Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Neil Plakcy on Teaching, Writing Mysteries, and "The Edge Places" That Make Great Settings

Neil, this is the first burning question on my mind: how do you pronounce your last name?
Thanks for starting with an easy one! As I write on the board at the start of each semester, it rhymes with taxi. There’s no letter X in the Russian alphabet, which is why you often see names written like Aleksander. If my grandfather had chosen to spell the name Plaksy I’d have had a much easier time.

Thanks! You wear a lot of hats: you are “an Assistant Professor of English at Broward Community College and a freelance writer and web developer.” As I ask a lot of authors on this blog, when do you find the time to write?
Ah, but the life of a college professor provides lots of flexibility. When I worked a 9-5 job as a web developer I used to squeeze in writing time when my boss wasn’t looking. Now I have to discipline myself to get out of school when my work is done rather than hanging around chatting with colleagues. I write a lot during the summer. This summer I taught for our first summer session and then took off for the second. For six weeks I shlepped my laptop to Starbucks every day (to avoid the distractions of dog, internet, life partner, etc.) and wrote a new mystery in which the detective is a college English professor (big leap) whose golden retriever helps solve the mystery. That’s the biggest leap; my golden can barely figure out where his food bowl is (and it’s been in the same place for six years now.)

Your book, Mahu, came out in 2005, and Mahu Surfer comes out in 2007. You live in Florida; what made you decide to set the books in Hawaii?
I graduated from the MFA program at Florida International University in 1992 and was despairing of ever finding a corner of south Florida I could call my own, when I studied with, and went to school with, and read, so many wonderful mystery writers whose books take place in this area. Then I went to Hawaii and fell in love with the place—and realized that there were almost no mysteries set there. The little light bulb went off over my head. Florida and Hawaii are both tropical locations, with a fascinating mix of cultures, and a contrast between light and shadow that’s a nice metaphor for the combination of crime and beauty you find. They’re also both what I call “edge” places—and there’s a kind of person who’s drawn to live in such a place. In my mind, I’m writing about Florida, with Hawaiian locations and slight changes to accents & ethnicities.

Did you learn some lessons from publishing and promoting the first mystery that you will use in launching the second?
That’s a tougher one to answer. I’ve learned a lot by reading about other authors’ experiences, sharing notes, and trying to apply lessons from my business career to my writing career. It’s hard to pull any one lesson that I’ve learned from Mahu and will apply in the future—other than that you have to reach out to your audience however you can. If you sit back and wait for readers to stumble on you, you’ll be very lonely.

You teach at the college level, and you’ve written about using mysteries in your curriculum. How does this potentially help a student who might be anti-reading?
One of the things to me that defines a great mystery is that it’s a page-turner. You can’t put the book down because you’re drawn into the fictional world and you want to know what happens next. Too much academic writing is exactly the opposite—it’s too easy to put the book down because there’s no narrative thread pulling you along. And many of the selections in text books are short—so kids are more likely to say “I read the first piece. I don’t need to read the rest.” With a mystery, hopefully, they want to keep reading. And the books we’re using, particularly Christine Kling’s Cross Current, are so well-written that they can serve as great models for student writers, particularly when it comes to evocative descriptions.

Tell us about Kids Love a Mystery and your involvement with it. You’ve mentioned that kids can earn prizes for good mysteries—what sorts of prizes do they win?
The kids win gift certificates for books—last year, with the sponsorship of Barnes & Noble. The bookstores win, because they’re developing customers, and the kids win, because they get more books! I’ve helped out by judging the entries my local chapter of Mystery Writers of America receives. And it can be tough to pick the best ones—some of these kids have a great sense of character and plot, even as young as elementary school. Last year, one of our local winners went on to win at the national level.

Why do you think the mystery genre might be an especially appropriate one for reaching reluctant readers or writers?
Again, I think it’s the page-turning nature of the mystery. Plus at our college we’ve tried to pick books that are set locally and have characters and situations that our students can relate to. The plot of Cross Current revolves around smuggling Haitian immigrants into the US, and my Haitian students are empowered to discuss their culture with the rest of the class, and they’re surprised and pleased to see themselves in a book. I think many of them relate to the characters and want to keep reading to see what happens to them.

Mahu and Mahu Surfer are mysteries with a gay protagonist. You’ve mentioned that this puts them, potentially, into a “niche” market, but in Pat Brown’s Spinetingler review she wrote “I . . . recommend this crackling good book to anyone, gay or straight, who loves a good mystery.” Do you find that some bookstores want to shelve the books under gay interest rather than simply in the main mystery section?
Gay mysteries are almost always found in the gay & lesbian section of a bookstore, rather than in the mystery section. I wish they could be in both, but stores have limited shelf space. I have lots of straight friends who’ve read and enjoyed Mahu, and I hope to continue to build word-of-mouth that way. Some authors, such as John Morgan Wilson, have reached a crossover audience through awards (he won the Edgar for his first book, and it was the first time a gay mystery won that award). The very first gay mystery I ever read, one of Joseph Hansen’s, was given to me by a straight friend who was a mystery lover and recommended the book purely as a great mystery. To him, the gay material was simply background, the way a book might have a setting in the world of antiques or quilting.

Which makes sense. Your website is very colorful and attractive. Did you do it yourself?
Yup, I built the site myself. The rainbow is a gay symbol, and a friend helped me design a logo for the Mahu books that incorporates a lineup of colorful surfboards, whose colors match those in the rainbow. It’s subtler than using the rainbow itself. I used that palette of primary colors for the buttons on my website, and then just started throwing in anything else I could think of. When I worked as a web developer, we always had a test machine that we called the “sandbox” – where we could play around with new applications before putting them on a machine open to the public. My website is my own personal sandbox.

I tried to do a jigsaw puzzle on your site. I failed. Does this bode ill for my mystery-solving abilities?
Nope—it probably bodes ill for my ability to manipulate the JavaScript application that runs the puzzles!

Your character’s name is Kimo Kanapa’aka. How did you decide on this name, and when did you first have the inspiration for Kimo himself?
I’ve always had this strange fascination with names that end in O. The hero of my very first novel attempt, written while I was a teenager, was a teenager named Hugo. (Fortunately that manuscript no longer exists to incriminate me.) When I went to Hawaii the first time, I naturally was attracted to the name Kimo, which is the Hawaiian translation of James. The missionaries who attempted to translate the Bible into the Hawaiian language were stuck with a couple of problems. First, there are only 7 consonants and five vowels. So when a letter came up in English that didn’t exist in Hawaiian (like the J) the missionaries used the next available letter, in this case K. Also, every syllable in Hawaiian must end in a vowel—so James became Kimo.

I first envisioned Kimo as a private eye who had been a police detective—because I didn’t know much about police procedure, and I figured most private eyes had been cops. I showed some pages of an early draft to my MFA thesis advisor, the great mystery writer James W. Hall, and his first question was “Why did Kimo leave the police force?”

I didn’t know. And Jim told me that was something I had to know before I could write about this character effectively. I shelved that manuscript for a long time, and then, as I was going through my own coming-out process, I realized that Kimo was gay, too. And then I understood that I had to write the book in which he left the police before I could write about him as a private eye.

Unfortunately for me, once I learned enough police procedure and wrote that book, Kimo stubbornly refused to leave the force. He told me, in no uncertain terms, that I hadn’t created a quitter. So now I’m stuck writing a police procedural series. Someday, maybe, the time will be right for Kimo to become a private eye—but I’ll trust him to tell me when that time comes.

You have done nothing to disprove my generalization that mystery writers all have pets: you have written a book called Paws and Reflect: Exploring the Bond Between Gay Men and Their Dogs. How did you happen upon this project?
Just over twenty years ago, I met my friend and co-editor, Sharon Sakson, at the Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference in Vermont. We’ve been critiquing each other’s work since then, and when a friend of hers went to work for Alyson Books, Sharon suggested that we think of a project to work on together. Since Sharon’s a breeder of Brussels Griffons and Whippets, as well as a dog show judge (and a very talented writer), and Alyson’s primarily a gay and lesbian press, the idea of writing a book about gay men and their dogs evolved from trying to find a project that would interest both of us. I’m jealous, because Sharon got to interview fascinating guys like Pulitzer-winner Edward Albee, and drag diva Charles Busch, while I was stuck in front of my computer. The best part of the project was reading all the wonderful essays that came in from professional writers as well as non-writers who just had great stories.

That is pretty cool. Your pet is a Golden Retriever, one of America’s top ten most popular (and beautiful) dogs. Does he have a Hawaiian name?
Nope. He’s got a literary name: Samwise, after the hobbit character in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings who is the faithful companion of Frodo, the main character. I knew immediately that Sam would be my faithful companion. And even as I type this, he’s sprawled behind my chair snoozing peacefully. Plus, Sam was my grandfather’s name, so it’s a nice way to remember him.

What made a boy who grew up in Yardley, Pennsylvania gravitate to Hollywood, Florida?
I was lucky to be transferred to South Florida about three careers ago, when I was a construction manager for a shopping center developer. My first day here, the cab dropped me off in downtown Miami on a street lined with palm trees, and I fell in love. A year later, when most of my colleagues moved on to the next city, I stayed here, and I’ve never regretted it. Especially not in the winter, when I’m wearing shorts and flip-flops and the rest of you suckers are freezing.

Point taken. :) Is Hollywood, Florida anything like Hollywood, California?
Well, both cities have palm trees, sunshine, and an adjacent ocean. But for celebrity sightings we generally have to head a little farther south, to Miami Beach.

What are your current writing projects? How can readers find out more about you?
I’m writing lots of short stories about Kimo at present, with an eye to eventually putting an anthology together. In each story, I try to create and solve a mystery, while moving Kimo’s personal journey forward in small steps. Some of those stories are available at, as part of their Amazon Shorts program. A couple of erotic stories about Kimo are in anthologies, including Cowboys: Gay Erotic Tales from Cleis Press, and another forthcoming anthology from them about “hot cops.” And there’s a Christmas story in Wolfmont Publishing’s forthcoming anthology, By The Chimney With Care, which will benefit Toys for Tots. And for more about me (if there’s anything more to tell, after this interview) readers can always come to my website, at

Thanks so much for inviting me to be interviewed, and for coming up with such interesting and thought-provoking questions.

Thank you, Neil! I’m glad to put a face with the name, and I’m glad I know how to say “Plakcy.” :)


Patrick Shawn Bagley said...

Another name added to my ever-growing reading list. I need to stop visiting your blog, Julia.

Lonnie Cruse said...

Great interview, Julia, and I too, wondered how Neil pronounced his last name! Fun read.

Speaking of fun reads, I've ordered your book and can't wait to read it.

Karen Blomain said...

Great interview. Neil's humor and intelligence come through in every answer.

Julia Buckley said...

No, Patrick, you must keep visiting. :)

Hi, Lonnie, and thanks!

I agree, Karen. I look forward to meeting Neil.

Ginny Rorby said...

I've known and admired Neil, and his writing, for nearly 20 years. He just gets better and better. You did a fine job of asking the questions that would capture his intelligence and his great sense of humor. I remain a diehard fan of Neil's and a new fan of yours.

Julia Buckley said...

Thanks, Ginny. Some people just inspire good conversation, don't they?

Neil Plakcy said...

Thanks to all of you who posted such nice comments-- it's all because Julia asked such great questions.

And since they're not tooting their own horns, I want to say that both Karen Blomain and Ginny Rorby are great writers themselves-- I'm dying to read Ginny's new YA book, Hurt Go Happy.