After spending some time in prison, Leon returns home to Portland—and all his old tricks. He attempts to move in on a sports book operation to make some money, but when Leon’s goddaughter goes missing, he takes matters into his own hands to get her back—and will use any means he can.
Author Lono Waiwaiole might be the only half-Hawaiian writer of noir crime fiction in the world. In his fifth book, LIZZIE’S LULLABY, Waiwaiole gives a glimpse into the past of his characters, Wiley and Leon, from his successful Wiley series.
Writing full-time from his adopted home of Portland, Waiwaiole took a few moments out of his busy schedule to answer some questions for The Big Thrill.
In LIZZIE’S LULLABY, good attempts to conquer evil. Is it possible to combat evil without lowering yourself to that level, or is it better to have someone willing to get a little dirty?
Very interesting question, but not one these characters would ever ask. I don’t think they think in terms of good or evil. Wiley and Leon don’t appear to have anything against “evil” in general; they only spring into action against the villains when they are under attack. In that mode, they don’t really have a filter on what they’ll do in response—this is determined wholly by what works and doesn’t work, and they are fine with wherever that takes them. So in the context of Lizzie’s abduction, this means they will do literally whatever it takes to get her back safely, and would not consider whatever was required “dirty” in any way. Yes, Wiley is fortunate to have someone like Leon around, but not because Leon is willing to do more—it’s because Leon is capable of doing more than Wiley can. He has more tools in his toolbox for this kind of work than Wiley has.
Many of your main characters are troubled in some way. How do you lessen their faults and make them characters worth rooting for?
I think there is a subtext in all of my books that the presence of faults in a person is no reason to disdain rooting for them. The protagonists display this attitude pretty consistently to the various lowlifes they encounter and hold nothing against them except hostile actions. As the creator of these troubled characters, I come from a mindset of believing everyone is troubled to some degree or another, and everyone can relate to these guys on some level. So I don’t consciously do anything to lessen their faults in search of sympathy—I am counting on the readers recognizing the bond they share with Wiley and Leon in spite of their faults. The question I’m posing for the reader is this: if you were in the same situation as Wiley and Leon in LIZZIE’S LULLABY, would you do the same things they do to get her back (assuming you had the skills required)? If the answer is basically yes, then you’ll have no trouble rooting for them to succeed.
Lizzie calls herself precocious. She is smart, strong—and seven years old. Where does she get her strengths?
Another great question I’m not sure I can answer. The flip response is she has her strengths and her dazzling beauty because I gave them to her, but I sincerely believe there is more to it than that. Lizzie embodies a few ironies in terms of the series as a whole. Her conception was an accident that occurred between two people who should never have been together, but the daughter they produced implies that they were a potent combination to say the least. In addition to favorable genetics (intelligence and physical beauty), they raised her to be fearless and independent probably in reaction to their failure to shape their own lives in the way they truly desired (both Wiley and Julie being victims of unrequited love). They want something better for Lizzie than what they have, and they have learned from bitter experience that she will have to fight to get it. Judging by what happens when Lizzie is abducted, her folks have certainly succeeded in developing a fighter.
Leon seems to be an “end justifies the means” kind of guy. Is he able to redeem himself from his past sins if he continues down that path?
Anyone who truly believes the end justifies the means doesn’t believe he or she is guilty of committing a sin unless the end was not honorable. This is certainly true of Leon, who has done some things that are generally frowned upon but only in service of honorable (in his view) ends—such as saving his own life or rescuing his best friend’s daughter. Since he doesn’t see himself as in need of redemption, this is not a question that gives him any pause. It is reasonable that readers may see this differently, but that circles back to the question of their ability to bond with him. The only things that separate him from the bad guys he deals with are their objectives—the ends they desire. I think readers can relate to Leon and Wiley no matter what they do because most readers are able to relate to the ends Wiley and Leon pursue.
Grams is a pillar of the family. Does she resemble someone in your own family?
Good call. Grams is a lot like the only grandmother I knew in my own family, although she was much more remote than Grams is in Lizzie’s life. This character looks like my mom’s mother and acts like I imagine my grandmother would have had I been within a bus ride of where she lived. That’s one of the major benefits of writing fiction—these things can be engineered exactly as desired by the writer.
You have said that you felt like an outsider growing up in Hawai`i even though you are half Hawaiian. How does your heritage come out in your writing?
Actually, I grew up on the mainland, which was the problem when I finally lived in Hawai`i. I am more Hawaiian than most of the people who live there, but I wasn’t local. This was kind of the flip of my situation on the mainland—I was local, but Hawaiian, rather than whatever the particular ethnic majority happened to be (I lived among several of these as my family wandered up and down the West Coast). I was usually a minority of one, which eventually taught me that so is everyone—and it’s useful to interact with everyone on that basis. This shows up in my writing in relation to the faults that my characters have—I encounter them as fellow humans who may be different from me but still potential fellow travelers until they do something that must be resisted. That’s why the sex workers in my books are regarded one way and pimps in quite another way, for example. The question of how my heritage comes out in my writing is tough to answer, though, because I don’t fully know what my heritage actually is. I was not raised by my Hawaiian father and have only lived in Hawai`i for two years starting at the age of 58 or so, which makes the most obvious connection to my writing the fact that Wiley is exactly the same. Beyond that, the jury is still out on this question.
You were a professional poker player. Is there one hand that you remember more than any other or one location at which you enjoyed playing?
Calling me a professional poker player suggests a picture significantly off the mark. I survived while I was doing that, but I certainly didn’t thrive. But all poker players have bad beats they will never forget (and in many cases will never stop crying about to anyone willing to listen), but the worst beat I have ever experienced was the most profitable hand I have ever played. I was playing no-limit Texas Hold-em and had a pair of threes in my hand. The flop (there are five community cards in that game) was a three and two tens, which gave me a full house. The next up card was a nothing-burger, so I ended up with all of my chips in the pot against one other guy, who turned out to have the other two tens—four of a kind is way better than a full house. We both turned our cards over before the last card was dealt, so I could see that I was dead no matter what the last card turned out to be—except that the casino had a “bad beat” pot that would go to anyone who lost with four of a kind or higher. So I told the dealer that the least he could do is throw the last three out there so I could lose with four of a kind, and that’s exactly what he did. The guy with the tens won the pot between us, but I won the bad-beat pot, which was worth about $15,000—a memorable losing hand, to say the least.
Which is harder: editor or teacher? You taught both English and Social Studies. Which did you enjoy more?
I think I have a natural aptitude for editing and teaching, so I have to say that neither was usually difficult for me and I liked both. They are totally opposite in some ways, though, which is why I moved from editor to teacher about halfway through my professional life. I love working with the English language, so editing was fun most of the time. Unfortunately, editors are a little too isolated to satisfy me forever. I thrive on interaction with other people, and not many things are more interactive than teaching in a high school. Moving into teaching was like a new lease on life for me, and it provided an important side effect as well—getting summers off gave me the time to start writing fiction rather than journalism (those used to be two different things), so we probably wouldn’t be having this conversation if I hadn’t gone into teaching at the end of the 1980s. As for which I enjoyed more, teaching English or Social Studies, I have to say Social Studies because that was actually several courses which I thoroughly enjoyed—US history, government, economics, and psychology. That said, I taught Advanced Placement English Literature at a small school in Oregon that was so much fun I should have paid the school for the opportunity rather than the other way around.
What can we look forward to reading from you in the future?
I have a “literary” novel kicking around in search of a publisher, but there is no guarantee you will ever have the opportunity to read that one. Meanwhile, I have four books underway, which is the same thing as not really writing at all. I’m pretty sure Stark Naked is going to win that tug-of-war, which is about an ex-cop named Solomon Stark and a stripper who meets Solomon and the serial killer who is targeting her at about the same time—and initially thinks Solomon is the problematic relationship.
Lono Waiwaiole is the only half-Hawaiian writer of noir crime fiction in the world. His novels include Dark Paradise, an examination of the underside of his ancestral homeland published by Dennis McMillan in 2009 and still the harshest light ever brought to bear on that topic. He writes full-time (now that he’s too old to do much of anything else) in his adopted home of Portland, Oregon. He was previously a newspaper and magazine editor, a high-school teacher and basketball coach, and a professional poker player.
To learn more about Lono, please visit his website.