Talk Story with Maui Author Toby Neal

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Talk Story with Maui Author Toby Neal

Posted by: Kim Steutermann Rogers
Apr 16, 2013

When feisty Detective Leilani Texeira--with unruly hair; a runner’s, lean body; and a penchant for going rogue--winds up in a cave that requires a stretch of underwater swimming to access, I suspected author Toby Neal had lived on The Garden Island at one time. She knew the hidden folds and nuances of Kauai just a little too well. 

I didn’t read Nancy Drew as a girl, so I never graduated to Agatha Christie. Some time in my 20s, I discovered Sue Grafton but only got to “H” or so in the series. When it comes to TV, I don’t watch all those CSI crime dramas, but I do admit to setting the DVR to record Hawaii 5-0. And I just finished season two of Homeland over the weekend. So, I cannot call myself a huge fan of mysteries and/or crime dramas, be them in print or on screen, but I read Toby’s Torch Ginger in about 24 hours. Or maybe 28. And, now, her latest in the Lei Crime Series, Broken Ferns, set on Oahu, is available through Thursday for download on for free. Free, I said. I love books that I hate to put down and cannot wait to pick up again. More, I love books that I hate to finish.

It didn’t take much digging to discover Toby was, indeed, raised on Kauai. Nor was it hard for me to find her email address, so, of course, I reached out to her. She responded in less time than the length of my morning meditations, which is about the time it takes to brew my tea. We fired off emails, and now I feel like an old friend. Toby lives on Maui these days, and I plan to sit down across a table with her on my next trip to the Valley Isle. Until then, download Broken Ferns but don’t start reading it until you finish reading this blog post. Please.

Kim: How did you come to write the Lei Crime Series?

Toby: I always wanted to write and originally went to college for journalism, but didn't really get going until two young girls drowned here on Maui, and I was part of the grief response team working at the high school. It was so disturbing that I started writing a story about it on my anonymous online blog. I invented this damaged cop whose personal issues were activated by the case. I kept adding chapters, and my readers were rooting for me. About 100 pages in I realized I was writing the kind of book I loved to read but never found set in Hawaii: fast paced, suspenseful, "real Hawaii" and with a twist of romance. I took two weeks off and went on retreat and finished it, and that was to become (many edits later) Blood Orchids. I am a mental health therapist but there's always been a part of me that wants to do something more active than mop up the tears of victims--and Lei actualizes that side of me. 

Kim: I’ve read that one of your childhood fantasies was to be an FBI agent, and I love how you’ve made that happen in a way that’s perfect for you. You’ve spent quite a bit of time with Lei. Since you’re wrapping your fifth book in the Lei Crime Series, I’m wondering if you find any of Lei’s personality traits—good or bad!--rubbing off on you in real life?

Toby: I don't actually have much in common with Lei other than a tendency to nervousness and a need to run and move when I'm upset or agitated. I have a bubbly personality and quick wit and I laugh a lot, I think I have more in common with Dr. Wilson, Lei's therapist, than any other character. But Lei is physically brave, a characteristic I admire and seek to cultivate in myself, and I've become braver, more daring physically since the Lei books.

I think I always have had a brave streak physically, growing up on Kauai I played hard, ran hard, surfed, climbed trees and waterfalls, all that. But I lost touch with it in middle age. Lei has revitalized me and made me more aware of actualizing that. 

Kim: Are you a fire sign? Aries? Leo? Sagittarius? Because you seem to be on fire with this writing thing, and I’m wondering if that’s just how you walk through life or if this is something different that’s got you inspired.

Toby: Believe it or not I'm a Capricorn. But a friend did my chart and said I have a Leo rising or some such. I'm a planner and a hard worker, and tenacity is my middle name--but I've always been super creative. I did dance, drama, painting and jewelry design in other incarnations. I always wanted to be a writer, and my first stint at college--full scholarship to Boston University on my own! From Kauai!--I was a journalism major and wanted to be a TV broadcaster. I soon saw what they actually had to do and also got homesick for Hawaii, dropped out and ended up getting married, having babies, and returning to college in my mid-twenties to do psychology. Twelve years later, I had all my degrees and licensure! My kids were graduating high school, and I was still young. Then, the girls died, and I wrote about it. In a way, everything I've done has contributed to what I'm doing now. Nothing is wasted. All is life experience and grist for the writing. It seems like I've come blazing out of nowhere with all these books, but I've been writing my whole life and wanting to do what I'm doing now. I feel like I've tapped some Jungian well of creativity and story that actualizes all I care about. I'm on fire, all right, and I can't stop writing! 

Kim: So what is your writing day like? Are you up at dawn and burning the midnight oil? Reeling off 20-hour writing days?

Toby: I do some marketing first thing in the morning (my FB, twitter, etc) then I exercise, then I get to work and try to do 1200 to 2000 words a day, and then I do rewrites. I go do therapy with private practice clients in the afternoons/evenings. It's an amazing life, all I dreamed of, and I worked very hard for a long time to get to this place in my life. 

Kim: It seems that you draw your plotlines from real life, be it your own experiences, things ripped from the headlines and whatnot. I’m wondering if you ever encounter writer’s block in some form, and if so, what? And if not, why do you think that is?

Toby: I did a lot of work around creative recovery using the Artists Way in the 1990's, facilitated a creativity group, and learned to outwit the blocks. This is a specialized aspect of my mental health practice I make available to artists. So far, I don't get writers block nor do I expect to. I am having too damn much fun! 

Kim: Also, it seems you take on some bigger issues with your novels, be it the sex trade or sexual abuse. Is it important to you to draw attention to or bring to light certain issues in our world and, if so, why? Which ones, in particular?

Toby: I'm a clinical social worker. I believe in speaking out for change, and I love having a platform to do it that's not preachy but engages through entertainment and makes you stop and think. I care about a lot of kinds of suffering and I turn the lens of my writing on the issues I want to raise--remember, I was almost a TV journalist! (I knew Keahi Tucker back in the day, too!) Coming up in future books: right to death, the repercussions of Cloud computing, the buying and selling of influence, the F*cked up healthcare system. Whee-ha! It's a blast.

Kim: Let’s talk craft for a second. In Torch Ginger, why did you choose to write the hero’s storyline in the third-person and the villain’s in the first-person? It totally works, but I’m just curious what your motivations were. (Just finished Black Jasmine, by the way.)

Toby: I wanted to do something I'd never read in a mystery suspense--I'd never seen third person paired with first person present. I wanted to give a glimpse into the mind of a sociopath. It's weird, I don't always know why I'm doing something until it reveals itself in the twist. (And they all have a twist) That book was all about strong female characters. Readers didn't seem to love it as much as I did, a lot of them got pissy with Lei choosing the FBI. To me, it was an inevitable path of her character development, as the woman she was--hardworking, ambitious. It had to end that way--the best endings always feel bittersweet and inevitable.

Kim: Great dialogue, by the way. What tips can you give about writing authentic dialogue?

Toby: I have an unfair advantage--as a therapist, much of my day is spent deeply listening to people talk, and reflecting back to them what they said paired with their emotions. I've begun to almost have a perfect ear to hear and remember dialogue word for word. My characters, this many books in and writing them almost constantly, have become very "real" to me, and I track their conversations just like my clients. Tips? Tape people talking, listen to people talking, the pauses, the repeats, the odd beats. And "hear" the voices of characters the same way, and simply record them.  

Kim: I’m curious: why did you decide to self publish? 

The Lei Crime Series was actually offered for by Pocket Books, but the advance was pitiful and they wanted all my digital rights; I had Blood Orchids out by then and was earning more in a month than they offered for the whole series, so I turned it down. 

I do have a New York agent, who tried to sell the Lei Crime Series (I gave him six months) but he wasn't able to and in the end, I'm super happy he didn't. He's still trying, though, with a dystopian YA survival novel I wrote set on Lanai. Written in the spirit of the Hunger Games, with a badass female teen protagonist who rides and shoots and builds a boat. It's a unique story of modern and Hawaiian culture juxtaposing, called Path of Island Fire. It's out there collecting rejections, but I'm more patient with that because I want young readers to find it, and that will be hard with self pub.

My "big author dream" is to be able to negotiate my own print deal and keep my digital rights. But it's a long-term dream. Only a few, like Hugh Howey's Wool series, have been able to pull that off currently. Still, we are living in changing times, and I've learned to trust my instincts--and right now my instincts are to write as hard and fast as I can while keeping the quality high. I think I'm improving with each book, and that keeps readers coming back.

It turns out, once I started writing I've been prolific as hell, and the self pub thing really has worked for the speed of my writing. I'm doing about three books a year, and the stoke is just spreading by word of mouth! 

Kim: As a self-published author whose work is “tight,” how do you do without a traditional editor? Do you have so-called beta readers? A writing group? Who proofs your book for you to ensure there are no/few typographical errors and such? Especially since it seems you are cranking them out.

Toby: I have a team of top quality professionals, my book production team, who work for me. I have a traditional editor, Kristen Weber who used to work for Penguin in their mystery imprint and now is a freelancer. She does developmental editing on every book.

Kristen turned me on to her copyeditor, Penina Lopez, who also works for Big Six and accepts freelance jobs. She does all my books before they go to the formatter.

Then, I have the amazing Linda Nagata, who does my formatting and book design. She's an incredible sci-fi writer and only does my books cuz I beg, plead and pay well. 

I have my pro photog husband do my photos for covers:

And to top it off, I am one of the only indies to have cover design done by the incredible Julie Metz, a New York cover designer. She works for Big Six too.

Because of all of these true professionals and keeping my quality as good as any trade pub book out there (my goal with every title) every book costs me between 4-6,000 dollars to produce. I'm a startup business, and I plow everything I can back into the next book.  Fortunately, this approach is paying off. Currently, I've had around 300,000 digital downloads of the books in the series and 5,000 hard copy sales, very good for self-published.

Kim: Do you have any idea at this point how many books will comprise the Lei Crime Series?

I am working on Twisted Vines, the 5th Lei book. I plan to tie up a lot of the "loose ends" of character and plot arc/romance that go from book to book. My next two coming out are what I'm calling "Lei Crime Companion" novels: Stolen in Paradise, with Lei's friend FBI agent Marcella Scott as protagonist, is a romantic suspense mystery (great plot involving GMOs and UH!) and Unsound, a psychological suspense set in Haleakala Crater with Lei's therapist Dr. Wilson, will come out this summer. 

How many in the actual series? I have no idea. I plan to wrap things up in Twisted Vines with Lei's subplots, but I may do more. I love the world I've invented and the characters I've created; they can go on in all different directions to different islands.

Kim: Have any movie producers approached you? With the current success of Hawaii Five-O, your series seems like a natural for the big screen!

Toby: Many, many people have said that to me. There are even lots of suggestions for actors/actresses! I am hopeful someone will read the books and fall in love with the premise and option them--I have an agent who handles film and TV rights! It would be great to have Lei Crime Series as the next show to replace H-50, with a kickass female protagonist--Grace Park could play Lei! I think she's underutilized in H50, I loved her in the new Battlestar Galactica, (a great series BTW) and she has an amazing range as an actress.

I am visualizing the success of these books, not just for me but because they represent a clearer picture of the "real Hawaii" with its complex cultural and social issues. Issues I care about as a third generation kama`aina who`s chosen to be a part of speaking up in my own way, for all the things I love here. 


Raine Thomas | Apr 17, 2013 06:21 AM

Wonderful interview, Toby! I love the Lei crime novels and I'm excited to hear what you've got planned for them. You're an inspiration to indie authors everywhere! Keep up the great work.

JoAnn Curtola | Apr 17, 2013 07:57 AM

Great interview. I discovered the Lei Crime Series in November and have become an avid reader. I particularly appreciate how MS. Neal incorporates a broad spectrum of real life issues into her stories and fluidly navigates between the plot and character back stories. I'm eagerly waiting for the next book

Frederick Lee Brooke | Apr 17, 2013 08:34 AM

Great interview, Toby! I can't wait to read another Lei novel. I read Blood Orchids and loved it ...

Justin Bog | Apr 17, 2013 10:07 AM

I always love living vicariously through Toby Neal's stories---the less bloody part of Hawaii, that is. She places me in the island paradise and I loved reading your interview. Always learn something new about an author, and what drives creation. Congratulations on the new book, Toby.

Dionne | Apr 18, 2013 06:36 PM

Hi Toby. You sound like you have the most amazing team to get your books out. Congrats on your success. I love to see authors who are doing it properly, getting the recognition they deserve. I hope I can reach the success you have one day :).

Danie Jones | Apr 19, 2013 08:21 AM

I see what Mike meant about it being in depth, Toby. And I need to get my hands on the rest of the Lei Crime series too.

D.C. | Apr 20, 2013 07:58 AM

Excellent interview with a fellow Capricorn. :) And thanks for some of the great writerly advice,Toby. I've bought a couple of the books in this series and can't wait to read them! My mom has read a few so far and she is a huge fan.

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