Toby Neal

Congrats on your upcoming debut novel - tell us about it!
: I’m from Hawaii and I’ve always wanted to read a really good suspense/romance set here, that showcases the unique setting, culture, multiethnic people and dialects, and yet keeps your attention via riveting story alone. I’ve never found one that really did that—Hawaii novels are often written by outsiders, or are too “niche” to appeal to a mainstream audience. I finally decided to write the kind of book(s) I wanted to read! Blood Orchids is the first of a series of crime/suspense/romance novels starring Leilani Texeira, a flawed but courageous young police officer who’s overcome her past and deals out justice to those who need it.

You have been a mental health therapist for more than 15 years, was it difficult transitioning into fiction writing?
: I truly love my work as a therapist. . . but I was a writer first and always. It’s my curiosity about people, and fascination with their stories—curiosity and true interest—that have made me a good therapist. And it’s a desire to explore human behavior and universal themes that informs my writing. My psychology background has helped greatly with developing the pathologies of my villains, and portraying what drives Lei to solve crimes.

How long did it take you to write it and what was hard/fun about writing your first fiction book?
: Blood Orchids started as a short story. I’d tried to write novels before and always lost interest, but this time I started a story about a policewoman who’d been abused as a child… a woman with scars and flaws, but whose passion drove her to rectify things for others. I put it on my blog. Then I added chapters. And lo and behold, about 60 pages in, I realized I had a character I wanted to see grow and develop, a budding love story, and some great psychopaths to spice it all up. I was going to finish the book, and my blog followers were rooting for every installment! I’ll never forget the excitement I felt, realizing I’d found a character I could write about forever.

You’ll notice I said “found” a character. In Jungian psychology, there’s an explanation of these discoveries as existing in the “collective unconscious” of humanity—a deep sea where universal themes, symbols, heroines and villains appear across every culture. To me Lei is a representation of one of these universal characters—the wounded hero(ine) who fights for justice.

The first book took 18 months to complete a first draft, and since then I’ve built my confidence and “writing muscles” and can write a first draft in 6 months, even with my full-time work schedule. You just have to love the story and the characters, and then it’s easy. I’m on my fourth Lei Crime Novel now!

What inspired you to write the story?
: Blood Orchids was sparked as an idea by a tragedy that happened in my community—two teen girls were drowned. I was a grief counselor in the crisis team that went to the high school to work with the students in the aftermath. At first we were told they were victims of foul play, though later it turned out to have been accidental. For months after, perhaps because it was so traumatic to hear they’d been murdered, I thought about it, and wondered what it would be like to try and solve such a crime in a small Hawaii community.

What is your favorite book that was made into a movie?
: Out of Africa by Isaak Dinessen. The book is meditative and sublime, meant to be mulled over and savored. The movie has much the same feeling. I also loved and cried over Sophie’s Choice, and the French Lieutenant’s Woman. Meryl Streep is just beyond amazing. More recently, Eat Pray Love was enjoyable though I didn’t think Julia Roberts captured the author’s quirky, endearing neuroticism quite well enough, and I loved that book.

If your book(s) were made into a movie or TV, who would you pick for the main characters?
: I love this question because I’d love to see the Lei Crime Novels become either a movie or TV show! I could see Grace Park or Lucy Liu as Lei—though their appearance would have to be altered a bit. Lei is ¼ Hawaiian, ¼ Portuguese, and half Japanese. She has Asian features with freckles, a wide, full mouth that gets her in trouble, and curly hair (from her Hawaiian/Portuguese side) Her appearance is unique and reflects the many cultures of our Islands.

How do you think social media sites like Facebook and Twitter have changed your world as an author?
: I may be one of the few authors who loves social media, I don’t know! But if I wasn’t blogging, I might never have finished Blood Orchids, so for me social media is an integral part of writing. Facebook is about nurturing online friendships with people you may know from the past or be acquainted with in some way “IRL” (in real life) but Twitter is about reaching the world. I love both, and use them differently.

What are you working on now?
: I’m working on the fourth in my Lei Crime Novel series. Blood Orchids kicks it off, Torch Ginger is second, third is Black Jasmine… and this one is not titled yet. One of the fun things I’m doing with these books is that each one is set on a different of the Hawaiian Islands, so you can get a feel for each island’s unique character and geography by reading them. Lei has the same love interest through the different books, so we get to follow her growth, healing and the progress of her relationship through the different islands and the cases she solves.

What is your advice for other writers?
: Find a character you really love, you can write about forever, and then the rest is easy. Write every day if you can. Believe in yourself, and tell the stories that are in you to tell.

Who are the authors that inspire you?
: I don’t have just a few favorites. I’m a voracious reader and read literally everything in the kids’ side of the Kapa`a Library on Kaua`i when I was growing up! I will even read a cereal box if that’s all there is to read, so it’s hard to name just a few. Writers whose influence have colored my writing include Kurt Vonnegut (deep thinking irony), Diana Gabaldon (her lush, epic Voyager series that follows one great love story influenced my development of Lei and her love) Michael Connelly (his spare style of crime novel has influenced me in this genre) Patricia Cornwell, Greg Iles and Lisa Gardner for dark, fearless ventures into the underbelly of human behavior and awesome twisty plots. Anne Rivers Siddons for rich regional writing (which I hope mine can be called someday) and Pat Conroy for great family and friends stories. Oh dang, there are just so many!

Describe your writing habits – where do you write?
: I have a cramped little corner of the bedroom with a cluttered desk that I write at. It’s not glamorous and I won’t be featuring it in Better Homes and Gardens anytime soon. It actually doesn’t matter to me, when I’m immersed in a story all I need is to be comfortable and for my hands to be supported. I have carpal tunnel, so I love my poky corner because it has all I need: a big monitor, an ergonomic keyboard, and a comfy chair.

What is the secret life of Toby Neal?
: Many of the situations my characters face are based on personal experience or those of my clients (though not the guns. I’ve never even handled one!) There really is a darker side to paradise, and there really are people overcoming it. I am one of them.

  Blood Orchids is available on Amazon, Smashwords and Barnes & Noble.
                          Visit Toby's blog here