On the Scene: Alan Brennert channels voices of Kalaupapa leprosy patients for his books
Alan Brennert will be talking about his two books on Saturday at the Hawai‘i Book & Music Festival.
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Alan Brennert was well into a productive career when he learned about the forced confinement of leprosy patients at Kalaupapa. Born and raised in New Jersey, he’d earned a graduate degree in screenwriting at UCLA, and embarked on a multifaceted career that included novels and screenplays, writing for DC Comics, and earning an Emmy Award for his work as a television writer/producer.
Brennert had envisioned a four-hour NBC miniseries about Kalaupapa; when NBC turned it down he reworked it as a novel, “Moloka‘i,” published in 2001. “Moloka‘i” got off to a slow start in hardcover, but hit as a book club selection in paperback. The long-awaited sequel, “Daughter of Moloka‘i,” was published in February.
Brennert, 64, will be talking about both books at 2 p.m. Saturday in the Mission Memorial Auditorium at the Hawai‘i Book & Music Festival. He also will sign books at 7 p.m. May 6 at Barnes & Noble Ala Moana (For the complete festival schedule visit hawaiibookandmusicfestival.com).
How did you discover the story of Kalaupapa?
I’d heard about it ever since I started going to the islands back in 1980, but it wasn’t until 1996 that I made my first trip to Molokai. There had been some fine books on Kalaupapa — O.A. Bushnell’s “Molokai,” for example — but no one had really touched on Kalaupapa in the 20th century and what happened when a cure was found. Once I learned about that it just hooked me. It took me three years of researching and writing to write, but I really felt that — particularly as I was going through the documents at the Hawaii State Archives — I was channeling the voices that had been lost to time.
How do you approach writing a believable historical novel?
I really work hard at getting every little detail right. If I have a character emerging from a train station on King Street in 1917, I go into the Honolulu city directory for 1917 and I look through it to find out what stores are there and what she’s looking at.
What’s the biggest different between writing a novel and writing a screenplay — other than length?
When you’re writing a novel, you are the actors, the writer, the director, the set dresser, the wardrobe mistress — you are doing all the work. There are times when it’s nice to write a script and just be the writer.
Jumping from books to comics, do you get a lot of questions from fans of your work for DC Comics — Batman in particular?
I have a lot of comics fans on Facebook who are in touch with me. I also have a Facebook page for the “Tales of the Batman” collection that they published (in 2016).
What advice do you have for people who want to be successful writers?
Write your passion. For me it was always writing about something that I really cared about. I think the thing that comes through “Moloka‘i” is my passion for the characters and for the subject matter.
What is your next big project?
I’m going to be speaking on July 13 at the Manzanar National Historic Site (in California), in one of the few buildings that still exists from the Manzanar internment camp that held Japanese-American citizens during World War II. They’ve chosen “Daughter of Moloka‘i” for their summer reads program, and I’m going to be doing some speaking and doing some (book) signing.