Tuesday, July 29, 2008

An interview with Timothy Hallinan, Part I

Readers of book-jacket biographies know that crime writers tend to have (or to be given) colorful job histories. Often these include bartender, bouncer, teacher, sailor, deck hand, skip tracer or private investigator. Timothy Hallinan's résumé includes none of these, but his background does include a career in television and an embryonic association with one of the most successful pop bands of the 1970s. He also lives part time in Thailand and sets his novels there, as good a credential for adventure as a crime writer can have.

Hallinan has published two books about Poke Rafferty. This protagonist is the author of travel guides called Looking for Trouble in ... but is himself trying to stay out of trouble by settling down in Bangkok with his bar-girl-turned-businesswoman lover. His tenuous success with this remarkable woman is a running motif and a delight of the novels. When it comes to staying out of trouble, however, he fails dismally.

Hallinan's Poke Rafferty books are A Nail Through the Heart and the new Fourth Watcher. He also wrote six novels about Los Angeles P.I. Simeon Grist. In the first of a two-part interview with Detectives Beyond Borders, Timothy Hallinan discusses the delights and terrors of Thailand as well as the road that led him there. He also delivers a good, solid kick in the pants to a supposedly respectable and authoritative American television network.

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

Forgive this question because I am just old enough to remember when Bread was a pervasive AM radio presence, but what was your association with the group, and how did you get from that to writing crime fiction?

I was in a band called The Pleasure Fair with Robb Royer, who went on to found Bread with David Gates and Jimmy Griffin. We made an album on Uni records, which at the time was Universal Studios' music arm. The LP went nowhere, but it was produced by David Gates, and he and Robb and Jimmy later got together, and the rest, as they say, is history. Unfortunately, I'm not on those chapters of the history book, or I'd be a lot richer.

So I took a day job which evolved into a very nice career in television, but was always writing in my spare time. I had about three partial novels (I was at that stage where you're “writing at” novels rather than writing novels), and my house in the Hollywood Hills burned down. I had backups of everything, but they were all in the house. I underwent one of those realizations: If I'd finished any of those books, it would have been somewhere else – in print, on some agent's desk, somewhere. So I went to Thailand and started to rewrite the book I remembered best. I finished it in eight weeks, and it sold immediately, and suddenly there I was with a three-book contract. The key was finishing. That's why in the Writer's Resources of my Web site, http://www.timothyhallinan.com/, the keynote quotation is Thomas Farber's line, “A writer is someone who finishes.”

How did you wind up in Thailand?

Totally by accident. I was in Japan with the first Western symphony orchestra ever to tour there (I was working on a PBS series about the tour), and I had decided to go to some hot springs when the job was over and sit up to my nose in hot water, reading The Tale of Genji. A bunch of the guys in the string section thought that sounded great and decided to go along. I'd been sitting next to them for weeks and was less than enthusiastic about continuing to sit next to them while on vacation, so I called my travel agent and asked her to book me on a flight to anywhere in Asia where I didn't need a visa. Forty-eight hours later, I got off the plane in Bangkok wearing a down jacket and a scarf (it was February, and cold as hell in Japan), and it was 97 degrees. The immigration guys were falling off their chairs laughing at me. And I fell in love with the place – the contrasts, the energy, the smiles of the people. I took an apartment within a week.

The Poke Rafferty books are not your only novels. Could you talk a bit about your other crime writing?

I wrote six novels set in the other town I know best, which is Los Angeles, featuring an overeducated private eye called Simeon Grist – four graduate degrees and no actual idea about how to make a living. A lot like me. Anyway, the Simeon books got the reviews writers dream of and the sales they have nightmares about. Every book was hailed as my breakthrough by somebody important (this was when newspapers still thought people wanted to read about books). But lightning never struck. So after we put Simeon out to graze, I took a few years off and just concentrated on making money so I could write full-time. And now I can.

What attracted you to Bangkok, Thailand and Southeast Asia in general as settings for crime stories?

Well, I love the whole Southeast Asian thing: everything from the terrible traffic to the temple in the jungle by the sea. Any place that's had continuous and somewhat isolated civilization for, say, 1,200 years, that suddenly collides with the overwhelmingly Western influences of the 21st century is going to be interesting. This is nowhere truer than it is in Thailand and Cambodia, both of which have gone through tremendous societal changes in the past 30 years or so – although there's nothing in recent Thai history to compare with the Cambodian tragedy of the Khmer Rouge.

What I like best is the fact that Westerners, including my protagonist, Poke Rafferty, never really get inside. They're made to feel special and welcome, and after a while they think of themselves as being part of everything, but they're not, and they never will be – the society might as well be a department-store window display with the foreigners on the other side of the glass. They will never get through that pane of glass. And that's the situation Poke's in – he's in love with the culture, he's in love with two Thai females, his wife, Rose, and his adopted daughter, Miaow, and those relationships aren't going to work out in the long run unless he becomes more Thai. The same is true of the scrapes he gets into. Unless he understands the society better, he could wind up dead. It's kind of an interesting situation.

And then, I also get to deduct all my expenses there from my tax return if I write books that are set there.

Child prostitution figures in the Rafferty novels. How widespread is the phenomenon in Thailand, and is it more widespread there than elsewhere in Southeast Asia? If so, why? Is undue suspicion ever cast on Westerners living in Thailand because of it?

The dreadful child abuse – more pornography than prostitution – in A Nail Through the Heart was based on a real guy, a German monster who actually lived in Bangkok and shot there the pictures described in the book. I don't know whether he's dead (although I fervently hope he is), but the pictures seem to have stopped coming.

I think child prostitution exists anywhere you have a very large, very poor lower class. In Thailand and Cambodia, where it used to be quite prevalent, it's either pretty much disappeared now, or it's moved way, way underground. I live in both countries, and there are still lots of street kids, so my guess would be that there's still some child prostitution, but not with pimps and child brothels and all the rest of the institutionalization of the trade that used to exist. And yes, I think Western men who live there are regarded with a certain amount of unfriendly speculation.

Part of the problem is that American television news is so unprincipled. Every year they run the same terrible footage of child prostitutes, taken in Phnom Penh in 2002, as the center of a piece on CNN or MSNBC with a title like House of Shame or something equally maudlin. The fact is, they haven't spotted anything new since 2002, but why let that get in the way of a sure-fire teaser line like "Child Sex at Eleven"?

I was in Phnom Penh the last time Anderson Cooper was there, and he shot his set-up in front of the brothels of Tuol Kork, where most of the women could be charitably described as motherly. All the lighted doors were out of focus behind him. The shadows moving around could have been adults, or children, or Komodo dragons for all anyone could tell. Several bars where freelancers go to meet tourists refused to allow any woman under 5 feet, 4 inches into the bar while CNN was in town because they were terrified of some shot taken from behind of a big guy and a small woman. The most disgusting thing of all was that the whole time CNN was in Phnom Penh, the tribunal to try the Khmer Rouge leaders – who killed two million people – was finally about to get underway, the first time any of these bloodsuckers had ever been brought to account. And CNN never reported a single word about it. Not sexy enough; "Murderers of Millions Brought to Justice" is nowhere near as good as "Child Sex at Eleven."

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

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Great interview, bring on part 2. I was lucky enough to read Nail in galley and loved it then and still do now.

July 29, 2008  
Blogger petra michelle; Whose role is it anyway? said...

Very interesting. Am looking forward to part two. Interesting how writers are so willing to speak out! It no wonder, that over the years, in many countries, they have been targeted as threats or have been blacklisted!

July 29, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks. Part II should be up about the same time Part I was, only a day later. I realize at least one of you lives in a place that makes notions of today and tomorrow problematical.

Yes, I very much enjoyed what Hallinan had to say on a number of subjects. I get the feeling he's a good conversationalist.

July 29, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Petra, your comment is interesting because journalists are usually the ones threatened or muzzled, yet Hallinan directs his harshest words toward journalists, or at least their television equivalents.

July 29, 2008  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

I think the angle CNN took would make Anderson Cooper a feature writer, particularly since it used stock film from several years earlier; had it taken the Khmer Rouge story on it could be called journalism. It's less good at that.

July 29, 2008  
Blogger Vanda Symon said...

Great interview, roll on part 2. More books to add to my Must acquire list.

Has Timothy had any backlash from CNN?

July 29, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Linkmeister, to be fair to poor, put-upon Anderson Cooper, Hallinan does not come right out and say that Cooper misleadingly had his crews shoot footage outside "adult" bars for a story on child prostitution, though the implication may be there.

With respect to television news in general, I am entirely sympathetic to Hallinan's position. My views on television news were sealed the day I saw a cameraman stop a colorfully attired figure who had just left Council chambers at Boston City Hall and ask him to go in and come back out again so he could get the departure in tape. The cameraman had no intent to mislead viewers, and the action he had the subject repeat was entirely uncontroversial. Still, I was stunned by the simple, obvious ability of television to simulate truth and by the cameraman's caual willingness to do so.

July 29, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks, Vanda. It would be nice to think that complaints published here could draw backlash from CNN, but if there has been any, I have not heard of it.

July 29, 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Fabulous interview with a talented writer. I work in media so am keeping myself anonymous, but believe me: Mr Hallinan is voicing publicly what many of us professionals voice privately, namely, the irresponsible reportage of outlets like the three-letter-network. It's regrettable that many media-consumers take whatever is shoveled at them seriously, and there seems to be no brakes on the shovelers.

Hallinan clearly does not have agenda, and states his case in a clear, mature fashion...after having established his cred: life in, and research on, specific Asian locales. Here's a man who writes fiction, but clearly speaks the truth. One Hallinan is worth ten Coopers.

Jack, Hong Kong

July 30, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Jack, thanks for the kind words about the interview.

Within the limits of the anonymity you want to protect, I'm curious about how much of the problem is irresponsibility on the part of the world's news source, and how much is the danger inherent in placing too much faith in the reliability of images.

July 30, 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, I mean, I'd love to be a writer who finishes, but the research, man......I don't know how people are able to freely write and so much information around naturally.

And yeah, the pop. media only puts out things that are sure to get attention. Perhaps the public is immune death, unless it's put in a bizarre light.

July 30, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Two historical crime novelists whose work is impressive for different reasons (Carlo Lucarelli and Peter Tremayne) have one thing in common: they were scholars before they wrote fiction. Perhaps this means you should research your head off if you enjoy making yourself an expert, but you should not turn the research into drudgery.

Your comments about the popular media may be truer, at least somewhat, of television than of newspapers, and I like to think that I'm not biased just because I work for a newspaper. I do think that television's need for exciting images, the ease of manipualting those images, and our susceptibility to them, our belief that seeing is believing, make TV more dangerous.

July 30, 2008  

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