Saturday, July 31, 2010

A Visit with Tim Hallinan

Tim Hallinan lives and writes in Southeast Asia six months out of the year where he set his intriguing "Poke" Rafferty thriller series in Bangkok. He's giving away three signed, hard cover copies of his soon-to-be-released fourth novel in the series, The Queen of Patpong, as well as copies of all four of his Poke Rafferty thriller novels to lucky visitors who leaves comments here.


Tim, tell us about The Queen of Patpong?

The Queen of Patpong is different from any of the other Poke Rafferty books for two reasons. First, it really focuses not on Poke but on Rose, Poke's wife, a former bar girl on the infamous Patpong Road. Second, it's structured very oddly in that it sets up a thriller in the present day and then, about a third of the way into the book, it goes back more than a dozen years to pick up Rose as a shy village girl in the last moments of the life she's known -- the moments before she learns that her father is about to sell her into prostitution. We stay with her for the central portion of the book (the longest portion) as she gradually turns into the worldly woman Poke married. This is an important book to me because it follows the path several young girls set out on every day, the path that takes them from the dusty, impoverished northeast of Thailand into the brothels and bars of Bangkok.

I'd known for some time that I wanted to write Rose's story, but I couldn't find a way to begin it until an e-mail landed in my inbox. I'm part of a small group of people who put up a little money each year to pay parents in the northeast to keep their daughters in school rather than selling them into the sex trade. A member of the group sent me a description, complete with photos, of a meeting she'd had with the grandmother of a teenage girl. The teacher had heard that the grandmother was going to accept 60,000 Thai baht (about $1500 US) from a pimp in exchange for the girl. The meeting took several hours but by the end the grandmother (who really was living in dire poverty) accepted a little less than $100 per month to keep her grand-daughter in school. One photo of the girl, sitting on a metal stool, her back as curved as the letter C, gave me the first scene of Rose's section of the book.

I was very worried about this section since it's almost all women, and women at an intimate and difficult juncture in their lives. So I'm especially happy that female reviewers have been extremely kind -- even enthusiastic -- about it.

What's the premise for your Philip "Poke" Rafferty series?

Poke writes a series of travel books called Looking for Trouble -- his first two titles were Looking for Trouble in Indonesia, and Looking for Trouble in the Philippines. They cover a lot of material that most travel guides avoid, and they're strong on street smarts. When Poke came to Thailand, it was to write a book, but the country blindsided him (as it did me), and he settled down. He fell in love with a Thai woman who calls herself Rose, who was a dancer in a go-go bar, which means she was also a prostitute. She quits to be with him, and together they adopt a little girl, an eight-year-old street child named Miaow. As a unit, they become the first family Poke's known since his father abandoned him and his mother, the year Poke went to college.

For me, the series is primarily the continuing story of a cobbled-together family that's trying to stay together no matter what. Sure, the books are thrillers, but what matters most to me is this family. I could happily write the three of them for the rest of my life. I think the oddest thing about writing them is that Miaow is the easiest character for me – I always know what she's thinking, what she'll say, what she'll do. And I never had a younger sister, I've never had a daughter, and I think it's fairly obvious that I've never been a little girl. But she's inside me, and she's always impatient to get out.

Why did you leave your native southern California to live in Thailand and Cambodia?

Actually, I split my time about 50/50 between Santa Monica and Southeast Asia, and I do most of my writing in Cambodia, in Phnom Penh, because it's quieter and less distracting than Bangkok, which is probably the most distracting city in the world. I fell in love with Bangkok the first time I saw it, in 1981. It's the most cheerful big city I know. I'd washed up there by accident – I'd been on a tour of Japan with the Los Angeles Philharmonic for a PBS series, and it was too cold to spend my vacation time there. So I called my travel agent, and she said, “How about Thailand?” I said, “I guess,” and that changed my life.

Your first six thrillers, set in Los Angeles and published between 1989 to 1994, were highly acclaimed by the critics. Why did you stop publishing for a decade?

Because no one was buying them. It was great to get all those reviews, but publishers' enthusiasm is directly proportional to sales, and I wasn't selling. I decided to focus on making money instead, and I'm happy to say I did – to the extent that I can now write full-time. I have to say, I missed writing, but that just made it all the sweeter when I could come back to it.

Why did you decide to write the new series?

On New Year's Eve 2001, I walked through Bangkok all night long, all by myself, and as I wandered through the back streets, the little neighborhoods tourists don't see, I asked myself why no one wrote about Thai life beyond the temples and the go-go bars. Within about half an hour, I had Poke and his entire family in my head, as well as one of the two main plots of A Nail Through the Heart, which was the first book in the series. What I liked best about the character of Poke is that he's an outsider who doesn't understand the culture and who has to learn more about it for his marriage to survive – and to live through some of the situations in which he finds himself. So he doesn't have to be the guy who wrote the Wikipedia entry on Thailand. This was reassuring, because I know perfectly well that my understanding of Thai life isn't terribly deep. I went ahead and wrote the book and my agent sold it, which was like the biggest present the world had given me in years.

The quote on your website: “When you’re banging your head against the keyboard, a few kind words make a difference,” makes me wonder if you enjoy writing or whether it’s simply a job.

I'd rather write than do anything else in the world, but that doesn't mean it's always fun. Sometimes it's as much fun as removing my own appendix. When I'm writing badly, which is more often than I should probably admit, there's very little joy in the process. (I'm reminded at those times of Dorothy Parker's response when someone asked if she enjoyed writing; she said, “I enjoy having written.”) I love the fact that I've written all those books. I love the fact that I have more books to write and that publishers are waiting for them. I feel infinitely privileged to be allowed to take part in the magic of bringing new worlds into being. But there are times – and sometimes they last for weeks – when I can't write a simple declarative sentence, much less give a semblance of life to a complicated human being. And it's interesting how often it's precisely at times like those that someone writes to tell me that he or she likes my books. It picks me up every single time.

You were also a singer and songwriter, and in a band that became the bestselling-recording artists, “Bread.” Tell us about it.

I was, formally, at least, in college. In fact, I was living Bohemian, sleeping in a nightclub called The Troubadour at times, living in various rundown enclaves at others, staying up all night and polluting my system – just your usual misspent chemical youth. So I became a member of a band called The Pleasure Faire, which recorded an album for Universal International Records, and I wrote songs that were recorded by a very odd slate of artists, most of whom are long forgotten and others of whom should be.

Our album was produced by David Gates, and David formed a band with my extremely talented bandmate, Robb Royer, and a wonderful singer/songwriter named James Griffin, and that was Bread. I was sort of left out in the cold, but since I didn't play anything and both David and Jimmy could sing circles around me, the logic was obvious. But it would be dishonest to say I wasn't envious. I felt like the guy who invented Six-Up and then quit.

How do you feel about the state of the current publishing industry?

The business plan is broken, the audience is changing rapidly, many publishers are threatened by new technologies, and there is a weekly prediction of The Death of the Book. Other than that, everything's fine. With the demise of the print review, the basic pro forma marketing plan has become obsolete; some publishers are still catching up to the idea that the audience for mysteries is now mostly female; many are worried about digital theft and the end of copyright protection; and bang, here's the Kindle. Oh, and the chains are dying. Did I leave anything out?

Yes, I did: The economic downturn. In the past, sales of genre writing actually surged during these periods, but that was pre-TV and pre-online, so there's not much comfort there. I think we're looking at one of those dreadful periods that almost always produces something wonderful. These are the times when creative solutions are absolutely necessary, and I'm 100 percent sure they'll materialize. I mean, look – the Kindle, whatever else you may think of it, completely eliminates the enormous financial problem of returns; the Internet makes the market truly global (I order all the time from the Book Depository in the U.K.), and the book will survive. And, I think, thrive. Even if they are all written by James Patterson.

Advice to fledgling writers?

(a) Write the book you'd most like to read. Some people waste years trying to create a Great Novel they wouldn't read if it appeared one morning beneath their pillow; (b) Honor your writing by giving it an immovable place in your daily schedule and sticking to it; ( c) If you can't get it right, go ahead and get it wrong – but don't stop; the enemy, as someone has said, is not the bad page – it's the empty page. You can always go back and make it better; (d) Give your characters their freedom, and remember that plot is what characters do, not a box to put them in. (e) Finish your first novel even if it goes completely, spectacularly wrong; you'll learn more from the first one than from the next three combined, and you can't very well start the second until you've finished the first; (f) when you're not writing, read.

Anything you’d like to add?

It's an honor to be a writer. It's an honor to know that people read my books. As often as I've been through the process, it still amazes me. I spend a year or a year and a half shepherding a daydream, and the people at William Morrow make it into a book, and, like magic, there's something new in the world. What artists of all kinds do is make something out of nothing – they create fire by rubbing together imagination and experience. It's a magical act. Anyone who thinks he or she could write a book should give it every ounce of effort and discipline it requires. It's more than worth it.

Thanks, Tim, for taking part in the series.

Tim's web site: www.timothyhallinan.com, which includes his blog.

30 comments:

Larry W. Chavis said...

The family element is what is most interesting about the books. Not that the thriller plots don't catch the reader and move, they do; but for me, the lives of the characters, their relationships, growth, insights, toils, joys - these are the things that make a book memorable.

And I take to heart your second point in 'advice to writers.' I've never quite thought of it that way.

beth said...

Timothy Hallinan's books are at once comic, romantic, fraught, and fearless. Poke Rafferty is an action hero who doesn't realize that he is, who doesn't realize that he is a hero in all aspects of his life.

The characters are real and Bangkok is a home rather than a vacation destination.

I don't know if Hallinan writes prose as poetry or poetry as prose. The writing is beautiful and memorable and it is wrapped around a thriller that is always satisfying. BREATHING WATER is not a book that leaves the reader when all the leaves of the book have been turned.

Beth
www.murderbytype.wordpress.com

Jeff B said...

Looking forward to reading "Queen of Patpong" as I loved the previous three books. Although I still find it hard to believe that a six-foot tall Isaan women exists :)

Kari Wainwright said...

When I noticed recently that Nail Through the Heart is now free on Kindle, I wished I hadn't already paid for it -- but then I realized, I would not have already had the chance to read it and I would not have met Poke and his family, and I was glad I'd bought the book.

Before reading Hallinan, I didn't desire to visit Thailand. Now I want to do so, both in person and through his books.

gkwainwright@yahoo.com

Peg Brantley said...

What a fascinating background to the stories you write, Tim. I'm excited to read NAIL THROUGH THE HEART. In addition, your website and blog have often given me encouragement at just the right moment.

Rachael said...

I haven't read the series yet, but I look forwarding to doing so-especially excited for The Queen of Patpong.

Carol-Lynn Rossel said...

The book sounds fascinating.

Timothy Hallinan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Timothy H said...

Well! Thanks to all who waded through the interview and still had enough energy to comment. And thanks to Jean for putting me up so generously just before the new book comes out.

Larry -- that's what I fervently hope, since my heart is actually more with the family than it is with the thriller. Or, to put it more precisely, I have fun writing the thrillers but I derive joy from writing the family. At every point in each book there comes a time when I am, for the first time in that story, in their living room, often with Rose on the couch and Miaow rattling around in the kitchen and Poke on the white leather hassock, and it's like something unlocks in the center of my chest and I just sigh, It's the EXACT feeling I have when I come home after a long, long trip.

Beth, you always make me feel like a better writer. I especially appreciate the things you say about the prose, because I work very hard on it -- I want it to be transparent, so the reader can look right through it at the characters, but I also want it to be fresh because I think cliched writing distracts the reader as much as overly literary writing. One thing I ask myself continually is, "What's the best way to see this?" In BREATHING WATER, there comes a point at which a character steps into a sifting of talcum powder and one part of his life comes to an end. When I saw the powder on the kitchen floor, I had one of the very infrequent yesssssssss moments. Also, thanks for noticing that the books are funny.

Jeff -- there may not actually be any. But it's what makes literally everyone notice her, and it was one of the primary things that formed her personality. And I've seen some Isaan women who came close.

Kari -- I'm glad you still want to visit Thailand after reading my books. I often feel guilty about the aspects of Bangkok I stress, but that sort of goes with the territory when you write thrillers. Still, Thai people daily commit tiny acts of unselfish grace and generosity even in the worst slums, and I need to get more of that into the books.

shirley said...

I've heard so many good comments on your books that I've been meaning to read them for some time - 'so many books, so little time'. But now, having read this, they will be on the top of my list. Can't wait to read one ... or maybe all.

Timothy Hallinan said...

Picking up where I left off . . .

Peg -- Hope you like NAIL. I should inform you that it's the darkest of the books (in terms of subject matter) and that the others are potentially a little easier going down. I was setting up the idea that Bangkok was a different moral universe than the America Poke has come from, and I decided to do that by turning the traditional detective story upside down, as you'll see in the nest-to-last chapter when Poke says what he says about the victims and the murderers. For it to work, some people needed to have done really heinous things. (You'll see when you get there -- I'm trying to avoid a spoiler.) And I'm glad to know the writing material on the site has been helpful to you -- that's why I put it there.

Rachael, if you have a Kindle, the first in the series, A NAIL THROUGH THE HEART, is now available free -- for 2-3 more weeks. (You could also download Kindle for PC (free) and read it on your computer. I'd read one other book before QUEEN if only to get a better sense of the family, which is what the books are really all about.

Hi, Carol-Lynn, and glad you like the sound of the books. I should maybe not tell you that there are certain names writers dread at signings because there are so many ways to spell them, and you've just added a new one to "Carolyn" or "Caroline" or "Karalyn," as I signed it in Denver last year.

Shirley -- I really hope you enjoy them half as much as I enjoy writing them, at least when I don't hate writing them because I'm in trouble. And I'm usually in trouble. But it feels so good to find my way out.

Julie Godfrey Miller said...

Your Poke Rafferty series sounds intriguing. (Shame on me for not discovering it earlier.)

BBibel said...

Thank you for bringing atention to this important issue. eading a good mystery may make more people aware of it. I will make sure that my library gets at least one copy.
Barbara Bibel
Librarian, Oakland Public Library\Oakland, CA

Carol Kilgore said...

Wonderful post. I loved learning about you, how you write, and more about Poke. I'm going to print your advice for writers and keep it handy. Thanks. And thanks to Jean for hosting.

Carol
Under the Tiki Hut

Anonymous said...

Tim, I can't wait to read one of your Poke books. Though I've done some traveling, Europe, Peru and so forth, I haven't been to Asia yet, so that is something to look forward to.

Thanks!

Joann Breslin
jmbreslin@verizon.net

Timothy Hallinan said...

Boy, Jean draws a great crowd.

Julie, all is forgiven. I fact, if I had to forgive people who haven't discovered the books yet, I'd be forgiving everyone in sight and most of those over the horizon. Hope you like them when you get one.

BBibel Yes! Ask your library to get one, and if they can only get one, let them get this one. All the books explore the worlds of the unempowered -- street kids, the poor of the northeast, farmers whose rice is virtually stolen from then and then sold at artificially high prices. But the worst examples of the sex trade are both dramatic and vivid, and they affects hundreds of thousands of young women.

Hi, Carol -- By far the biggest section of my website is called FINISHING YOUR NOVEL and it contains pretty much everything I've learned about doing just that. In fact, a newspaper up in Seattle just finished reprinting the entire thing, one section at a time. And a lot of published writers have used it to hack their way to the ending. You might take a look.

Joanne -- I hope you enjoy the books, but don't let them scare you off of Bangkok. I frequently feel guilty that I write so often about the dark side of life there, but they're thrillers, you know? But The Thai people are among the world's sweetest and kindest and most gracious, and I know you'll love it there.

Jean Henry Mead said...

Actually, Tim, it's you that draws a crowd. I hope that everyone who stops by gets a chance to read your beautifully written books, especially The Queen of Patpong, which I consider your best (I loved the others as well, including Breathing Water). My book review will be up at http://makeminemystery.blogspot.com/ on Friday the 13th. :)

Ann Bailey Dunn said...

Thanks to Jean Henry Mead, I have found a new author. From what I read Tim Hallinan is an author who's work I will enjoy reading.

Timothy Hallinan said...

Thanks, again, Jean, and I can't wait to read the review. Got the first lukewarm one today, and where was it? The Washington Post. He didn't say anything negative, but . . . waaaahhhhhhhh.

Helen Simonson ("Major Pettigrew") sent it to me with a lot of enthusiasm, and I kind of overanticipated. I have GOT to grow up.

Anne Baily Dunn -- I hope they live up to your expectations. Then you can write a scolding letter to the guy at the Washington Post, demanding to know where he put all the missing superlatives.

You might want to start with NAIL, although it's the darkest -- if not, go with THE FOURTH WATCHER. Just to sort of introduce you to the family before you dive into THE QUEEN OF PATPONG.

Anonymous said...

I avoided A Nail in the Heart because I thought it too gritty and darker than my norm. The more I hear about subsequent books, the more I think I was wrong, and will have to go back and read this series.

One thing I find encouraging about the book trade currently is the existence of a few really reliable people (Jean Henry Mead is certainly one) and places on the internet that provide solid, useful information and sensible reviews.
Liz
lizrose@ntl.sympatico.ca

Timothy Hallinan said...

Liz --

I couldn't agree more about Jean. This has been a great experience.

NAIL may be too dark for you. I'd suggest you start with the second book, THE FOURTH WATCHER. It's a thriller, it's all about the family, and while it's not a day at Disney World, it's not as dark as NAIL. If you like it, there are two more, BREATHING WATER and THE QUEEN OF PATPONG.

The thing with NAIL is that it deals with very dark material. Most of the people who should live through the story do, and it doesn't have a tragic ending, but some of the material is -- well - dark. I intentionally changed the tone when I wrote WATCHER.

Jean Henry Mead said...

Thank you for the kind words, Liz and Tim. They're certianly appreciated.

Stuart said...

Really enjoyed the first three books featuring Poke Rafferty and the way Timothy Hallinan has developed the Rafferty family . Sometimes the lives that some characters lead has been uneasy reading but it is always true to real life . Rose's past life has remained pretty well hidden so far as has miaow's early years and it will be intresting to find out more about these two people in poke's life. Was nice to learn a little more about Tim's life and what took him to bangkok.

Other Lisa said...

Howdy, Tim, hope I'm not too late to get in on the discussion. I spend a lot of time in Asia but haven't been to Bangkok in many years. Sounds like I need to get back there with a copy of QUEEN OF PATPONG!

Writer Lady said...

Tim, you are writing a story that needs to be heard. I've read several reviews of your latest book and look forward to reading it.

Earl Staggs said...

I haven't read any of your Poke books, Tim, but after reading your interview here, I will soon and I'm looking forward to it. Nothing appeals to me more than a writer who is passionate about his setting and his characters.

Timothy Hallinan said...

Well, this is an amazing response.

Stuart, thanks for saying nice things about the first three -- you probably agree that NAIL is the darkest. I was trying to set up an environment where black-and-white moral values gave way to a whole lot of gray. I think absolute notions of right and wrong are a luxury of the well-fed, which I guess was the point of Les Miserables, so I can't claim originality. But the specific moral climate of Bangkok was one of the things that drew me to it in the first place, and NAIL set the whole thing up, and it's summed up in Poke's last-scene comment about the guilty and the innocent. And to go on at some length, I always knew I'd write Rose's story at some point, and the fourth book felt like a good place to do it. If the series continues into seven or eight books, I'll focus one on Miaow.

Hi, Other Lisa -- from some perspectives Bangkok is pretty much a nightmare, but it's my favorite big city in the world, and I hope that comes through in the books. I sometimes worry that I focus too much on the dark side, so today I wrote a blog on Murder Is Everywhere about the kind of grace and beauty I ignore far too much in my books. It's here, and the pictures are knockouts: http://murderiseverywhere.blogspot.com/2010/08/rivers-of-light.html
Hope you like THE QUEEN OF PATPONG.

Writer Lady -- I hope I do the story justice. There's a quote from David Sedaris to the effect that we think of writing as a solitary activity, but at the end the reader will bring his/her own contribution to it, and that worries me. Whenever I've written about the Thai street children or the woman in the bars or the villagers whose river was diverted to water a golf course, I keep that remark in mind to make sure that everything I mean for the reader to take away is actually on the page. Anyone who tries to read THE QUEEN OF PATPONG for titillation is going to find it difficult to get there.

Hi, Earl -- I actually feel like we knpow each other since I've been reading your comments in some lists we both belong to. Hope you do read one, and that you enjoy it. I don't actually know how anyone could't repeatedly slam his hear against a manuscript for a year or more if he/she weren't passionate about it. What would make a writer choose such a subject?

Timothy Hallinan said...

Well, this is an amazing response.

Stuart, thanks for saying nice things about the first three -- you probably agree that NAIL is the darkest. I was trying to set up an environment where black-and-white moral values gave way to a whole lot of gray. I think absolute notions of right and wrong are a luxury of the well-fed, which I guess was the point of Les Miserables, so I can't claim originality. But the specific moral climate of Bangkok was one of the things that drew me to it in the first place, and NAIL set the whole thing up, and it's summed up in Poke's last-scene comment about the guilty and the innocent. And to go on at some length, I always knew I'd write Rose's story at some point, and the fourth book felt like a good place to do it. If the series continues into seven or eight books, I'll focus one on Miaow.

Hi, Other Lisa -- from some perspectives Bangkok is pretty much a nightmare, but it's my favorite big city in the world, and I hope that comes through in the books. I sometimes worry that I focus too much on the dark side, so today I wrote a blog on Murder Is Everywhere about the kind of grace and beauty I ignore far too much in my books. It's here, and the pictures are knockouts: http://murderiseverywhere.blogspot.com/2010/08/rivers-of-light.html
Hope you like THE QUEEN OF PATPONG.

Writer Lady -- I hope I do the story justice. There's a quote from David Sedaris to the effect that we think of writing as a solitary activity, but at the end the reader will bring his/her own contribution to it, and that worries me. Whenever I've written about the Thai street children or the woman in the bars or the villagers whose river was diverted to water a golf course, I keep that remark in mind to make sure that everything I mean for the reader to take away is actually on the page. Anyone who tries to read THE QUEEN OF PATPONG for titillation is going to find it difficult to get there.

Hi, Earl -- I actually feel like we knpow each other since I've been reading your comments in some lists we both belong to. Hope you do read one, and that you enjoy it. I don't actually know how anyone could't repeatedly slam his hear against a manuscript for a year or more if he/she weren't passionate about it. What would make a writer choose such a subject?

Sandra said...

I've been meaning to try
Tim's books for some time, having heard a lot of good things about them.
I know what I've heard made a difference when I recently read Margaret Atwood's "Orxy and Crake"; Crake's childhood wouldn't have resonated so deeply if I hadn't been hearing about the child sex trade in Thailand in
discussions of his books. They sound dark, but intriguing, and one day
I *will* read them!

Jean Henry Mead said...

Actually, Sandra, they're not really all that dark. Tim Hallinan's characters are well drawn and there is no explicit sex. His books are very compassionate portrayals of women.