Thursday, August 20, 2009

Timothy Hallinan

Timothy Hallinan is the author of the acclaimed Poke Rafferty Bangkok thrillers; the third novel in the series, Breathing Water, was released on Tuesday.

Brett Battles is the author of three novels in the Jonathan Quinn series: The Cleaner, which was nominated for a Barry Award for Best Thriller and a Shamus Award for Best First Novel, The Deceived, and the newly released Shadow of Betrayal.

A few weeks ago Hallinan interviewed Battles. Here Battles is the one asking the questions to Hallinan:

I’ve never made it a secret how much I’ve enjoyed your Bangkok Thriller series. Poke, Rose, and Miaow are three of my favorite fictional characters, so I look forward each year to their new installment. And I have to say, Breathing Water is my favorite so far. That’s saying a lot, too, because I absolutely loved A Nail Through the Heart and The Fourth Watcher.

Well, thank you for saying so, and that's good to hear, since you always want to believe the last one is the best one. Back in my years in rock and roll, I knew lots of people who had to look thrilled when people told them how much they loved records that were a decade old. You could see that they'd have given anything to hear something nice about their more recent work. I think all of us have a secret fear that the moment will come when our best work will be behind us. I actually go through that moment of doubt on almost a daily basis.

Boy, do I know that feeling! Is there anything you consciously do to keep improving your work? To keep it fresh?

I terrify myself. Every time I write a book, I try to do something I don't know how to do. In The Rocks, which will be the fourth Poke book, I'm trying to braid together three stories that aren't in the same time period: the story of what's happening with Poke, Rose and Miaow in the present; the story of how Rose came to Bangkok in the first place (which is essential, because the threat they face has its roots in an incident that happened when she was new to the life); and the story of the guy who poses the threat. Since I have no idea whether I can pull it off, it keeps me on my toes. It also keeps me up at night, and that's not a joke.

By the time you started your Bangkok thriller series, you had already been living part time in Thailand for many years, and had already had several novels published. Why do you think it took you so long to set a story in a place you knew so well? Did you purposely avoid writing about Thailand and Bangkok? Or did you know you would write about it at one point, but were just waiting for the right story?

I was waiting for two things. First was a sense that I understood Thailand better than any tourist who's been in the country for fifteen minutes. You've been there, so you know how deceptive Thailand is. The people are so open and so welcoming that you're tempted to believe you understand them. They do this great imitation of being just like us. But then you see them do the same thing with the Japanese and the Russians, and you realize that they're just very instinctive about giving their guests what they think the guests want. So it took some time to feel like I had any understanding at all.

And the second thing was a character who didn't understand the culture any better than I do, but who needed to understand in order to create the life he wants. Poke is a travel writer who's been looking at other cultures as subjects, something observed, written about, and forgotten. And all of a sudden one of those cultures turns around and bites him. He loves Thailand. He loves the Thais, especially his wife and adopted daughter. If he's going to make this life work, he has to understand more. But he's free to make mistakes, he's not the go-to guy for inside info on Thai culture.

You are extremely good at making Bangkok a character in your books. I’ve read a lot of books set in interesting locations where the author failed to achieve what you are able to achieve. How important is making Bangkok a character to you? Why? How much of the Bangkok you write about the real Bangkok people would see if they visited Thailand, and how much is it the Bangkok of your imagination? Do you feel it’s important to be completely accurate in your descriptions? Why?

I think the setting of a book is a character. I think setting only works in novels if it reflects and influences the characters, if it gives the story a distinctive shape. Otherwise, it's dead weight, it's your neighbors' vacation videos. Bangkok is a unique city: the heat, the crowds, the contrasts, the sacred and the profane, tradition and hell-for-leather modernization, all jammed together. And I try to show it mainly through the characters, try to make it clear how they perceive it and feel about it, whether they're loving it or hating it or are about to be killed by it. Almost the only reaction no one ever has to Bangkok is being bored by it.

I'd hope that people who visit Bangkok after reading my books will recognize the feel of the city, and maybe a few of the more frequently-described blocks. Ultimately, though, as I say in the Author's Note at the end of Breathing Water, the Bangkok of the novel is an imaginary environment based on a real one. And I go on to say, “Those of you who find it difficult to believe in the Bangkok that's depicted here should know that millions of people feel exactly the same way about the real city.”

Poke, the hero of your Bangkok novels, is a very interesting character. As are Rose, Miaow, and Arthit. When you develop characters, do you base them on anyone? Perhaps on yourself? Or do you make them from whole cloth? What were the origins of Poke? And why did you decide to make him a travel writer?

I don't consciously base characters on anyone at all. They just come. It's maybe the greatest mystery to me, even in a process that's so full of mystery. Where did Miaow come from? I've never had a daughter, never had a little sister. She's just in me somewhere, clamoring to be let out. I find out who characters are by writing them. They reveal themselves to me through what they say and do. My role is really limited to deciding whether or not they belong in the story, since I can't possibly make them do anything they don't want to do.

Poke arrived in my mind fully developed as a travel writer, complete with the Looking for Trouble series. I grabbed it because it gave him a reason to be there in the first place and because it implied an analytical mind. And, in fact, my wife pointed out to me that there comes a time in every book when he sits down and creates a sort of narrative about how he got into whatever mess he's in and then constructs scenarios for getting out of it. In a sense, he almost writes his way out of trouble.

But in the case of Rose, Miaow, and Arthit (as well as many of your minor characters), you have created characters who are native Thais. Do you find writing from the point of view of a culture you didn’t grow up with difficult? How do you make sure you’re getting them right and not westernizing them too much? Or is that not a concern?

It scares me senseless. And I know I don't get it right, I know I botch it all the time. Will Durant once said that the most interesting questions about a culture are the ones they didn't ask. And Thai culture is so complicated, so different from Western culture, that I don't even know what questions to ask most of the time. So I try to concentrate on the things I do know – about status in society, for example, or family relationships, or the Thai genius for finding something to enjoy in practically everything – and then I rely on my understanding of what else the character is – wife, mother, crook, cop, politician. Two Thai people are kind enough to comb the books for the most obvious howlers, but I'm fully aware that Thais who read these books will understand that I'm as much a farang as Poke is.

What is your favorite part of the writing process? Are you the type of writer who likes a bit of give and take with an editor? Or do you prefer to turn in a manuscript that will need little input from your editor? Whatever the answer, why do you think that is?

I like dialogue most. I can't get my characters to shut up. But once in a while I have an absolutely great time with description. My agent, who was my first editor, always says to me, “I'm not sure what I'm looking at here,” and now as I go through second and third drafts I really concentrate on visual and other sensory detail, and that can be exhilarating when, once in a great while, you know you've nailed something you've actually seen. As far as editing is concerned, I try to turn in a perfect book (perfect to the limit of my powers, I mean) and then wait for it to get shredded. But I love the editing process because it ALWAYS improves the book. I even love copy editing now that I've got the world's best copy editor.

I know you asked me this question when our interviewing positions were reversed, but I’m curious as to what your writing process is like. Do you do outlines? If so, how detailed are they? If not, how much do you know about the story before you begin? When you do begin the actual writing, what does your day look like?

I don't outline anything. For book proposals, I do the absolute minimum the people at Morrow will accept, and they've been very nice about accepting documents that essentially present a premise and pose five or six interesting ways it might be resolved, even though we all know I probably won't ultimately use any of them. In Breathing Water, I was following the current political mayhem, and I asked myself what would happen if a viable candidate came along who was actually a man of the people – not a rich, elite Thai-Chinese pretending to be a man of the people, but a dark-skinned, hard-handed guy who'd actually slopped pigs. We're talking about a country where many of the families who loaned the money used to build Bangkok in the 1770s still run things. But poor people can vote now – so what would happen if one of them actually stepped up to attempt to claim power, and the billions in graft that go with it? Everything flowed from that question.

And as far as work habits are concerned, I just write every day until I can't write any more. That's my routine. Write until my fingers fall off.

BREATHING WATER brings in issues of Thai politics, which, I imagine, is a very complicated topic. How did you set about tackling this? How accurate did you keep things? Did you every wonder if maybe you were biting off more than you should have? If so, did that change what you wrote, or did you just push forward?

Thai politics are, on one level, tragic, and on another level, comic. No other country in the world ever fired a prime minister for making an omelet on TV. But the elite needed to get rid of this guy, who apparently makes a great omelet and wanted to show the world how, so they canned him for accepting $1200 for the appearance. There's a law that says no prime minister can be paid any money other than his salary, although every single one of them retires with millions and millions of dollars. The tragedy is that neither side really cares about the people, although they both claim to. There's a river of corruption money, an absolute Mississippi of corruption money, that flows through the kingdom. The dispute is all about who gets to hold the scoop. And writing the book worried me plenty. It still does, although Thailand has an enviable reputation for honoring freedom of speech.

What’s up next for you? More Poke?

Yes. It's The Rocks, as I said, and for the first time we'll go back to see how one member of Poke's family, in this case Rose, came to Bangkok in the first place. And it's got a very satisfying (for me, anyway) villain, and a student production of Shakespeare's “The Tempest,” with all the magic that implies. Now all I have to do is write it.

Thanks, Tim. This has been great fun. I just want to say again that I can’t recommend Breathing Water and the rest of the series highly enough. Now begins that time honored, yet frustrating, tradition of waiting until the next release.
Visit Timothy Hallinan's website and blog.

The Page 69 Test: A Nail Through the Heart.

The Page 69 Test: The Fourth Watcher.

My Book, The Movie: The Fourth Watcher.

The Page 69 Test: Breathing Water.

--Marshal Zeringue