Posted by: Jerry Garrett | December 6, 2011

Kaui Hart Hemmings: The Novelist Who Wrote “The Descendants”

How likely is this scenario: Attractive young woman writes first novel, gets it published, gets it made into a movie by an Academy Award-winning director, has George Clooney star in the movie, and then gets a role in the movie, with Mr. Clooney? Preposterous? Read on:

Novelist Kaui Hart Hemmings: Living her Dream.


For Kaui Hart Hemmings, having her first novel, “The Descendants“, made into a movie starring George Clooney is just another stranger-than-fiction chapter in the true story of her so-far magical life.

Ms. Hemmings, 36, is married, with two children. She traces her own lineage from a Hawaiian woman who married a descendant of one of the Protestant missionaries from Boston, who came to Hawaii in 1836. (A tale told in James A. Michener’s “Hawaii”.)

She was born Kaui Johnston, but she grew up with her mother and (from age five) stepfather – Fred Hemmings – an international surfing legend and (later) an influential Hawaiian political figure. He officially adopted her when she was a teenager; hence, her name change.

Fred Hemmings (Star-Bulletin)

Mr. Hemmings leveraged his surfing celebrity and community activism into a political career; he was as a state legislator (a representative for six years, then a senator), beginning in 1984, until his retirement from elected office in 2010.

He is also a published writer, and a newspaper columnist.

She also had an interest in writing, and her teachers at the exclusive Punahou School in Honolulu apparently noticed her aptitude in this area, and encouraged her. She attended Colorado College, a private liberal arts school in Colorado Springs, Colo., and later Sarah Lawrence College in New York City; then, she applied for and won a Wallace Stegner Fellowship to Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif.

All the while, she kept writing, submitting ideas and articles to editors, and receiving rejection letters. “I have quite a stack of them,” she told a Honolulu television station earlier this year. Eventually, she got a few small items published.

In a touching article written in 2008 for The Guardian newspaper in the U.K., she explained her fascination with the subject of family – which is at the heart of “The Descendants”.

Originally, the story of “The Descendants” was touched upon in a collection of short stories she ultimately published as “House of Thieves“. Contemporary life in Hawaii, and the deterioration of the islands’ old ways is her milieu.

Even before “The Descendants” was published she received a rather significant amount of acclaim for a debut writer (check out a short interview NPR did with her in 2006). Ms. Hemmings, who was living in San Francisco at the time with her husband of two years and their infant daughter, said her secret to getting writing done was “to write three new pages” every day, while her daughter napped.

The New York Times reviewed “The Descendants”, in 2007, calling it “refresheningly wry”.

But then, not much happened for awhile. Ms. Hemmings said all the hoopla around a new book, in her experience, “lasts about three months”. Her book had actually gone out of print, before the movies came calling.

Unbeknownst to Ms. Hemmings, even before the novel was published, a copy of the manuscript fell into the hands of film producer Jim Burke, a partner of Academy Award-winning director Alexander Payne. Mr. Payne decided to “option” the book – not for himself initially. But, he said he later became desperate to produce another movie; he had not produced one since “Sideways” in 2004. So he emailed Ms. Hemmings and informed her that he would produce it himself; he met her for dinner a week later to seal the details.

Ms. Hemmings, having seen “Sideways” – about a snobby oenophile, said she was nervous about what wine to order that night. The words “No merlot” stuck in her mind.

Mr. Burke said what enthralled Mr. Payne, and himself, was the “reality” of the book’s characters. “It was like real life – heartbreaking in the morning, and hilarious in the afternoon. And able to go back and forth, back and forth” constantly after that, he said.

Alexander Payne

From the point Mr. Payne became personally involved, the project moved forward quickly. Mr. Payne took up residence on Oahu for eight months, to immerse himself in the local culture. And he worked on the screenplay himself, often consulting with Ms. Hemmings.

It was a “surreal” time for her, she said.

The most surreal moment, however, came when she was offered a part in the movie as Matt King’s secretary. (“Matt, your cousins are here,” was her big line.) It was a role created just for her.

A "surreal" role

So, here was a real mind-bender: A novelist who becomes a character in a movie based on her fictional story, based on elements of her actual life. Sort of like she became a figment of her imagination’s imagination! Or something like that.

Adding to the un-real-ness was the fact her mother, husband, daughter and some friends also had bit parts in the film (a party, and beach scenes).

Perhaps the funniest moment, for those “in the know”, was when Matt King (George Clooney) was approached at the Elks Club by tall, blond, muscular surfer dude “Troy”.

(TV Guide)

“Troy” was being played by surfing legend Laird Hamilton (see “Riding Giants” 2004)- a close friend of her father Fred. (Cool website, Laird!)

The scene where Laird, er “Troy”, got cursed and flipped off was one of the film’s funniest. It was even more rich, if you knew who he was, and the back story involved. Come to think of it, that is true of much about “The Descendants.”

Jerry Garrett

December 6, 2011


  1. […] had bit parts in the film (a party, and beach scenes). Perhaps … … Original post: Kaui Hart Hemmings: The Novelist Who Wrote “The Descendants … ← Coca Traveling & Vacations » Blog Archive » Kauai Activities: 5 Must […]

  2. Aloha, the scenery at the top of your blog, where is that from, or taken of?

  3. Sorry but I just find Kaui Hart Hemmings a little difficult to stomach. Here is a woman who writes that she is thankful for the word retarded yet actually doesn’t like it when people call Thanksgiving T Day. She doesn’t like the word nipples, but likes retarded? Don’t think I’ve ever read anything more shallow. Does she use the word retarded because she thinks it makes her look hip and young? What a price to pay for marginalizing the disabled.

  4. “Retarded’ means delayed. It’s a word that can have several meanings, most of which have nothing to do with the disabled.

  5. Just saw this movie, and thought it was a true depiction of Hawaii. I am so glad he kept it Hawaiian. Money didn’t win out. It’s so refreshing to see that legacy, and family was the most important thing. In Hawaii that is reality!!!

    • I personally learned a lot of important lessons about family in this film. I hope it makes others who see it think too!

  6. […] more information on author Kaui Hart Hemmings, check out this article by writer Jerry Garrett. 0 30 Jul […]

  7. The movie is one of my favorites. It grabbed my heart, showed me how to deal with betrayal and disappointment with a little class. It reminded me how important family is. I watch it anytime it is on television. Cloney’s character has class, integrity, and honor. All qualities that are so difficult to find in today’s lifestyle of get what you can no matter how you do it. Top 20 movie for me, with characters to aspire to.

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