A Conversation with Neil Plakcy by Gavin Atlas

Neil Plakcy is the author of nineteen
novels, including the Mahu series of
mysteries starring openly gay Honolulu homicide detective Kimo Kanapa’aka, and
the Have Body, Will Guard romance adventure series. He edits erotic anthologies,
including Surfer Boys, Hard Hats, The
Handsome Prince, Skater Boys
, and the forthcoming Model Men.  His newest
release is The Russian Boy, a story
that follows the history of a famous and scandalous painting of a young Russian
noble created in the early 1900s as well as the modern day adventures when the
painting is stolen.  

Could you give us
some background info?  Where are you
from?  What first triggered your interest
in writing fiction?

I grew up in the Philadelphia suburbs, and my interest in
fiction was sparked by a 10th grade English assignment to rethink A Separate Peace, by John Knowles, from
Finny’s point of view. This story of a strong emotional friendship between two
high school boys during World War II struck a deep chord with me, and having to
reimagine it showed me how amazing it felt to write something. I also fell
madly in love with those two boys, through both the book and the movie, and
writing about them was a way to get inside them.

I’ve read that you
studied fiction writing under authors such as Philip Roth and Carlos Fuentes,
and one of your fellow students was Dennis Lehane.  What was it like to be in such company?  Do you feel those instructors still influence
your writing today?

I honestly didn’t learn much about writing as an
undergraduate. But in graduate school, where my professors were published
authors writing mystery novels, I learned a tremendous amount about what makes
a story (conflict between characters), how to structure a plot, how to fold in description,
and so on. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that several of my classmates
(including Dennis, Vicki Hendricks,
and the late Barbara Parker) became stars in crime fiction. We were taught that
this form of literature was just as valuable and meaningful as anything in the
canon of English lit.

You’re now a
professor yourself.  Has teaching affected
your own writing habits or style?

It has certainly affected my writing habits. I used to sneak
time during my office day to write, always keeping an eye out for the boss, and
my writing schedule was very erratic. Now that I don’t have to be at an office
from nine to five, I can organize myself to suit my creative process. I write
every morning for at least an hour on my way to school, where my classes are
scheduled for late morning or early afternoon. I have some terrific teaching
colleagues who are also talented writers, and it’s great fun to share ideas
with them. I also find that now that I’m teaching grammar regularly, I’m more
aware of correct grammar in my own writing.

You also edit
anthologies, mostly of gay erotica.  What
kind of satisfaction do you get out of editing other authors instead of writing
your own work? 

It’s very satisfying to see a work in progress and help the
author shape it—to say “you’re rushing this point,” or “you’re losing the
timetable here, or confusing the reader” and then see the author fix those
problems and come up with a better story. It also helps me see similar problems
in my own work. I also learn when the author does something right—recently I
read a whole paragraph about a kiss and it opened my eyes to how much better I
could be describing such an encounter.

When acquiring
stories for an anthology, what characteristics make a story feel right for your
books?

First of all, it has to match the call for the anthology. For
example, in Model Men, I
got a few stories in which a male model was a character—but being a model was
peripheral to the action. It has to be well-written—bad grammar isn’t sexy! It
has to have an erotic component, too. The men have to have sex at some point in
the story. If they don’t, it’s not erotica. My favorite stories are ones that
have a narrative to tell about the characters as well as leading up to hot
man-on-man action. I want to feel like these are real guys with real problems,
and the action of the story leads them not just into bed but into some
connection or resolution. The shy guy who gets drawn out of his shell or the
Lothario who discovers an emotional connection. Two men who realize they can
learn from each other. That kind of thing.

Setting seems to be
of primary importance to your mysteries. 
What about Hawaii for your Mahu series and Tunisia for your Aidan and
Liam books made you choose those locations?  
Do the respective cultures and their attitudes towards gay men come into
consideration as much or even more than exotic scenery?

I live in South Florida, where climate and setting are so
important to life, so I look for places like that. I’m interested in
multi-cultural places where there are lots of opportunity for different people
to rub up against each other (in all kinds of ways!) When I moved to Florida in
1986, I fell in love with the place, and started reading novels, particularly
crime fiction, to learn about it.

Then when I visited Hawaii in 1992, I wanted to do the same
thing—but there weren’t many mysteries set in the Aloha State back then, though
there had been TV shows like Hawaii
Five-O
and Magnum P.I.  It took a long time for Mahu to come into focus for me, and certainly part of the book grew
out of the attitudes toward gay men there.

I chose Tunisia for the Have
Body, Will Guard
series because I wanted a very different location, one
that could be romantic and dangerous at the same time, and because of the Arab
countries I considered Tunisia was the most liberal. As I’ve researched I’ve
tried to incorporate specific elements of the settings (whether Hawaii, Tunisia
or South Beach) into the plot and the character development.

I’ve seen an
interview that author Anthony
Bidulka
did with your character, Kimo Kanapa’aka, and it’s obvious you know
Kimo so well that readers feel like he’s a real person.  What aspects of his personality (if any) did
you not originally plan on giving him?  Are
there times when characters you’ve lived with for years still surprise
you? 

Characters are always surprising me! When I started writing Mahu, I
thought Kimo would have lots of aunts, uncles and cousins who could help him
solve the crimes. But instead I’ve focused most on his nuclear family—his
parents, his two older brothers and their families, and his family of choice,
his partner Mike. In Mahu Blood, I
learned that Kimo’s detective partner, Ray Donne, can sing when he suddenly
announced it. Kimo has a lot of my own interior life, so it’s easy for me to
figure out how he feels. Right now he and I are debating whether or not he’s
going to invite a child into his and Mike’s life, and how that might happen if
it does. I honestly don’t know how that’s going to resolve itself.

Your new novel, The
Russian Boy
, focuses on different stories that are connected through
one painting in a similar vein as the wildly successful Girl in Hyacinth Blue by Susan Vreeland.  Are there specific paintings, artists, or
museums that helped you conjure up your plot? 
What kind of research did you have to do to create a young Russian nobleman
in 1912? 

I first visited Nice, on the French Riviera, in 1972, as
part of a summer study program in France. Now that I look back I can see why I
liked it so much—I’m drawn to those hot, sunny climates. But it made a huge
impression on me, and I’ve been back several times, including spending two
summers there writing. One of the things that has fascinated me is the position
of the Russian nobility in the waning days of the Romanov empire, when the
wealthy often wintered in Nice, and built a massive Russian Orthodox cathedral
there. I’ve wanted to write something about that time period for years, and
finally found a way to do it with The
Russian Boy
. I studied art history in college so I had some very basic
background, and I studied up a bit on painting technique to make the characters
more realistic. I envisioned the painting to be a kind of male odalisque—a reclining
nude with a sensual air—and the story grew from there.

If you could have
three famous people—contemporary or from any time in history—over for dinner,
who would you choose? 

My three literary idols: Ernest Hemingway, Jack Kerouac, and
Jimmy Buffett. I love the way all three built lives that grew out of their art,
and how all of them demonstrate a passion and inventiveness with language. I
think we’d have a rollicking good time!

If there’s a question
you’ve always wanted to be asked in an interview, could you tell us about it
and, of course, answer it? 

Here’s a question: Did I know or envision that bringing a
dog into my life was going to have such an impact on my writing? And the answer
is no—it wasn’t until I fell in love with Sam, my golden retriever, and found
him infiltrating every aspect of my life, that I knew I wanted to make sure
that I was writing about dogs and demonstrating the unconditional love that
they offer. Kimo and Mike have adopted a golden, and so has Steve Levitan, the
hero of my golden retriever mystery series (In
Dog We Trust
and The
Kingdom of Dog
, with a third on the way.) Even Liam and Aidan have
adopted a small mixed-breed dog named Hayam (which means madly in love.)

Interviewer’s Note: 
The first book in the Have Body, Will Guard series is Three Wrong
Turns in the Desert
(Loose Id Press). 
The first in Neil Plakcy’s Hawaiian mystery series is Mahu
(MLR Press).  His latest erotica
anthology, Model Men,
will be released by Cleis Press in November 2011. 

To learn more about Neil, his fiction, and his anthologies,
visit mahubooks.com.  

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