Interviewed by Beverly Rowe, December 2002
Bev: What has your life been like up to this point? Tell us about growing up and where you have been and what you have done.
Deborah: Wow, where to start? I grew up in southern Ohio and graduated from the University of Michigan, but moved to Hawai’i twenty-seven years ago, in 1978. When I moved, I was in graduate school in Biochemistry, but I found that I needed a job and had the good fortune to be hired by Eli Lilly and Company as a pharmaceutical rep here in Hawai’i. This was a terrific job on a number of levels, but the way it helped with my writing was to send me around the islands on a regular basis. The Big Island of Hawai’i was part of my territory and I flew there two or three times a month, drove around its large land mass, and made many friends there. I was also writing in fits and starts, though not much got finished. When I had my first son (in 1988), I retired from Lilly (and traveling so much) and began to write with more serious intent. It’s taken me a while to have a novel published, hasn’t it?
Bev: Why did you decide to migrate from Michigan to Hawaii?
Deborah: Aha, that’s a good question. Especially since I dropped out of grad school to do it… As you might have guessed, a relationship was the incentive for that move. And it didn’t work out, but I found that great job with Lilly and stayed. And met my husband. And stayed.
Bev: What kind of freelance writing do you do? You won the University of Hawaii’s Myrle Clark award for Creative writing. Was it for fiction or nonfiction? Tell us about that…
Deborah: I do some freelance articles for Island Scene Magazine, which is a local magazine with a readership of about 220,000 families in the islands, plus others on the mainland. I also do the newsletter for Iolani School, which is the school my two sons attend. The newsletter, aimed at parents, administration, and faculty, is called ‘Elele, or Messenger. That is a volunteer job! The University of Hawaii’s Myrle Clark award was given to me a number of years ago for fiction writing when I was taking a couple of creative writing classes at UH. I was quite surprised and honored.
Bev: When did you first know that you wanted to be a writer?
Deborah: I have always enjoyed writing, though I am just now beginning to feel like “a writer.” I didn’t feel confident enough to call myself a writer for years and years-and I still feel the need to grow and evolve to fit the term.
Bev: What or who has been your greatest writing inspiration?
Deborah: Inspiration has come to me from many angles. One of the biggest sources is literally from books. Maybe that sounds a little vague and silly, but I love to read. I would finish a fantastic novel and want to give back some of the pleasure that I received. The love of reading came from my father, so I have to give him a great deal of credit for my desire to write and create stories. Of course, anyone who praised my writing throughout my life deserves my thanks, too. Writing is a lonely activity and often garners more criticism than praise. Thanks to those who told me they enjoyed what I’d created — it was the impetus to keep trying!
Bev: Who are your favorite authors? Your favorite recreational reading?
Deborah: This is always a tough question for me, because I can’t stop with one person — and I know that I’ll think of someone really important later. Some of my all-time favorite books have been by Faulkner, Willa Cather’s “Death Comes for the Archbishop,” Morrison’s “Song of Solomon,” Rushdie’s “Midnight’s Children,” Jane Smiley’s “A Thousand Acres,” Heller’s “Catch 22” — and I could go on. My favorite recreational reading usually consists of mysteries and some of my favorites include Barbara Saranella, Minette Walters, James Lee Burke, Harlan Coben, and Denise Mina. And others!
Bev: Tell us about the research of Hawaiian folklore for Primitive Secrets.
Deborah: A lot of the old stories, I’ve picked up from living here. All locals know about the night marchers, or huaka’i po. These are the legendary ghosts of soldiers of Hawaii’s often bloody history. With feet that never touch the ground, they walk the old warpaths and can be seen on all islands. All locals know that you never take bananas in a boat, nor should you drive over the Pali Highway with pork or bananas in the car. (I can’t tell you why, though). Much of the folklore in Primitive Secrets came from local libraries and from Hawaii’s Bishop Museum, a deep reservoir of Hawaiian culture and myth. I love doing research and find myself having to limit what I’ve discovered when I try to use it in fiction.
Bev: The Main Character, Storm Kayama, carries a lot of emotional baggage with her, and conflicting emotions about her beliefs in traditional healing and culture. Is she a composite of people you know? How did you develop Storm?
Deborah: She’s not actually a composite of people I know, though I know a number of people like her, who are skilled professionals and still have ties to old Hawaiian culture. Some of the practices of modern society clash with the old ways. The ancient Hawaiians, like other Native American groups, didn’t believe in land ownership. Consequently, they lost their land and are still suffering from this. The old ways of farming are becoming obsolete, and I tried to show this conflict with Sam, the Hawaiian taro farmer. These issues arise almost daily in our local newspapers. Storm is a completely fictional character, though, and she developed as I wrote about her. Most of us have some emotional baggage, don’t we? I still feel that I’m getting to know her-and that she is a dear friend.
Bev: What do you consider the main message in Primitive Secrets? The ending was a total surprise to me.
Deborah: Oh, good! A mystery is supposed to be a surprise. My first goal was to write a good story and an exciting mystery with believable characters. I also decided to play with the role secrets play in families — especially good, basically loving families. Often, secrets are kept because people are embarrassed or ashamed of issues that appear much worse to the secret-keeper than to anyone else. But the secrets have consequences, and I was playing with that idea. Did that come off at all?
Bev: Yes, it did! I’m sure we all have some of those in our own families. Do you have any other novels in the works? Will Storm appear in another Mystery?
Deborah: Sure, I’m at work on another mystery with Storm as the protagonist. I’m still enjoying her and feel that she can do some growing in another book.
Bev: What are your plans for your future in writing?
Deborah: I’d like to do more mysteries (both with Storm and with other protagonists) and perhaps a couple of mainstream novels, too.
Bev: Do you have any advice for budding mystery writers?
Deborah: I wish I could impart some magic that I’ve discovered, but my biggest piece of advice is to keep writing and to put it out to readers. That’s the hard part, but you need to send your work out to people and listen to what they have to say about it. I will stress that you shouldn’t hang around with those who put down yours or other writers’ works. Find folks who love to read, write, and whose judgment you trust-and listen to them.
Bev: Do you have any other thoughts you would like to share with us?
Deborah: Write because you love to write, not because you want to be “a writer” or be published. Write about what interests you and try not to worry about market trends or what “publishers are buying.” Your enthusiasm for your subject will come across in your stories-and that’s what counts. Also, thank you for talking with me. I relish talking with and being around people who love books and writing.
Bev: Deb, thanks so much for taking the time to answer all my questions. It has been a great experience talking with you…hurry up with that next book! I’m waiting impatiently!