GC: Tell me about your novel and how you began writing it!
BR: A Chant of Love and Lamentation is really a love story, though in this case the object of love are the islands themselves, and the kanaka maoli whose lives are linked to them. This novel grew out of my own interest in Hawaiian culture and history -- as I learned more about the sovereignty movement and its legitimate grievances, I began to wonder what Hawai`i might look like were it to secede from the United States and regain its independence. At first the novel was set in the far future and featured no less than eight main characters, but over time I moved it to our present day and brought it down to a manageable size. Knowing how to find my way into the story was challenging (I had scenes, characters, impressions, but nothing very solid and no idea how to begin). Then the events of 9/11 gave me an idea for the novel's villains, a splinter group that decides to use violence as a tool, and from that grew the themes of redemption, reconnection, and freedom I needed to craft something more than just a thriller.
GC: When did you hear about Penguin and Amazon's Breakthrough Novel Award contest? Were you set on entering right away?
BR: I first heard of the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Contest from my wife, who entered a couple of years ago. The year after that, I entered with an earlier version of Chant and didn't get past the Quarterfinals. The critiques I received in the contest, plus my wife's unparalleled and deep suggestions, helped me polish it into something much better. This year I entered on a whim, and just told myself I wouldn't follow it too closely; that way I wouldn't be stung when I was cut out. Each time I advanced a step, though, that plan flew farther out the window!
GC: What was the waiting process like? Do you consider that you were calm, cool and collected, or were you biting off your nails like the rest of us mere mortals?
BR: I didn't really get nervous until I made it into the Semi-Finals. Knowing the three lucky Finalists in my category would receive a phone call a week before the announcement did play through my mind. Thankfully, I ended up getting it out of my mind again.
GC: When did you hear you were a finalist? What was that moment like?
BR: My wife and daughter and I were visiting my mother-in-law in southern California, out in the desert east of Los Angeles. I remember the moment clearly. I was in the hallway with my toddler and the phone rang. I had it on vibrate because we had just gotten up from a nap. When the woman on the other end of the line said she was calling from Amazon, I looked at my wife in puzzlement and mouthed the word "Amazon?" to her. My first thought was that there had been a customer complaint (I sometimes sell used books online), but my wife knew instantly what it was about and started jumping in joy. When the truth hit me, I thought I was going to fall down in my excitement and shock.
GC: Have you had the chance to read your fellow nominee's
work? What do you think of their novels?
BR: I've read their excerpts, and am now working my way through the full novels. Outside of a few Sherlock Holmes stories I've never read any mysteries, so Charles Kelly's story is something of a first for me. On the other hand, I'm pretty well-versed in sci-fi and am intrigued by the love story + time travel premise. I can't wait to read them. I wish there could be three winners in each category!
GC: If you win, what will you do to celebrate?
BR: The advance will be all too easy to spend, I'm afraid. I'll buy my wife an iPad, myself a new MacBook, and then I hope to travel to Florida for a while. I went to grad school at FSU and I have many friends scattered all over the state whom I'd love to visit. But it wouldn't just be a vacation -- I'm thinking my next novel will be set in the Florida Keys, so this would also be a research trip. Who knows; Maybe I'll go even if I don't win.