Malia Maunakea

Malia Maunakea is a Kānaka Maoli (Native Hawaiian) writer who grew up on Hawaiʻi Island and Oʻahu before relocating to the continent for college. She writes both middle-grade fiction and nonfiction and is the author of Lei and the Fire Goddess (Penguin Workshop, summer 2023) and Lightweight Backpacking for Families (CMC Press, spring 2023). When not at her computer, she can often be found roaming the Rocky Mountains with her husband, their two children, and a rescue mutt named Peggy. Malia is online at and @MaliaMaunakea on Twitter and Instagram.

What inspires you to write? Where do you get your ideas?

Hawaiʻi is my inspiration: my childhood and experiences, our people and our history. I write because I want kids growing up there to see a bit of their experiences in stories, even if it is just something as small as a familar food or landmark, and because I want to provide an alternative—not curated for tourism—glimpse of island life to folks that don’t live there.

Tell us about your book.

LEI AND THE FIRE GODDESS is a middle-grade contemporary fantasy steeped in Hawaiian mythology that will appeal to fans of Rick Riordan Presents adventures. When Anna goes back to Hawaiʻi to visit her Tūtū, she has no interest in becoming the heir to her family’s history; she’s set on having a touristy, fun vacation. But when Anna accidentally insults Pele the fire goddess by destroying her lehua blossom, a giant hawk swoops in and kidnaps her best friend, and she quickly learns just how real these moʻolelo are. In order to save her friends and family, Anna must now battle mythical creatures, team up with demigods and talking bats, and evade the traps Pele hurls her way.

What advice do you have for writers?

My advice to writers is to find a support group of folks on a similar path. Knowing other writers has helped me gain perspective of what’s normal, learn about events and critique opportunities, find answers and improve my craft, and form friendships that keep me motivated far longer than I would have on my own. Celebrating and commiserating with people who understand what I’m going through is key to my sanity, and I’d imagine helpful for any writer.

What advice do you have for aspiring writers & creators? What advice do you have for aspiring writers & creators from marginalized/underrepresented backgrounds?

In the beginning of my journey, I went to the library to see if there were any Hawaiian middle-grade books similar to LEI. My thought was that if one was already written, I wouldn’t have a chance. I was a fool! We obviously need more than just one book by a Hawaiian author! Write all the books, even if there is already someone of your underrepresented background writing those stories. No marginalization is a monolith, and having more voices each sharing their unique takes adds to the vibrancy of library shelves.

Also, don’t query too early. Get as many sets of eyes on your story before sending it out into agent’s inboxes. You don’t have to follow their advice all the time, but try to understand the issues that they’re finding and come up with solutions to address them. Try find someone further along in the publication process than you are to learn from. There are mentorships and critiquing opportunities from a variety of groups.  

How do you weave your culture(s) into your book(s)? How do(es) your culture(s) influence your writing?

LEI is an homage to my childhood—small kid time—running around barefoot, climbing guava trees, hunting geckos. Its a blend of stories and songs that I learned growing up on Hawaiʻi Island with all the fantastical “what if” questions that my overactive imagination wonders about, paired with a healthy dose of “I don’t fit in anywhere because I don’t know my cultural identity” angst. 

What is your writing process like?

My stories usually begin with a plot idea. I have a thought for a problem—usually a catalyst or inciting incident that’d be fun to explore, then I have to work both backwards and forwards from that point. Character arcs are something I need to intentionally think about, as characters don’t develop as naturally for me as plots, so figuring out the character’s motivations and wounds and how they tie in to the plot many times don’t get fully realized until a second (or later) draft in the blinding light of an “a-ha” moment. I like having deadlines, and calculating how many words I need to write per day to reach that deadline. Scrivener’s little “word counter” color changing bar graph thing makes me happy as it goes from red to yellow to green as I progress towards my daily word count goals. 

What’s your favorite part of the writing process? Your least favorite part? Why?

Drafting the first draft is both my favorite and least favorite part of the writing process. It is both the hardest but most exciting. It totally consumes me, I dream about my project, love starting to see how it will all play out, get totally invested in the struggles and outcomes. But it comes with the biggest challenges and brain-stumping moments. Moments of uncertainty and panic that it will never work out. Pushing through that to get to THE END, knowing that I created something from nothing is absolutely wild. 

How long on average does it take you to write a book? 

First draft of LEI AND THE FIRE GODDESS was written in about 4 months (but rewritten and edited for the next year and a half). First draft of LEI 2 was written in a similar 4 month period, and I’m just starting edits now. 

How do you deal with critiques of your work?

I read all the comments, allow myself a beat of “oh my goodness, I don’t know how I ever sold a book, it must have been a total fluke,” then get to work proving my negativity wrong by brainstorming ways to address the shortcomings that the critiquer found. I know my drafts need help and I’m extremely grateful for critique partners and editors who are able to see through what I’ve written, find the golden nuggets, point out the weak points, and help me shape it into the best story possible. Printing out a copy of edit letters and in-line comments helps me track everything more clearly. I’m very tactile and hands-on, and love writing notes on post-its and sticking them in margins, or using high lighters and red pens to work on edited manuscripts.