UH Hilo English instructor Susan Wackerbarth’s novel, set in Hilo, explores search for sense of home

The author drew inspiration for her novel, No Place Like Home, from her experiences with the Hilo Community Chorus, other local choral groups, and friends in the performing arts. 

Susan Wackerbarth against background of cover painting of her novel that includes palms and buildings from Hilo Bayfront.
Susan Wackerbarth

By Evangeline Lemieux.

Susan Wackerbarth, instructor of English at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo, recently held a public reading of her novel, No Place Like Home. The initial release of the novel in August of 2020 was not celebrated publicly in person because of the pandemic, so this event was reason for celebration.

Set in Hilo, the story is about a community theater production of the musical The Wizard of Oz staged at the iconic Palace Theater.

From the back cover of No Place Like Home:

The East Hawai‘i Community Players need a smash hit to save Hilo’s historic Palace Theater from the ravages of time, tropical weather, the ailing economy, a menacing network of drug dealers—and themselves from all manner of folly and heartbreak. The Wizard of Oz will be a sure thing. Or will it? Susan Wackerbarth tells this wry, playful story through an unlikely constellation of misfits, both “grown” and “flown,” trying to find their way on the Big Island. Quirky, bittersweet, and suspenseful, this novel explores each person’s longing for a home of the heart, and climaxes in an opening night no one will forget.

Wackerbarth grew up in Seattle, and came to live on Hawai‘i Island by way of South Africa and Southeast Alaska. She has a master of fine arts in English from the University of Washington and an master of fine arts in creative writing from Goddard College. She teaches English at UH Hilo and is program coordinator for the university’s certificate in creative writing program.

Book cover watercolor of Hilo shop fronts At the time of its release, Wackerbarth had been working on the novel for over a decade. The project started as part of her master of fine arts thesis, and she continued writing and editing it after the program was done.

“When I started writing the book in 2010 at the beginning of my MFA, I finished a first draft and a revision in two years, and I let it sit before I did another revision,” she says. “It was ten years after I started that it got published in 2020.”

Wackerbarth quotes American novelist and non-fiction writer Anne Lamott when describing the process of finishing a book.

“She compares finishing a book and handing it off to putting an octopus to bed. So first you struggle and you get it tucked in, and then there’s a leg that sticks out, and then another one, and you’re tucking that one in and you’re all over the place. Finally, you think you’ve got it tucked in and you get to the door and there’s an eye peeking out at you, and you just have to shut the door, and say well, I’m done. Nothing is ever going to be perfect, and you have the time you have to finish it, and then it just has to be done.”

Wackerbarth, who is active in the Hilo Community Chorus and other local choral groups, drew inspiration and information for the novel from those experiences and from conversations with friends in the performing arts. This helped her to flesh out the community theater aspect of the story.

Books on display.
Susan Wackerbarth’s novel on display at Third Place Books in Seattle, WA. (Courtesy photo)

When asked about why she chose The Wizard of Oz, she says she’s always loved that story.

“I’m sure a lot of people my age grew up watching the wizard of Oz, it’s such an iconic American story,” she explains. “But the thing that made me use it in the novel was one of my very first workshops in my MFA program was with a director, Paul Selleck, he’s more of a drama person. But but he did a lecture on The Wizard of Oz with plot structure and all kinds of things and I thought gosh, that’s amazing, I want to use that for my play at the Palace, because I wasn’t sure what play to use. It kind of dropped into my lap.”

The choice is fitting, as one of the central themes of the book is the search for a sense of home.

No Place Like Home is available at Basically Books in Hilo, the UH Hilo bookstore, as well as online.

Wackerbarth is currently working on her next novel. She didn’t want to say too much just yet, but she did mention the story will contain a murder.

Follow the author on InstagramFacebook, and visit her website.

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English instructor Susan Wackerbarth publishes first novel, inspires students

Story by Evangeline Lemieux, who is double majoring in English and medical anthropology at UH Hilo.

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