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Author spreads wings with 'Gaff'

A debut novel uses cockfighting culture to engage young readers in a tale of growing up

By Gary C.W. Chun

LAST UPDATED: 12:28 a.m. HST, Jul 9, 2010

This story has been corrected. See below.


Cockfighting as a plot point for a children's book isn't an obvious choice for authors, but Shan Correa accepted the challenge in her debut novel.

The veteran freelance writer hopes her book "Gaff" -- a reference to the sharp blade strapped to a fighting rooster's leg -- will hook middle-school-age readers into a story about a pidgin-speaking boy faced with a moral dilemma because his father raises the feisty birds.

So why, da kine, cockfighting?

"I thought it would be cool to write about it by using the 'what if?' trigger -- what if an island boy lives on a farm where his dad breeds and raises roosters that will be sold to cockfighters? I let that kid, my narrator, Paul Silva, start talking, and soon I found that he was a pretty bright, well-balanced kid, but he sure had a lot to learn, (like) things about life, growing up, being one of the 'real men' (as well as) being afraid, being truly brave and being a friend," she said.

Correa admits she had a bit of learning to do herself concerning the underground activity if she were to make her story believable. She watched cockfighting videos online, did some book research and compiled a file of newspaper clippings she said was 3 inches thick.

"I was especially interested in the cockfighters' reasoning because kids can't stand sermons on morality hidden under the guise of fiction. Fortunately, an old Filipino 'cocker,' Grampa Salvador, moved himself into the story, and the passion he held for the roosters and for cockfighting made Paul's decisions less black-and-white," she said.

Four years in the making, from its inception as an idea to published book, things got off on a discouraging note when Correa got her first rejection from megapublisher Random House. She had much better luck when she attended a Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators conference in Portland, Ore., last year.

"One of the editors who were doing manuscript critiques was from Peachtree, but her schedule of evaluating 12 manuscripts was already filled up," the Hawaii Kai author said.

After making a special plea, Correa persuaded the editor to read the first 20 pages of her book and a synopsis.

"I was lucky manuscript No. 13," she said.

PEACHTREE Publishers, a reputable independent press that focuses on titles for children and teenagers, among other subjects, was a fit for Correa and one that she conscientiously chose.

"I went with a mainland publisher because I thought my book had enough universal appeal outside of Hawaii," she said. But first she had to go through a tough two months of reworking "Gaff" with editor Vicky Holifield.

"She made what was originally the second chapter the first chapter of the book," Correa said, "and Vicki admitted that the pidgin was a challenge to her, so we made a glossary of the words used. I already tried to simplify it for readers unfamiliar with it, but I think it still works to the extent that (self-described pidgin guerrilla) Lee Tonouchi would approve.

"I admit it was hell sometimes -- this coming from someone who taught English and has been a freelance editor over the years. There were a lot of comments written in the margins between the both of us. One that constantly came up as a margin note of mine was 'NP,' which meant 'Not Paul,' if I thought something Vicki recommended as a change wasn't true to my character."

Hindsight is 20-20, and Correa now looks back on the editorial process as "a wonderful experience. Vicki was able to tighten up the book more than I could have. In shaping Paul's narration, she found ways that I could drop some things he said and separate some of his longer running sentences."

A GRADUATE from Eastern Washington University, Correa said that "ever since I was in junior high, I always edited and wrote." In the local market she's done some magazine feature writing over the years, including some articles for the Honolulu Star-Bulletin.

Correa also taught English and journalism at Honolulu Community College and was the creator and faculty adviser of its school newspaper, Kahili, back in the days of electric typewriters and cut-and-paste layouts.

With school readings of "Gaff" on tap (including at Hahaione Elementary, where Correa's children went), the author admits she's gotten her second wind as a writer as she starts a new chapter in her career.

"I want to concentrate on writing children's short fiction, poetry and novels," Correa said. "And I want to write for pre-teens, an age group that I love. They're too old for picture books but not as sophisticated for books written for teenagers. ... There are not that many contemporary novels for this age group, and I hope I can help fill this little niche."

She's already got a second novel lined up for Peachtree, one Correa says will be "completely different" from "Gaff."

The narrator is a girl who writes a letter throughout the book as a way of coping in the wake of her mother's death.

"She's the same age as Paul, but she lives on the mainland, since the story is dependent on the weather and the seasons," Correa said.

"You're always told 'write what you know.' I like writing what I don't know, trusting that I'll learn along the way. When that happens it can be magical."

Correa will be doing a reading and book signing of "Gaff" at 3:30 p.m. Saturday at the Kahala Mall Barnes & Noble bookstore.

CORRECTION: The name "Vickie Holyfield" was misspelled in a previous version of this story. The correct spelling is Vicky Holifield.

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