Please welcome July's featured author, Timothy Hallinan
Timothy Hallinan has lived, on and off, in Southeast Asia for more than 25 years. He wrote songs and sang in a rock band while in college, and many of his songs were recorded by well-known artists who included the platinum-selling group Bread. He began writing books while enjoying a successful career in the television industry. Over the past fourteen years he has been responsible for a number of well-reviewed novels and a nonfiction book on Charles Dickens. For years he has taught a course on “Finishing the Novel” with remarkable results – more than half his students complete their first novel and go on to a second, and several have been, or are about to be, published. Tim currently maintains a house in Santa Monica, California, and apartments in Bangkok, Thailand; and Phnom Penh, Cambodia. He is lucky enough to be married to Munyin Choy-Hallinan.
The Fourth Watcher is his second book featuring Poke Rafferty, an American expatriate writer living in Thailand with his lover, Rose, and their adopted daughter, Miaow. Following the critical success of the initial Rafferty entry, A Nail Through the Heart, and the well-received Simeon Grist series of detective novels, The Fourth Watcher both broadens and deepens the exploration of Rafferty’s family and his close friend, A Bangkok police colonel named Arthit.
Timothy Hallinan took some time from promoting The Fourth Watcher to answer some questions from New Mystery Reader contributor Dana King.
DK: You clearly have a deep affection for Thailand and its people, yet are not bashful about exploring and describing the worst of it. You’ve also traveled extensively in that part of the world. How did you come to choose Thailand for the Poke Rafferty stories?
TH: Actually, Thailand came before Poke. I’d been living there off and on for about sixteen years, wishing I could write about it but nervous about two things: Not truly understanding the culture, and not speaking Thai well enough to know how (or whether) the Thais were different when there were no foreigners around. (It took me eight novels to get up the courage to write a scene between two women without a man present – the one in this book between Rose and Noi – for the same reason.)
And then I spent New Year’s Eve 1998 walking the city, from about 10 PM to 9 AM. I walked everywhere, but mostly off the main drags. And Poke came into my mind: a travel writer who writes about the places that are beyond the margins of the well-worn tourist paths. And I immediately realized that he’d already written a couple of books, Looking for Trouble in the Philippines and Looking for Trouble in Indonesia, and that he’d written them from an external, fairly superficial perspective. But when he got to Thailand, the place gobsmacked him, as it did me, and he suddenly found himself in a culture to which he actually wanted to belong.
But the important thing, from a writing standpoint, was that he didn’t belong And because he didn’t belong, he didn’t have to understand everything; he could make mistakes about the people and the lives they live. And he spoke only elementary Thai. Those things were very liberating for me. Suddenly, I didn’t have to be the guy who could write the Wikipedia entry on Thailand. My character was just another clown trying to find his way in. He was going to get things wrong from time to time.
Until he washed up in Thailand, he’d always looked at the places he wrote about as though they were department-store window displays, separated from him by a pane of glass, and now he had to find a way to the other side of the glass. And he was doing it out of love, which was very appealing to me: he loved the country, he loved the culture, and, inevitably, he came to love a couple of individual people. And the longterm health of his relationship with those two people depends largely on whether he can really get through that pane of glass.
DK: Editors are said today to be looking for stories that hit the ground running. The Fourth Watcher moves like a bat out of hell once it gets going, but takes its time getting wound up. It works; you need the time to show the strength of the bonds between the primary characters. Did your agent or editor give you any worries about it?
TH: Actually, yes. My editor, the all-wise and truly delightful Marjorie Braman, suggested that I take what was Chapter Three, the chase through the department store, and open the book with it, and that I cut about fifteen percent of the material that came between the close of that chapter – which ends in what I think I can safely call an unexpected fashion – and Poke’s next appearance on the page. (This will make sense when you’ve read the book.) So there was some shortening and trimming of the Rose and Peachy story in the first fifth of the book, just to bring Poke back more quickly.
And an entire plot line bit the dust at Marjorie’s suggestion (believe it or not, there was yet another one), and despite my initial screams of anguish at losing it, the book is much better without it. It was yet another reflection of fatherhood, and the book really didn’t need it.
But yes, you’re right, she allowed the book to unfold as it does, with those changes. She realized that the relationships were the heart of the story, thriller or not, and that the book wouldn’t have worked – the reader wouldn’t have cared – if the relationships were skimped on or unconvincing.
DK: Poke is a Hitchcockian hero, an everyman dropped into a situation well over his head, but an everyman with some resources, internal and external. How much forethought went into Poke’s skill set, and did you create that skill set specifically for the stories you wanted to write, or the other way around?
TH: He came first and the stories came second.
What I like most about him is that he’s a writer. He’s analytical, he thinks about things in terms of narrative: this scenario, that scenario, this variable, that variable. At one point in THE FOURTH WATCHER, there’s a moment when he suddenly sees a course of action that he and everyone else he cares about could conceivably survive. And he sits there, alone in his too-empty apartment, and focuses on a ridiculously easy first step – pouring fabric softener into a washing machine – and what might follow:
"This is something he believes he knows how to do. And then, in an instant, he sees the rest of it, or at least a possible sequence, as though, during the hour or more of paralysis, it’s been quietly assembling itself, waiting for him to notice. For a moment he sits perfectly still, staring at the money and seeing none of it, trying to sequence the stepping-stones that might lead them out of this cataclysm. Looking for the surprise, the wrong turn, the ankle breaker, the gate that won’t open, the twig that will snap in the night, the stone that’s poised over a hole a hundred feet deep."
He knows he can’t see it all. So small steps first. Things he knows how to do.
He’s writing. He’s got some rough-and-tumble skills, he knows the streets, he’s got connections on both sides of the law, and he’s got a belief system that anchors him – usually – in decency. He knows whom he loves, and everything else comes second. But when he needs to find his way out of impossibility, he’s got this ability to see life as narrative and to improvise on it, and that’s one of his greatest strengths.
DK: Poke is clearly looking for the family he never had, and has no experience of a proper father/husband. Is that part of the bond between him and Arthit, the devoted husband as role model?
TH: You know, I’ve never thought of that. That’s really good, especially when you realize that one of Arthit’s secret sorrows is that he’ll never be a father, and here’s Poke,who has zero skills, with Miaow. That’s something I can use in future books.
DK: Arthit is one of the great sidekicks in crime fiction, more than capable of carrying his own series. Are there any plans to write a book with him and Noi as the main characters, with Poke and Rose in support?
TH: I’m glad you like Arthit. It’s funny, but the two characters in this series whose dialogue and reactions are always one hundred percent crystal clear to me are Miaow and Arthit. When I write a scene they’re in and I have to put on the brakes to figure out what another character might do or say, I always have this feeling that they’re tapping an impatient foot, waiting for this slowpoke (me) to figure things out. In the scene in THE FOURTH WATCHER, for example, where Miaow notices Rose’s new ring in the Haagen Dazs shop, all of Miaow’s physical business – stirring her ice cream into soup, dragging the spoon through it to make zigzag patterns, dipping the back of her spoon into the glop and licking it – all of that came from her impatience at my not being sure about what Rose should say. And the last line in that scene, which is one of my favorite lines in the entire book, was Miaow’s way of demanding an appropriate reward for having been so patient with me. Although in the story, as opposed to in Miaow’s relationship with me, it’s also clear that she knows she has Rose over a barrel emotionally and that she’s going to get what she asks for.
By the way, I’m aware of how schizophrenic all this sounds.
And, no, Arthit and Noi will never take first position for a reason I can’t reveal, something that happens in the next book.
DK: Where did the idea for Noi come from?
TH: When I first wrote Arthit, I realized that he had wrapped this forbidding Mr. Tough Cop exterior, which he shows the world much of the time, around something very sad and very private, and it turned out his wife has multiple sclerosis. When I say, “It turned out,” that’s pretty much exactly what I mean. I didn’t plan it, since I don’t really plan much of anything – the story and characters seem already to be somewhere, in perfect and complete form, and my job is to uncover them, as gently as an archaeologist with a sable brush, in a way that avoids my breaking it or imposing myself upon that world any more than necessary. Ingmar Bergman once said about his own writing process that he visualizes a new story as a short piece of scarlet thread sticking up in his mind, and he has to pull it out gently enough not to snap it but thoroughly enough that he doesn’t miss anything. I know how woo-woo that sounds, but what can I say? When I’m writing well, it seems to me that I’m describing a preexisting world in real time, as it’s exposed to me.
Having said all that, I had a friend with MS, and that probably put that specific disease in the air, so to speak. She helped me with details for a couple of years as she descended into more and more pain and less and less hope. It ‘s just a heartbreaker.
DK: You stopped the Simeon Grist series after six books. Do you have a set number of Poke Rafferty books in mind, or is it open-ended?
TH: It’s open-ended. I’d like to write them for ten or fifteen years. Every time I find myself in the living room of that apartment, with the couch, the coffee table, the white leather hassock, those three people, and Bangkok peering in through the sliding door to the balcony, it’s like I’ve just come home from a long journey. I just love them, and if someone were to build that apartment to scale, blindfold me, and tell me to go get something, I could probably walk straight to it. I even know which drawer Rose uses to hide Poke’s pencils when she’s chewed them too badly and they’re all splintery from toothmarks. And she’s chewed the eraser off.
And as much as I’d like to say I ended the Simeon Grist series at six, the ending was really brought about by profound public disinterest. The books got great reviews absolutely everywhere, but no one bought them.
DK: Will the street boy who figured so prominently in A Nail Through the Heart make a return?
TH: He will indeed, in MISDIRECTION. I caught more flak over the way his story ended in NAIL than for all the other stuff in both books combined. But I thought, and still think, it was the best way to close out his story in that book.
DK: What attracted you to write crime fiction?
TH: It’s one of the things I best love to read. When I teach writing, one of the very few “rules” or writing I cite is to write the book you would most like to read. I’m sufficiently realistic to know that I’m not going to write the great American multi-generational saga or William Gibson’s next book – my talent isn’t that big. But these books – crime fiction, I mean – inspire me with a kind of enthusiasm that finds its way onto the page and (I think) enlivens my writing. And I’m also fascinated by the overall theme of all detective stories, which is restoring order to a world that’s somehow been broken.
DK: Why present tense?
TH: I like the immediacy, especially in action scenes or scenes where emotions are high. Something about past tense makes me feel that the crisis is over and resolved somehow, that the characters are preserved in a jar, whereas in the present tense, the reader experiences the crises and reversals at the same time the characters do.
But I still write in the past tense – my other series, which I can’t actually talk about yet, is in past tense. I love past tense, so if you’re in the middle of writing me a nasty card or letter about the “jar” remark, just tear it up or send it to somebody else you’re mad at.
DK: Do you plot in advance, or make things up as you go?
TH: I can’t outline. I write it down as it comes to me. Someone – it might be Anne Lamott in Bird by Bird – talks about the difference between making it up and getting it down. I’m in the get it down school.
A few people have asked me how I can make up books with such complicated plots and/or so many subplots without doing an outline, and the answer is, I have no idea. I just write them as they come to me, in the faith that the stories will intersect to good purpose, because otherwise, why would they have presented themselves? And, sure, I have to go back at the end and make everything hang together, and sometimes a plot line spins out into nothing very interesting, but that’s not going to kill me. That’s why computers have a DELETE key.
DK: Your writing has an understated eloquence, with similes as ripe as Chandler’s, but with less attention drawn to them. (“He stood steady as a photograph.” “Half a dozen emotions chase each other across [his] face, but the one that stakes it out and claims it is despair.”) Who are your primary influences as a writer, and how do you think each of them affected your finished product today?
TH: Thanks for “understated elegance.” That’s the kind of thing I could read all day, but there isn’t nearly enough of it
Well, I love Raymond Chandler, and the six Simeon Grist books would have sounded even more like him I’d been a better a writer at the time. In the mystery/thriller field, I love T. Jefferson Parker, Michael Gruber, John Shannon, Sue Grafton, Thomas Perry, Edward Wright, John Sandford, Colin Cotterill, and a gang of others, but I think Chandler was the most influential. The other writers I admire most probably don’t influence me: William Gaddis, William Gibson, Anthony Trollope, Maxine Hong Kingston, Graham Greene, Haruki Murakami, W. Somerset Maugham, and 30 or 40 others. They’re people I’d love to be able to write like, but I’m too smart to try.
DK: Tell us a little of what comes after The Fourth Watcher.
TH: You got me. In MIDIRECTION, Poke gets caught up in the various colliding galaxies of power that are making the political future of Thailand so unstable right now, and I have no idea in the world how he’s going to get out of it. It’s an interesting challenge, because I know that the top bad guy is going to walk away unscathed; one of the points of the book is that people at a certain level are essentially unaccountable for their actions, not only in Thailand but throughout Southeast Asia. The son of one of those families recently drove his Mercedes through a group of people waiting for a bus, and didn’t even get a ticket. In fact, he grumbled publicly about the dents and scrapes on his car.
At one point in MISDIRECTION (as it now stands) Poke and Arthit have the following exchange about one of these people:
“Kon is untouchable,” Arthit says.
“Oh, fuck that.”
“Listen to me, Poke.” Arthit has crumpled the newspaper in his fist without even knowing it. “Kon could run over an entire nursery school, on purpose, right in front of me, and back up to get the ones he missed the first time, and I’d probably offer to pay for his car wash.”
And Arthit’s an honest cop. So Poke’s playing in a new league, one he’s not big enough for. How’s it going to come out? I have no idea.
For more information on Tim Hallinan and his other titles, please visit his website at: www.timothyhallinan.com