Pamela Varma Brown.
That name is familiar to many on Kauai. She is known, perhaps more than anyone, as the person who tells the stories of the people of Kauai. She told them well in “Kauai Stories,” which was published in 2012. And she is back with “Kauai Stories 2” that was recently released. There are stories about growing up in Kauai. Stories about the Hawaiian language. Stories about hog farms and grocery stores. Stories of surfing, seashells and fishing. Ghost stories, too.
The topics range, but the one constant you’ll find in each is they are filled with the heart and soul of their subjects. That’s because Brown is one of those persons that people trust. They believe in her. They see good in her and they have confidence in her. They like her relaxed manner, her calming spirit, her friendly smile. And they know when they’re talking, she’s listening. So they share their lives with her so she can put them in print.
Brown has called Kauai home since moving here 26 years ago. She came with a degree in journalism, a career in the insurance industry and a desire to meet people. These days, you can find her most mornings swimming at Morgan’s Ponds (“It’s just a great way to start the day,” she says), riding her bike, practicing yoga and spending time with her partner, Lincoln Gill.
She finds great joy not just in telling the stories of Kauai’s people, but in people reading them. And learning from them.
“If you like knowing about people, you look at someone and wonder what makes them tick, how they got to where they are and how they got how they are, these stories are for you,” she said. “And these stories are fun and interesting and inspiring, whether you know about Kauai or not because they’re all real people.”
As real as they come. Just like Pamela Varma Brown.
The Garden Island: Why did you decide to write “Kauai Stories 2”?
PB: There’s so many good stories on Kauai, I couldn’t help myself. For a really small island, we have a lot of fascinating people here, people who have done a lot, seen a lot, have triumphed over adversity, a lot of very happy people here. So many dimensions for people who have been born and raised on Kauai, or who come here from other places. I just find their stories fascinating. I’ve been a story junkie since I was a kid. I’ve been hearing more and more stories and thought, “Wow, this would make another great book.”
I really didn’t know I was going to do another book until I finished the first “Kauai Stories” at the end of 2012 and then more and more stories kept coming. I thought, “Wow, I really need to do another volume.” I started it pretty quickly; it took awhile to finish because I had so many other things on my plate.
I thought it was done last December, I had it going through the proof-reading process, had five proofreaders, started doing the photo selection, then two more fabulous stories dropped in my lap that belonged in the book.
TGI: How do you pick the people for your book?
PB: They come from all different places. Sometimes someone tells me about somebody I should talk to. Sometimes I’ll bump into them or somehow have an encounter with them. And as soon as they start talking, I’ll know if this is a story I want to write. Sometimes I know it’s a prime story for my book. And sometimes, I know it’s a story for my column. And sometimes, it goes in both. I can’t really describe how I know. I just have a feel for it. Some stories have a longevity, so if a book like “Kauai Stories” or “Kauai Stories 2” sits on a shelf for 20 years, I want somebody to be able to pick that up and feel like the stories are fresh, whether the people are 20 years older now. I really want stories that are going to have a strong, positive impact while representing Kauai very well.
TGI: Is it easy to get people to share their stories?
PB: For the most part. Sometimes, yes, very easy. Sometimes, it depends who asks. Sometimes if somebody very close or has a relationship to the person says, “You need to tell your stories,” then they will. What’s also been such a blessing is people knowing they can somehow trust me. And I don’t know how that is. I know I have integrity, but until you know somebody, you don’t know that about them. So, for the first “Kauai Stories,” there’s hardly anybody whose stories are in that book I knew before that book, and they somehow trusted me to do a nice job with them and represent them well and represent the island well and positively. Now, more and more people are telling me of someone I should talk to because they’re close with them and they’ve seen my writing. They’ll tell them, “This one is going to be OK.” Sometimes, I’m talking to people who are hesitant they’ll be misrepresented, but that’s the last thing I want to do. I find it a real privilege to interview them and hear their stories.
TGI: Will you spend hours interviewing someone?
PB: I find it most effective just to sit down and talk so their thoughts are very focused. And like most of us, people’s thoughts will bounce all over and that’s where the editing comes in. Because I do more than just transcribe their story and print it. There’s a lot of editing that goes on because almost none of us speak in a super coherent fashion and I’m sure I’m not either at this moment. But sometimes, they want to go out and show stuff.
TGI: Do you remember the people you’ve interviewed? Do they have an impact and influence on you?
PB: Totally. You know what’s been fascinating is, I have been somehow led to talk with people who have something in their story that’s relevant to something I need to learn, and I don’t know that at the time. Like, for example, in “Kauai Stories 1,” I talked to Vic Allen. He’s a man who went blind when he was 38. He’s a big, strong guy and he paddles on a team and he also solo paddles. He says he goes in the ocean almost every day. That’s kind of hard for sighted people to imagine. The day I went to see him, I was moping about something in my own life, having some kind of difficulty, and I met him. He’s one of the happiest people I’ve ever met. Watching him, I go, “What is my own problem?”
Something they have learned in their life they have been able to teach me, and I hope they’re teaching other people, too, what we can all accomplish as normal human beings. It’s a lot more then we normally give ourselves credit for. One of the pleasures and privileges I have of capturing people’s stories like this is knowing that not only have I found a great story to tell, but something about this person’s experience is going to inspire other people. Everyone I talk to has just been an awesome person. I like to share that with everybody.
TGI: When did you start your writing career?
PB: I didn’t do it commercially until 2003. I’d write a little bit on the side, but not much. I’ve been an insurance agent since ‘82. I would just write a little on the side. I used to be very involved in Rotary so I’d do their press releases. In 2003, I said, “I want to write for real.” I remember even seeing the quote marks in my head. I don’t know what that means, but it means, not just as a hobby. So I started writing stories and I would submit them to The Garden Island and another publication and I would just give the stories for free. Nobody had a budget and I didn’t have clips and I just started doing real interviews and sending in the stories and they’d publish them. Little by little people started calling me, asking me to do other stuff. But I had this other career all along. So it wasn’t until 2007 I started doing a lot more with it. In 2007, I was asked to edit a publication called Kauai People. It functioned as a precursor to Midweek. Midweek wasn’t here then. It was only on Oahu. Kauai People came out every week and it was chock full of stories about Kauai People. There was nothing in there other than Kauaian content.
TGI: What do you like about life on Kauai that makes you want to write about it?
PB: Everything on Kauai is fun. I’ve always liked the laid-back vibe here. I like that it’s so relaxed and you’re allowed to be whoever you want to be without judgment. You can be whoever you want to be anywhere in the world I find it easier on Kauai because people are more accepting and realize you might be more than your particular job title you hold at the moment. I find that people on Kauai and Kauai as a whole see you as a whole person. People are accepting and encouraging. So if it’s taking up a hobby or starting a new career, or whatever, people really want to help you with whatever you’re doing.
TGI: What do you hope people come away with from reading your books?
PB: What I want is for people to get a lot of joy from reading these stories and to be inspired and to be educated in a lot more fun fashion than we normally learn things.
TGI: Will there be a “Kauai Stories 3”?
PB: I might. I am pondering it.
TGI: Do people know you as the person who writes the stories of Kauai’s people?
PB: Surprisingly, yes. I like to do yoga at the beach. I go real early when it’s just the handful of people who go real early and exercise. We all know each other. One time I’m at the beach doing yoga and this guy who swims there fairly often comes up and says, “Hey, you Pam Brown. I like your stories.”
I’m good with names and faces, so I recognize people even when they don’t know me. I’ve had people come up to me, I had no idea they knew me. I had one guy come up to me, he took both my hands in his hands and said, “I love your stories.” I was in tears. I didn’t even know he knew my name. And he just went on and on that he knows the people I write about. It was exactly what I hoped people take away, that they feel they know these people I’ve written about.
TGI: Why do you suppose your books have had such an impact?
PB: Human nature is, the more you know about somebody, the more you like them because you understand them more. You have a clear picture of who they are, why they are the way they are, and their whole persona makes more sense to you. What I like that happens from these stories, is that folks who read them come away with more of an understanding of what Japanese immigrants, for example, had to compete with when they came here to make a new life for themselves, how amazing a third generation has gone to college and they own homes. Where people come from, it’s a lot of times very different than what we see on the outside. And I like that the more we can learn about each other, the more tolerant and understanding we can become of each other. It’s just natural, yeah?
To buy “Kauai Stories” and “Kauai Stories 2” or to find out where they are available, go to www.kauaistories.net