BookTrib Spotlight: Debra Bokur by Neil Nyren
Probing the Dark Side of Paradise
“When it’s serene, there’s no place more peaceful; when it’s storm season or the volcano is erupting, the landscape is steeped in a primitive kind of violence. These factors influence the people who live within this environment, for good or ill. There seems to be a general and often naïve perception that Hawaii is all sunshine and happiness, but the truth is far more complicated and quite often dark.” – Debra Bokur
In Bokur’s debut THE FIRE THIEF, Maui detective Kali Mahoe knows all this firsthand. The body of a teenage surfer has bobbed up on the southeastern shore, but it is no surfing accident. Somebody hit the boy hard enough to break his skull, and mysteriously, a shark’s tooth is embedded in the wound.
Could it be evidence of a ritual murder? Mahoe knows what a nightmare that could be. She holds a degree in cultural anthropology and prides herself on her deductive skills, but she’s also the granddaughter of one of Hawaii’s most respected spiritual leaders, and on the path to becoming a kahu—a healer—herself. She knows how strong the old beliefs are—and how they can complicate a case.
She has no idea just how complicated this investigation will become, however. Another death comes, and then a third. A grisly sacrifice is left on a doorstep. Reports start coming in of a noppera-bo, a faceless, malicious spirit, prowling among the houses and trees.
Kali Mahoe believes there is a logical explanation for those reports, and she has her hands full enough trying to handle her dead lover’s very human teenage daughter, a sullen meth addict apparently hellbent on destroying her own life. But it is only when her two worlds merge that she begins to understand the true nature of the threat before her—and the danger to her own life as well.
The idea for the book first took hold when journalist Bokur was working as a wellness editor for a magazine. “I’d been sent to Hawaii on multiple occasions to write about indigenous healing traditions, which often involved interviewing local native healers, historians, and cultural leaders. Eventually, I found myself back in Hawaii with my husband for an extended stay while we were filming a documentary on how healing protocols are so often related to the lore and legends associated with a specific place and population.
“The documentary got shelved, but I couldn’t stop thinking about the dichotomy between Hawaii’s nature-based healing practices, the violence of the legends, and the wild extremes of the weather. I believe that places carry energy; sometimes a specific location can be so powerful that the sense of it is overwhelming. In 2013, my husband and I were on Maui during the arrival of tropical cyclone Flossie. We’d been touring the area around the old port town of Lahaina and got caught in a flash flood on our way back to our hotel. The embankments along the cliffs on the roadside collapsed, and our car was nearly swept away. There were fierce winds, crashing thunder, and staggering displays of lightning. When we reached the hotel, the lower floor had flooded, and the power was out. We sat in our room watching deck furniture fly by and wondering if the building was going to be ripped from its moorings and cast into the Pacific. Years later, we watched fresh lava pour into the sea after the volcano erupted on Hawaii Island. It was fascinating how rapidly the landscape was transformed from languid sunshine and birdsong to a tumultuous and terrifying state. I remember thinking that if the legends I’d been told held any truth, someone or something must have made the gods and goddesses very angry; a concept, of course, that’s inherent in many religious and spiritual traditions.
“One of the topics I’ve concentrated on as a journalist, and that I find to be personally enthralling, concerns cultural traditions. The elders, particularly the women, in my own family have presented me with a rich tapestry of stories and traditions that have become the vantage point from which I see the world. As a result, I’ve always been curious about how culture influences others. As a journalist, I was deeply fortunate to be introduced to several Hawaiian spiritual leaders and practicing kahunas, along with historians and community leaders. I believe these people recognized my sincerity and deep respect for Hawaii and her stories, and as a result, my relationship with them has grown over the years to include invitations to participate in healing ceremonies and events—all of which have reinforced my love for Hawaii and my education regarding its history and cultural landscape.
“My first trip to the islands was in 2000, and it was under extreme duress. I’m one of those people who genuinely prefer cold, wild climates, and I confess that until that time, I had actively resisted visiting Hawaii. I’d lived in St. Augustine, Florida, for a number of years and found the heat and humidity to be nearly unbearable, and simply wasn’t interested in voluntarily spending time in what I wrongly assumed would be a similar environment. A good afternoon for me is hiking through a snowy forest observing wildlife, not sunbathing on a beach. Once you’ve seen one palm tree…
“At that time, I was working as the managing editor at Delicious! Living Magazine, and we were locked in editorially to cover a food festival that was to take place on Oahu and Maui. Our food editor had to cancel her attendance at the last minute, and as no one else was available, it came down to me. I think I may have grumbled all the way across the ocean, but walking out of the Honolulu airport hall on arrival, I had a major shift in perspective. Just the scent alone changed everything about the way I’d expected Hawaii to be. In no time at all, I was hooked.
“Since then, I’ve spent the better part of a year there over the course of numerous trips. It became personal, too: My husband and I became engaged there, and we went back to be married onboard a sailboat off the western coast of Oahu. We return whenever it’s possible to do so.”
Bokur’s work brings to mind Tony Hillerman’s Navajo police novels— the intimate relationship between man and nature, the overwhelming influence of ancient beliefs and traditions on everyday life.
“I am a huge Tony Hillerman fan, and am currently enjoying the rebirth of his characters in the works of his daughter, Anne Hillerman. The Four Corners area that serves as a backdrop for both Tony and Anne’s books is about a day’s drive from where I live in Colorado, and I’ve made more than one pilgrimage to explore the locations mentioned in those stories.
“Years ago in the mid-1990s, while working as a newspaper editor in Florida, I was asked to interview a Native American spiritual leader from the Lakota Nation who was in the area presenting at a local healing center. His name was Pete Catches, Jr., and the friendship that developed after our initial meeting lasted until his death some years later. The year following our first meeting, Pete invited me to attend a small, private Sundance ceremony on a reservation in South Dakota. I spent a week there, and my experience became yet another confirmation for my own philosophy about mankind’s place in a larger landscape of other life—animals, birds, trees, and the land itself—and what I believe to be our responsibility in not destroying what we’ve come, as a species, to see as generally expendable or less important than human life.
“I’ve incorporated this philosophy into my own life, and as a result, feel very aware of how the human relationship with the natural world manifests in other places. I have been deeply moved by experiences in places including Iceland, Thailand, Israel, Central America, and even in places within Europe, and am always awestruck by the similarities that run like cords through different cultures, always leading back to the natural world. I believe this to be evidence that there is some deeper, primitive connection that large parts of the human population instinctively recognize as essential and seek to reconnect with, even if on a subconscious level.”
Like Hillerman, too, Bokur has a strong eye for the details of that everyday life: the quality of the light, the smell of driftwood fires, the roadside messages spelled out in white coral against black lava stone.
“A lot of my work begins as poetry. Ever since I was in grade school, I’ve found that one of the best ways for me to manage my strong emotional responses to the world around me is to express it through poetry. It’s always been easier for me to use written words rather than spoken language to express what I feel or observe. An exploration of rhythm and the deliberate selection of words can be powerful tools in that process.
“I had absolutely zero concept of what it would be like to write a book. In fact, the first draft turned out to be a collection of too-short chapters that all came out at almost exactly 1,500 words each—the length of a typical magazine article. And when I sorted out that problem and sent it to a couple of writer friends to read, they each came back with the same response: now the chapters were long enough, but it read like a screenplay. So I had to practice extreme self-discipline overcoming those embedded writing instincts. Once I found the rhythm of the book and let the characters direct some of my writing decisions about how long they wanted to remain in a scene, I came to really enjoy working within the structure of the novel format. However, telling a concise story in the space offered by flash fiction, or exploring an emotional response through poetry, are still avenues of writing that bring me particular joy and satisfaction.
“There have been many exceptional writers whose works have inspired me, including the poets W. S. Merwin, Mary Oliver, and Dylan Thomas for their use of language and imagery; authors Tony Hillerman and Ursula LeGuin; Tolkien, Lewis, and Pullman, of course; my teachers John Biays, the late professor and poet Andrew Dillon, poet and teacher Ruth Moon Kempher, screenwriter and author John Fusco, and author Steven Pressfield, whose inspiring work The War of Art is always within reach on my desk.
“I was fortunate to have known the late Jack D. Hunter (author of The Blue Max and many other great books), who used to come in to the newspaper office in St. Augustine on a weekly basis to critique the work of writers and editors. We became friends, and Jack was a valuable mentor to me even after I left the paper and moved to Colorado. I still miss him and his no-nonsense feedback. I keep a few of his letters on my desk and re-read them when I feel discouraged.
“And I can’t thank my mother enough for her influence—an avid and insatiable reader, her idea of a bedtime story was whatever chapter of Agatha Christie, Helen MacInnes, or Mickey Spillane she happened to be reading on any given day. I think it’s because of those books that I still sit in airports and wonder if the woman with the darting eyes sitting across from me is a spy, or if the man in the blazer with the frayed cuffs may have killed someone before he had breakfast.”
Fortunately, Bokur didn’t have to kill anyone before breakfast to get a publishing contract—though, as with many such paths, that doesn’t mean there weren’t some surprising turns along the way.
“I had an agent handling my screenplays years ago, but it wasn’t an especially positive experience. I eventually decided to try book publishing without an agent. By the time I finally had a full-length book manuscript ready, self-publishing had become a viable option, and I was giving serious consideration to taking that route when I saw an advertisement for the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers conference being held in Denver. I decided to go in order to attend some of the seminars and to educate myself about the self-publishing process.
“Because critique sessions with a selection of book editors and agents were also being offered, I decided to participate in those as well in the hope of getting some industry feedback on my work. The conference was still some time out, and I managed to complete a second book manuscript in the interim, a literary fiction novel in the magical realism genre. I sent a chapter from THE FIRE THIEF and one from the second book off to two separate critique groups. One session was led by a book editor from a respected publishing house, and the other by an agent. I also signed up for a pitch session with a second agent. After the conference, all three invited me to send them the full manuscripts, and I accepted representation from my present agent, who sold THE FIRE THIEF and the second, as-yet-unnamed book in the series to Kensington. My original goal had been to come away from the conference with some constructive feedback and a better understanding of the self-publishing arena, but I am supremely grateful that things turned out as they did.”
What’s next? “I’ve just finished the first draft of the second book in the Dark Paradise series, and am plotting out the third. I’m also working on more magical realism, some flash fiction and new poetry, and a literary memoir about the journey of restoring an old, derelict Victorian inn in a small coastal Maine town, which is a project my husband and I somehow found ourselves taking on two years ago. Let’s just say we had absolutely no idea of what would be involved, but have learned many things—among them that a sense of humor is non-negotiable, and that if you have to replace all the floor joists in a 150-year-old building, you stand a good chance of anything made of plaster and lathe on the floors above collapsing into piles of rubble.”
Happily, there doesn’t seem any chance of Bokur’s book career collapsing into piles of rubble. Once you’ve made Kali Mahoe’s acquaintance, you’ll want to read more.
Neil Nyren retired at the end of 2017 as the executive VP, associate publisher and editor in chief of G. P. Putnam’s Sons. He is the winner of the 2017 Ellery Queen Award from the Mystery Writers of America. Among his authors of crime and suspense were Clive Cussler, Ken Follett, C. J. Box, John Sandford, Robert Crais, Jack Higgins, W. E. B. Griffin, Frederick Forsyth, Randy Wayne White, Alex Berenson, Ace Atkins, and Carol O’Connell. He also worked with such writers as Tom Clancy, Patricia Cornwell, Daniel Silva, Martha Grimes, Ed McBain, Carl Hiaasen, and Jonathan Kellerman.
He is currently writing a monthly publishing column for the MWA newsletter The Third Degree, as well as a regular ITW-sponsored series on debut thriller authors for BookTrib.com, and is an editor at large for CrimeReads.
This column originally ran on Booktrib, where writers and readers meet:
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