Interview with mystery writer Robert McCaw, author of the Koa Kāne series

BobMcCaw_2019_Version_4 - Calli P. McCaw photographerGive us a brief summary of your life till now (education, work, etc) and how it led you to write.

I grew up in a military family traveling the world, attending twelve different schools before graduating from high school. I studied mathematics at Georgetown University, served a stint as an artillery officer in the US Army, and received my law degree from the University of Virginia. I practiced law in Washington, DC, and New York City, and represented clients in high-profile civil and criminal cases.

Some years ago, I attended a legal conference in Honolulu. Afterward, I visited the Big Island of Hawaii and fell in love with its geography, history, people, culture, and language. I lived there part-time for twenty years. My legal background and affection for Hawaii led me to write Death of a Messenger, a murder mystery in which the Big Island is, in many ways, the central character.

Off the Grid and Fire and Vengeance, my second and third Hawaiian mystery novels, explored different aspects of the Big Island’s geography and history while enriching the character of my protagonist, Hilo Chief Detective Koa Kāne.

What inspired you to write a book about a school built on a volcano vent? It’s a horrific and mesmerizing premise.

One cannot visit Hawaii Volcanoes National Park as many times as I have without being awestruck by the beauty, ferocity, and creative and destructive powers of nature’s volcanic forces. Nor can one truly write about Hawaii without acknowledging that its geography, history, and people have been and continue to be shaped by volcanism. Thus, eruptions, lava tubes, fumaroles, and other volcanic phenomena play roles in all my Hawaii novels. For example, in Death of a Messenger, lava tubes on Mauna Kea are an integral part of the story, while an active lava flow from Kilauea plays a pivotal role in Off the Grid.

Fire and Vengeance final

I wanted a different volcanic setting for Fire and Vengeance and chose Hualalai Mountain, which has been mostly quiet for over 200 years but remains a serious threat. Notwithstanding the risk, thousands of people live, work, and go to school within Hualalai’s possible eruptive zones, mostly oblivious to the danger. Similar scenes play out elsewhere around the world: In Japan, they built the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in a known tsunami zone, and in Italy, millions live on the slopes of Mount Vesuvius, which destroyed Pompei and will inevitably erupt again.

Thus, Hualalai Mountain on the west side of the Big Island seemed the perfect place for a volcanic surprise, and a school disaster provided an emotional punch, drawing readers into the story.

death of a messengerKoa Kane is a conflicted man, an honest cop haunted by an act early in his life. How did he introduce himself to you?

I’ve always loved mystery stories, and my legal background gave me many insights into law enforcement and judicial process. A detective as a protagonist thus seemed natural. As a Hawaiian, Detective Koa Kāne helped fulfill my desire to make Hawaii an underlying character, and therefore more than a just setting for this series. I emphasized his family connections in Death of a Messenger but wanted to show the depth and sincerity of his commitment to justice in Off the Grid. The murder backstory not only serves that purpose but also explains his suspicious nature and the intensity that drives his obsession to nail his quarry.

Pele, the Hawaiian goddess of volcanic fires, is a regular character in your books. Please explain your fascination with her.

Pele is just plain fun! She is also a gateway into hundreds of Hawaiian legends and myths inspired by the volcanic nature of Hawaii. The ancients experienced eruptions and often suffered the consequences but did not understand the underlying geology. Nor did they have the predictive capabilities that we have today. Pele, known variously as the goddess of fire, a fire witch, or the stone eating woman, explained what the ancients couldn’t understand. She was, in many ways, their geology!

 You’re an accomplished attorney. Is Zeke Brown a version of you?

Zeke Brown is a composite of perhaps a dozen real people. In teaching younger lawyers, I frequently suggested they develop a “bag of tricks.” By that, I meant, watch what other lawyers do, study their techniques, and add them to your repertoire, your own bag of tricks.

Zeke Brown has a bag of tricks culled from various private lawyers, defense attorneys, prosecutors, state attorneys general, FBI agents, judges, and others with whom I interacted over the years. And he may even have a trick or two he got from me.

 Tell us about your next project.

I’m hard at work on another Koa Kāne novel. I’m excited that my publisher, Oceanview, is going to re-release the first book in the Koa Kāne series, Death of a Messenger. Originally published in 2015, it’s getting a new cover, plus some additions to this unique Hawaiian murder mystery.

off the grid robert mccawWhat’s your research process like?

For me, life is research. I am always looking for characters, gestures, mannerisms, language, unique faces, clothing, and other things to incorporate into my novels. I keep notes on my iPhone and frequently take pictures of settings I might use. I have a library of Hawaiian books covering everything from history and government to herbal medicine and Polynesian tattoos. I get ideas from newspaper stories and the Internet. I’ve researched so many Internet sites on firearms, ammunition, explosives, spy gear, and hacking that my wife expects the FBI to show up at our door any day now. Before COVID, I traveled and visited almost every site discussed in my novels. I consult manuals on police procedures and have attended the Writers Police Academy, where law enforcement professionals teach and explain their skills and thought processes.

What’s your writing routine? Do you have a dedicated office, or do you write at the kitchen table? Do you write longhand or type everything?

I have a small COVID retreat off the kitchen as I navigate lockdown land, but the place isn’t essential. I write everything on an old (circa 2011) MacBook Pro laptop, using Scrivener software. That software allows me to write individual scenes and rearrange them at will, like shuffling cards. I find the ability to rearrange especially useful when I’m weaving two or more story threads together into a book. I can see each thread as a whole from beginning to end and then intertwine the threads, switching from one story line to another until they all hopefully come together in the end.

Do you outline your stories or let the characters take you where they want to go? Do your characters speak to you?

I usually know where I’m going to start and where I want to end. I may even envision waypoints, but my stories develop as I write. The process requires a lot of self-editing and rewriting because the events in a later scene may require changes in previous scenes.

For me, editing is vital. I believe that many writers get too close to their work and lose their ability to judge it even semi-objectively. A good editor can inject objectivity, allowing the author to accomplish more fully his or her vision. Thus, unlike some authors, I relish the editing process and cherish the new perspectives I get from my editors.

I frequently see scenes or characters in “mini-movies” in my head. It’s as though I’m there in the room or town or forest—transported to wherever the scene takes place. I walk through the action and hear the dialogue, editing, and replaying the “movie” until the results seem right. For example, in the opening scene of Fire and Vengeance, Koa Kāne, my protagonist, runs into a fiery school building to rescue the endangered children. I played the “mini-movie” of that scene a dozen times, trying to get the heat, smells, sounds, fear, and panic of the situation just the way I wanted.

My wife, a professional photographer with a deep background in art history, has taught me another useful technique. Every pixel of a great photograph and every brushstroke of a classic painting is deliberate with every extraneous element eliminated—contributing to the viewer’s experience. A writer can use the same technique by thinking of any scene as a painting and including only its essential elements. In my view, a good scene should be as evocative as the most celebrated pictorial murals of history.

What writers do you admire, past or present?

James A. Michener for his ability to make history and places come alive.

Douglas Hofstadler for his fascinating view of creativity in Gödel, Escher, Bach.

Raymond Chandler for his phenomenal use of language and his ability to surprise his readers.

Michael Connelly for command of the LA cityscape and his characterization of Hieronymus Bosch.

Dean Koontz for the extraordinary inventiveness of Watchers.

Daniel Silva for giving the world Gabriel Allon.

Jane Harper for her breathtaking portrayals of rural Australia.

Tony Hillerman for introducing us to the Navajo Tribal Police.

Craig Johnson for Sherriff Walt Longmire, his appreciation of the culture of the Crow people, and his engaging portrayal of fictional Absaroka County.

What do you like best about being a writer? What do you like least?

The best things about being a writer are the “ah-ha” moments of creativity when parts of a novel suddenly come together, and the appreciation of readers who truly understand what I as a writer am trying to communicate.

The worst part of being an author is the grind of proofreading, a tedious but necessary chore in producing a professional novel.

What little personal quirk would you like to reveal to your readers?

I’m a great fan of audiobooks, which have given new meaning to the art of multitasking, such as reading while exercising and maybe even while doing the dishes.


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