The Storyteller

Maui has no shortage of stories. The island’s rich history, colorful characters and stunning natural features are a veritable goldmine for writers and artists. But, especially in the world of fiction, the Valley Isle is mostly unexplored territory.

Wayne Moniz wants to change that. A born-and-raised Mauian, award-winning playwright and the 1995 Maui Teacher of the Year, Moniz recently published a collection of short stories titled Under Maui Skies. Each of the seven stories is set in a different historical period and is written in the style of a different classic genre. An adventure story is centered on the last eruption of Haleakala in 1690; a Wild West cowboy tale is placed Upcountry in the early 1900s Paniolo days; a film noir-esque detective yarn unfolds in the seedy underbelly of 1930s Wailuku. And so on.

Through his well-researched, accessible stories, Moniz reveals an innate understanding and unyielding love of Maui. Not the tiki torch, glossy tourism brochure version that’s packaged and sold to visitors, but the real Maui, the one shrouded in myth and steeped in a history both beautiful and tragic.

We sat down with Moniz ahead of a Mainland book tour to discuss the island’s past, present and future, the art of the short story and his hopes for the next generation of Maui writers.

Talk about the genesis of this book, how it took shape.

I usually do plays, which takes a lot of time and effort—I average at least a year on a play. I had some minor surgery and was confined to bed for a little while, so I decided to try some short stories. There are always ideas, but they’re not necessarily going to become a play. And really, I try to pitch my plays, [but] not as many people want to buy plays in book form. I figured seven stories would be kind of a magic number, and I wanted to try out different genres. The idea was to find out what was my strength; what’s my forte if I want to do a novel? Would it be a love story, ghost story, science fiction? Once I picked the genres, the next question was, of course, what am I going to write about? The way I’ve always approached things is to simply be curious, see where my nose leads me, then do the research. 

I’d imagine the research on these stories was extensive, despite their length.

Oh yes. I wouldn’t say it was as much [research] as I do for a play, but it took a lot to get it historically accurate. My brand of writing is historical fiction, if you want to categorize it.

It’s a good time to be writing historical fiction, isn’t it?

Yes, it’s gotten very popular. You had the [John] Adams book, which really is dramatic fiction—we don’t know what those guys said exactly. There was no Maui Time Weekly to take notes or record.

Some authors have said that short stories can be more difficult to write than novels, because you have to cram background and characters and a compelling arc in much less space. Was that your experience?

Yes, in some ways. Every sentence becomes so important. Arnie [Kotler], the publisher, and I would argue over a word. One review criticized how I placed an adverb in a sentence, and we had actually debated that word. Another criticism said [the detective story] had a bit of a muddled, hurried ending, which may be true. Try to write a mystery in 1,700 words. 

That story seemed like it was begging to be longer.

I actually turned it into a screenplay. It was wonderful because I could spread my wings and take these characters to new places and go into more detail.

You mention the screenplay in your notes at the end of the book. Is it still in ‘pre production’ to use the showbiz parlance?

[Laughs] It’s going around in the Carolinas right now; they have a pretty good film commission. But no, nothing is imminent. My background is actually in film school—I went to UCLA. I got into plays instead of films because it’s easier and less expensive to get them produced.

In the notes for “The Cave of Whispering Spirits,” the story about the last eruption of Haleakala, you write that “insensitivity blinded [the characters] from the requests of the Fire Goddess.” Do you see parallels to some of the current debates about development on Haleakala and the island in general?

I think we see common metaphors. Most of the Pele stories have to do with people being ignorant or insensitive, unaware that the gods are always with you. I sent the councilmembers that story, and certainly have made that connection [to contemporary development]. But that wasn’t the purpose of the story. The purpose of the story was to tell what the last eruption of Haleakala was like. 

Maui is such a famous, popular place but it seems like it hasn’t been explored much by writers, especially in terms of fiction.

 When I taught, I’d ask my students to write about various subjects and they’d write about everything except Maui, except Hawaii. I think it has to do with the fear that really great writers and stories can’t come out of this place. It’s self-doubt, whether our stories are applicable to the world. I remember once I sent a play to an LA theater and they wrote back that the rest of the United States couldn’t connect to us. That really upset me, because I disagree completely. My arguments is, I’ve read Jewish stories of New York, I’ve read the Chicago black stories. Did I connect with those? Heck yeah I connected with them—we’re all a little bit Jewish, we’re all a little bit black and we’re all a little bit Maui. People also feel comfortable writing what they see a lot of and what they know is popular, and you don’t have a lot of examples of Maui writers and Maui stories. So there’s no inspirational leadership.

Do you think that, with this book and your other work, you could provide that leadership?

I’m starting this, along with a few other people, but I would always tell my students, it’s up to you guys to continue it. I don’t have the time in my life to tell all these stories; they’re lining up like soldiers in a parade. In the book, I write about seven locales, but there’s no Hana story, for example. There are so many great stories waiting to be told. 

So you’re hopeful, then?

 I have my doubts like any person, whether this is going to take off. But at least I can say I did it, that I put it out there. And you know, I hate to say it but it’s true: a lot of writers go to their graves without having a hit, and don’t have one until they’re long gone [laughs].

If you had to pick a unifying theme for the book, what would it be?

Whether it was intended or not, there’s a diversity that comes out in each story—that idea of the melting pot, the blending. Some of the pre-contact stories are separate from that, but the rest are about how we’re interconnected. The crime in the detective story is solved with everybody helping out—the auntie saw this and the uncle saw that. As time goes by, these connections start to peel away and that creates a different Maui. I’ve lived here all my life and sometimes I’ll see someone and ask them, Who was your father? Who was your grandfather?, and the connections reveal themselves. But as we’ve gotten more modern, that’s started to dissipate. We’ve become an island of speed bumps and gates. Does that answer your question? I don’t know—it’s a good question, a big question. I’ll work on that one for part two. MTW

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