In Elizabeth Hand’s Hokuloa Road (Mulholland, July), a fictional Hawaiian island’s stunning exterior conceals a dark heart—and a menacing stalker that isn’t quite human. Hand, whose work has garnered multiple Shirley Jackson and World Fantasy Awards, among other accolades, spoke with PW about isolation, climate change, and the Hawaii the tourists don’t see.
What inspired this story?
My daughter lives in Maui, and I’m a cold gray North person living in Maine. On one visit to my daughter, I saw an abandoned building in a big field, painted over with many names and dates; they were the names of people who’d gone missing. Later, I came across a telephone pole covered with fliers in search of missing people. It was frightening on many levels, and as a writer, it opened so many doors.
I visited again in 2020 when my daughter was having her first child, and had to quarantine for two weeks when I arrived; after that, I had the chance to explore the island when there were virtually no tourists there. Grady, the main character of the book, is a late-20s carpenter from Maine who was thrown out of work during the pandemic and applies for a job as a caretaker for a wealthy man on a Hawaiian island, only to find that people are going missing.
How does his outsider status play out?
Grady is a haole—or as we say in Maine, someone “from away.” He’s navigating a different environment, culture, topography. Maine is the whitest state per capita in the country; Hawaii has a remarkable mix of ethnicities and people from all over the world. Mainlanders’ impressions of Hawaii are just of the resorts, and I wanted to show something different from that. When I first visited my daughter in Hawaii, it was disorienting and destabilizing and fascinating. I’m very aware that I barely scratched the tip of the iceberg—it’s an intricate, complicated, beautiful place.
What intrigues you about Hawaii?
I’m fascinated by folklore, and setting determines so much about how a folklore develops. Dog spirits, the kaupe, are recurring characters in Hawaiian lore; I wanted to embellish while being respectful. Hawaii is a remote place that was a sovereign nation, and there’s a lot of politics around that. There’s a great deal of income disparity, as there is in Maine. There are wealthy Covid refugees who can afford to move to the islands, and then there’s also a terrible housing shortage—there are houseless camps, and quite a few resort employees, people in the service industry, just living on the beach, because they can’t afford a place to live.
Like several of your earlier novels, Hokuloa Road touches on environmental concerns. Why is that?
Humans haven’t been in Hawaii for that long—the first navigators from Polynesia around 400 AD found an island that was mostly just full of birds, and when the white imperialists arrived, that was still true. Waves of introduced species, including humans, have wrought havoc on the ecosystem; the extinction rate for flora and fauna, particularly for birds, is very high. The lack of tourists for a year did allow it to recover a bit. There’s a movement in the state to change the direction of tourism, to limit the number coming in, and to make changes like banning the types of sunscreen that cause die-off in the coral. The Easter egg in this novel is climate change.