The author of the Niuhi Shark Saga, Lehua Parker (‘Aunty Lehua’ to her middle grade readership) is someone I consider to be the full package. She has the writing talent and the marketing mind to be what every publisher would want. She has also been a great mentor to me as I’ve pursued my own authorship.
Lehua published the second book of her series a few months ago, and it is a great read for that middle grade boy or girl on your Christmas list.
CH: One Boy, No Water is the first book in the Niuhi Shark Saga. You introduce the characters and also the setting. What was your initial concept of the series and how did it develop into centering around Zader and his family?
LP: Initially, it was a too long, too complicated novel for adults told in multiple braided perspectives. The part that became the Niuhi Shark Saga was really just a side plot to the main story with Zader as a pawn in a much larger battle. But as I worked, I realized that I had the most fun writing about Zader and the gang. I had them do things I enjoyed as a kid growing up in Hawaii and I liked the relationships that were developing. What if instead of a dysfunctional family, a kid grew up with all kinds of support and that still wasn’t enough? What if people made bad choices for all the right reasons? I started spending more time on the Zader’s story than the main one. When it became apparent that what I was creating would be a huge unpublishable mixed-genre mess, I decided to experiment with self-publishing and focused on crafting a series based on the Zader thread.
Originally, I planned for each story to be about 30,000 words, but each book would contain two versions of the same story—one told with lots of Hawaiian and Pidgin English words and phrases mixed in and the other in standard American English. MG/YA’s shorter format combined with the much lower production costs of eBooks seemed like an easy, low-risk way to figure out how to get a book from my computer into readers’ hands.
I had just begun that process when it occurred to me that I ought to find out if my theory that no publisher would want it was right. I ended up pitching the series concept to Jolly Fish Press (and another publisher based in Hawaii) who convinced me that each book should be doubled in length and contain just one version written mostly in English. The irony is that traditional publishers pursued me.
CH: Uncle Kahana is one character in the story who seems to be more than what we see. Who was your inspiration for Uncle Kahana?
LP: The sad, dark secret is all the of characters are based on me. I can’t decide if that makes me a good actor or schizophrenic. Uncle Kahana represents the side of me that initially rejected a lot of the traditional Hawaiian teachings I could have learned as a kid. He’s an extension of the desire I have to go back in time and ask all the elders questions I didn’t. What’s not so apparent in the Niuhi Shark Saga is that he’s fumbling his way through Zader’s challenges. He only pretends to be a font of traditional knowledge. His bad information and faulty assumptions will eventually—and possibly literally—bite him in the butt as the series continues.
CH: One Shark, No Swim (review)is the second book in the Niuhi Shark Saga. What challenges do you face in writing your characters as they age in the story?
LP: In my head, it’s all one very long coming of age story that just happens to be broken up into MG/YA book-sized chunks, so each character’s growth is already integral to the story. Kids naturally question authority more as they age and often wonder how they measure up to other kids. Romance rears its head. Girls tend to mature faster than boys and are more aware of social nuances, so I keep that in mind, too. Of course, Zader changes the most through the series and it’s fun to show his growth through other character’s expectations and interactions.
CH: One of my favorite characters is Zader’s female cousin, Char Siu. Is she based on anyone you know in real life?
LP: Char Siu is the kind of girlfriend I wished I had when I was Zader’s age. She’s tough, compassionate, loyal, and practical. Right now in the series she’s trying to figure out how to be a girl when all she sees are choices between being one of the guys and a girly-girl. Much of Char Siu’s perspective mirrors my own feelings and experiences at that age—but I certainly didn’t have her confidence or grace!
CH: Have you ever slid down a hill on a giant leaf?
LP: Of course! And like the kids in the novels, it was down a Nu’uanu mudslide. Since I lived on the “dry” side of the island, it was more common to use big pieces of cardboard to slide down steep hills covered in slick dry grass at places like Koko Head Park. The whole kuku patch episode? My cousins and I did that without the benefit of an Uncle Kahana to help pull all the thorns out.
CH: When starting the second book of the series, did you find it easy to pick up where you left off?
LP: There is something evil about first chapters. I always have a hard time finding my way into a story so the first chapter always gets re-written thirty times, I swear. Last chapters get spell-checked. I noodle about a story for a long time before I write. It’s less about waiting for inspiration and knowing what comes next as it is about having the discipline to sit down and do the work. Once I decide to write (usually under the gun of a deadline) it flows quickly.
CH: I’m personally fascinated with the mythology surfacing around the Niuhi sharks. On what is the mythology of the story based?
LP: Throughout the Pacific there are tales of beings—gods, demi-gods, cursed or blessed humans, and deified ancestors—who can take on the form of a shark. In some stories the shark-person is helpful; he rescues people lost at sea, brings fish, warns of impending dangers—that kind of thing. Other times he’s a predator who tricks people into the water so he can eat them. In the oral history traditions, a shark is often a metaphor for a ruling chief.
Niuhi is a Hawaiian word that roughly translates to shark big enough to eat a human. Technically, there aren’t legends about the Niuhi people. Big sharks are solitary predators, so the stories are about individual sharks, not shark communities.
When I imagined the Niuhi I thought of them as sharks that can appear as humans—not humans that can appear as sharks. To me that’s very different from the classical werewolf struggle of a human fighting off an alien wolf nature he can’t control. Niuhi are all about control, self-preservation, and consciously selecting prey. Despite appearances, Zader really is a danger to everyone around him and he has no idea why. In my head it’s the ultimate nature versus nurture argument. Can you raise a lion cub to prefer salad? Lots of social scientists seem to think so.
CH: When do we get to see book three? Is it a continuing series, or does it wrap up as a trilogy?
LP: Book 3, One Fight, No Fist, will be published by Jolly Fish Press as part of their 2014 Fall Catalog. The tentative release date is in September. The series was conceived as a five to seven book arc, but the publisher now wants to take the first three and re-launch them as a trilogy with new distribution channels. Unfortunately, I don’t think book 3’s ending is going to satisfy readers as the end of a trilogy. At some point the rest of the series will be written and published, but the timeline for that is still up in the air.
CH: What advice would you give an author (you know, like me) getting ready to write the second book of their own series? Anything to help get me going?
LP: As a writer, there’s freedom in already understanding your characters. You don’t have to decide what someone looks like or if they like chocolate ice cream or peppermint or if they’ll run or fight in a conflict. The writing is much easier when you can put them in situations or in different combinations and know how they’ll react or what they’ll say. Additionally, (hopefully!) you’ve had feedback from your target audience about what they liked and what they want to see in the next book. While I don’t think you should try to make everyone happy with where the story’s going, having a sense of what’s anticipated can help you decide which themes or conflicts to expand or eliminate going forward.
CH: (Trick question) Now that you are in the middle of a Utah winter, what do you miss most about living in Hawaii?
LP: No jackets, gloves, scarves, or socks required. I miss the sun. I miss the ocean. I miss being able to order rice in a restaurant without worrying if it’s going to blow off the fork. (People from Hawaii will totally get that, trust me.) However, I don’t miss cockroaches, the constant petty theft in public places, and being mistaken for a tourist. But you’re right. In the middle of a Utah ski winter where we’ve already hit -20°F a few mornings, it’s easy to forget that there’s a downside to paradise.
Lehua Parker is originally from Hawaii and a graduate of The Kamehameha Schools and Brigham Young University. In addition to writing award-winning short fiction, poetry, and plays, she is the author of the Pacific literature MG/YA series the Niuhi Shark Saga published by Jolly Fish Press. One Boy, No Water and One Shark, No Swim are available now. Book 3, One Fight, No Fist will be published in 2014.
So far Lehua has been a live television director, a school teacher, a courseware manager, an instructional designer, a sports coach, a theater critic, a SCUBA instructor, a playwright, a web designer, a book editor, a mother, and a wife. She currently lives in Utah with her family. During the snowy Utah winters she dreams about the beach.