawai`i. Only a collection such as this one could reflect how I experience Hawai`i’s multitude and diversity.
Can you talk about your process a little? Do you have a regular writing routine? Is it efficient? I’m particularly curious to know how that “messy,” layered streak in your work plays out at the writing desk?
I have a sort of messy process. I don’t write every day. I don’t even write every week. I write in insane focused spurts, these multi-week sprints where bills don’t get paid, friends don’t get called, my mother sends me emails asking if I’m alive. All I do is write and run. Or write, run, and show up for work.
And then I fall behind on the rest of my life and have to play catch-up. So I don’t write for a few weeks while I call my mother and grade my students’ papers and shower.
That said, I’m thinking about writing all the time. While I run, I’m trying to figure out a character’s motivation or how a relationship between two characters will play out. And I read every day—read as a writer every day—before bed or, sometimes, in the morning. And then, when all this thinking and reading has gathered into a critical mass, I create a space to write again.
For me, this process works really well. It operates in tandem with the ebbs and flows of the school year. It gives me this wonderful space for my thoughts to develop. And it also means that I have time to process the research that I do. I don’t want to sound like a history book, so letting the research percolate and then connect with story—letting that happen in the fallow times between actually putting pen to paper—is efficient and enjoyable for me.
What’s your next writing project?
Alas, I’m leaving behind short stories for a little while to write a novel, which is a new sort of adventure. The novel is a multi-generational family saga set against the backdrop of a real water rights dispute between east Maui taro farmers and the A&B sugar plantation. Now that king sugar is no longer king, and pineapple is no longer a cash crop, Maui’s landscape has changed tremendously. I’m exploring what that means to different generations, and how a family who is already beset by personal crisis can overcome community crisis. The two seem linked to me, and I think by finding an answer to the personal, we can find a better path for the communal.
Further Links and Resources:
- For more about Kristiana Kahakauwila and her work, please visit the author’s website.
- You can also visit her Random House author page to read an excerpt from the book, purchase a copy, or check out the reader’s guide for the collection.
Tyler McMahon is author of the novels How the Mistakes Were Made (St. Martin’s Press, 2011) and Kilometer 99 (St. Martin’s Press, 2014). He lives in Honolulu and teaches at Hawaii Pacific University. Learn more about him at tylermcmahon.net.