Wednedays with Writers: Inspired by her grandmother’s stories of WWII, an adorable lion cub, delicious berry pies, and the gorgeous landscape of Hawaii, debut novelist Sara Ackerman takes us on her journey, touching on acupuncture, paddleboarding, and more in ISLAND OF SWEET PIES AND SOLIDERS


By Leslie Lindsay 

Wartime novel set among the lush landscape of Hawaii about friendship, loyalties, and love. 

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I fell right into the folds of this novel, as the glittering paradise of Hawaii came to life with Ackerman’s detail and ease. It’s 1944 and Violet and her daughter, 10-year old Ella are piecing their lives back together after her husband and high school principal, Herman goes missing. It’s been a year and still no final word on Herman’s fate. Suspicions and rumors swirl–was he a spy? Was he as loyal as others believed?

And then there’s Ella; she knows something but isn’t saying. Ella struggles at school and is trying to move forward, but something–or someone–seems to be holding her back.

Told in alternating POVs, between Violet and Ella, ISLAND OF SWEET PIES AND SOLDIERS is historical fiction about fiction, racism, war, mother-daughter relationships with a dash of suspense and romance. I found I really fell in love with Ella and could see a bit of myself in her. This is a different take on the usual WWII stories that have been popular in recent books–with mostly a European experience; ISLAND OF SWEET PIES AND SOLDIERS is more of a ‘homefront’ read about love, loyalties, and family. 

As for the suspense and the missing father/husband…I don’t want to give away too much, but things are resolved with the help of a pet…lion.

All in all, I don’t think I’ve read a book quite like this one, the grit of war set in the sparkling setting of Hawaii.

So pull up a seat, grab a slice of pie, and join me in conversation with Sara Ackerman.

Leslie Lindsay: Sara, I think for all novels, there’s a falling-off point that reels you in as an author. I think I might know what it is for you, but I’m going to let you tell us.

Sara Ackerman: Roscoe the lion was what drew me in initially.  He was my spark.  My grandmother always talked about this lion that the Marines had with them at Camp Tarawa in Waimea.  As a young girl, I was enthralled by the idea that there was a lion in Hawaii that wasn’t in a zoo.  Not only that, but this same lion rode in my grandmother’s car!  She never mentioned him by name, but when I got curious and Googled him, there he was sitting on the front of a jeep with a bunch of kids around him.  As it turned out, my mother was one of those kids petting Roscoe.  I formed my story around that, and the feeling that I got from my grandmother that the war had been a terrifying and tragic time, but also a very meaningful time. I wanted to portray both sides of that coin.  The friendships and bonds that held them together.  That was my jumping off point.

[image caption from 2011 newspaper: Stilson snuggles up to Roscoe, the 5th Marine Division’s mascot – they had to leave behind in Hawaii when they hit the beaches at Iwo Jima. Baby on lion from]

L.L.: You have to tell us about Roscoe, the pet lion cub. As I read with my adoring basset hound on my lap, I often pretended her coarse, oily fur was Roscoe!

Sara Ackerman: Roscoe [really] was my inspiration and one of the main reasons I wrote this book!  I love animals and I write about them extensively in all my novels.  The story of how the Marines brought him over from the Los Angeles zoo and how he lived with them and became a mascot was so appealing to me.  I remember my grandmother talking about stopping to pick up some Marines as they trudged up the hot and winding road from Kawaihae (the beach) to Waimea where their camp was.  She was terrified to have a lion in her car, but the men persuaded her that he would be fine.  That was how she ended up with a lion breathing down her neck as she drove them up the hill.  She never tired of telling this story, and as a young girl, I never tired of hearing it.

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L.L.: And so the war is near and dear to you. Your grandparents really colored the world of ISLAND OF SWEET PIES AND SOLDIERS for you. Are you often swayed by the nostalgic pull of family? I recently read that if you decorate your home with a few ancestral artifacts (old wedding photos, for example, or something your mother may have used), it makes you happier, connecting you to previous generations.

Sara Ackerman: My mother has an old photograph of my grandparents, the sugar plantation manager, and all of the students at Laupahoehoe School, who were mostly Japanese at the time, that I absolutely love.  This was just before the war and it is priceless.  It wasn’t until I was older that I gained more curiosity and compassion for what my grandparents––on both sides––went through while living through the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the rest of the war.  It is beyond my comprehension to fathom the fear that they had to live with on a daily basis for all those years.  I recently got a small dose of that with the Ballistic Missile threat fiasco here in Hawaii.  For about 40 minutes, we thought the message was real and all kinds of crazy thoughts ran through my mind.  I kept just thinking, wow, so this is how it ends.  It was very surreal.  I also remembered that radio message that went out about Pearl Harbor…This Is Not A Drill, This is the Real McCoy, especially because I had just listened to it while researching for my next novel.  It was both terrifying and enlightening. I felt connected to my grandparents in a way that I never had before, and understood their fear a little more deeply.  I keep asking my mom for this picture.

 

L.L.: And where did the idea of those delicious pies originate? Do you enjoy baking? Do you have a favorite pie from the book?

Sara Ackerman: When I was growing up, my father’s girlfriend, Marilyn Carlsmith, was a fabulous cook and she was the one who helped me to fall in love with pies.  Every time we came to the Big Island from Oahu, we would stop at Kilauea Volcano and pick blackberries or ohelo berries or akala berries (Hawaiian rasberries) and make pies.  To me, the berry or fruit picking is my favorite part.  It makes the pies that much more special when you get to forage for the berries and fruit yourselves.  It’s a bonding thing, too.  We would take our pickings down to the beach house and hole up there for a week, living on homecooked pie, cobbler, berry pancakes and freshly caught fish.  Those are some of my best memories, and I still go berry picking every chance I get.  Sometimes it involves a long hike across the lava or picking out worms, but that only makes the pies sweeter!

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L.L.: You’re a native Hawaiian. Lucky you! I know you’ve said you blame Hawaii for your writing bug. Can you elaborate?

Sara Ackerman: (I’m actually not a native Hawaiian, though I was born and raised here, as were my parents and my grandfather and great grandmother on my dad’s side.)  I’m what you would call a Kama’aina, which translates to ‘child of the land,’ regardless of your ancestry.  Hawaii is a unique and beautiful place full of history and lore.  I was fortunate enough to be born here and raised by parents who appreciated the unique nature of it and took us outdoors every chance they could and taught us to love and respect the land and the ocean.  I am continuously uncovering interesting stories that would make for great books, and the ideas keep stacking up––whether about the mysterious death of a world famous botanist, Mark Twain’s missing manuscript, or a native Honeycreeper believed to be extinct, there are too many to count.  Also, to me, setting is such an essential part of the story.  Setting is its own character in most of my books, so much so that I’m not sure if I could write a story set anywhere else but Hawaii.  I am so connected to these islands, that I can’t not want to write about them.

L.L.: But you also practice acupuncture.  How does one inform the other? Or, do they?

Sara Ackerman:  The two seem like strange bedfellows, and yet for me, they go hand in hand.  Both are such a part of me, that they seep into all aspects of my life.  Oddly enough, I started writing novels around the same time I began acupuncture school, in 2012.  Both were new and intriguing and overwhelming.  In the beginning, I wondered if I would be able to master writing well enough to land a traditional publishing deal, and I worried that between the Chinese language and memorizing hundreds of acupuncture points and herbs, I might not be cut out for Chinese Medicine either.  But what I began to learn as I went along, was that acupuncture was the perfect remedy for someone in the throes of novel writing. Acupuncture has a calming effect on the nervous system and opens channels for the free flow of energy, also known as Qi.  Not only that, but the insertion of needles into acupuncture points releases endorphins which help with focus, a feeling of wellbeing, and enhanced creativity.  Without even realizing it, I was boosting my own brain power!

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L.L.: What’s obsessing you nowadays? It doesn’t have to be literary.

Sara Ackerman:   Aside from obsessing over several of my books in the works, ones I have already written but am revising, I’m in love with exploring the Big Island.  Even though my grandparents lived here and I’ve been coming here my whole life, I only moved here two years ago from Oahu.  On the weekends, I love going to the Volcano and adventuring out into the lava fields to watch the eruption or hiking through the rainforest and seeking out the adorable endangered native birds––i’iwi, apapane, and amakihi to name a few––which are only found high on our volcanoes.  I’m looking to join some local reforestation groups to help plant more native trees and give these little birds a better chance at survival. We also have some of the most beautiful ocean in Hawaii just fifteen minutes away, so I take my stand up paddleboard, my mask and snorkel and paddle up and down the coastline every chance I get.  Right now it’s humpback whale season and they come in very close here,  so on any given day, you’re likely to see a handful of whales.  There is so much beauty here, I feel very blessed!

L.L.: What’s next for you? More historical fiction, something else?

Sara Ackerman: I have another historical fiction manuscript due to my publisher tomorrow! This one is another WWII story set around Pearl Harbor.  I also have a handful of other contemporary novels all set in Hawaii that blend love, intrigue, a dash of history, and adventure.  I love them all and hope to share them with the world soon.  On top of that, I have two more book ideas that I can’t wait to get started on, as well as partnering up with my friend Lilly Barels on a book project.  I’m intrigued at the idea of co-writing a book and can’t wait to try it.

L.L.: Sara, it’s been a pleasure! Is there anything I forgot to ask, but should have? 

Sara Ackerman:  No, but I love to talk writing, so if anyone has any questions, feel free to visit my website or follow me on Twitter or Instagram!

For more information, to connect with the author via social media, or to purchase a copy of ISLAND OF SWEET PIES AND SOLDIERS, please see:

Order Links:

SaraAckermanWebABOUT THE AUTHOR: Born and raised in Hawaii, Sara studied journalism and later earned graduate degrees in psychology and Chinese medicine.  Prior to practicing acupuncture, she worked as a high school counselor and teacher on the famed north shore of Oahu, where surf often took precedence over school.  She is the author of six novels –  Island of Sweet Pies and Soldiers, Fallen WatersVolcano House, The Ranch at Redwater, Salt and Seaweed, and Honeycreepers – with a bunch more itching to be written.  She blames Hawaii for her addiction to writing, and sees no end to its untapped stories.

 You can connect with me, Leslie Lindsay, via these websites:

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[Cover and author image courtesy of S. Ackerman and used with permission. Bird images from Wikipedia, berry picking in HI retrieved from , woman paddleboarding from Pinterest, no source noted; sugar cane weigh station retrieved from, all on 2.15.18]

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