Books

Chris McKinney
Image: Manny Pangilinan

Chris McKinney / This is starting to feel like Chris McKinney’s time. While his early novel The Tattoo launched him into the consciousness of local educators and literary types, his latest offering, Mililani Mauka, explores new emotional and physical terrain, and promises to grow the Honolulu Community College professor’s audience. We spoke with him by phone early this week. Check out our review of the new novel on page 13.

You grew up in Kahaluu. That’s a long way from Mililani Mauka, yet your books seem largely without any nostalgia for old Hawaii. Do you feel any?

No. The whole concept of rural Hawaii, I mean, people write songs about it, ‘take me back to the country’ and all of that, but I’ve never really felt that way. Maybe the closest I’ve come is when I actually had a kid. I’m watching her grow up very differently than I did. There’s definitely positives to that, too, but there are things I grew up learning that she won’t learn.

Postives like?

She won’t take two steps out of her driveway and see people dealing drugs at the bus stop. [Laughs] No neighbors chasing each other around with a kitchen knife.

Some of your other work has been about the violence of poverty. This one is, at least in part, about a different sort of violence, a suburban violence.

The most violent act takes place at the beginning. It’s more of a lashing out at a symbol as opposed to one specific person. In the first book [The Tattoo] one guys kills his dad, the other guy kills his wife. This guy doesn’t really kill anybody, he just takes out some buildings.

Obviously, and especially since Columbine, some guys just lose it, and it seemed to me that they often go after the wrong targets, not the specific person who’s the source of the pain. I was interested in that.

Does Hawaii seem like an essentially violent place to you?

Nah. I think it’s pretty well publicized that we have the least amount of gun violence. The only way it might seem more violent–and I’m going out on a limb here–is that if you live here for a long period of time, you have a better chance of witnessing a fistfight than maybe people on the mainland do. I think it’s one of those things, it’s an unspoken understanding. People here know how they should conduct themselves. On the mainland, there’s less of that unspoken code. It’s weird going there too, when people start looking at you–you can kind of get a chip on your shoulder about people looking at you.

Do you read many other writers on Hawaii?

Not much. I’ve read some Ian MacMillan, some Lois-Ann Yamanaka, but I’m hardly an expert on local literature. [As far as other contemporary writers] Richard Price and Richard Russo are probably the two people writing today who are my favorites. I’ve read some George Pellicano. I also got into a heavy Wire phase. As far as storytelling goes, whether you’re talking fiction, film, television or what, The Wire is pretty much it these days.

Do you think about your readership while you are writing?

No. And I probably should, that’s a mistake on my part. [Laughs] It’s such a colossal effort to just write the thing. If I consider anybody the audience, it’s me. I have to enjoy what I’m doing or I’ll never finish it.

Do your students talk to you about your work?

They do about The Tattoo. Probably the most gratifying thing that’s happened to me is that even now people say “that book was real, some of the things that happened in this book are things that happen in my family.”

There’s been a lot of chatter about this book marking a change of direction for you. Was that apparent to you during the writing of it?

When I wrote Queen of Tears, that was an example of a conscious effort. For this one, not so much. It came out of issues I wanted to explore, things I was looking at or witnessing.

The tone is lighter, though.

That was conscious. Obviously it’s not all in fun, it’s not supposed to be a romp, but I wanted to try to do something more funny. Some of it is dark humor, but I hope it works. Which is scary, by the way, trying to be funny. Especially in writing.