Why I dedicated my new Maui novel ‘Pau Hana Time’ to my friend Chris

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It’s finally happened: Event Horizon Press has published my third novel, titled Pau Hana Time. You can find it right now in paperback at Amazon (click here to buy it). An e-book version is coming soon, which will also be available at Amazon.

This was a far more difficult novel to write than I originally anticipated. You’d think that a trashy noir novel about contemporary Maui would be easy to write, especially since I’ve already written two earlier novels in the series. But this novel proved more of a struggle because the real-life guy who provided much of the inspiration behind the book’s protagonist killed himself just as I was starting to write it.

My friend’s name was Chris Atencio. He was an officer in the U.S. Army, and rose to the rank of captain. An Iraq War veteran, he found himself discharged in the summer of 2013. Six months later, he killed himself (a disturbing number of veterans kill themselves every day in this country, which is why I wrote about Atencio five months after his death).

Atencio and I met around 2000, before he joined the service. We were neighbors in Newport Beach, California, living in tiny studio apartments just steps from the beach. He was working a variety of jobs back then–bartender, doorman, retail clerk–but he had already traveled the world extensively and spoke a variety of languages. He was smart, no-nonsense, cosmopolitan and an incorrigible flirt.

He joined the army in 2003, and at least for a while, seemed to have a better time than I’d anticipated. The structure of the military seemed to agree with him, though his life-long inability to tolerate bullshit did pose problems. Atencio was still in the service in 2008 when I started writing Small Island (which Event Horizon Press published in 2011), though I decided early on that the hero of the novel–”Charley Ridgway”–would be a former army officer. Ridgway was to be smart, well-traveled, a bit cocky, flirtatious and completely intolerant of  injustice and stupidity. What’s more, I decided that he had left the military after becoming frustrated with its regimented, bureaucratic empires, and moved to Maui, where he followed the well-worn path of many mainlanders into the service industry, where he found work tending bar at a popular resort.

The novels expose the reality that lay beneath Maui’s tourist veneer, but are meant to be nothing more than entertaining beach reads. Above all, the novels are supposed to be fun. Ridgway is flawed, but well-meaning; a man of action, but with a conscience. It was easy to base the character on Atencio, though he’s in no way a copy of him.

In any case, I sent Small Island and its sequel The Dead Season to Atencio while he was stationed overseas, and he told me he loved them (though I don’t recall ever telling him I’d had him in mind while drafting the Ridgway character). I was still thinking about book three–what eventually became Pau Hana Time–when Atencio told me he’d been discharged. He visited my girlfriend and me on Maui in the summer of 2013 on his way back to the Mainland, and we talked a lot about his options, which were considerably better than returning to work as a bartender somewhere. But six months later, while still considering his future and battling PTSD, he killed himself.

Writing Pau Hana Time suddenly seemed impossible. The outline of the story–which included a sub-plot about an army friend of Ridgway’s who was struggling with PTSD–now horrified me. Did I fail Atencio when he needed me the most? Had I misunderstood Atencio’s personality all along? I put the novel aside (and even considered scrapping it entirely), focusing instead on writing about Chris, which took a few months of careful reporting and research.

Eventually I finished that story, which ran in both OC Weekly and my own paper MauiTime. Around that time, my publisher at Event Horizon asked how my latest novel was coming. I told her my thoughts and fears, and she gently suggested finishing it and dedicating it to his memory.  I returned to the outline, made a variety of changes, and then just started writing. To my surprise, it went quickly. As for the dedication, here’s what I settled on:screen-shot-2016-10-26-at-10-13-55-am

In truth, this is probably my favorite Ridgway novel, though that’s just my opinion. The one guy I wanted to read it will never do so.

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