May 22 – The first time Chip Hughes came to Hawaii was to train in jungle warfare. Hughes had a bachelor’s degree in business administration from California Western University — nicknamed “Cal Surf” for its excellent surf spots — and planned to get an MBA, but low numbers in the draft for military service put him off. his future in jeopardy. Joining the Army National Guard seemed better than passively waiting for his summons. Then came the jungle training mission. Next step, Vietnam?
False alarm. After the war, Hughes served six years in the Army National Guard and earned a doctorate in English from Indiana University. When he returned to Hawaii in 1981, he had a job pending at the University of Hawaii. Hawaii has been his home ever since.
In 1995, after completing two novels which he believes may never see the light of day, Hughes began work on “Murder on Moloka’i”, the story of a private detective based in Honolulu – and avid surfer – Kai Cooke, whose investigation into a death on the Kalaupapa Trail entangles him with disreputable island power brokers.
Hughes, 73, celebrated the release of his sixth ‘Surfing Detective’ mystery, ‘Barking Sands’, in November.
How much of “Barking Sands”—Kai travels to Kauai to investigate a cold-blooded murder by a serial killer—comes from the headlines, and from your experiences?
This is the first time I’ve used a real box. These murders in Kauai have never been solved. In the book (police detective), Frank Fernandez tells Kai, “We had the guy, but we didn’t have enough to make it to court.”
Is there anything you want people to take away from reading your books?
I think the function of genre fiction is to entertain and people have fun. You can try talking to them about Hawaii, but if you don’t entertain them, it will be wasted. They have to have fun first, and then you can teach them something as you go.
With a little hindsight, what led you to write fiction?
I wrote my thesis on John Steinbeck. Then I revised my thesis in a book, then I wrote a second book on John Steinbeck. I wanted to write something that was more authentically me. John Steinbeck is a fantastic writer, but I wanted to try to establish my own identity.
You surf, Kai surfs. The descriptions of the surf spots in “Barking Sands” make it look like you’ve surfed them. How much “research” does it take when working on a story?
The only time I really came out on purpose was for this book. I went out to Waimea Bay in February with a few friends. It wasn’t a big day, but when I was on the shoulder of the wave, I could see clearly all the way to the bottom of the bay. I was scared before going on the water, but I wanted to do this for the book to see what it felt like.
You told the Honolulu Star-Bulletin in 2007 that “Surfing Detective” was going to be a six-book series. “Barking Sands” is the sixth book. Have you changed your mind?
One of the reasons I said that was because I wanted to place each of the books on a different island. But the other reason is that I was probably in my late thirties, early forties when I started, and I was surfing. The “Surf Detective” must surf, and the “Surf Detective” writer must surf! Today I am 73 and a half years old. I haven’t stopped surfing, but I haven’t been out in a while either. For it to be authentic, I have to get in the water.
Now that you’re an established author, have you considered publishing your pre-“Surfing Detective” books?
Maybe one day. One of them is set in Chicago, and it’s about this guy who invents the first gourmet ice cream bar in the 80s. It was a third-person multi-point-of-view novel, what happened when I started writing, and I might go back to it and try to get it out because I put in years. The One Before is a first-person autobiographical novel about the experiences of a first-year teacher at the University of Hawaii. This one would be even harder (to publish) because I wrote it before I had a plan to write a book.