Toby Neal always knew she wanted to be a writer, but her path to becoming successful novelist turned out to have as many twists and turns as one of her murder mysteries.
The Pukalani resident had put her interest in writing on the back burner for decades, but with her children in high school and her career as a clinical social worker on track, she began to think about revisiting her passion. Then tragedy struck, in the deaths of two King Kekaulike High School students.
"It was such an intense experience emotionally," said Neal, who was working as a counselor at the school and found herself dealing with the aftermath, from consoling distraught students to working with law enforcement officials.
Toby Neal of Pukalani writes popular mystery novels, including her first, “Blood Orchids.”
MIKE NEAL photo
"I needed to write about it to work things out for myself," she said. "I started a story on my anonymous writing blog about a damaged policewoman who has her personal issues activated by a terrible case, and who gets in over her head trying passionately to solve it."
The story, which she ended up setting on the Big Island so it wouldn't be "too close to home," turned into her first novel, "Blood Orchids."
Although she finished the manuscript in 2008, it would be a "long and heartbreaking" journey to publication. After "an embarrassing number of rejections," she found a literary agent willing to take her on, but the agent was unable to secure a publisher before eventually retiring and Neal found herself back where she started.
"At that point, I would have had to go looking for another agent, and I had had enough feedback that the books were good that I knew the public would like them if I could just get them in front of readers," she said. "So I decided to self-publish."
Neal admits she made a number of "expensive mistakes" in her first venture, as she learned how to be a publisher and turn her books into a business, but "Blood Orchids" eventually debuted a little over a year ago. All told, the book required a $10,000 investment, covering costs including professional editing, cover art, design and publicity.
Neal said she got a lucky boost by launching her book in December 2011, a moment in time when self-published e-books were exploding as a phenomenon.
"I was there with a strong social media strategy and a great book," she said, "and I made back my investment and more in 'Blood Orchids' by that March."
Since then she's released two more books about the adventures of her main character, Lei Texeira: "Torch Ginger," which is set on Kauai, and "Black Jasmine," based on Maui. Her fourth book in the series, Oahu-based "Broken Ferns," is set to debut late this month. All her titles are available on Amazon.com and Barnesandnoble.com.
So, just how successful have the books been? Neal shared that she's distributed more than 200,000 e-books in sales and giveaways, and that her earnings have been enough to allow her to leave her full-time job with the DOE.
"I now write every morning and do private-practice counseling" in the afternoons, she said. "I'm living my dream."
Upcoming projects for the prolific Neal include a young-adult "dystopian" novel set on Lanai, which is currently being shopped around to traditional publishers by her new agent, and a Honolulu-based romantic-suspense novel she plans to enter in the Amazon Breakout Novel contest this month.
When she's not writing, Neal now works as a private therapist with Maui Center for Child Development and the Maui Counseling Group. She is also the co-founder of the nonprofit Keiki Cupboard, which provides school supplies to needy children on Maui. Neal has been married to local woodworker and photographer Mike Neal for 27 years; the couple has two grown children.
Neal says her stories have been deeply inspired by her background as a "third-generation haole in Hawaii" and by her experience as a clinical social worker. Growing up in Hanalei, Kauai, to "hippie" parents, she had a humble upbringing - her family worked as the groundskeepers and housekeepers for the family that inspired the novel, and subsequent film, "The Descendants," she says.
Now, many of the "tough" themes she illuminates in her novels come from events that either happened to her personally or are based on experiences and traumas of her counseling clients.
"I'm fascinated by the contrasts in Hawaii between the beauty of nature and the ugliness of human behavior, something I see often in my therapy work," she says. "But if you read one of my books, you'll see that, even while I explore the seamier side of life, I'm a believer in the triumph of the human spirit, and my books always celebrate and showcase overcoming and courage."
To learn more about Neal's work, visit www.tobyneal.net.
* Ilima Loomis is a Maui-based writer and editor. Do you have an interesting neighbor? Tell us about them at email@example.com. Neighbors and "The State of Aloha," written by Ben Lowenthal, alternate Fridays.