Hi, my name is Malia Maunakea. I’m a kānaka writer (aboriginal Hawaiian descent) from Hawaiʻi. I moved to Colorado in 1999 to attend CU Boulder (I have a degree in civil engineering and a minor in business). Zero about my background or work experience (transportation planner, then real estate agent) would have indicated that my answer to the “if you could be anything, what would you be” question would be “writer.” Yet here I am. My non-fiction, how-to book Backpacking With Children comes out April 2023 with CMC Press, and my debut middle-grade contemporary fantasy Lei and the Fire Goddess launches June 6, 2023 with Penguin Workshop (both are available for pre-order through links on my website). I couldn’t be more excited.

Do you remember the first book you read on your own?

I remember reading The Whales Go By by Fred B. Phleger and Humphrey the Lost Whale by Wendy Tokuda and Richard A. S. Hall in the reading corner of my kindergarden classroom. I also absolutely loved Just So Stories by Rudyard Kipling when I was very young. And anything by Tomie dePaola. I very clearly remember wandering the aisles of our elementary school library pulling out random books and choosing what to read based on the cover.

What are you currently reading?

I’m taking a brief hiatus from reading all the middle-grade books from my debut group to read Nation Within: The History of the American Occupation of Hawaiʻi by Tom Coffman in preparation for my class that starts this month. I’m back in college, working towards a Hawaiian Studies degree online.

What are some of the most important books you’ve read?

From A Native Daughter: Colonialism & Sovereignty in Hawaii by Haunani-Kay Trask, an incredible voice of the sovereignty movement. Such a smart, passionate woman. Ua Mau Ke Ea Sovereignty Endures: An Overview of the Political and Legal History of the Hawaiian Islands by David Keanu Sai, Ph.D. He is my current college professor, and the leading voice of Hawaiian Sovereignty at this time, using international law to shine new light on the illegal occupation of Hawaii. Hawaiian Mythology by Martha Beckwith, a very in-depth accounting of many of the moʻolelo, histories and stories of Hawaiʻi. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King, a hysterical book that helped me not take famous authors too seriously and get the courage to give this writing thing a shot.

What is it that helps you stay focused when you sit down to write?

What is this focus you speak of? Kidding. Focus is hard for me. I have ADHD and am constantly thinking about and working on a million things at once. And then I get distracted by a shiny new email that has a bunch of questions for BWA when I should be working on edits that are due in a week (squirrel!). But food helps. Lots of snacks. And silence. Not having my kids or husband in the house is excellent. My prime time is when I take my daughter to swim practice from 7 to 9pm. I sit in our van and work on edits because I don’t have any internet to distract me. When I get stuck on a scene, I try to go for a run (though not in the cold winter weather) and usually I can work through it. Keeping index cards and a pen on my nightstand is key because that’s where a lot of ideas hit as I’m falling asleep. But that doesn’t answer the question of what helps me stay focused when I sit down to write. Whoops! I’ll stick with snacks for focus. A fresh apple and lemon strips from Hawaiʻi (ingredients are lemon, sugar, salt) are my go-to treat after lunch.

What is it that inspires you?

There is a saying: Write what you know. That’s what I try to do. With my engineering background, I figured that non-fiction would be an easier fit than fiction, so I wrote the proposal for my Backpacking With Children book based on, you guessed it, backpacking with my kids. While I was waiting to hear back from the publisher on my submittal, I kept thinking about all the stories and histories that I grew up with, and how kids on the continent hear all about Greek gods but not about Hawaiian gods. My son went through a massive Greek mythology phase (he still loves Rick Riordan) and I was bummed there weren’t any middle grade Hawaiian stories at our local library, so I decided to try write one pulled from my own experiences.

Do you like the editing process, or would you rather leave that to others?

I love having someone else to collaborate with on the editing process. Having critique partners, then mentors, then an agent, and finally an editor who all knew more than I do about the writing process and techniques has helped me immensely, since I kind of jumped in without a formal writing background. Sentence structures are tricky to me. I don’t know where commas go. In my earlier draft, I had a mentor point out I didn’t have an “All is Lost” moment, which checks out, since I don’t like sad things. I really enjoy the partnership and brainstorming process of improving my work, but hate rereading my own stuff, so trying to edit on my own is extremely painful.

Do you prefer to write off the cuff, or do you take a more methodical approach, such as using an outline?

I heard the term pantser and I love it. I start with plotting out the basic beats, having a general idea of where I want the story to go. My mentor, Alan Gratz, taught me an eight beat storyline that I have up on a board in my office, and I try filling in index cards for each of the beats, but usually about halfway through filling in the index cards I just have to start writing and making it up as I go along. I usually write in order, though. From start to finish. At least, I have so far.

In what ways do you think social media can help writers?

Where does it fall short? I think everyone has their own experiences and personalities that do or don’t work with social media. Here’s what I’ve found works for me:

  • Twitter: Love it or hate it, this is where I found my writing community. Granted, I was there in the before times of the new ownership, and yes, things have changed and folks have jumped ship, but there is still a sizeable chunk of librarians, educators, agents, editors, and authors on the bird app. I learned about various writing mentorships, pitch contests, and agents through this site. I formed a core group of middle-grade writing friends from all over the world on this site, and am looking forward to our first in-person meeting in Nashville in February. Yes, there is a lot of drama, but it is possible to get good things from it.
  • Instagram: This one is rough for me, as I’m not an aesthetic/visual person. I do utilize it, though, and have connected with folks outside the writing community on it. It is helpful for learning about events and more authors have upped their IG game since the Twitter shift. I don’t think it is a much of a tool when looking for agents/editors, but it can help connect you with readers if you’re good at the hashtag game and can direct folks to your website and get them to sign up to your newsletter.
  • Facebook: In my personal life, this is basically where I keep my friends and family up to date with everything going on. I keep that page private. I’ve created an author page there, but it is extremely basic/minimal.
  • TikTok: Want some laughs? Go look at my attempts at learning how to use TikTok. I think it is important to have a presence so if anyone is looking for you, they can find you and be redirected to your website and newsletter (this is basically the goal for every social media site), or so they can share your information. I’ve had a teacher in Hawaiʻi find my posts and share them with an educator. Did you see how that was a singular teacher who shared it with a singular educator? Yeah, not going viral anytime soon. Which is why I don’t worry too much about it and only post when I have a reason or interest.

Don’t put too much stock/energy into anything you don’t want to do. Claiming your name on the different sites is valuable in my opinion just so no one else takes it and posts content that doesn’t mesh with your brand, but what you post/how often really doesn’t matter unless you have a goal of being an influencer (which I most definitely don’t). You want to be able to show anyone looking you up that you’re legitimate, then redirect them to your website. That’s the goal.

Do you have any words of advice for aspiring writers?

Find your people! They don’t have to be near you, though resources like BWA are fantastic and meeting in person brings an energy unlike any virtual call. But if you’re writing in a niche genre and want to find other folks in your niche, you might need to branch out and get online to find camaraderie! Be brave and put yourself out there. Writers who speak the language of querying, being on sub, critique partners, beta readers, ARCs, etc. can help keep you motivated, hold you accountable, offer advice, and listen to you drone on about craft long after the non-writer friends in your life have tuned you out.