Charley Memminger is an award-winning humor columnist, screenwriter and author in Hawaii who just published his first novel, “Aloha, Lady Blue.”
The premise: Stryker McBride is a former crime reporter who lives on an expensive houseboat called–John MacDonald fans will appreciate this–“the Travis McGee.” When Stryker receives an unexpected SOS call from a sultry beauty queen, he agrees to look into the suspicious death of the woman’s grandfather. As Stryker investigates, he encounters a cast of characters as diverse as Hawaii itself, including Auntie Kealoha, a charming entertainer turned mobster and her 400-pound right-hand man, a Chinese-Hawaiian named Tiny Maunakea. Stryker discovers a deadly secret buried deep in the heart of Hawaii that has consequences much larger than one old man’s death.
Publisher’s Weekly gushed, “Deft storytelling, intrigue galore, and island splendor distinguish humor columnist Memminger’s strong first novel.”
Said A.J. Jacobs, editor-at-large for Esquire and national best-selling author, “Charley Memminger should be named Hawaii’s state gem. Sorry black coral, he’s just better than you are. His great first novel made me feel like I just took a Hawaiian vacation, and not your usual boring beach vacation, but a thrilling trip filled with corrupt cops and libidinous Russians.”
To get “Aloha, Lady Blue” published, Memminger, a former crime reporter himself, proved to be just as resourceful as his protagonist. He walked down all of publishing’s usual dark alleys, made a few unconventional leaps of logic and did some time in prison–sort of–until he was finally able to say aloha to “Aloha, Lady Blue.”
What makes Hawaii such a fun place to write about?
Hawaii is a true melting pot. We have just about every race you can name and the great culture of the Hawaiian people, who teach all visitors the meaning of aloha. One reason we all get along is because people in Hawaii are not politically correct when it comes to humor. We celebrate our differences and take a lot of shots at the various groups. The rest of the country would do well to learn from how we all live together in relative peace on a clutch of small islands in the middle of the Pacific. We, of course, have problems. There’s crime. But much of it is “island style” crime. I covered crime for many years in paradise and I try to share some of that in “Aloha, Lady Blue.” On a small island like Oahu, organized crime figures only live a few blocks away. When people are sent to prison, they are only up the road a bit. The beauty of Hawaii is something that the people who live here never take for granted. In “Aloha, Lady Blue” I wanted to show what living in the islands is really like. No cliches. From what the national reviewers are saying, I was able to get close to describing what life is like here. I’ve lived all over the world, and even went to kindergarten in Morocco. Trust me. Hawaii is the best place in the world to live!
Are any of the characters based on people you met while working for newspapers in Hawaii? I have to imagine you had plenty of source material.
I did develop some characters in “Aloha, Lady Blue” from either actually people I knew or met or people I heard about, like some of the great old time crime figures. If you’ve watched the original “Hawaii Five-0” and seen the quirky island characters often portrayed. they are real. They existed. I knew a 300-pound organized crime hitman named Ronnie Ching. He eventually pleaded guilty to killing four people, including the son of the Honolulu city prosecutor and a federal drug informant who he blew off a bar stool in broad daylight with a machine gun in a bar on Kapiolani Boulevard. He also killed a state senator. Before he went to the mainland to go to prison (not all prisoners are kept in Hawaii) he asked to speak personally to me. Criminals actually respected the press back in those days. He told me all about how he “made his bones,” killing his first person, and where he liked to get rid of the bodies. (He liked to bury them on a deserted beaches because “easy fo’ dig, eh?” My publisher insisted that my hero Stryker McBride not hang out with people like that. But I told her that’s the way it is in Hawaii. I based the character “Tiny Maunakea” on Ronnie Ching, who passed away several years ago.
I’m a huge fan of John D. MacDonald and the “Travis McGee” series of the 1960s and early 1970s. “Aloha, Lady Blue” is sort of an homage to the great man. I wanted to put a Travis kind of character in Hawaii in the 21st century. By putting my hero, Stryker, on a houseboat named the “Travis McGee,” I wanted to make it clear that “Aloha, Lady Blue” gives a “tip of the hat” to MacDonald but otherwise stands on its own. It’s along the lines of naming the boat “Sherlock Holmes” or “Magnum P.I.” Reviewers seem to get that. And MacDonald fans and the MacDonald estate have really embraced “Aloha, Lady Blue,” as a book that honors MacDonald but is its own story with its own hero.
Humor writers love writing mysteries. I’m working on one myself. Why do you think we’re drawn to them?
Because life is too important to take seriously!
Pat Sajak did a blurb for your book. How’d that happen?
First, on cover blurbs in general, I knew I needed nationally-recognized support because I’m completely unknown outside of Hawaii, even though I was twice named the top humor columnist in the country by the National Society of Newspaper Columnists. That was for newspapers UNDER 100,000 circulation. Not in Dave Barry-land. But there are a ton of papers in the country under 100,000 circulation so that kind of makes me kind of king of the humor writing dip-shits.
Anyway, I knew I needed mainland support so I sought out some friends and fellow columnists like W. Bruce Cameron, who wrote a column called “Eight Simple Rules for Dating My Daughter” and then it got made into a hit TV show. I also got best-selling author and Esquire editor-at-large A.J. Jacobs to contribute a blurb. I had written about him in a column years ago and he has been kind enough to support me ever since. I managed to get Kinky Friedman through a friend of Kinky’s in Hawaii. Kinky has been so supportive and I really love the late-night phone calls. He doesn’t do computers or email.
I was a staff writer on Baywatch Hawaii along with the husband and wife writing team of Andre and Maria Jacquemetton. After Baywatch they returned to the mainland and eventually became writers on a new show called Mad Men. Nobody knew Mad Men was going to be such a great hit and an Emmy award-winner when it started on that little-known TV channel AMC. Andre and Maria are great friends and kindly contributed a blurb.
As for Pat Sajak, he’s very good friends with Hawaii’s top TV news anchor, Joe Moore. At KHON TV. They often do stage shows together all over the country. Joe is a friend of mine and was kind enough to introduce me to Pat. Pat – a frequent Hawaii visitor who loves the islands – agreed to look at the “Aloha, Lady Blue” manuscript and then write a blurb. I really needed someone like him on the cover for all those folks in Indiana and New Jersey who have no idea who I am.
Yes, there have been some nibbles. Before turning to novels, I wrote a lot of screenplays. I won some national contests, including becoming the only writer in Hawaii to win the Maui Writer’s Conference screenplay competition. That’s what led to me being hired to write on Baywatch Hawaii. So I have some ties to the TV and film industry, and we have been in contact with folks who say they’d like to do something with the Stryker McBride series. Gov. Neil Abercrombie in Hawaii has been a huge supporter of “Aloha, Lady Blue.” He actually sent a copy of the book to his buddy President Obama and has been pushing to get the Stryker McBride series noticed by Hollywood.
I don’t get my hopes up on things like this. I have written so many spec scripts and show pilots that always seemed to be “hot” but never got made. It’s a strange industry. But there is some preliminary interest in “Aloha, Lady Blue.” And I hope there’ll be more!
I also have some great award-winning screenplays that I’d like to eventually see made that have nothing to do with “Aloha, Lady Blue.” This may sound mercenary, but I don’t get excited about anything until someone puts money in my grimy little hands. It saves a lot of heartbreak that way.
There are good humor writers out there without a paying or well-paying platform these days. Do you see any hope for the future? I’m asking for a friend.
Sadly, no. I took a voluntary layoff from the Star-Bulletin in 2009 because I thought one of the two daily newspapers in Hawaii was going to fold. I wanted to hit the street before 300 other writers. I was right. The papers eventually did merge and 300 people were let go. But even though I hit the street first, there were no paying writing jobs out there. I basically gave my humor column away to the Honolulu Advertiser on a freelance basis for a year and then to an online news outlet. I mean, I got a few hundred a week but that’s not enough to pay a mortgage in Hawaii. I eventually ended up working as a consultant for a national private prison company in order not to lose my house. That allowed me to finish writing “Aloha, Lady Blue,” at least. Other than a few of the usual national suspects, I don’t think anyone is making a real living as a humor columnist anymore.
Hold on. You had to take work at a prison?
I spent a year trying to get an agent, and I had a lot of help. Carl Hiaasen, the Florida columnist and author of tropical thrillers, introduced me to an agent at his agency. But she demurred. A.J. Jacobs put me in contact with his agency, and they said no. I felt like if Carl and A.J. couldn’t get me an agent, what chance did I have? I knew I had to “think out of the box,” a phrase I hate. I was in the shower one day–where I have my epiphanies–and said, “You have to get hold of the biggest John D. MacDonald fan in the country.” I found him. His name was Cal Branche. He has the ultimate John D. MacDonald website and is a friend of the MacDonald estate. I sent him the manuscript to “Aloha, Lady Blue,” and he really liked it and understood the homage to the great man. He bounced it off the estate, and they agreed it was not a rip-off, but an honor to MacDonald. He gave me the names of three Florida authors who write tropical thrillers, and one of them liked the manuscript enough to introduce me to his agent, Richard Pine. And then Richard read the manuscript and took me on.
This is a clue to wannabe authors that you have to find a way to get to the people you have to get to. Don’t be put off by the usual avenues.
Now, I had the same kind of epiphany when I found myself without a job, on state unemployment, and in danger of losing my house after I left the Honolulu Star-Bulletin. I was in the shower and said, “Who is making money in this recession?” And I thought, “Lobbyists make money.” So I called Hawaii’s biggest lobbyist, who I knew by name but not personally. He knew me from my columns. I said, “John, is there anything I can do for you?”
He said, “Yes , I have a client–the Corrections Corporation of American. They built a brand new state of the art prison in Arizona that houses only Hawaii prisoners. They are great at running prisons, but they need help getting the word out in Hawaii about why Hawaii has to send prisoners to Arizona.”
They hired me as a consultant, and for about a year I spread the word in Hawaii about why we needed this partnership because there wasn’t enough room in Hawaii’s rundown prisons to hold all the inmates. And that the Arizona facility, which I visited, was state-of-the-art and only for our guys, no other inmates.
So the Corrections Corporation of America kept me from losing my house until I finished “Aloha, Lady Blue” and got an agent and a publisher.
Bruce Cameron and I talked about this. It’s crazy that newspapers either employ one humor columnist or no humor columnists, because the local humor columnist tends to be one of the big reasons people read the paper. Wouldn’t it make more sense for newspapers and now websites for that matter to hire more funny writers instead of fewer funny writers?
That’s what was so stupid about how newspapers reacted to the Internet. They thought they were still in the NEWS business and got rid of all of their proprietary content, like columnists. And so many newspapers folded and the unions lost so much clout that columnists, like myself, who were the highest paid people in the newsroom, suddenly disappeared. To be honest, I could have stayed at the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, but I would have no longer just been writing my column. And I thought I was just getting a little long-in-the-tooth to start chasing criminals again or writing a blog five days a week.
Who do you enjoy reading? What makes you laugh?
I love reading GOOD writing. So I tend to go back to those writers who I love and who inspire me. For humor its Mark Twain, S.J. Perelman, P.J. O’Rourke, Dorothy Parker, Kinky Friedman, A.J. Jacobs, W. Bruce Cameron, Hunter Thompson and Doug Adams. I know I’m forgetting some, but basically I read people who are good at writing humor and their work pushes me to try harder. Mark Twain has some amazing stuff that few people have ever read. He did a hilarious expose of Christian Science founder Mary Baker Eddy that could run tomorrow in the New Yorker. I keep Perelman’s books in my nightstand drawer. One of the funniest writers ever. Doug Adams is a god. Now, anyway.
I got to meet Hunter Thompson. He used to come to Hawaii to write about the Honolulu Marathon. It was a very strange meeting at the Kahala Hilton.
I recall his girlfriend and future wife was passing a vial of human growth hormone or something around the table. Hunter was drinking about eight kinds of booze and coffee. I gave him a copy of “Painted Veils” by James Huneker. Huneker was sort of the Hunter Thompson of the 1920s. His books were actually banned and had to be distributed privately for $15 a copy, like porno.
My favorite author overall has to be Patrick O’Brian of the acclaimed “Master and Commander” series about the fighting ships of Lord Nelson’s days. I was lucky enough to be one of the few journalists to ever interview O’Brian.
I just urge writers not to give up. It is so hard. And it doesn’t get any easier when you get a publisher. But that’s another story. I went to Kinkos and had a banner made up that I put above my desk at home. It said, “Get Life On.” I’ve got a note on my cork board above my desk that says, “Have Faith.” Now I’ve got a banner above my desk that says, “Enjoy The Ride.” They are just focusing mechanisms that push you forward. Push, push, push!
I hope a lot of people enjoy “Aloha, Lady Blue” and, if they do, I hope they go on Amazon and Barnes and Noble and leave LOTS OF RED STARS! And Twitter and Facebook the holy shit out it! Aloha, all!
Joe Donatelli is a freelance writer who publishes The Humor Columnist. Follow him @joedonatelli.