Q: Tell me a little bit about your upcoming book, Project Namahana
A: Project Namahana is a thriller/mystery novel, set on Kawaii – which is the Hawaiian Island where my wife and I spent the last seven years. The book started with this article I read about a company that had been dumping chemicals into a stream. And I started to ask myself “who are these people who are making these decisions? What causes people who seem like upstanding citizens to go to work and poison people’s water supplies”.
The book explores that question through a series of mysterious deaths that occur on the island. One main character is an executive in a company like that and the other is a veteran who rents a room from someone who ends up disappearing under mysterious circumstances. He starts investigating what happened to them and it draws him into this investigation of what this company is doing.
The book gets into a lot of issues in modern day Hawaii. I didn’t know much about the islands before I came. I realized how ignorant I was about the actual culture of the island: not just Hawaiian culture but the successive immigrants of Japanese, Korean, Portuguese descent. There’s just this extraordinary culture, which a lot of people don’t really engage with when they visit. You have this idyllic Hawaiian vacation which leaves people really blind to the rich but also troubled history of the islands.
At the end of the day though, the book is a thriller. The goal I set for myself is to explore all these issues in a way that was exciting for the reader.
Q: You didn’t originally grow up in Hawaii – what’s your background?
A: I grew up in Virginia. I went to UVA, got a degree in English, and joined the Peace Corps. When I was a kid, my grandfather was a surgeon and he went to work for the Peace Corps as a medical officer. I saw my grandparents come back from places like Sierra Leone and I thought, “I want to do that one day”. In the Peace Corps, I was assigned to Kenya and I lived there for a couple years.
It was a deeply challenging but also deeply rewarding experience. One of the things I experienced over there was this colonial history that’s actually quite recent – the country decolonized in the 50’s and 60’s. So you have all these colonial buildings that almost feel ancient but are actually just a couple of decades old. I was really curious about the country’s history – curious in a way I had never been in Virginia.
After the Peace Corps, I got a job as a reporter in a local paper. I wasn’t there for very long but it was an experience that shaped me deeply to this day. I also got an MFA before moving to Minnesota to be with my wife. She ended up getting an internship in Kawaii, which is what brought us to the Island.
Q: Being a reporter and being in the peace corps are two very different experiences! How do you think those two experiences shaped you as a writer?
A: As a peace corps volunteer, you’re really encouraged to arrive with humility. What’s kind of amazing about the Peace Corps is that the government gives you some training and then you’re thrown somewhere and told to figure it out. You’re there for two years and the idea is that it’s gonna take you a while to understand the community, to figure out what you can contribute. At the end of the day, making an impact is one goal of the Peace Corps but the other two goals are to educate people about Americans and to receive an education about other places. All of that, humbled me. At first, I felt pretty useless and ignorant until – very gradually – I found people who took me in and helped me understand. And by the end I felt I really had learned something: as an outsider sometimes you can see things that local people can’t.
So for example: my counterpart in Kenya told me this story of how her brother was dying of AIDS. His family was watching him die. They didn’t even acknowledge he was sick – there was a stigma against it. Finally, she decided she can’t let her brother die in front of their faces so she confronted the family about it. At first the parents were mad she was even bringing him up but eventually they got behind it and got him medicine to save his life. What I learned from this story is that you might not be able to get people to change their decisions but you can help them just talk about the issue. I started convening teachers about all of these issues and my goal was just to get a conversation going.
As a reporter, I brought that same attitude to my reporting. I was hired by this chain of weekly papers and was assigned to this neighborhood community outside DC in northern Virginia. I was responsible for writing 5-6 stories a week about what was happening in this community. Like in Kenya, I had no idea what I was doing – my approach was just to meet people and hear what they had to tell me and hopefully learn some stuff. That combination of being an outsider and also trying to be on the inside ended up letting me write a lot of great stories. I just tried to be as open as possible to what the community wanted to tell me.
I’ll even connect those experiences to being a writer of Project Namahana. There were some weird parallels between Kenya and Hawaii. Hawaii is essentially a colony of the United States. It has its own language, Hawaiian, which isn’t spoken very often and it also has Hawaiian pidgin, which is a dialect like Jamaican Patois, that’s a common language. The history of Hawaii is that the US landed a bunch of marines on the island in the 1880s, imprisoned the queen, and annexed the island. In a lot of ways, it wasn’t so different from traveling to Kenya and being like “woah, I’m on a colonial property”. Part of my goal with this novel was to accurately depict this native Hawaiian culture and history that I hadn’t even known existed for a long time.
Q: What was the biggest thing about Hawaii you learned as a resident that most outsiders don’t understand
A: I would say that it’s the fact that Hawaii is a colony of the US. And unlike places like Kenya, which were given their independence, Hawaii never was freed. As I white person traveling over there, you have to be really respectful of that, and a lot of people are not. Coming to Hawaii, I expected to find a place that was completely taken over by white people (and obviously there’s places where that’s the case), but there’s also this real vital community that has nothing to do with tourism. Unfortunately, what you see is that a lot of people with money move to Hawaii and put themselves in these bubbles – whether the community is literally gated (which some are) or the land is so expensive that local people can’t really live there. And that’s something you see in places like Kenya, where they have gated communities with walls that are lined with broken glass to stop people from coming in. Those security issues obviously aren’t present in Hawaii but it’s the same dynamic at play.
I would encourage anyone who travels there to try to engage with the community and participate in the culture. And if they do, local Hawaiian people are very welcoming. Unfortunately a lot of people don’t do that.
Q: How would you describe the process of writing this book
A: I had really never written a novel before. Even the non-fiction I wrote for my MFA, I was always teaching myself how to write. So I started with a plot structure and some ideas. My writing style is to outline a lot; I’m a big believer in the outline. Some people will just sit down and write. I know Lee Child, the author of the Jack Reacher series, will just sit down without any idea of what he’s gonna write next and write a whole novel, one word at a time. I could never in a million years do that. When I teach writing I teach people not to do that – you’re putting so many levels of pressure on yourself. I plotted out the whole novel and then wrote a draft. I was like “novels are so long, I have to have all this stuff happen” And in working with my agent and editor, they helped me streamline the book and pace it better. We just carved out everything in the book that wasn’t important to the plot. That was really challenging for me but I’m really proud of the final product: all the things that are really important to me are in the book.
About John Teschner
John Teschnerwas born in Rhode Island and grew up in southern Virginia. He has worked as a newspaper reporter, professional mover, teacher, and nonprofit grantwriter. He served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Kenya and rode a bike across the United States. He spent seven years living on the island of Kaua‘i with his wife and two boys, where he helped lead Hui O Mana Ka Pu’uwai outrigger canoe club and became a competitive canoe racer. He now lives in Duluth, Minnesota, where he is learning how to stay upright on cross-country skis. Project Namahana is his first novel.