Success Story Interview - Keala Kendall

An Interview with Keala Kendall (kkealakai on QT) upon receiving an offer of representation from agent Jennifer March Soloway of Andrea Brown Literary Agency.


QT: Can you tell us a little bit about the book for which you've found representation? What inspired you to write it?
Keala Kendall:
Of course! SOON RIPE, SOON ROTTEN is a postcolonial horror novel about a young Native Hawaiian woman searching for her twin sister, who has gone missing after visiting an isolated island resort built into the bones of an old sugarcane plantation. Like Lehua, the main character, I am Native Hawaiian, and the story was inspired by my own diaspora feelings. It explores themes of colonialism, gentrification, racism, and exploitative tourism in Hawai’i through a horror and speculative lens.
QT: How long have you been writing?
Keala Kendall:
Hard to say. I feel like I’ve always been writing, but I’ve been pursuing publishing (seriously) for the last six years.
QT: How long have you been working on this book?
Keala Kendall:
A year and eight months, but a lot of that time was spent researching the history of plantations in Hawai’i. Once I’d finished my research, I spent eight months writing and revising SOON RIPE, SOON ROTTEN.
QT: Was there ever a time you felt like giving up, and what helped you to stay on course?
Keala Kendall:
Last year actually while on submission with a book that kept getting shut down at acquisitions. Instead of focusing on that book or rushing to finish RIPE, I cofounded Pacific Islanders in Publishing with two of my friends and found my community, which led to me realizing there were people in my community I could help—and I just knew, even if I didn’t get published, I wanted to keep going for them, to pass on as much information as I could to make it easier for the next Pacific Islander writer with publishing dreams to get in. Is that sappy? Probably, but it’s the truth.
QT: Is this your first book?
Keala Kendall:
Hah! No. It’s my fourth.
QT: Do you have any formal writing training?
Keala Kendall:
I went to university and took screenwriting classes—it’s a long story, but the short of it is I wrote a novel instead. However, I don’t have any formal MFA training.
QT: Do you follow a writing routine or schedule?
Keala Kendall:
Sort of. I try to avoid writing on the weekends, and am an early morning writer.
QT: How many times did you re-write/edit your book?
Keala Kendall:
I draft slow, but really clean so I’ve never done a complete re-write. However, I did three edit passes on SOON RIPE, SOON ROTTEN before querying (one for developmental edits and the other two passes involved mostly line-edits).
QT: Did you have beta readers for your book?
Keala Kendall:
Normally I don’t have a lot of beta readers (I usually only ask 3-4 people I trust), but this book was the first time I wrote an unapologetically Hawaiian story, so I wanted feedback from my community. In total, I had six beta readers for this story.
QT: Did you outline your book, or do you write from the hip?
Keala Kendall:
I outline enough to know the shape of the story, but I like to leave room for exploration when writing to discover organic moments between the characters. When I start a project, I always write a mock-query letter to ground my ideas around a central story, and I use that query as a guiding star while writing (though the story can change!). Queries are a lot like book jacket summaries, which are meant to entice readers, so I am always excited by the promise in my mock-query of what the story can become and it gives me something to chase in my writing. After that, I will come up with the five major beats of my story (or as many of them as I can), then start writing, making sure I never outline more than the next three chapters. After I write each set of chapters, I reassess where the story is at, and any new character moments I can explore. I repeat those steps until I finish the book.
QT: How long have you been querying for this book? Other books?
Keala Kendall:
For this book, I queried for a week before receiving my first offer then set a deadline of 15 days for the other agents to get back to me. For my previous book, I queried for over a year and did a non-exclusive R+R that eventually led to two offers.
QT: About how many query letters did you send out for this book?
Keala Kendall:
12 (I had a small list).
QT: On what criteria did you select the agents you queried?
Keala Kendall:
I chose agents based on the genres and categories they represented (as I like to write across different genres and age groups), their experience and sales (or who they were mentored by if they were newer), what media they liked, what their manuscript wish list looked like and whether my other projects could belong on that list down the road if we signed together, and their enthusiasm for their clients online. After considering all those factors, I had a small list.
QT: Did you tailor each query to the specific agent, and if so, how?
Keala Kendall:
I did. When compiling my list of agents, I kept a column of notes for their manuscript wish list items and whether or not they included any of my comp titles in their favorite media (I rotated through MIDSOMMAR, MEXICAN GOTHIC, WHITE LOTUS, and GLASS ONION, and would include a combination of these comps based on what the agent said they liked). Then I’d include a sentence at the top of my query, right after I introduced the novel and its word count, explaining why I’d sent my story their way like “given your interest in BIPOC horror that explores biting social commentary, I believe it will be a great addition to your list…”, etc.
QT: What advice would you give other writers seeking agents?
Keala Kendall:
A bad agent is worse than no agent (I know that is said all the time, but that’s because it is so true), so do your research, ask around, and trust your gut. If publishing is your goal, don’t waste your time, skill, and passion on someone who can’t achieve the goals you have even if it seems like they can at least open the door for you—they can’t, they will only waste your time and you deserve an advocate who believes in you and your work, and knows what they’re doing. As someone who's been in a mentorship position, I’ve heard too many stories from friends and peers who didn’t know what to look for in an agent and it ultimately cost them a lot of time and heartbreak.

Query Letter:

Dear Agent,

SOON RIPE, SOON ROTTEN is a postcolonial horror novel complete at 73,000 words that will appeal to fans of MIDSOMMAR, MEXICAN GOTHIC and WHITE LOTUS.

Hidden off the coast of Maui, Kōpa'a Resort is a private island getaway built into the bones of an old sugarcane plantation. Here, a lucky handful of guests—referred to as planters—get to sample the island's world-famous persimmons.

Lehua Sayers is a college dropout-turned-mortician's assistant from Phoenix. She never thought she'd visit Hawai'i, her family's ancestral homeland—let alone a place like Kōpa'a. But when her estranged twin sister Ohia stops returning her calls, Lehua follows her to the resort. Except Ohia is not on Kōpa'a—not anymore.

According to the resort's taciturn manager, Ohia returned to Maui a week ago. But when Lehua attempts to leave the island, its one boat departs without her. Stranded on the tech-free resort with no external communication for three days, Lehua decides to investigate Ohia's motives for coming to the island. With the help of another Hawaiian girl working at the resort, Lehua discovers the island's dark history hidden beneath its tourist facade and revered persimmon grove.

Far from a paradise, the resort's welcoming atmosphere turns sinister as Lehua becomes convinced her sister didn't just leave—she was running from something, and now Lehua is trapped on the island with it. To save herself and find her sister, Lehua will have to confront the island's bloody past and what lurks in the old plantation's cane fields before it consumes her entirely.

I'm a mixed-race Native Hawaiian hapa writer, and one of the cofounders of Pacific Islanders in Publishing. Born and raised in Hawai'i, I now live in Los Angeles. This manuscript is inspired by my own culture and diaspora experience. I was previously represented by Cortney Radocaj, who has retired from publishing.

Thank you for your time and consideration.


Keala Kendall