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Linda Ballou, an interview

Added: Monday, June 16th 2008 at 12:15pm by robertflynn
Related Tags: poetry, art

Interview of Linda Ballou, author of Wai-nani: High Chiefess of Hawai'i


Q-Linda Ballou, more than 55,000 titles are published every year. Of those fewer than 10% ever appear in a book store and of those that do, some don't sell a single copy. Why bother?


A- That's like asking me why people climb Kilmanjaro? People do it because of an inner need to reach for the stars. I write because it is my route to self-actualization. Why does a rose bloom. Why do waves build to a crescendo and crash on the shore until the end of time? What is their purpose beyond being a part of nature's rhythms? My writing is simply the best of me.


If Barack Obama can be lifted from obscurity to become the first black presidential candidate though internet communication, why can't I find a market for my book? I found online my editor who lives in Nashville, TN, my publisher who resides in PA, and my web master who lives in Colorado. I believe I can reach my target audience as well through the power of the internet. I really don't care that much about being in brick and mortar. They are not the way of the future.


Q-I think that there are two kinds of writers: those who are paid to write and those who pay to write. Those who are paid to write usually write what others want them to write. That includes those who write for the media and those who write popular fiction and nonfiction. Others write what they want to write but they usually have to support 

themselves some other way. Which are you?


A-I wanted to find out for myself if I was a writer, so I gave myself a year of unfettered, lazy time to contemplate my life plan. After  putting myself through school selling real estate in California, I felt I deserved it!


This wonderful year was a turning point for me in many ways. I had a spiritual awakening, got my priorities straight and have been a more centered human being ever since. The seed was planted on Kauai for Wai-nani. I decided that, yes, I am a writer, but that I would support my eating habit selling real estate. This would allow me to be an artist free to write about what is important to me. Of course, it also meant it would take me ten times longer to get anything done in the writing world. I believe that money is a corrupting element in art. I did not want it to tear myself apart trying to fit into a commercial mold.


Q-Living on Kauai seems to have paid off in other ways.


A-While I was living on the north shore of Kauai a special issue in the local paper about Captain James Cook caught my attention. The fact that Captain Cook was killed in the Islands intrigued me. I wanted to know why. I was curious about what was happening in the Islands when Cook arrived. I wanted to know the Hawaiians side of the story. Most accounts depict the Hawaiians as blood-thirsty savages who ganged up on the world's greatest explorer. I learned this was not an accurate picture and felt that the Hawaiians had gotten a bum rap.


Cook made a lot of mistakes that eventually led to his demise. I wanted to show the dynamics of the Hawaiian society and tell the story from the Hawaiian point of view. This brought me to Kamehameha the Great and his favorite wife Ka'ahumanu.


Kamehameha was one of the warriors that greeted Cook. I found his story fascinating. The day he was born a comet lit the heavens marking the birth of a great chief. It was prophesied that this chief would unite the Hawaiian Islands. This story reminded me of the story of the star burning bright over the manger leading the wise men to baby Jesus. It was also said that the warrior who lifted the Naha Stone, a huge volcanic boulder, would be a great chief. Kamehameha, an athletic warrior, lifted the stone when he was a teen. This seemed akin to King Arthur pulling the sword lodged in stone. 


Joseph Campbell was alive at the time. I read his books and became fascinated by universal myths and legends. I felt this story was every bit as powerful as any in western annals and warranted re-telling.


Q-Wai-nani's, or Ka'ahumanu's, story seemed to have a personal appeal to you.


A-I identified with her spirit of adventure and rebellion. During the sixties and seventies women were breaking out. I am athletic, outdoorsy and independent and childless by choice. She was childless not by choice, but she found other meaning in her life. She questioned authority and the established ways of her time. She insisted on having sexual freedom. She stood shoulder to shoulder with her warrior husband and was a source of strength for him. She was strong, brave, athletic, sensuous and deeply spiritual. In short, I saw her as the forerunner of the modern woman.


I learned after writing my first draft and sharing it with a Hawaiian scholar that even though she was loved by the common people, she was a controversial figure. She was perceived by male power figures, namely priests, as a threat. Some people even believe she was part of a conspiracy to kill Kamehameha the Great and remember her as "the flaw that brought down the chiefdom."


Contradictory oral accounts followed up by even more contradictions from modern scholars made it hard for me to sort things out in my own mind.


Q-That must have been discouraging. Did you think of giving up on the story at that point?


A- I was devastated to learn that my story would not be well received by Hawaiians the way it was written. I had poured my heart into the story, researched heavily and had made every attempt to be true to the "people of old." It set me back a year. Just the thought of another re-write was daunting. I had to consider how I could write the story without offending the living descendants of the royals depicted in my story. I decided to give all the characters fictitious names, but to remain as true to the timeline of real events as I could. I made the dolphin family more involved throughout the story to ensure that one could not misconstrue the fact that this story is historical fiction 

couched in magical realism, and not a documentary.


Q-Is historical fiction what you read and prefer to write or was it required by the story that chose you to tell it?


A- Definitely it was the story that I wanted to tell that took me into the realm of historical fiction. Plus, I felt it would increase my odds of success to have timeless subject matter. Especially, when you consider that I had to write this in between the demands of making a living selling real estate. At this time, I prefer to read and write travel narratives.


Q-Isn't one of the problems of writing historical fiction avoiding anachronisms? Words, expressions, articles, people, events that were unknown at the time? How did you do that?


A-It was difficult to write the story without using modern words that would jar the reader back into the 21st century. Keeping Wai-nani's voice consistent over a 40-year time frame in which European contact brought huge changes to the Hawaiian point of view was difficult.


I tried to represent the ancient Hawaiians who were filled with contradictions in an honest, even handed way. Even though they lived under a harsh and extreme caste system that included slaves and called for human sacrifice, as a whole they were nurturing to one another. They shared the fruits of their labors in a communal, caring way. The Ohana, or extended family, was the most important unit and no child went unloved. When troubles came there was a time for talking things out. "No job is too hard if it is done all together" is a basic Hawaiian precept. Even though the high chiefs siphoned off the riches of the commoners they were also the first conservationists. They placed kapus, or restrictions, on fishing during spawning seasons to ensure enough for all.


The earliest chronicles written by people who were taught to read and write by the missionaries were clouded with the Christian world view. For instance, there is no fiery hell in Hawaiian cosmology. When people died they went to Po-a peaceful, underwater place where people don't have to worry about much and they sit around playing checkers and other games. There is no punishment for promiscuity and it is not thought of as a bad thing. In fact, practices to enhance sex are handed down from 

elder to child at a very early age.


Q-Most people have experienced extraordinary, unexplainable incidents or events. Magical realism is filled with such incidents. Do you think that should that be part of otherwise realistic writing? That some things that humans' experience or do is beyond explanation?


A- Creative non-fiction and fiction leave room for reflection and allusions to esoteric experiences. Whereas, a travel narrative generally would not. I know I crossed genre boundaries in Wai-nani, but as I stated above this helped take me out of the cross-hairs of scholars who would fault me for not being completely accurate with Hawaiian history. What is more, the myths and legends of the Hawaiians are rife with supernatural deeds and magical happenings. I simply carried that model into my story.


Q-You are also a travel writer. Is travel writing something you like to do or is it a means of financing travel?


A- Both. I am hosted and able to experience places in ways that I could not afford to do with my own resources. It is tremendous fun to give back to those who have shown me an incredible time with an article that captures the essence of the place or experience they are trying to share with others. My travel writing is the natural culmination of things I love. Riding horses in gorgeous country, getting out into a 

wild river with an accomplished guide, seeing places through  the eyes of someone who knows it intimately, and then writing about it are a great thrill for me. I usually write two articles for my host to say thank you, and one personal essay for me that will appear in my next book Lost Angel Walkabout.


Q-Do you choose places to which other people would like to travel or do you 

sometimes choose ugly places that most people avoid or don't want to 

know about?


A- I only go places that I really want to experience. My mission is to get to as many beautiful places as I can before they are no more. At this stage of my life I have an acute awareness of my limited time on the planet and refuse to squander it on pursuits that are not meaningful to me. If my articles inspire someone to follow in my 

footsteps, so much the better for the outfitters who have been kind enough to host me.


Q-I have heard that to know a place you need to live there a week or a 

lifetime. In a week you know the differences between this place and "home."

In a lifetime you know why there are differences. Do you agree?


A- You can't know a place in a week like someone who lives there; however, I can capture the essence of a place better than someone who does. I research before arriving, have an eye trained for telling detail, and I am objective about what I see and experience. People living in a place know it at a deeper level but often they can’t see themselves as clearly as an outsider. Travel writers can get a sharp snapshot of a place in a short time, and therefore serve a distinct purpose in society.


Q-Do you feel that your writing, both travel and fiction, allows others 

to live vicariously in dimensions that would not otherwise be possible 

for them? 


A- Absolutely. Hopefully, that is the gift of my writing. Wai-nani for instance is a portal into a world you can't get to any other way. It simply does not exist anymore. Adventure travel is certainly not for everyone, but everyone loves adventure.


Q-You have mentioned your love for Jack London, when you lived in Haines did you hike the Chilkoot Trail?   


A. The Chilkoot trail is a 33-mile grueling, uphill climb that requires a greater degree of fitness than I possess. I did drive the Klondike Highway overlooking the White Pass gorge that parallels the path of Jack London and the early stampeders on the way to the gold fields. In "Golden Horseshoe or Bust,"included in Lost Angel Walkabout, I follow in the footsteps of my adventure-writing hero as he rides the foaming mane 

of the Yukon River, and slogs into the tent camp in Dalton. Hollywood chose to use the more accessible Dalton Trail from Haines to the Klondike to re-enact the fabled climb of the stampeders up the ice steps of the Chilkoot Trail in the movie "White Fang."




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