The image of a drowning boy being gently rescued by sharks was stuck in Kawai Strong Washburn's head. He had no idea where it came from — it just popped into his head one day, and stayed.
That scene became the driving factor of Washburn's debut novel, "Sharks in the Time of Saviors," which was published last March to acclaim and ended up on President Barack Obama's list of best books of 2020. It has also been longlisted for an unprecedented three PEN America awards. The finalists will be announced on Feb. 10.
"Sharks" follows a blue-collar Hawaiian family whose lives change when the oldest son falls off a boat and is rescued by sharks. The child develops the ability to heal, something his family takes as a sign from the ancient gods.
Washburn was born in Hawaii and has lived in Minnesota with his wife and children for about 18 months. We talked with him about writing, Hawaiian mythology and the beauty of snow. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: How did you come to move to Minnesota? And what do you think of the weather?
A: I spent a lot of time for the last six years or so very seriously involved in climate issues. Every time it snows here I just consider it a blessing because I think about what the world would look like without snow. I embrace the snow and the cold with complete joy.
I came to Minnesota because my wife's family is from here. My wife and I met in Washington, D.C. We moved to the West Coast because my mother was dying of cancer. We moved out here to be closer to Christina's father. That was what brought us to Minnesota — to get closer to my wife's family after doing a similar sacrifice for my family.
Q: Have you always been a writer?
A: I'm a software engineer. I just love books, I love reading and there was a compulsion to be part of what I considered that conversation. It's so incredible how you can read something somebody wrote hundreds of years ago — or two years ago — and that person's voice and the things that their writing represents reaches across that chasm and you are in that conversation with that person.
Fifteen or 16 years ago I decided to start writing a novel. I don't think it was until I started writing it that I realized that I don't know anything about writing. I started to think about how do you do this, what is it to write a novel? I had to start studying writing on my own, started rereading books I really loved and thinking of them less as entertainment and more as pieces of writing to study.
Q: You have a full-time job and a family. When do you write?
A: I get up about 5 every morning and I write until my kids get up around 6:30 or 6:45. I either get to sleep, or I get to write. And so I usually write.
Q: Your book opens with an unforgettable scene of ancestors marching into the hills carrying flaming torches. Is this part of Hawaiian legend, or is it from your imagination?
A: That's the Nightmarchers [ghosts of ancient warriors] as well as the concept of aumakua, the return of ancestral spirits through animal form — both of those things draw from ancient Hawaiian mythology but is also very much alive today.
One thing that is interesting about the island is how the ancient and Indigenous beliefs of the island combine with the superstitions that come from other cultures that have come there — Japanese, Portuguese, Filipino and others. It's an incredibly rich, fascinating culture to grow up in.
Q: You tell the story in first person through four of the main characters — the mother and the three children. The father has a chapter at the end. How hard was it to steep yourself in so many voices?
A: I think the first year or so I was really honing each of the voices of the characters. Because none of them are based on me or my family or anyone I know, it took a lot of effort to develop who these characters are. It took a lot of time to get a sense of who they were.
Noa being saved by sharks — knowing that was the myth of the family, I had to figure out how each character is going to react to that. And then I dove into each character as to how they interacted with each other in the family.
I did that work for about year. And even after the third draft, fourth draft, I was changing the language to get a deeper and deeper sense of who they are.
Q: What does it mean to you to be on Obama's list and to be longlisted for the PEN?
A: A former president of the United States who I greatly admire read my novel and he and I had a conversation through that novel. That's incredible.
These awards and accolades that are coming out for the book are also incredible. But it's really strange, so much happens in this internet world we live in. So much of it doesn't feel real.
My book came out and a week later COVID happened and everyone thought we were going to die. The entire life of the book has been overshadowed by these awful events.
Q: I understand you're working on a second novel. Can you tell me what it's about?
A: It deals with two women who share a soul across time, one in the future, one in the ancient past, set in a fictionalized set of islands in the Pacific. I had to do a bunch of research and I'm really just getting started on the writing of it now.
It has been a difficult book to write. Some mornings when I wake up to write instead I just read poetry.
Laurie Hertzel is the senior editor for books at the Star Tribune. firstname.lastname@example.org • Twitter: @StribBooks. Facebook: startribunebooks.
Sharks in the Time of Saviors
By: Kawai Strong Washburn.
Publisher: MCD, 384 pages, $27.