Sunday, May 31, 2020

Q&A with Robert McCaw

Robert McCaw, photo by Calli P. McCaw
Robert McCaw is the author of the new mystery novel Fire and Vengeance, the third in his series featuring his character Detective Koa Kāne. The series, which also includes Death of a Messenger and Off the Grid, is set in Hawaii. McCaw practiced law in Washington, D.C., and New York, and he lives in New York City.

Q: This is your third novel about your character Koa Kāne. How do you think he’s changed from the first book to this one?

A: In Fire and Vengeance, Koa’s relationship with his brother Ikaika deepens and evolves.

In the earlier novels, Ikaika is the bad brother who commits crimes, alienates his family, mistreats Koa’s girlfriend, and creates problems for Koa within the police department.

In the latest novel, Ikaika’s character becomes more complex. After Ikaika collapses in jail and is rushed to a hospital in a coma, Koa discovers there is more to his brother’s criminality than Koa had imagined. 

In the pressure cooker of emotions surrounding Ikaika’s medical crisis, Koa discovers a different side of his brother. This intra-family journey of discovery forces Koa to choose between conflicting loyalties.

In doing so, he forges not only a new relationship with his brother but also a more profound understanding of his Hawaiian roots and the principles that must guide his life.

Q: How did you come up with the plot for Fire and Vengeance?

A: Three disparate themes informed the plot of Fire and Vengeance— (1) the volcanic nature of the Big Island, (2) how the dynamics of family relations can trigger personal reinvention, and (3) the power of past events to trap people and dictate the future in unpredictable ways. I discuss each theme below:

The Big Island of Hawaii is a land of volcanic activity ruled by Pele, the Hawaiian goddess of volcanic fires. Pele created the islands, built their mountains, and continues to add to the Hawaiian landscape.

Always capricious, she lays waste to what humans have built, and most efforts to avoid her destructive power end in failure.

Yet, like the Japanese near the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant or the Italians on the slopes of Mount Vesuvius, people in Hawaii continue to expand communities in areas of high natural risk. Witness the destruction of more than 700 homes in Puna during the May 2018 Kilauea eruption.

I created the fictitious event at the heart of Fire and Vengeance to illustrate the arrogance of betting we can avoid nature’s fiery wrath.

In Fire and Vengeance, Koa’s relationship with his incarcerated brother parallels the volatility of Hawaii’s volcanic nature, changing in an instant and creating a whole panoply of new conflicts and challenges for Koa.

Like various personal misfortunes we endure, an unanticipated event in Koa’s brother’s life forces Koa to reassess his values. I wanted readers to see Koa, drawing on his mother’s inspiration and his Hawaiian heritage, reinvent a part of himself.

Experiences shape people, but those forged in the crucible of the same event often emerge with vastly different mindsets. An event that imbues one person with guilt or shame may empower another or provide opportunities for a third. Secrecy often exaggerates those responses.

In Fire and Vengeance, I wanted readers to join me in exploring the power of a secret past to ensnare people and dictate their future in unimaginable ways. 

Q: Did you need to do much research to write this novel, and if so, did you learn anything that especially surprised you?

A: I have long believed that life is research for a novelist. In writing Fire and Vengeance, I drew upon my experiences as a criminal defense lawyer and my 20-plus years traveling and living in Hawaii.

From that starting point, I searched the history and legends of volcanic activity on Hualalai, one of the five volcanoes that make up the Big Island. I delighted in discovering the Hualalai legends involving Pele and King Kamehameha which I relate in the book.

Although Hualalai has not erupted for two hundred years, the USGS warns that it remains a high risk to the developments that blanket its western slopes. As reflected in my Author’s Note, Hawaiians' obliviousness to Haulalai's volcanic hazards came as a surprise.

Writing Fire and Vengeance also required a dive into research on the effects of brain disorders. The cutting-edge medical breakthroughs coming out of injuries in the Afghan and Iraq wars, together with technical advances in brain imaging, are fascinating. Some of the literature is opaque, but I found doctors who were wonderfully generous in sharing their insights.

Q: What do you hope readers take away from the book?

A: First and foremost, I want readers to be entertained and enjoy the story. I hope they get involved, try to guess the end, and are surprised by the twists.

Throughout the Koa Kāne series, the Big Island of Hawaii is a kind of character from which readers can learn about the history, legends, language, and people of this unique and complex place. For me, writing the book was a journey into aspects of the islands that I wanted to share with readers.

Beneath the surface, readers might also draw insights about prejudices ingrained in family relationships and how they might be subject to reexamination.

Personal relationships need not be as strained as those between Koa and his brother Ikaika to benefit from a reset. Opening the mind to different possibilities, even in close relationships, often yields surprising benefits.

Finally, I hope readers share my fascination with the unpredictable effects of long-buried personal secrets, especially those that evoke strong moral reactions or those we attempt to suppress.

We like to think in terms of cause and effect but are frequently confronted with unintended consequences beyond our control and even our wildest imaginings. That disconnect is central to Fire and Vengeance.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I am hard at work on drafts of two new novels. One, as you might expect, is another Koa Kāne story which explores the deepest recesses of his past. The other takes me in a whole new direction to be revealed in due time.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I’ve had requests for audiobooks, and Off the Grid, the second book in the Koa Kāne series, is now available in that format.

In addition, Oceanview Publishing has agreed to reissue Death of a Messenger, the first book in the series, in December 2020.

Finally, I’d would be remiss if I didn’t express my heartfelt appreciation to all the readers who have contributed to the success of these stories and energized me to add new ones.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Robert McCaw.

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