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Ian MacMillan: In the Time Before Light

noe tanigawa
noe tanigawa

Ian MacMillan is a revered figure in Hawai‘i writing circles.  He taught creative writing at UH M?noa from the nineteen sixties to 2008, and influenced a legion of students and professional writers.  HPR’s Noe Tanigawa reports one of them, Robert Barclay, has shepherded MacMillan’s long awaited last novel to publication.

Ian MacMillan
Credit Ian MacMillan
Writer, educator, Ian MacMillan was a professor of English at the University of Hawaii Manoa from 1966 to 2008. He founded the literary journal Hawaii Review in 1973, and authored eight novels and six short story collections. Kurt Vonnegut called MacMillan "the Stephen Crane of WWII.” MacMillan received a number of literary awards, including the Hawaii Award for Literature in 1992, the O. Henry Award, the Elliot Cades Award for Literature in 2007, and the Pushcart Prize.
Robert Barclay, chair of Language Arts at Windward Community College, novelist, shorts story writer, and screenwriter, and his wife, Stacey Fukuhara Barclay, a writer and attorney, met in Ian MacMillan's creative writing class. Here, they discuss pointers MacMillan had for writers, the trials and tribulations of owning a small press, Loihi Press, and their experience with Creative Lab Hawaii, a mentorship program sponsored by the State of Hawaii.

For your copy of Ian MacMillan's In the Time Before Light, contact L?‘ihi Press.   

Writer Robert Barclay is Chair of Language Arts at Windward Community College.

Barclay:  I get students who say they want to be a writer and the first thing I say is, What do you read?  And they say, Well, I don’t have a lot of time to read.  I say if you wanted to play the ‘ukulele don’t you think you should probably listen to the ‘ukulele to see what other people are doing?  And a little light goes off in their heads.  There are so many other options to get storytelling whether it’s through video games or television series, and so forth, that reading just doesn’t seem to be as popular an option as it used to be.

And look at you, Robert, you’re getting into screenwriting now.

Barclay:  If you can get something made, you can reach a larger audience that way, and it’s fun.  I’ve just been doing it a few years now.  It’s just a different way or writing, of telling a story that’s 100% visual.

Barclay:  One of the strongest things I learned from Ian is the art of sensory description.  He has a couple of simple techniques where you spiral in on something or you can spiral out.  You’re looking for a very specific vivid detail.  You don’t put a lot of them in there, just one or two here and there that really transport a reader into a scene.  If you read anything he writes, you see very specific details.  One of the greatest things I learned from him was how to do that.

Barclay:  You use the eye.  Mostly, if you read a novel, most of the description is visual.  Spiraling in and spiraling out, start with a larger picture and you spiral in to a specific vivid detail, or you can do it the opposite way. 

Barclay:  For example, you have a spear fisherman, he’s in a cave, and you start with the way the fish’s eye looks at you in the cave.  Then you pull back to show the cave, then have the fish being speared.  Then the spear fisherman rising, and he breaks through the surface of the water, and your last detail is looking at the mountains, a very large detail.  You can see how you could do that both ways, spiral in or spiral out.

The RateMyProfessor website gives MacMillan a hotness factor of 2.5 but a near perfect rating for helping students want to write.  He’s credited with always finding something to like in a story, and finding specific ways for the writer to make it better.  Students say he made them want to write.

noe tanigawa
Credit noe tanigawa
(l) Chair of Language Arts at WCC, novelist, shorts story writer, and screenwriter Robert Barclay with wrtier, attorney Stacey Fukuhara-Barclay.

Barclay:  He was just a very sincere person, there was no pretense.  He was honest and quiet and patient, and overall just a very decent human being.  If you look at the books he writes, he was very much concerned with human cruelty and why people do cruel things to each other.  How do you remain a decent person yourself, living in a world that’s full of cruelty?  One of the things that struck me about him is what a good, decent, person he was.

How, why do we do it?  What were his conclusions?

Barclay:  He wrote a lot about this in a series of books about WWII, looking at human cruelty, human depravity.  In his latest book, In a Time Before Light, his final novel, there‘s a passage and it reads, “On the face of every man I have ever seen commit an act of cruelty upon another man, I have seen in the tightness of his jaw, an expression of conviction of his justification and the rightness of what he was doing.”

Barclay:  You see this all over the world.  We wasn’t to think of evil as something like Darth Vader or Dr. Evil, but in reality, people who do horrible things, what he gets at in his fiction is that they think they’re doing the right thing somehow.  And that’s what makes it very sinister and very frightening.  People are doing cruel things for what they believe are the right reasons.  He explores that in his fiction. 


Barclay:  Yes.  And he explores it historically, and it’s so appropriate for the present.  We still see it, whether it’s genocide in Africa, whether it’s someone shooting 500 people in Las Vegas.  What is wrong with these people, and what Ian is pointing out is that if you were to get inside their heads, somewhere in there is the justification of the rightness of what they’re doing.

Tell us about MacMillan’s last book, In the Time Before Light.

Barclay:  It’s a novel set in the early 1800’s, a British merchant arrives in Honolulu with all the biases and prejudices of the time.  He meets a Hawaiian man, Pono, who speaks perfect English, and at first he thinks it some sort of parlor trick. But as Pono tells him his life story over the course of the novel, Matthew, the British merchant, finds out that not only is Pono more intelligent and more moral than he is, he’s also more worldly and more traveled. 

Barclay:  The bulk of the book is Pono’s life story.  He’s kidnapped as a young man by a pirate who is 

noe tanigawa
Credit noe tanigawa
Ian MacMillan's last novel, In the Time Before Light, published by Loihi Press. Cover image by Carl Pao.

fascinated by human depravity. For decades they travel around the Pacific Rim, from one site of human atrocity to another, trying to figure out why people do that.  At the end, it’s beautiful in the way they find a way to preserve their own humanity in a world that is so cruel.

Barclay:  We’re just surrounded by atrocity and depravity.  What is the answer?  It’s as simple as a Beatles song, All You Need is Love, but, and you see this in Ian’s work, that is one of the hardest things for human beings to do.  To love one another, to feel compassion, to feel empathy, that takes work.  It’s a tragedy of human existence, that it’s hard to love, and hatred and cruelty come very easily.

Barclay says when he got the manuscript, it had already been revised several times.  Before MacMillan passed, he and Barclay discussed chapter breaks, so it went through a standard editing process.  Carl Pao, a friend of the MacMillan family allowed them to use a painting for the cover, and the book was published this fall by L?‘ihi Press.

L?‘ihi Press is a small publishing company run by Barclay and his wife, writer, attorney Stacey Fukuhara-Barclay.  They’ve put out five or six books over the last 12 years, and worked on MacMillan’s book for the last nine years.  Barclay says he would work on it, then pass it to Mark Panek, a writer who teaches at UH Hilo, for further editing in a slow, steady process to publication.

With their publications now handled through Amazon Create Space, the Barclays think they may have stopped the fiscal hemorrhaging often associated with small presses. 

Barclay:  It’s a labor of love.  It’s not a money making enterprise.  Really, selling fiction, unless you’re on the New York Times best seller list, you’re not going to make a lot of money selling fiction in the first place.  Now if someone were to call and say they want to buy the option to make a movie, there may be some money there.

To that end, the Hawai‘i State Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism has been developing its Creative Industries division.  One of the key success stories there is the annual Creative Lab Hawai‘i designed “to accelerate global export of Hawaii’s creative content and creative products to strengthen our creative entrepreneurs’ capacity for success.” This year, the Barclays were one of those chosen for the year-long mentorship to develop ideas for their short film project, HI Conflict.

Fukuhara-Barclay:  We workshopped our whole story with the whole group and a coach… we were fortunate enough to have Jessie Nickson-Lopez who was responsible for the character El on Stranger Things.  We had one-on-one sessions, there’s so much we didn’t know.  It’s so different from writing a book

Fukuhara-Barclay:  For instance, in a book you can cheat and you can have interior monologues to portray who your character is, but in film, it’s all about showing.  So she said, Do this exercise:  Get into your character’s head, and write they’re thinking about this particular scene.  I did that and we were saying, none of that has been conveyed on the page!

Fukuhara-Barclay:  We went back and revised and revised until it matched the interior monologue.  

Another tip involves “beats,”which you can find out more about in the extended interview. 

In another effort sparked by the lab, the Barclays are going to produce a web series.  Fukumoto-Barclay says when rights to a project are considered, investors want to see buy in and as many pre-produced assurances as possible.

Fukuhara-Barclay:  We’re realizing we need to depend on ourselves, and our cohorts in the Creative Labprogram.  That’s why the Creative lab program is so important.  We’re all realizing we can’t do it alone.  We have to put in the hard work, and that takes a community.

Meeting videographers, meeting actors…

Fukuhara-Barclay:  There is a community and that’s what Creative Labs is trying to harness here.  We entered the writers’ program, but they have a production immersive, that’s the next step, where you’re actually production the film so they teach you the business of it, and they teach you how to do it. 

Fukuhara-Barclay:  We got to meet some of those people, and we were saying, Hey, we have a script, you have a camera!

Fukuhara-Barclay:  If you want to get your series made, be proactive, start doing a little web series. But you have to be able to market it to people on different platforms so we’re having to learn about all of that.  That’s how you create buzz.  From there, someone may see you’re successful, they may want to buy the rights and get you a TV show. 

Fukuhara-Barclay:  It’s really about doing a ton of research on your audience and how to market to your audience.  It’s all social media platforms, all of that.

And producing spec material. 

Fukuhara-Barclay:  Yes! And being very specific as to where you send your things.  The whole thing is, know your audience, key in on that, and advertise only to them.  At least, to start.

MacMillan said, “Stretch your imagination and take it as far as you can, but start with something you know.”

Barclay:  It’s interesting you brought that up.  The dedication in his book, In the Time Before Light, is “To Our Imaginations.”   I think that’s what’s going to save our species and it think Ian taps into that in all his books.  It’s the power of the human imagination to overcome our faults.

Noe Tanigawa covered art, culture and ideas for two decades at Hawaiʻi Public Radio.
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