Wednesday, July 30, 2008

An interview with Timothy Hallinan, Part II

In part two of his interview with Detectives Beyond Borders, author Timothy Hallinan talks about the persistence of the Khmer Rouge, Western crime writers in Southeast Asia, and his protagonist's interesting career.

(Read part one of the interview with Timothy Hallinan here.)

The afterlife of the Khmer Rouge figures in A Nail Through the Heart. Have Khmer Rouge figures in fact slipped into civilian lives in Southeast Asia outside Cambodia?

Absolutely. Madame Wing actually lives in Bangkok, under a different name, of course. The Khmer Rouge stole hundreds of millions of dollars. Some of the murderers simply stayed in Cambodia. Some of them are high up in the Cambodian government, which is the main reason it's taken so long to bring anyone to trial. But some of them slipped away, and she's one of them.

Poke Rafferty is settling down from a life of writing the kinds of travel guides I'd have liked to read. Why did you choose this as a former career for your protagonist? And do such travel guides exist?

You know, at the time I started to write the series, I was sure they did, but now I don't think so. Lonely Planet kind of started out as alternative guides, but now, as we all know, they're publishing guide books by people who have never visited the countries they're writing about. I've thought several times of writing them myself, under Poke's name, just to get people confused. But it would require too much energy. The great thing about fiction is that you can just make it up.

Poke came to me on New Year's 1998, when I walked Bangkok from about 10 P.M. to 9 A.M. I went 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 this character had 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 blindsided 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. I'd been nervous about writing about Thailand because I knew there was so much I didn't understand. 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.

And I figured writing these guides would give him an interesting skill set, street smarts that would come in handy.

What kind of a community, if any, is there among Western crime writers who live at least part time in Southeast Asia and set their work there, people like you, Colin Cotterill and Christopher G. Moore?

I know Chris Moore and like him very much. I've never met Colin, although I want to because I love his books. Writers tend to be sort of solitary, but Chris and I grin at each other and have lunch from time to time, when we pry our fingers from the keyboards and emerge into the sunlight.

What are the crime-fiction-reading habits of Thai readers? Does Thailand have a native crime-fiction tradition? How much translated crime fiction is available there?

Not much tradition that I know of, although there are lots of thriller films set in Bangkok. Danny and Oxide Pang (are those great names, or what?) have directed a couple.

Poke is of mixed Asian and European descent. Why did you choose to give him this ethnic background? What does this bring to his character?

I always wanted to be part Asian, or even all-Asian. I think Asian people, when they look cool, look cooler than anybody. If I could start over, I'd like to be Korean or Thai, and really killer-looking, as well as somewhat taller than the norm.

I also thought it might be handy if Poke could, on occasion, blend in with the local population, or at least not stand out to the extent he would if he were, say, Norwegian. I used that in the first book I wrote about him, which I never showed to my agent (I wrote it just to get my feet wet in Poke's world) and it came in very handy in that story because he had to disappear. And here I am writing the third, and guess what? He has to disappear. So those Asian genes are going to be very helpful.

(Read part one of the interview with Timothy Hallinan here.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Blogger petra michelle; Whose role is it anyway? said...

Such interesting reading, Peter. And that's the interview! I can't imgine you're not being familiar with EVERY piece of crime fiction available, but one day I may shock you! :)) Petra

July 30, 2008  
Blogger petra michelle; Whose role is it anyway? said...

p.s. Peter, would you participate in the new poll I posted? It's asking whether to use deceased as well as living actors. Since you raised the point, it had been nagging me! Petra

July 30, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Yes, Timothy Hallinan was voluble and forthcoming, at least in print. I enjoyed the interview greatly, and it enhanced my appreciation for his novels.

Your praise is much appreciated though wildly overstated. You would not believe some of the writers I have not read.

With respect to your poll, I'll vote formally on your blog, but I can tell you I come down on the side of dead actors. You have to find a place for, say, Jimmy Stewart somewhere.

July 30, 2008  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Great I/V and no one felt the need to mention that piece of 80's cheese "One night in Bangkok makes a hard man humble..." written by the beards from Abba. Thanks for that.

July 30, 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've always been troubled by writing what's easier instead of writing what I want to write. Yes, I know writing things familiar to me will produce more output. But I've always loved the stories that took places in other worlds, other countries, other times. I have ideas for those, but it's a straight-vertically uphill struggle to be technically correct when writing about them.

Anyway, you have aroused some interest in Hallinan's work.

July 30, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks for the compliment, and thanks for expanding my knowledge. I knew Murray Head's recording of "One Night in Bangkok," but I had no idea that the Abba folks were responsible for it or that it came from a musical.

For my thoughts about Tim Hallinan as an interview subject, see my reply to petra michelle's comment above.

July 30, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

CS, if that's how you approach writing, you might find Hallinan's comments encouraging. I refer to his remarks about choosing an outsider, a travel writer, as a protagonist. That way, Hallinan avoided the anxiety of having to make himself an expert on Thailand. Instead, his protagonist could learn along with him.

July 30, 2008  
Anonymous Tim said...

Well, this has been great for me. Glad to see some people share my low opinion of American TV news -- back in the old days, when there were four and five newspapers in every city, one was always the "yellow" sheet that pandered to the lowest common denominator, and I'm afraid that's the niche to which most television news aspires. And frequently it has to get on tiptoes to attain it. When a once-respected network can devote almost 10 minutes to a panel of "experts" talking about Miley Cyrus' "risque" photos and (ohmigod) what that might mean to the teenage girls of today, it's time to switch over to the BBC.

And I'm voluble, if not over-voluble, in person, too, Peter.

I'm an Adrian McKinty fan, by the way. Did you know, Adrian, that that awful song is illegal in Thailand? It gets played nightly in every bar in Bangkok, but it's illegal.

July 31, 2008  
Blogger Gerard Brennan said...

Excellent interview. After reading part 1 & 2, I'm very much looking forward to getting to know this Poke fellah. A Nail Through the Heart has just scrabbled up a few overhangs on Mount TBR.


July 31, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks for the comments, gentlemen. One of the few things that makes me feel good about working for a newspaper is watching even 30 seconds of American television news, national or local. You're right, Tim. The antidote to American broadcast news is available in three words (or five): BBC World Service.

July 31, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I wonder what Bangkok residents think of the song.

July 31, 2008  

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