McKinney gets humorous in 'Mililani Mauka'
By Wanda A. Adams
Assistant Features Editor
By Wanda A. Adams
When award-winning novelist Chris McKinney embarked on his most recent novel, he decided to try something new.
So in "Mililani Mauka," he created a character who takes revenge in a rather spectacular but ineffectual way on a community that he feels has failed him; another who begins to see a quirky, wisecracking ghost and suspect he's going crazy; and a homeless widow and her son who find friendship and support from unlikely sources.
At times, particularly when the ghost appears, the book climbs blithely right over the top and dives off, a circumstance some readers will no doubt find difficult.
Though not exactly "ripped from the headlines," the 36-year-old author's plot centers on an all-too-familiar contemporary scenario: someone who, seemingly without warning, flips out and does some horrific public act. "I wanted him to be a regular guy who pretty much had a decent life. ... I wanted to do something different with that," McKinney said.
The author, a tenured assistant professor of English literature at Honolulu Community College, is known for dark and unsparing representations of contemporary Island life — his first novel, "The Tattoo" (1999), was set in Halawa prison; "The Queen of Tears" (2001) was about a troubled immigrant family and culture clash; "Bolohead Row" (2005) has people numbing themselves with drugs and alcohol to deal with life in fast-changing Hawai'i.
This time, he wanted to inject some humor.
The key character, an English literature professor, can't see the symbolic implications of occurrences in his own life, despite the fact that symbolism is the meat and drink of college English lit. "I wanted to write about something I found humorous," said McKinney, "that clueless aspect is there for that reason."
The author enjoyed the tension "walking the fine line between reality and delving into what might not be believable." In previous books, he said, "I've always been very, very careful to make things believable — almost to a fault. This is the first time I wrote a book that was trying to get away from that notion."
There was something else new. He and his wife had become the parents of their first child, a daughter, who, in 2006, when he began writing "Mililani Mauka," was an engaging toddler of 2 years old. "I don't think in my life at that point I would have been capable of writing a book that didn't touch on being a parent."
McKinney, who lives in Mililani Town, skewers his home community in the first line of the first chapter: "Mililani is on O'ahu, but it doesn't look like Hawai'i."
He's not worried about his neighbors burning him in effigy on the front lawn, though. They won't likely read it — so few people read for pleasure now, he says.
So does he believe in ghosts? Sort of. In the way that many Islanders do. We might not really believe in night marchers or the goddess Pele, but we won't carry pork over the Pali or take rocks or black sand from the Big Island.
"When I was about 10, my house was supposedly haunted. The Buddhist priest told my mother. But I never saw anything," he said. He did once have an unsettling experience. New to his Mililani home, he was drowsing in bed when he saw from the corner of his eye a guy with a backpack walk down the hallway. He searched the house but found nothing and no one. "But if you were to ask, I would swear I saw something," he said.
Talk of small-kid-time scary stories leads to a discussion of local lifestyle: "I often feel I'm in the last generation of people who grew up in Hawai'i. My daughter won't know these things. Now we're basically American. Something's lost."
The loss comes at the cost of our identity and specialness, he said. "Our unique culture is fading."
What's not fading is McKinney's commitment to writing. He's working on screenplays now.
What's different for him than when he started writing fiction? Discipline.
He writes six days a week, two hours a day, in the morning. At one time, he'd write sporadically, abandoning a manuscript for weeks, then engaging in marathon all-night sessions. "The Tattoo" was written between 10 p.m. and 4 a.m.
He outlines his books, but then he lets them go where they want to. "That's one of the fun parts," he said, "when the characters do something you didn't expect them to do."
But the best moment: "When the book is finally done."
Reach Wanda A. Adams at email@example.com.