Estimated reading time: 15 minutes
Timothy Hallinan may have only begun his published writing career at forty years of age, but he has already introduced the world of literature to the always captivating Simeon Grist, Poke Rafferty and Junior Bender series, with classics such as Skin-Deep and Nail Through the Heart. In this email interview we have conducted with him, Hallinan discusses his writing career, his perspective and recollections on various subjects in the realm of authorship, and the curious new project he has in the works.
When we think of successful authors, the people that generally come to mind are the legends who have been doing that since they first wore diapers. Many have this notion that in order to become a successful writer, one must dedicate their entire life to it to even have a remote possibility of seeing some some sort of return.
In reality, becoming an author is a process that varies from one individual to the next, but one thing is for certain: it’s never too late to crash through the gates into the never-ending world of literature and leave your mark on it. Timothy Hallinan only began his official venture at forty years of age, and has already managed to establish himself as a mainstay in criminal fiction, penning the Simeon Grist, Poke Rafferty and Junior Bender series. What follows is our interview with him on the path he has walked in life wearing an author’s shoes.
Q: Your first book was published when you were forty years of age; what pushed you at that moment or prevented you until then from following the writer’s path?
Two things had prevented me from writing: cowardice and money. I’d thought of myself privately as a writer ever since I was in my teens, but I’d never had the nerve to test that somewhat soft self-conception against the hard surface of the page, where the only thing that matters is whether it works. I was terrified at the prospect of failure because the notion that I was in some way a writer was essential to my sense of myself.
But I was also making a lot of money and even having a lot of fun, running a company with offices all over the world, with residences in L.A., New York, London, and Bangkok; when I wasn’t in an office I was on a plane. And then I found myself living in an amazing old Spanish house in the Hollywood hills that was built by Charlie Chaplin and asking myself why I wasn’t writing. I bought a truckload of wine (I drank a lot back then), came up with a title I liked, THE WRONG END OF THE RAINBOW, and wrote the first Simeon Grist, which wasn’t very good. So I wrote a sort of caper novel, THE MILLION-DOLLAR MINUTE, about a hapless group of thugs with a plan to take down the Jerry Lewis Telethon. I thought it was hilarious, but the opinion wasn’t widely shared, so it went into the Drawer of Shame next to THE WRONG SIDE OF THE RAINBOW.
Still, I had written two books, so I knew I could finish, which has always seemed to me to be the dividing line between writers and non-writers. As a fine nature writer named Thomas Farber once said, “A writer is someone who finishes.” (Good writers vs. bad writers is another question entirely.) Anyway, with those two thick manuscripts behind me, I wrote another Simeon Grist book, SKIN DEEP, which almost immediately became the first book in a three-book contract, and I was on my way to the first stage of my writing career.
Q: Barring some exceptions, it’s probably never too late for anyone to become an author. What advice can you share with people who are giving the writer’s dream a shot a bit later in their lives?
The same advice I would give to anyone at any age who decides to write: First, write a book you would like to read. Second, take it seriously. People underestimate how much they know instinctively about how books are structured, and that’s especially true of the kinds of books they like most. If you read a lot of crime fiction, for example, you’re halfway to understanding what makes it work. As for taking is seriously, a book is essentially a new relationship, a relationship with someone who’s important to you. You have to find the time for it, over and over and over. You have to give it your best effort, whether you feel like it or not. If it disappoints you, you have to work to get it back on the right path. When people say to me in bookstores, “I could write a book if I had the time,” I say to them, “If you fell in love with someone tomorrow, could you find the time for him or her?” Because that’s what it takes if you’re writing long-form. The time is there. You’re just not claiming it.
Q: If you could go back in time and give yourself some advice as you were writing your first book, what would it be?
The same advice I’d give myself now. Don’t give up, no matter how much it stinks. Anne Lamott, in Bird By Bird, my favorite writing book, reminds us that “We all write shitty first drafts.” I’m a deeply insecure writer who forgets that admonition daily, who despairs of each book I write, who is constantly certain that the last one I finished is the last I’ll ever complete, and for whom the act of writing is, essentially, long hours of anxiety relieved by brief moments of exhilaration.
As a corollary to that rule, I’ll mention something it took me years to learn: I never actually know how well or how badly I’m writing. There are days when it feels like the muses are having fistfights to see who gets to whisper the most brilliant ideas to me, and then there are days when it feels like bricklaying, one heavy, uninteresting word at a time: He. Went. To. The Window. He. Looked. Out. (Uhhh, what did he see????) He. Saw. The. City. (Grrrrrrrrr.) I’ve learned the hard way that, weeks later, it’s often hard to remember which writing arrived which way. Sometimes the easiest stuff is thin and glib, and the stuff that was all gruntwork is exactly what was needed.
Q: What do you feel is the most difficult part when it comes to creating a novel, from the moment the idea is conceived until it gets published? Do you have any helpful advice on dealing with it?
In terms of writing it’s the Dread Middle, when almost every book collapses, leaving its writer too far from the end to see what form salvation might take and too far from the beginning to remember what the hell made him or her think this idea was going to work in the first place.
And then there’s post-publication, when all you can do is sit on your hands as the reviews do not appear and it does not make Best of Year Lists (one can get spoiled by being on too many of those) and you watch the book you think is your best―at least temporarily―flounder and sink.
Q: Who are your favourite authors and which books of theirs have inspired you over the years? Now that you’re an accomplished author yourself, do you feel as if you could have given them a few pointers?
Among the illustrious dead I’d finger Anthony Trollope, because (almost alone among male Victorian writers) he could write really splendid women of all ages and all walks of life, and because his work ethic was so terrifying. With his watch sitting in front of him he wrote for a certain amount of time every day of his adult life – sick or well, at home, on the high seas, literally, once, in a stagecoach – and if he finished a book with a few minutes left over he picked up a sheet of paper and started a new one.
Among the living I’d say Haruki Murakami, Ruth Ozecki, and David Mitchell, although I haven’t been as crazy as usual about Mitchell’s last couple of books.
The writer who made me want to be a writer was Margaret Mitchell. When I was ten or eleven I took GONE WITH THE WIND down from my mother’s shelves and read it in about four staggering days. I had never known that characters could come off the page like the lead quartet in that book does, and I decided then and there that I would like to do that some day, minus the slavery and the pro-Confederate sentiment. People who were more real to me than my family―that was a revelation.
And I would have to have delusions of grandeur on the scale of Nero’s before I’d think I had anything useful to say about writing to any of these people.
Q: Each of your series is based around a singular protagonist: Simeon Grist, Poke Rafferty and Junior Bender. Where did the inspiration come from for each of them? Are they perhaps based on some real people you’ve encountered?
Simeon was, essentially, me. I lived in that same Topanga Canyon shack that leaked like a sieve and hosted a small population of scorpions and had a 20-mile view. Like Simeon, I had taken a million useless college courses because I knew how they graded you in college but not in the real world, and, like Simeon, I drank too much wine at that point in my life. I was (I thought, although I’ve since questioned this) less lost than Simeon, who had become a detective because he couldn’t think of anything else he might be able to do.
Poke Rafferty was conceived from the beginning as one of three members of a hand-made intercultural family. I had met and gotten to know a little girl who sold chewing gum in the “entertainment” areas, and her story broke my heart. The moment I thought of setting a series in Bangkok I realized that the protagonist was married to a Thai woman and that they had adopted that same little girl, whose name really was Miaow. In the very first scene of the very first book, we meet Poke holding his daughter’s hand as they follow his wife on a shopping exposition, I wanted it clear from Page One that these were not books about ravishing young Asian women who incomprehensibly fall in love with uninteresting middle-age Western guys. I actually think of the series as a whole as Miaow’s story―from seven years old to fourteen at this point―with interruptions for her father’s adventures. I believe the series will end when she’s 19 or so and moves out, leaving Poke and Rose alone in that apartment that always felt so small and suddenly feels bigger and colder than a skating rink.
As far as Junior is concerned, all crime writers have special affection for their crooks: they’re vital, vivid, and don’t have to be politically correct, or even polite. The Juniors were my way to write books that were populated mostly by crooks. Junior is me on a good-hair day, but faster, funnier, and smarter. There used to be a kind of creative-writing conundrum: Is it possible for a writer to create a character who’s more intelligent than the writer is? Now that I’m a writer myself and know a lot of writers, I’d say the answer is an unqualified yes.
Q: How did you make the choice of writing criminal thrillers? Where did your fondness for this type of literature originate?
Raymond Chandler. When I was about 13 I read THE BIG SLEEP, and it seemed to me to be perfect. (It still does.) Of course, the heartbreaking thing about Chandler is that he made it look easy. I’m sure there are millions of writers who, like me, have learned just how good he had to be to make it look that easy. Anyway, when I first sat down to write, I wanted to be Chandler.
And also, referring to my answer way above, I chose crime fiction because I’d read so much of it that I thought I understood its structure.
Q: To what extent have your real-life experiences impacted your writing of the Poke Rafferty series? Is your portrayal of Bangkok entirely fact and observation-based, or did you have to plug a few holes with your imagination?
It’s impossible to be in Bangkok for any amount of time without being struck by the grace with which the Thais accept a truly raw deal; the best people, generally speaking, are the poorest and the worst people are the richest. It’s also impossible to miss the most obvious kinds of exploitation, specifically of the daughters and the sons of the poor. It shouldn’t come as a shock to anyone who’s not an inanimate object that the boys and girls in those thousands of bars are not realizing a long-held ambition, a personal dream of being taken to hotels and mauled by drunken men. (Not all bar patrons are either drunk or maulers, but a high percentage fall into one or both categories.)
There’s also the opaque quality of Thai culture. Thais are almost unfailingly polite and have the most beautiful smiles on earth. Their personal opinions of the tourists who flock to their country are concealed, often by nothing more sinister than good manners. Also, Thai society is much less fluid, much more rigid, than it appears at first. It is possible to change one’s social status, but nine times out of ten, it will be downward.
Finally, the long journey of the unworldly small-town girl to the brightly lighted bars, which I told at some length in THE QUEEN OF PATPONG, has become woven into the country’s urban mythology. Except, unlike the traditional definition of mythology as something that took place in the past, this is still happening, every day of the week, every week of the year.
Q: Did your experience as a sponsorship and audience-building consultant come in handy when writing the books? How about when it came to publishing and promoting them?
None whatsoever. If there actually is someone who knows how to market and promote a book, I’ve yet to meet him or her. If you know someone and she needs a job, please ask her to email me.
Q: Are there any particular challenges or limitations when writing a book series that reincorporates the same protagonist over multiple novels? If so, how do you address them?
It is possible to get sick of characters. There are characters you can only explore so deeply before hitting bottom. Fortunately for me, most of those have been secondary characters, whom one can either delete or kill.
I did wear out on Simeon, which is why, when I brought him back in PULPED, I gave him a new dimension: he’d realized that he was fictional. That gave me a lot to play with. I doubt I’ll ever hit bottom with the Pokes because Miaow changes so much from book to book. If you want to stay invested in a character, write a kid and let her grow up.
Q: Which of your books would you say is, personally-speaking, the most memorable for you and why?
Boy, that’s hard. The new Junior (due in November of this year), which is called NIGHTTOWN because it happens mostly in the dark, has something I never saw coming, which is that Arthur Conan Doyle becomes a minor character who posthumously delivers a major clue. It took me completely by surprise, and that kind of thing always entertains me.
I guess this is really two questions: book which do I best remember writing, and which do I remember and (I suppose) like best in written form? The one I best remember writing is, I suppose, NIGHTTOWN, because it was already fun when this 19th-century narrative pushed its way in and took the whole thing to a new level. The ones I probably like best in written form are 1) CRASHED, the first Junior because I had no idea what it was until I’d written it, and when I had, I loved it, and 2) THE QUEEN OF PATPONG, in part because I actually tossed it out twice, and also because was the Edgar nominee, and I have to assume that the Edgar people know what they’re doing.
Q: Do you develop some sort of attachment or disdain for these characters you’ve created and matured, or do they ultimately remain just words on paper to you?
None of them is words on paper; if they’re not alive for me, I dump them. (That doesn’t mean I’d want to have all of them as friends; there are some I’d happily push under a train.)
The funny thing is that they’re alive enough to come back and bother me: when I’m working I often feel like I’m surrounded by a crowd of secondary characters who are shuffling their feet and clearing their throats, trying to negotiate their way into the new book.
Q: Are there any uncharted lands you’d like to explore as an author? Perhaps branch out your writing into different genres and countries you’ve visited?
I’m about 40,000 words into something that’s so different I can’t believe how hard it’s holding onto me – a book about two little girls, seven and nine years old, their recently abandoned mother, and the unpleasant, secretive old lady who rents the upper floor in the century-old house they live in. And the house is sort of haunted, but it’s not a ghost story in any conventional sense. No thrills, no villains. I have no idea whom it’s aimed at, I just know that it’s got its fingers around my neck and won’t let go.
Q: Any words on the next book us fans can expect from you? Is there perhaps an entire new series in the making?
Beyond NIGHTTOWN, I’m fooling around with a mystery set in Hollywood in 1931, the year silent movies were finally pronounced dead―an event that split the industry in half, ended careers, provoked suicides, and offered the moguls a great many opportunities for revenge. The heroine is what was then called a “chorus girl” who’s just come to Hollywood (she calls herself “An unknown who from Kalamzoo”) and has been lucky enough to become one the “Busby Berkeley girls,” a moving piece in the amazing, surreal human kaleidoscopes Berkeley created in his marvelous movies. I love the slang of the era and the notion of small, dusty Hollywood, where a whole new art form and the business model to sustain it were invented in less than 20 years. Most of all, it’s the women who interest me. In the Berkeley movies they were simultaneously cheesecake and impersonal puzzle pieces, but, of course, in their internal lives they were something quite different. Could be a one-off, could be a series, could be another “Drawer of Shame” book like THE WRONG END OF THE RAINBOW. I have no idea.
But then, I rarely do.
Timothy Hallinan is an American writer who has lived off and on in Bangkok since the early 1980s, using his time there as inspiration for his new series revolving around a rough-and-tumble travel writer by the name of Philip Rafferty.
His two other series are about Simeon Grist, a private detective in Los Angeles, and Junior Bender, a thief with a sense of morality. His most popular works include Skin Deep, A Nail Through the Heart, and Little Elvises.