Leilani “Lei” Matsumoto Texeira was born out of tragedy.
She took root in the imagination of Kauai-raised author Toby Neal when Neal was working as a counselor at a middle school on Maui. While she was there, two girls from the high school drowned and she was part of the crisis grief response team.
Initially, the deaths were deemed to be homicides. Later, police said the girls accidentally drowned while swimming in the sugar cane irrigation tunnels. Neal said she admired how the police handled the situation, but she had a thirst to find the truth behind the deaths for herself.
“I began writing a short story on my anonymous blog about a damaged young policewoman who finds the bodies of two young girls floating in a pond and it just kept going,” Neal said. “She became Lei Texeria — that part of me that wants to find answers to the issues and problems that plague our islands.”
Lei Texeira is the main character in Neal’s suspenseful stories, spanning 12 novels, in which the sleuth investigates crimes throughout the islands. The first, “Blood Orchid,” was published in 2011. Neal plans to release the capstone to the story, “Bitter Feast,” on May 12.
“Rip Tides,” book nine in the series, landed on the USA Today Bestselling book list and garnered Neal a bronze medal in the 2016 Independent Publisher Book awards.
“Torch Ginger,” the second book in the series, is set on Kauai. Neal said her character Lei does many things that she experienced growing up on the island.
“In the books I tackle many of the issues we face, including drugs, homelessness, reef conservation, the gap between rich and poor, organized crime, cockfighting,” Neal said.
Neal said her parents were “well-educated surfers,” and the family was very low income.
“(We were) often homeless — we just called it camping back then — without a phone or electricity way out in Haena and Wainiha. I read everything I could get my hands on,” Neal said.
It became her passion to create that kind of experience for others, and she set her sights on becoming an author when she was a child.
“What an amazing ride it’s been, to grow up a hippie surfer kid on the outskirts of Taylor Camp and end up at this level of success, living my dreams,” Neal said. “I always wanted to be a writer.”
Her education was admittedly a “patchy quilt” of stints at Hanalei School, Kealia School (now Island School), schools in California, and intermittent homeschooling. Today, the author holds an associate’s in psychology, a bachelor’s in human services and master’s in social work from the University of Hawaii at Manoa.
“I kept writing on the side while working and raising my family; short stories, poems, beginning of novels, garnering publishing credits in magazines and winning contests,” Neal said.
She completed “Blood Orchids” in 2007 and “knew it was good.” She’d hired a professional editor and had worked on it three years before sending it to agents. She landed an agent who ended up retiring in 2010, but publishers denied her book.
“I had a small inheritance, and I invested in top-end editing, cover design from a New York designer, and a publicist,” Neal said. “I launched ‘Blood Orchids’ in December of 2011 and the rest is history.”
Currently, the series has eBook downloads of close to a million and more than 10,000 print copies have been sold. It’s also the inspiration behind Amazon’s Lei Crime Kindle World, which allows authors to build upon Neal’s works through special licensing agreements for things like fan fiction.
Now the Maui-based author is wrapping up her last book in the Lei Crime series and is also working on the fourth installment of her romance, Somewhere Series. She’s also plotting the birth of her next mystery series after Lei Crime — which will star a side character from the original series. Two memoirs are also in the works.
“I have many irons in the fire, always,” Neal said. “I’m proud of representing the ‘real Hawaii’ I experienced growing up on Kauai and as an adult on Maui.”
Written for The Garden Island Newspaper, published April 18 2015. Photo by Jessica Else.