Robert McCaw is the author of the Koa Kāne Hawaiian Mystery series, the second book of which I reviewed last week. The series is focused on Hilo police detective Koa Kāne as he works to uncover mysteries and crimes.
Before we get started, I would like to thank FSB Associates for sending me a review copy of Off the Grid and Robert McCaw for doing the interview.
Let’s get right into the questions!
Tell us about yourself.
I’m a former soldier, reformed lawyer, and now an author of three mystery/thriller novels set on the Big Island of Hawaii. Growing up in a military family, we lived in Panama, Japan, Germany and various places in the US. After graduating from Georgetown University, I served as a lieutenant in US Army Artillery in South Korea, Fort Sill, OK, Fort Benning, GA, and Fort Knox, KY. I tried my first case while in the Army which inspired me to go to law school at the University of Virginia. After graduating, I was honored to serve as a law clerk to Justice Hugo Black on the Supreme Court of the US, and subsequently practiced law in Washington, DC, and NYC, where I participated in many headline-grabbing cases. I lived part-time on the Big Island in Hawaii for 20 years, falling in love with the people, culture, and language.
What inspired you to write books set in Hawaii?
Hawaii itself was my overarching inspiration. The Big Island is incredibly diverse, enjoying six of seven of the world’s climatic zones, ranging from sea level to 14,000 feet and from alpine environments to rain forests to deserts. Madame Pele, the Hawaiian goddess of volcanic fires has been building the islands for many millions of years. It has only one indigenous mammal, a bat, and many of its plants and birds are unique to the islands. Hawaii’s first inhabitants crossed more than 2,000 miles of hostile ocean from southern Polynesia in double-hulled canoes, bringing with them a combination of human sacrifices and sustainable environmental practices. The islands existed as a series of fiefdoms before King Kamehameha consolidated the archipelago under his rule in 1810. This kingdom was widely recognized as a sovereign nation for nearly a century before a group of Western businessmen overthrew the monarchy, and Hawaii became a US territory. Indelibly associated with America’s entry into WWII, Hawaii ultimately became a state. It now hosts the largest US military installation in the Pacific and some of the country’s largest cattle ranches.
Although my summary only hints at the many facets of Hawaii, you can see that it is a unique environment and a rich setting for untold mysteries. Indeed, the Big Island itself becomes a character in my novels.
What kind of research did you do to prepare for the politics and history that’s incorporated into Off the Grid?
The Hawaiian history in Off The Grid was gleaned from many primary and secondary sources. The libraries and archives of the Bishop Museum and the University of Hawaii provided access to many historic documents and academic research papers. Textbooks, articles, newspaper archives, and personal “story talk” with friends and old-timers proved invaluable. My practice of exploring the places where my stories unfold, including the island’s many historic locations, enable me to describe details that add an air of authenticity to my stories.
My research on local politics included some municipal documents but came mostly from newspapers and discussions with Hawaiian friends and officials. For the international episode underlying the plot, I researched every news and official report I could find, often turning to foreign sources with more detailed and different accounts than the US press. The accounts I researched mostly agreed on the facts, but none adequately explained the why. And so I made up an explanation for the event and that became a key part of the plot of Off The Grid.
Do you stick to a regular writing schedule?
I get this question often and have come to realize that in many ways it misses the mark because it assumes that writing is the principal, if not the only, work of an author. I write regularly—mostly every day—but I don’t have a fixed schedule. I write on a laptop and am often at work on airplanes and in hotel rooms as my wife and I travel. However, I probably spend nearly an equal amount of time thinking, day-dreaming, planning, and discussing aspects of my current project. Some of my best ideas come to me in the shower, as I fall asleep at night, or as I read or see something that triggers a thought, a sentence, or a word picture that I subsequently reproduce in some way on the written page.
What is your favorite (and least favorite) character in your Koa Kāne series, and why?
You might think that I would automatically pick Koa Kāne, my protagonist, as my favorite character, but that would be too easy and too self-absorbed because he’s a bit too much like me. Actually, my favorite character is Zeke Brown , the long-time Hawaii County prosecutor, who speaks in a loud voice, has eyes and ears in every aspect of local government, wears black leather, western-style Lucchese boots, pounds his fist on his battered wooden desk when excited, dispenses wisdom, and rides to Koa’s rescue in times of great stress.
My least favorite character is Shizuo Hori, the incompetent obstetrician who doubles as Hawaii County coroner. He’s my court jester, adding a touch of humor to death and autopsy scenes. Because he owes his mayoral appointment as coroner to the large sums he loses on absurd bets at the mayor’s Thursday night poker smokers, he also symbolizes the petty corruption so common in local politics.
What types of books do you read for fun?
I read a wide variety of books, including mysteries and thrillers, biographies, histories, financial theory, and scientific materials, including astronomy (a career I considered but didn’t pursue), cosmology, archeology, physics, and artificial intelligence. As a fitness enthusiast, I multitask with audiobooks as I walk or climb the never-ending elliptical stairs.
If you could spend a night hanging out with three authors, living or dead, who would you choose and why?
I would include those people who have probed and pondered the deepest mysteries of space, time, and the human mind. I would hang out with: Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, and Stephen Hawking. It would be fascinating to watch such deep thinkers interact with each other.
Which classic or popular book do you hate?
My hands-down choice in this category is Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.
While Wolfe may have accurately chronicled part of the 1960s hippie culture, the book’s effort to turn drug use into a religion, elevating hipsters to a higher spiritual level, strikes me as psychobabble nonsense.
What are your five favorite books, and why?
Homer’s Odyssey is one of the great epic adventure stories of all time. Set in the aftermath of the Trojan War, it is the second oldest manuscript in Western literature, a cornerstone of the Western canon, and a model for non-linear literature. Its story and style have been copied and imitated by countless subsequent authors. It’s also a must-read for anyone planning to visit the Peloponnese area of Greece or Sicily, where parts of the story allegedly take place.
James A. Michener’s Hawaii is a classic example of an author’s ability to convey the essence of a place while incorporating sweeping views of its people, history, and culture.
David McCullough’s The Great Bridge, the story of one of the nineteenth century’s greatest engineering feats, is richly told amid the backdrop of flamboyant Tammany Hall, the Chicago World’s Fair, and Custer’s last stand. His research is superb.
Alfred Lansing’s Endurance is the story of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s astounding struggle against impossible odds to save his crew after his ship, Endurance, was crushed by the Antarctic ice. It chronicles the unrelenting determination of one of the greatest leaders of the twentieth century and is a must-read before any visit to the great southern polar ice cap.
Yuval Noah Harari’s A Brief History of Humankind employs natural sciences and evolutionary biology to present a non-traditional view of human history, one that highlights imagination as a defining human trait. It’s a tribute to the creative human mind, including the intellects who would create fictional stories.
Finally, leave us with your favorite bookish quote.
“Everybody walks past a thousand story ideas every day. The good writers are the ones who see five or six of them. Most people don’t see any.” — Orson Scott Card, author of Ender’s Game and Speaker for the Dead