Book Trailer for Pilikia

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Interview with Author Neil Plakcy

Neil Plakcy, a native of Yardley, Pennsylvania, felt the call of the tropics. He moved to Hollywood, Florida, where he is an assistant professor of English at Broward Community College and writes mysteries featuring Honolulu police detective, Kimo Kanapa'aka. The series debuted in 2005 with Mahu from Haworth Press. The second, Mahu Surfer, has just been released by Alyson Books.

You can read the book blurbs on this site at

You can find out more about Neil and his books at where you can watch a video of Neil reading the first chapter of Mahu Surfer.

Hawaiian Eye asked Neil a few questions:

HE: You are from Pennsylvania, live in Florida, but your stories are set in Honolulu. What's your connection to Hawaii?

NP:The first day I arrived in Florida I felt an instant connection to the place, and have lived here for 21 years now. I felt that same connection when I arrived in Honolulu for the first time. I think both places have much in common: the contrast between light and shadow; the sense that we are at the edge of the country; the vibrant mix of cultures and languages; and the idea that what appears to be a lovely paradise also has a dark and deadly side. I’m attracted to both Florida and Hawaii for all these reasons.

HE: How important is the setting to your stories?

NP: To me, setting is an integral part of the story. I think my books could only take place in Hawaii, because they rely on the landscape, the weather and the culture as much as they do on the characters and plot. I also love the contrast between the external appearance of the islands—the beautiful landscape, the balmy climate—and the darkness of criminal activity.

HE: What is the biggest challenge in writing about a place where you don’t live?

NP: I’m so jealous of Florida writers who write about Florida! One of my colleagues, Christine Kling, tells a story about describing the Everglades at night. She realized she’d never been out there after dark, so she jumped in her car, drove for about half an hour, and then got out of the car and listened to the night sounds. I can’t do that, and that’s a big challenge.

HE: How do you deal with that challenge?

NP: I rely on my knowledge of life in a tropical climate, and on research—reading everything I can get my hands on about Hawaii, and searching for information on specific topics I need. I have cultivated friends and sources in the islands, and I’m always on the lookout for interesting ideas that might make their way into books or stories.

HE: A well-known and respected editor once told me readers would not be interested in mysteries set in Hawaii. Do you think Hawaiian mysteries are a tough sell?

NP: I don’t agree at all. So many readers look for interesting, fascinating settings in books that I think if we present the islands in all their beauty and complexity, we’ll draw attention to our books. I know an awful lot of armchair travelers who long for tropical climates, and the success of TV shows like Hawaii Five-O and Magnum PI bear out that interest.

HE: Are there any “mean streets” in Hawaii?

NP: Just watch Dog, The Bounty Hunter and you’ll see many of them. Although I know a lot of any reality show is staged, I do watch this show to hear the way people talk, and to see some of the seedier parts of the islands. The persistent drug problems in Hawaii today have led to a lot of crime and a lot of “mean streets.”

HE:How do you conduct your research?

NP: I read travel guides, reference books and fiction set in Hawaii, as well as regular online news feeds and news groups. I email some folks I know in Hawaii when I have questions as well. Most important, I just look outside at sunshine or approaching thunderheads, walk my dog in the heat and humidity, and get a lot of tropical atmosphere that way.

HE: Your first book is called Mahu, which is the Hawaiian word for homosexual. The second book is Mahu Surfer, so readers should have no doubt that this is a “Gay” mystery. Do you think the label is important?

NP: I think the label helps reach one part of my target audience—gay men and those who are interested in how these guys think and act. However, it also hurts, because I think my books can be read by mystery audiences who are simply interested in good character, strong setting and intriguing plot. But if the books aren’t shelved with other mysteries, it’s harder for those mystery audiences to find them.

HE: Are “Gay” mysteries a tough sell?

NP: In a way, I think it’s easier than selling a mystery with a straight male sleuth. The publishing industry often believes that male heroes must be action figure in thrillers like Tom Clancy’s. In the gay male detective niche, there’s a built in market that publishers know how to reach.

HE: The titles refer to your main character, Kimo Kanapa'aka, a Honolulu Police detective and a surfer who confronts his homosexuality. Do you think the experience of being homosexual is different in Hawaii than other places?

NP: From what I’ve heard, there’s still intolerance in Hawaii towards homosexuals. This comes at least in part from the strong Asian connections in the islands. I’ve heard tourists tell me they felt very welcome, but I’ve also heard from island natives who felt constrained by family disapproval. Unfortunately, I don’t think the attitudes in Hawaii are that different from those on the mainland. In the larger cities, there’s more tolerance.

HE: Would Kimo's story be different if he lived in Florida, for example?

NP: I think that if Kimo lived in Florida, he’d be part Latin—and the Latin cultures often have very strong feelings against homosexuality. So his experience probably wouldn’t be much different as an individual. But then, I’ve already said that I see a lot of parallels between Florida and Hawaii.

HE: Kimo is a police officer. Do you have any contacts with the Honolulu Police Department?

NP: I haven’t had much contact with the Honolulu PD. I’ve spent a lot of time at their website absorbing information, and I’ve gotten some answers to e-mail queries. But I’ve tried to avoid getting too technical about police procedures because I know it’s an area where I could make a lot of mistakes.

HE: Kimo is part Hawaiian, part Japanese, part Caucasian. How does his diverse background shape his character?

NP: I wanted Kimo to feel that he could move freely between all of Hawaii’s many ethnic groups and be trusted, because of his family and personal connections. I thought that this level of access would be very helpful to him as a detective. In addition, I liked the fact that once he came out of the closet, he might NOT be accepted in some of those places or among some of those groups, and that sense of suddenly being considered an outsider would be interesting to explore. After all, the traditional view of the detective is someone outside society.

HE: Why did you choose that combination of ethnicities?

NP: In order to be considered a native Hawaiian, 50% of your ethnic background must come from those native to the islands before the arrival of the Caucasians, so it was important to me that Kimo be at least 50% Hawaiian. I wanted him to have some haole (white) blood, too, so he’d have some connection to the privileged elite of the islands, so I gave him a grandmother with a missionary background. Finally, I knew that many Japanese men came to the islands to work, and married native women, so I added that to his background. I wanted him to be very representative of the people of the islands.

HE: Is it difficult writing about a character of different ethnicity?

NP: That’s an interesting question. One of the reasons why I deliberately chose to make Kimo multi-racial is because my family tree is so uniform—generations of Jews from Eastern Europe. But ethnic background is only one of the many things that make us who we are. Kimo’s position as the youngest of three sons is significantly different from mine (I’m an only child) and that sometimes causes me more problems.

HE: What writers have had the greatest influence on you?

NP: Among my biggest influences have been Ernest Hemingway, Jack Kerouac and Jimmy Buffett. I think what all three have in common is an attempt to mix lifestyle and writing, to have the writing reflect the life. Since I love living in a tropical climate, and write about one, I think I’ve achieved that mix.

HE: Which is more important to you, plot or character? What’s hardest for you?

NP: Character is more important. When I think about a new story or book for Kimo, I’m first thinking about what’s going on in his life and how the new case might affect him. Then I work a plot around what I want to explore. In Mahu Surfer, I wanted him to start making friendships with other gay men as he became more comfortable with his sexuality. So I created a group of guys on the North Shore who would become his friends while also providing him with information about his case.

HE:Do you surf?

NP: The only surfing I do is online via the Internet. But I’ve done a great deal of research in order to make Kimo seem like a convincing surfer, and recruited a gay surfer who lives in Hawaii to look over Mahu Surfer and make sure I’d gotten things right. He helped me fine-tune Kimo’s language and identify exactly the right places for him to surf, and the right equipment for him to own.

HE: How does surfing contribute to Kimo’s character?

NP: Surfing is Kimo’s connection to the natural world, and to the indigenous culture of the islands. Because of the focus involved, it’s a way for him to escape the dark side of human nature, which he sees as a cop. It gives him a heightened awareness of nature, the weather, and human nature, and keeps him fit.

HE: What are your plans for the series? Do you have more books in development?

NP: I think that “coming out” is a process, rather than an event. There are many distinct stages that gay men go through in this process. I’ve heard it compared to adolescence. During that period in one’s life, one learns how to be an adult in the world. Upon coming out, one must learn much of that all over again. So I’ve always seen Kimo’s character arc as following him through that process. The books provide cases that force him to move forward in his personal life—becoming comfortable outing himself to strangers, making gay friends, meeting romantic partners, and so on.

HE: Do you think you might ever get tired of Kimo?

I think that at this point, Kimo’s so much a part of me that it would be hard for me to get tired of him. And following him through these various stages ensures that he will continue to grow and change as a character.

HE: What are some of your other projects?

NP: Last year, I co-edited (with my friend Sharon Sakson) a collection of essays about guys and dogs called Paws and Reflect. This spring I’ll have two new books out: Mahu Fire, the third in the series, and Hard Hats, an anthology I’ve edited of gay construction worker erotica.

HE: Are you considering any stand-alone mysteries or different series?

NP: I love my golden retriever, and so I’ve written a mystery about a guy whose golden helps him catch the killer of his next door neighbor. I’m currently looking for a publisher for it.

HE: Will you be at Left Coast Crime in Hawaii in 2009?

NP: If I can work it around my academic schedule, I’ll certainly be there.


  1. Anonymous said...

    Great article! I've been curious about Neil Plakcy for a while and I'm glad to have had the opportunity to know more.

    Theresa de Valence