Author Interview: Justina Taft

Justina

Hawaii Island author Justina Taft

 

 

Raised in Hawaiʻi, Justina Taft has lived on most of the major islands except Kahoʻolawe and Niʻihau. She earned her Ph.D. in Theatre Arts from the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa, and now lives on the island of Hawaiʻi where she teaches courses in writing and theater. Her first novel is  After Dawn.
AfterDawn

After Dawn

 

 

Q: After Dawn has been praised as a fresh and original take on the paranormal romance.  I’m not a big paranormal reader myself, but I couldn’t put the book down. Briefly, what is the book about?

A: After Dawn is about a young woman named Aurora who is troubled by dreams that she can’t understand. As she studies Hawaiian Language in college she gradually figures out what her dreams are telling her: she has cancer. Her parents and friends do their best to support her through the medical treatments, but they also face their own challenges. Eventually, a dream lover tries to persuade her to go away with him, and she has to choose between her world – and his.

Q: What inspired you to write After Dawn, and what was the development process?

A: The development process was… a long and winding road. It started when I was a teenager, and a young friend died. That caused me to reflect deeply on impermanence and the unpredictability of life. I wanted to write a story about the need to seize the day, living your life as fully as possible. At the same time, I was trying to live that philosophy, so writing took a back seat. But the story kept nagging at me, so while I was in college I began to put it down on paper. Since my background is in theatre, I initially wrote this as a one-act play and it was staged in my hometown. It was very rewarding to see actors breathe life into the characters. But I didn’t feel that live theatre was able to fully capture the otherworldly nature of the story, so I put it back in my desk drawer and let it sit for a few years.

In graduate school I had to write a short story in Hawaiian for one of my classes. I decided to try writing Aurora’s story to see how it would come across entirely in that language. It was an interesting experiment. I got an “A” on the project (and in the class), but I felt the story was better told primarily through English because part of the suspense involves Aurora’s struggle to understand what those Hawaiian language dreams are about. So again, I put the story away and left it alone for a few years.

Eventually I decided to rewrite it as a screenplay. The story switches back and forth between reality as we know it, and Aurora’s dream world; and writing for the screen allowed me to explore what those realities would look like. I received great feedback about the script but quickly found that local producers already had their own pet projects, and without money, turning my script into a movie was not likely to happen. I put it in a drawer and tried to forget about it.

A few years later, I dug it out again. Although I had no experience in novel writing, I decided it wouldn’t cost me anything to experiment with that form. This allowed me to explore the interior lives of the characters more fully than I could in other formats. Since I was older and had a different life perspective, the story evolved in unexpected ways. I was happy with the result, but having no knowledge in the world of publishing, I didn’t know what to do with it. So I set it aside and continued with my daily life.

Then, last year, I had a health crisis that brought me back to the question of mortality that sparked my initial desire to write the story. I asked myself if I would regret leaving anything undone if my life ended suddenly. With that in mind, I quickly researched publication options, and the day before flying to Oʻahu for surgery I sent my manuscript to an independent publishing company. Suddenly, it was out in the world. It was exhilarating and a little scary, but I’m glad I had that impetus or it would probably still be sitting in a drawer.

Q: The Hawaiian language and culture are at the center of After Dawn, rooting it in Hawai’i; this story couldn’t have taken place anywhere else.  Why did you choose to place the story here? 

A: I wanted to explore the idea of language: how it is tied up with identity, how it is acquired, how it works in our subconscious lives, all those things. I use standard English, Hawaiʻi Creole-English (Pidgin), and Hawaiian in the story, because those are the languages I grew up hearing and speaking. And as you said, that makes Hawaiʻi the only logical place to set it.

After Dawn is set on the island of Oʻahu. I chose that locale for a variety of reasons. As writers, we are often admonished to “write what you know,” and since I was raised in Hawaiʻi, that is the environment I am most familiar with. I would’ve had a hard time writing with authenticity if I had set it anywhere else.

I chose Oʻahu specifically because it has a big city, Honolulu,  where young adults can have adventures, get in trouble, and separate from their parents to immerse themselves in the college experience as they try to figure out who they are as human beings.

Oʻahu also exemplifies the cultural/environmental disconnection that many contemporary people face. Beneath all the concrete and cars, it is a breathtakingly beautiful island with deeply significant wahi pana or sacred places, but that is a reality that most of us don’t see when we are caught up in the rat race of daily life. Aurora grew up on the outskirts of the city, and on the outskirts of her own culture. She knows there is a wealth of traditional cultural knowledge that she hasn’t had the opportunity to learn because her family always encouraged her to focus on the here-and-now; what it will take to survive in the world today. I wanted the setting to reflect that.

Q: You say Aurora grew up on the outskirts of her own culture. What do you mean by that?

A:  Aurora’s father is Hawaiian-Chinese, and her mother is local Haole. So she is the product of two different cultures. Really, her father is the product of two different cultures, and that is reflected in the way he and Eileen have raised Aurora. Like most local kids, especially on Oʻahu, Aurora is surrounded by the trappings of American culture: TV, cars, fast-food, etc. And because her mother values a higher education, she also has that drive to go to college – which is a pretty mainstream American value. Aurora grows up more American than Hawaiian. As a child, she was close with her Tūtū (grandma), who was her strongest connection to her Hawaiian roots. Tūtū wanted to teach Aurora about her culture, but she was discouraged from doing so; and then she passed away, taking that knowledge with her. It’s a common story here in Hawaiʻi. There was a period of time, several generations, when the language and traditional knowledge was devalued, and many kūpuna (elders) passed on without being able to transmit their skills and traditions to the younger generations. Today there is a much stronger desire to acquire that knowledge while there are still people around who can share it.

 

Q: What would you say is the unique twist that makes After Dawn stand out from other books in its genre?

A: Because of the Dream Lover, some would consider it a contemporary “paranormal romance,” but I don’t think readers of that genre would ordinarily pick up a book like this because it is set in Hawaiʻi. And it uses more Hawaiian language than is normal in a book aimed at non-Hawaiian speakers. For readers of Hawaiʻi based fiction, the focus of this story isn’t really to celebrate or to challenge expectations about our unique culture in Hawaiʻi, it seeks to tell a more personal story. I would classify it as a “New Adult” novel, which is different than a “Young Adult” novel. Although the main character is just recently out of high school, there are some steamy scenes in it that make it more appropriate for older readers. And although there are definitely romances of one type or another going on throughout the book, the story is about much more than romance. Set against a backdrop of cultural loss and renewal, it also explores loss and hope on an individual level. While there is no escaping the tragedy at the core of this story, what dances around its dark edges is love in its myriad forms. I guess the unique twist is that it doesn’t fit neatly into any single book classification.

 

Q: Why did you choose to write under a pseudonym?

A: Mainly for a sense of privacy. We live in such a public world now, where information about anyone or anything is right at the tips of our fingers via the internet, it’s a double-edged sword. I just wanted to have that extra layer – however thin it may be – to separate my artistic self from my everyday self.

 

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

 A:  For me, the advantages are the inspiration I draw from the rich cultural diversity and fascinating history of these islands, along with the breathtakingly beautiful environment that can’t help but color any story set here.

The disadvantage is the difficulty in getting a book “out there,” whether that’s getting it seen by a publisher, getting it into stores, or promoting it through author appearances. There are only a handful of bookstores on this island. To promote the book beyond that means flying to other islands or other states, and those costs quickly become prohibitive. Thank goodness we have the internet these days; it helps us deal with those limitations in ways that we wouldn’t have even thought of a decade ago.

Q: Was there any point at which you had planned to have characters do something, and they insisted on doing something else, and you had to let them have their way?
A: Ha ha! I think Aurora and Eileen are the only characters who did exactly what I had planned for them. The others all surprised me in one way or another at some point in the book. Especially Gary. He was kind of unpredictable.

 

Q: Are you a “plotter” or a “pantser?”

 

A: Normally, I’m a “plotter.” Once in awhile, though, I have to fly by the seat of my pants and let a character take the lead. Generally, I have a starting place and an ending place that I would like each character to get to, and I try to be flexible in how they get there.Currently, I have my sequels roughly plotted out, mainly so I can track the timelines and make sure that if their stories overlap they’ll make sense. But once I get into the actual writing, the characters will very likely influence the way the stories develop.

Q: So, there will be other books?

 

A: I think so. I’ve had enough people ask me “what happens afterward?” that I’ve decided to follow some of the main characters to see where their stories take them. At this point I can’t tell you which characters I’ll be focusing on, because that might give away information that I’ve deliberately left ambiguous in After Dawn. Well, I can tell you one… Aurora’s best friend Alex is definitely getting his own book. He has just kind of taken on a life of his own. I don’t know if that book will be the first sequel I write, but it’s definitely going to be one of them.

I’m definitely going to pick that one up. I adore Alex! For readers who want to find out more about Alex, Aurora, and the rest of the cast of After Dawn, it’s available here:

On Hawai’i Island
Basically Books (Hilo)
Banyan General Store (Hilo)
Kona Stories (Keauhou)
Kilauea Kreations (Volcano Village)
Big Island Grown (Honoka’a)
Bentleys Home Collection (Waimea)
 
Online
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One thought on “Author Interview: Justina Taft

  1. […] using IBM’s text analysis software to analyze your characters’ personalities. Author interviews are popular as well, and I hope to do more of […]

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