Saturday, July 31, 2010
A Visit with Tim Hallinan
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 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.