Friday, September 27, 2019

Robert McCaw, Author of Off the Grid

Robert McCaw grew up in a military family traveling the world. After graduating from Georgetown University, he served as a lieutenant in the US Army before earning his law degree from the University of Virginia. Thereafter he practiced as a partner in a major international law firm in Washington, DC, and New York City—and maintained a home on the Big Island of Hawai’i. McCaw brings a unique authenticity to his Koa Kāne Hawaiian mystery novels in both his law enforcement expertise and his ability to portray the richness of Hawai’i’s history, culture, and people. McCaw lives in New York City and La Jolla, California, with his wife, Calli.

One Bite at a Time: You’re a first time visitor to OBAAT so not all our readers may be as familiar with your work as they are with some others. Give us the quick and dirty one hundred words or less rundown on Off the Grid.

Robert McCaw: In Off The Grid, Koa Kāne, Hilo Hawaii’s chief police detective, confronts two bizarre scenes—a woman killed in an exploding vehicle and a charred corpse dumped in an active lava field. Koa’s efforts to identify the two reveal only off-the-grid loners with multiple aliases. When the CIA and the DIA show up, Koa becomes enmeshed in a bizarre international intrigue. When his police chief becomes a suspect, Koa’s life and career are threatened. Relentless, Koa races against time to unlock the secrets of the victims’ identities, exposing a conspiracy so shocking it topples careers far outside of Hawaii.

OBAAT: Off the Grid has a broad scope, encompassing local police, the CIA, the DIA, and the Chinese government. How did you develop the level of familiarity needed to utilize such diverse entities effectively?

RM: The simple answer is research, but that word hides considerable complexity. To begin with, I believe that all of life is research for a novelist, and I am always looking for situations and characters, big and small in my life or in the news, that might fit into my current or future projects. While historical CIA scandals fit into this category, many of the military aspects of Off The Grid come from my own experience as a soldier and a lifetime of reading military news, non-fiction books, and novels. My understanding of the interrelationship between the CIA and the Chinese government as portrayed in Off The Grid grew out of my intense curiosity and exhaustive reading of domestic and foreign news articles and government statements about the bizarre, but real, international incident at the core of Off The Grid.

Regarding police procedures, I drew on many sources. As a lawyer not infrequently involved in criminal cases, I started with a strong background in the legal constraints within which the police are supposed to operate. From there, I talked to local policemen in Hawaii, followed local crime news, studied procedural and forensic texts, and reviewed physical and online catalogs of police equipment and crime scene supplies. I also found a tremendous resource in Lee Lofland’s Writers’ Police Academy, which I attended on multiple occasions, participating in seminars on fingerprinting, firearms, ballistics, blood splatter analysis, undercover operations, traffic stops, and many other police activities. As an attendee at the Writers’ Police Academy, I also took advantage of opportunities to discuss plot points with law enforcement officers who were remarkably generous with their knowledge and insights.

OBAAT: Writer’s craft question: How did you keep all those balls in the air? Do you outline? Craft each page before moving on or work through a draft before going back for revisions? How much did you know in advance as opposed to making up on the fly?

RM: For me, writing is an iterative process. Generally speaking, I mostly know where I am going to start, have a rough idea of the ending, and may outline small sections as I write. I don’t try to outline an entire book, nor do I polish each page before turning to the next one. I work through sections of a draft and often go back to make revisions as the story develops. I find that research on the particulars of a scene often generates ideas that need to be foreshadowed or incorporated in previous chapters.

OBAAT: You spent twenty years writing Death of a Messenger around your legal career. What was it about that book that kept you coming back?
RM: It was Hawaii itself that repeatedly pulled me back to write Death of a Messenger. I first visited the Big Island in 1986 and fell in love with its magic. For me, the island is actually a character in my novels, and the victim in Death of a Messenger is a kind of metaphor for Hawaii’s turbulent history. Each time I returned to the Big Island over the following 32 years, I explored new places, met new people, including many of the multicultural people who make up its population, and heard new stories. I felt compelled to capture and share aspects of those experiences.

OBAAT: We both write series. To me, the setting and cast are at least as important as the stories in keeping readers coming back. Do you agree?

RM: Absolutely. Settings, characters, plots, and language are the essential ingredients of good novels. Settings have the power to transport readers to places they’ve never imagined and are often critical to character development. People generally reflect where they grew up and live, and it says something about them when they don’t. Characters allow readers to see behind facades they only rarely get to pierce in real life, opening windows into the perspectives of people they would never have the opportunity to meet. Only in a fictional world do readers discover the true thoughts that people don’t or won’t express. The writer’s task is to get readers to form an emotional attachment (or revulsion) to a character. Only then will most readers really care about what happens to that character as the plot develops.

OBAAT: Side question: how did you develop the cast you have in the Kane novels? Was it organic or did you have a good idea of who you wanted around from the start?

RM: As indicated in response to your next question, the setting and outline of the plot usually come first, and the characters follow, fitting into the slots created by the narrative. That said, I’ve been “collecting” characters for a lifetime—soldiers I met in the military; one of my commanding officers; lawyers, prosecutors, and a few shady witnesses I met in my legal practice; judges I’ve appeared before; an auctioneer for a fish market in Hilo; merchants and artists from whom I’ve made purchases; friends; and even people I’ve seen in restaurants or on the street. On occasion, a character I’ve met is so compelling that he or she shapes the plot. The victims in Off The Grid are examples. Gwendolyn, the woman killed in the staged accident, and Arthur, the man half-buried in a lava field, are modeled on an artist and her husband who invited my wife and me to their mostly off-the-grid home to commission a Hawaiian silk painting. I think of them as characters in reverse. They are dead when the reader first encounters them, but come alive as Koa Kāne investigates their identities.

OBAAT: We both write books that could be described as police procedurals. What drew you to that element of solving mysteries, as opposed to private investigators, journalists, or lawyers?

RM: The concept and structure of my first novel, Death of a Messenger, required an official protagonist. I wanted to tell the story of the mysterious disappearance of the ancient Hawaiian adze makers who mined a particularly hard stone for tools and weapons from ancient quarries atop Mauna Kea, Hawaii’s tallest volcano. Geographically, the adze makers' story had to start in the mile-high saddle lands between Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa, an area now occupied by the Army’s Pōhakuloa Training Area. Thus, my protagonist needed the ability to enlist the military’s cooperation. I also wanted to highlight the contrast between the ancient Mauna Kea adze quarries and the current astronomical facilities atop Mauna Kea. That required a protagonist with easy access to the astronomy community and the resources to operate in the hostile winter environment atop the extinct volcano. A civilian police officer met those requirements, and his need to work with a military counterpart and a local prosecutor offered opportunities to leverage both my military and legal experience. Having chosen Chief Detective Koa Kāne as the protagonist for my first novel, he naturally became the central character in Off The Grid.

OBAAT: Cultural appropriation is a hot topic. As a Caucasian writing a native Hawai’ian protagonist, did that concern you? How did you address it?

RM: Too bad Tom Wolfe is no longer alive to write a book ridiculing the current hysteria called cultural appropriation. In its worst form, it’s pure tribalism. To suggest that people should not photograph, write about, or portray people who are different can only inhibit men and women from knowing, understanding, appreciating, and respecting other human beings who happen to have one or more different characteristics. The problem is not cultural appropriation, it’s cultural disrespect; it’s the near-universal human tendency to think we’re better than those who are different from us. We should applaud, not condemn, artists who try to bridge cultural barriers. We should also honor artistic freedom of expression, not attempt to restrict it.

One of my many goals in writing the Koa Kāne series was to share my appreciation for the unique qualities of Hawaii, its history, its culture, its beauty, its diversity, its language, and yes, some of its problems. I’ve sought to do so in a respectful manner, and choosing a Hawaiian protagonist helped me to do so. Take language for example. The Hawaiian language is beautiful and like all human tongues has its own unique proverbs and ways of capturing ideas. I was drawn to that beauty and wanted to share it with readers who’ve never been to Hawaii or heard the lyrical voices of the islands. It would have been difficult to put those Hawaiian words, proverbs, and sayings in the mouth of a haole (western) protagonist. Having chosen that path, I sought out a Hawaiian editor to help me get it right. That effort was recognized when the review committee at Nā Mea Hawaiʻi—“a community resource focused on distributing the best books, music, and DVDs on Hawaiʻi and the Pacific”—accepted Death of a Messenger for distribution. In short, there is a vast difference between cultural disrespect and cultural appreciation. The two should not be confused.