1. Tell us about yourself. I know you teach, Neil. What do you teach and where? How does that work with your career as an author? What sort of impact has this had on your writing schedule? What have you learned through teaching that you apply to your work?
Though back in 1988 I signed up for the new Master of Fine Arts program in creative writing at Florida International University just to learn to write better, I can see that my classes also taught me how to teach writing. Taking workshops with great writers like Les Standiford, James W. Hall and Lynne Barrett forced me to write and rewrite. I also learned how to take a more analytical approach to writing as I came to understand the basics of character, dialogue, scene, plotting and so on.
Today I teach writing at Broward College, #3 in the country in the number of associate’s degrees granted. (My campus is halfway between Miami and Ft. Lauderdale, with a very multi-cultural student body that ranges in age from teenagers to mid-life career changers.) Over 60% of our students enter lacking basic writing skills, so I teach two levels of developmental writing—sentence to paragraph and paragraph to essay. I created my own approach to freshman composition, using writing about food to build skills in narration, description, and research. I’ve also taught writing about literature and creative writing.
My favorite is a literature course on mystery fiction, where we read academic essays about the mystery as well as short stories and novels in three genres: amateur sleuth, private eye, and police procedural. The students love the chance to read great contemporary stories, and I enjoy exposing them to the mystery and hearing what they have to say about it.
Teaching is a great gig for a writer. Three of my courses are fully online, so my schedule is very flexible, and I can carve out writing time every day. And guiding students to write better has impacted my own writing—I hear that “teacher voice” in my head saying things like “Wait—you’re changing point of view!” or “This paragraph is awful long.”
2. Tell us about your new book--the characters, the setting and a bit about the plot. How does it fit in with your other works?
The elevator pitch for my first mystery, Mahu, was “gay cop gets dragged out of the closet while investigating a dangerous case.” Once I’d finished that book, though, my hero, Honolulu homicide detective Kimo Kanapa’aka, told me that his journey had just begun. I came to see “coming out” as a process, rather than a single event, and looked for cases Kimo could investigate that would challenge him and move him forward.
In subsequent books, Kimo has traveled paths common to many gay men, particularly those who come out in their 30s, as he does. In Mahu Surfer, when he went undercover to discover who had been killing surfers, he began by making gay friends and getting more comfortable with himself. In Mahu Fire, he met fire inspector Mike Riccardi while investigating a bombing, and fell in love.
In Mahu Vice, the newest in the series, he’s discovering that the path to true love has more than a few twists and turns. Called to an arson homicide at a shopping center built by his father, he is forced to work with Mike again, nearly a year after they broke up. Tension rises as the case gets more complex and he and Mike rekindle their attraction.
But will the same things that drove them apart a year before doom this renewed relationship? What was going on at the acupuncture clinic where the victim, a teenaged Chinese illegal immigrant, was working?
Prostitution, gambling and immigration are all hot-button issues in Hawaii, as in many places, but the isolation, multicultural community, and tropical heat in Hawaii conspire to raise the tension level for Kimo and Mike as they figure out not only whodunit, but where their relationship can go.
3. Your books feature gay characters. In the beginning, did this make it harder to get a publisher? Or was it easier because you had a niche market? Has this influenced your marketing attempts, and if so, how? Does this ever pose any challenges at signings?
I didn’t realize I was writing for a niche when I started. I didn’t even know that the niche existed! Like many beginning writers, I was woefully undereducated about the business side of publishing. But I learned. When I approached agents at first, many thought that the idea of a gay detective was too radical. So I had to do my research, and discovered a thriving niche. (There were 18 nominations last year for the Lambda Literary Award for best gay men’s mystery, for example. Mahu Fire was a top-five finalist for that award.)
My first agent targeted all the publishers she thought would be interested, and every one of them turned me down. When I’d just about given up, I met an editor at the Miami Book Fair who told me his press was expanding their gay genre fiction line (mystery, romance, horror, etc.) and encouraged me to send the manuscript to him directly. That’s why I say my career has benefited from both hard work and luck. And of course, the harder I work, the luckier I get!
Booksellers tend to have an idea, even if it’s narrow, of the audience they can bring in for signings. For example, I’ve tried without success to convince a chain bookstore that I know a lot of older gay men who read who live in a neighborhood south of Miami. But they say gay books don’t sell at that store, so they won’t offer me a reading.
Maybe the books aren’t selling because they aren’t bringing in authors and marketing to that community. Or maybe they’re right, and I’m wrong.
It was much harder to set readings up with my first publisher, a small press; one independent bookstore owner told me “You’re one step above self-published,” even though that press published 200 books a year, had a big marketing department, and offered co-op advertising. Now that I am lucky enough to be published by the biggest GLBT press in the country, Alyson Books, I get great distribution and booksellers know my titles.
Interestingly enough, I got much more negative reaction when I was in graduate school writing about Jewish characters than I’ve ever gotten writing about gay ones. When I wrote humorous stories about dumb Jews (I have a lot in my own family, so I’ve got lots of material) people were really offended.
4. You have a robust online presence. Tell us about that. How do you compare the online community with other writing communities?
I started coming out myself just as the Internet began to boom, so the ability to seek out GLBT people, news, and online communities has been important to me for years. While I love volunteering with the Florida chapter of Mystery Writers of America, and attending mystery conferences like Bouchercon, Sleuthfest, and Left Coast Crime, the ability to stay in contact with other writers more than once or twice a year, or even once a month, is very important. I belong to a local critique group, but I also email stories and chapters to more far-flung colleagues, and I enjoy being part of their lives through Twitter and Facebook, too.
I think there’s also a degree of intimacy you can develop with an online friend that harder to duplicate face to face. Even with my closest writing friends in Florida, we might meet only at events or exchange the occasional email or phone call, because we all have busy lives. I can spill my heart out over a rejection to an online friend, though, and get commiseration back right away, as well as suggestions on where to market next.
5. You recently won a "Lefty." Tell us what that's meant to you and your career.
I was absolutely thrilled to win the Hawaii Five-O award for best police procedural at the 2009 Left Coast Crime festival. I grew up watching that show, and it still influences my writing. It was fun to receive the award in Hawaii, because my books are set there, but the best part was that the voters were fans rather than critics. My publisher donated copies for the book bags, and throughout the conference I had people come up to me and say, “I just started reading your book and I love it!”
As far as my career goes, I don’t think it means much. If it had been an Edgar…. though now I can be introduced as “Award-Winning Author Neil Plakcy!”
6. You've been very involved with SleuthFest. How has that benefited you? What would you say to someone considering coming to the conference?
Any writer’s conference is a great chance to network, learn, and be energized, and I think Sleuthfest does a great job on all those fronts. Inspiration is a funny thing; it often comes when you’re not expecting it. I’ve gone to seminars and workshops just out of a sense of duty or obligation, and walked out with fresh ideas and a desire to get back to my computer as fast as possible. I’ve also loved meeting the writers, published and unpublished, who attend, and swapping stories about writing. So personally and professionally, Sleuthfest has been a great event for me.
Sleuthfest has a terrific core of volunteers, so just walking in the door you know you’re going to be welcomed into a wonderful group of writers. And how can you beat South Florida in February?
About Neil Plakcy...
Neil Plakcy is the author of Mahu, Mahu Surfer, Mahu Fire and Mahu Vice, mystery novels set in Hawaii, as well as the romance novel GayLife.com. He edited Paws & Reflect: A Special Bond Between Man and Dog and the gay erotic anthologies Hard Hats and Surfer Boys. Plakcy is a journalist and book reviewer as well as an assistant professorof English at Broward College's south campus in Pembroke Pines. He is vice president of the Florida chapter of Mystery Writers of America, and afrequent contributor to gay anthologies.