Tim Hallinan’s latest Poke Rafferty novel, The Hot Countries, completes a trilogy dropped among the other four volumes of the series. Let’s hope he has plenty more ideas, as these books show no signs of slowing down. (As of this writing The Hot Countries has already been named by The Strand to its Top
Ten Twelve best of 2015, with other honors pending. I reviewed
it for OBAAT on November 16.)
One high-profile series at a time isn’t enough. Tim also writes the acclaimed Junior Bender novels, featuring a burglar who works as the PI to LA’s underworld. He also wrote a somewhat more straight-up detective series, though the Simeon Grist novels did not get near the attention they deserved.
We could discuss Tim’s different interests and projects till we filled the Internet, so it’s time I showed some discipline and focused on the topic at hand.
One Bite at a Time: Tell us about The Hot Countries.
Tim Hallinan: In the very first book, A Nail Through the Heart, Poke stumbles into The Expat Bar, frequented by "old guys" who have been in Thailand ever since Vietnam. I originally thought of them as a source of information about Bangkok, a resource for Poke, but they turned into individuals, as characters will do, given the chance. It was time for them to have their own book. And then there were still effects in Poke's world caused by the wake of evil left behind by Haskell Murphy, the dreadful antagonist of The Fear Artist. Poke has a couple of things that used to belong to Murphy, and at the beginning of the book, an associate of Murphy's, Arthur Varney, has come to retrieve them. But the place Varney starts looking for Poke is The Expat Bar, and it all developed from there.
OBAAT: Where did you get this idea, and what made it worth developing for you? (Notice I didn’t ask “Where do you get your ideas?” I was careful to ask where you got this idea.)
TH: One of the great things about writing a series is that you realize that the continuing characters at the edges of the action have their own lives, too. The Expat Bar is based on a little place in Patpong that drew guys in their late fifties, back in the 90s. In fact, in A Nail Through the Heart, Leon Hoftstedler, the de facto leader of the Expat Bar, brings Poke the news that he has his first "case," so to speak.
Then I realized that many of these guys had been among the first group of male farang to move to Bangkok and that many of them had come straight from Vietnam with the stink of blood, racism, and terror on them and had decided to stay for life. They'd grown old there. And I read a fragment of a poem by Sappho, "He was handsome then and young, but soon gray age overcame him: the mortal husband of an immortal wife." and it clicked: the guys had gotten old but the Thai women who worked there, for whom these men had given up everything, were the same age. They weren't the same women, but they were the same age. And I realized that some of them would be starting to lose it mentally and I started to plan a book in which one of them would disappear into a Bangkok that hasn't existed for forty years, and Poke and the other guys would track him down. At that time, Christopher G. Moore, the first guy ever to put a Western private eye in Bangkok, asked me for a story for a collection called Bangkok Noir, and I wrote one about Wallace Palmer, one of the guys in the bar. I used Wallace and then dropped him into The Hot Countries. I really wanted to write a book about getting old, now that I qualify.
OBAAT: How long did it take to write The Hot Countries, start to finish?
TH: About seven months, four of wandering in the wilderness and three of finally understanding what I was actually writing about, which is a kind of redemption. These guys are, from many perspectives, reprehensible, but I suddenly realized that I wanted to provide them with a final moment of grace, even if it's a tragic moment.
OBAAT: Where did Poke Rafferty come from? In what ways is he like, and unlike, you?
TH: I spent New Year's Eve 2003 wandering Bangkok on foot all night. I must have walked 20 miles. And I went through some of the most impoverished neighborhoods, the places that house the forgotten ones, many of whom have fled to Bangkok with no plans and no safety net as the traditional modes of life in their villages dried up and blew away. They were, to be blunt, slums and I knew that there was no U.S. city in which I would wander through slum areas alone in the middle of the night. But everywhere I went, people came out to greet me, to share their food and their drink and wish me a happy New Year. I was reminded of what someone said about Communism: "Communists have nothing and they want to share it with you." The children were the most welcoming of all.
I asked myself why nobody wrote about that Bangkok, and within about 60 seconds I knew that someone did and that his name was Philip Rafferty, Poke for short because when he was a kid he poked his nose into things that didn't concern him. And within another minute, I had the most important piece of the idea: he had wanted a stable family all his life, and in Bangkok he had created one -- the former bar girl he marries between books one and two and the street child, Miaow, the two of them adopt. Without them, I probably would have quit after the second book.
OBAAT: In what time and place is The Hot Countries set? How important is the setting to the book as a whole?
TH: It takes place in two time periods, now and 50 or 55 years ago, and the geography is the versions of Bangkok that existed in the late 1960s and the one that we have now, which are very different in some ways and completely unchanged in others.
I think setting is the way characters experience place, and since it's a function of character, it's of the utmost importance to me. In all the books, the Bangkok Rafferty experiences is different from the one Rose sees, and hers is not the same as Miaow's, who starved on the sidewalks for years. And in The Hot Countries, we see three more Bangkoks: the one, now buried beneath high-rises, that American soldiers discovered on R&R; the one they live in today, which is an enormous urban sprawl of disillusionment; and the imaginary one, based on his memory of the past, Wallace keeps trying to superimpose on the city of today.
So in this book, setting stands for all sorts of things: aging, disappointment, danger, even (for Miaow, anyway) opportunity—to continue to leave behind the person she was and become someone she's not ashamed of.
OBAAT: The Hot Countries is your seventh book set in Thailand. What took you there for the first time, and what brings you back? (I mean you, personally; we’ll get to the books in a minute.)
TH: I went by accident the first time. I'd been working on a TV show in Japan and I'd arranged a three-week break to stay there when the shoot was over, but it was the coldest February in years, so I went to the first place in Asia I could think of where it was warm and I didn't need a visa. That was Thailand. I was unprepared to love the place. My travel agent had booked me into what sounded like a nice, safe middle-class hotel, a Ramada, that turned out to be almost at the foot of Patpong. at that time the most lurid red-light district in Asia. I stepped out of the hotel about 6 PM and here was all this neon and all this dreadful, dated rock and roll—bad songs last longer in Bangkok than anywhere else in the world; I mean, they still listen to Foreigner—and all these suspiciously friendly women in various stages of creative undress yelling at me from the doors of bars.
I had never (so far as I'm aware) met a prostitute in my life. I took refuge in an Italian restaurant on Patpong 2 where I had the best waitress in the history of the world. (I later learned that Thai waitresses aspire to a very high standard.) I paid and, because she'd been so amazing, I left a tip that pretty much equaled the bill. A few minutes later, walking past all these bars on the way back to the hotel I heard someone shouting behind me and turned to see my waitress chasing me, waving my money in the air because she thought I'd left it behind accidentally. Then I heard the women crowded around the bar doors start laughing. One of them called out "She pay you?" and then a dozen women were yelling, "Handsome man, lady pay. Come in, come in," and they were all laughing. It occurred to me that nothing about this scene was what I would have expected anywhere else in the world. So I stayed. And I went back over and over again because of the Thai people, who bring grace and humor to even the worst situations.
OBAAT: What was it about Thailand that made you want to set a series there?
TH: Here's a bit from The Hot Countries as Rafferty is walking through Patpong on his way home from the Expat Bar:
"The rain is a type that’s found, in Rafferty’s experience, only in Thailand. It combines two kinds of rain at the same time: big, sloppy, splatting drops slanting down through a misty drizzle that hangs halos around the bright lights dangling above the booths of the Patpong Night Market.
"He feels a faint shadow of the thrill that used to come over him when Thailand was new to him, every time he remembered where he was: in the tropics. The distance he had traveled from the sun-scraped desert of Lancaster, California, to the steaming excess of Thailand—an overstuffed tangle of plant and animal life with this teeming city at its core—never presented itself to him as a matter of miles or kilometers. It seemed to him not so much a journey as a rebirth. And, he thinks, the men in the Expat Bar probably once saw it the same way, before it turned into the place where they simply grew old, the place that witnessed the indignity of their infirmities: their swelling guts, their limps, their spotted baldness, their forgetfulness.
While I'm not at the stage of life of the Expat Bar guys (yet), there's an otherness to Thailand that makes it unlike anyplace else in the world, and I wanted to explore that. And I was also fascinated by the apparent informality of life there, especially as I learned how rigid the social strata actually are and what approximate meaning lies behind each of the dozen or so Thai smiles.
OBAAT: I don’t know of a writer who describes his locale any better than you do Thailand. I’ve never been within 8,000 miles of Bangkok, yet I feel I could drop in and have a pretty good idea of what to expect. How much time to you spend there each year, and what kinds of things do you do when you’re there?
TH: I try to be there four months a year, although I don't always make it. I write, I walk, and I hang out with friends. I write probably eight hours a day at either a Starbucks where the manager is a young woman named Miaow who's about the size of a comma and brings me samples all day of anything I haven't yet eaten or drunk, or at a Coffee World on the corner of Sukhumvit and Soi 7 1/2, which is even weirder than it sounds. I don't go to bars more than once or twice a week. I'm happily married and I don't drink, and I haven't found a third reason to go.
OBAAT: You make no secret that Thailand is among the most corrupt countries in the world, yet your affection for the Thai people is obvious on every page of your books. Talk about that a little bit, please.
TH Thailand, like most countries, is a rigged game. The wealthy and powerful have impunity; the heir to the Red Bull fortune ran over a cop at high speed and killed him, actually dragging him behind the car for half a block and has never gone to jail. The police almost invariably "solve" a crime by blaming the least powerful person on the scene. Outcasts like bar girls have no real place in the world -- they're human refuse as far as the authorities are concerned. This means there's a huge gap between the things that happen to the disenfranchised and the response society is "supposed" to make -- solving a crime, providing assistance, safeguarding children. That gives a character like Poke a large vacuum to work in.
There's also the fact that Bangkok draws an, uhhh, interesting group of expats. Between the expats, the Thais, and Bangkok itself -- a sunny place for shady people, to borrow a line from Maugham, I'll never run out of things to write about.
OBAAT: I don’t usually go back to discuss previous books, but The Queen of Patpong touched me in a way only a small handful of books ever has. There are scenes set in Rose’s home village—in flashback and real time—that are heartbreaking. How were you able to not only describe such a remote area so well, but to get inside the psyche of the villagers, both for good and ill?
TH: The story of the village girl who goes to Bangkok to work in the sex trade has become woven into the country's modern mythology. Whole sociology theses (I read two of them) have been written about these women and what becomes to them. Literally everyone knows the story in its broad outlines. It's Cinderella in reverse.
I read some newspaper stories and the two theses I mentioned, talked to some women who had been in the trade, and then made everything up. I've never been in a village like the one Kwan (Rose) comes from. I invented the warring factions in the bar because it seemed inevitable to me that people, male or female, working under such conditions would form factions, if only to express their bottled-up aggression, and the rivalry gave her something to overcome in the bar. My favorite of the scenes tracking Kwan's transformation into Rose, the ride down in the train where the young man sees her and realizes that she's traveling with an obvious prostitute and gets off the train without another glance at her, and the scene where the transvestite in the beauty salon cuts her hair and puts on the first makeup she's ever worn were also completely imagined. There are, or used to be, beauty parlors on Patpong and in Nana Plaza where the women get their hair done for their night of work, and I suppose that planted the seed.
But I wrote it, I suppose, like I write everything else. I think of a character and follow her, and as long as she acts and reacts in a way that's consistent with who she is, I'm happy with it.
OBAAT: What kinds of stories do you like to read? Who are your favorite authors, in or out of that area?
TH: I read everything except post-modern experimentalism that regards story and character as outmoded.
My favorite novelist is Anthony Trollope because he writes women better than any other male novelist I know. I love Balzac for the same reason, and also because he has such a sense of theater, as powerful as Dickens' was -- everything is already on a stage in the reader's imagination. Dickens just couldn't write women of child-bearing age, which was a real handicap in a great writer. Among contemporary writers I'm all over the place: I love Ruth Ozecki and Neal Stephenson and Anthony Powell and Haruki Murakami and a zillion others. I'm a really promiscuous reader. Chandler is and will probably always be my favorite private-eye writer but lately I've greatly enjoyed Ben H. Winters' Last Policeman trilogy and Megan Abbot's noir novels about American teenage girls, some of the darkest books being written today. And the permanent king of the heap is Shakespeare. I've read him off and on ever since I was 19 or 20.
OBAAT: What made you decide to be an author?
TH: When I was a kid we moved all the time. I lived in something like 14 houses before I was 18, and a lot of the moves involved changing schools, so friends were impossible to retain. Instead, I read all the time and eventually came to think about writing. I wrote secretly until I was in eighth grade, when I had an English teacher named Miss (in those day) Reid. Miss Reid was probably 23 or 24 and absolutely fine on every scale: beautiful, warm, intelligent. I fell in love with her.
Three days before the end of the summer semester, which would be my last at that school because we were moving again, I wrote her a love poem, dropped it on her desk and, essentially, ran. The next day passed without reaction and the next, and on the last day she said, "Tim, I'd like you to stay a moment." After everyone left, I went up to her desk, so terrified I was literally seeing spots. She said, "Here," and handed me my poem. It was marked up in red ink, like some assignment, and my heart sank into my shoes.
But then she pointed at one of the markings and said, "Look. You used this same word in the sentence just before this one. And here, where you put all these extra words, see how much better it is if you shorten it a little? And here, this description of the sunrise?"
I said, "What about it?"
"Nothing," she said. "I underlined it because it's wonderful." She straightened up the pages and handed them to me. "I spend almost three hours on this, Tim. I did it because you have real talent."
If it hadn't been for Ms. Reid I probably wouldn't be a writer. A million years later, I got a note that began, "You probably don't remember me, but I taught you in eighth grade . . ."
OBAAT: Who are your greatest influences? (Not necessarily writers. Filmmakers, other artists, whoever you think has had a major impact on your writing.)
TH: Chandler, because he made it look easy, which of course, it isn't, but if he hadn't made it look that way I never would have tried. John Huston because his film of The Maltese Falcon taught me in my mid-twenties that every single character in a story can and should be interesting. Kurosawa because he reinforced that concept and because when I saw High and Low and realized it was Ed McBain's King's Ransom. I could read one and look at the other and see how the same elements could be used so differently and both approaches could be authentic. That was kind of thrilling for me. Later, in The Bad Sleep Well Kurosawa opens with the grand wedding of a business magnate, reporters, hundreds of guests, no real dialogue. Still without dialogue the wedding party comes into the dining room and a big table is pushed in on wheels, covered with a cloth. The party comes to look, and the cloth is whisked off, and it's a reproduction of the company's office tower. Suddenly the magnate gasps, and the camera pulls into the cake, and a very high window in the tower is surrounded by a circle of frosting. The film is in black and white but I always remember that frosting as red. It tells the magnate that someone knows he was behind the murder of a man who was supposed to have fallen from that window. Up until that moment, no one speaks a word that we catch. That kind of economy is hugely impressive to me.
OBAAT: You’ve established a reputation of frightening your friends about halfway through writing a book with declarations of how you’ve written yourself into a corner/the book stinks/you’ve forgotten how to write…(the list goes on). You’re now routinely compiling award nominations and glowing reviews from major sources. Has your writing neurosis gotten any better?
TH: No. I'm in the middle of it right now. Earlier this evening I said to my wife, "I think I have to toss this book." I actually did toss The Queen of Patpong for about a month, and also the third Junior, The Fame Thief. It happens about half the time. The one I'm thinking of tossing now is Fields Where They Lay, a Junior Bender Christmas novel (!).
OBAAT: Give us an idea of your process. Do you edit as you go? Throw anything into a first draft knowing the hard work is in the revisions? Something in between?
TH: I write every day that it's humanly possible. It takes me an hour or so to get past the anxiety issue of the moment (usually Where the hell am I going?) to the point where I can put some words on paper. Then I just plow through until I can convince myself that it's substantial enough to qualify as a day's work. I clean up really glaring blemishes as I go, reading back to the beginning two or three times and tightening or whatever, and then I quit. The next day I go back 4-5 days’ worth and make changes. These frequently prompt changes earlier in the book, so I make those, too. When the book's finished (or abandoned) I put it in a drawer, figuratively speaking, for a few weeks to let the fat rise and then go through it again, making hundreds of changes. Last thing I do is read it out loud to my wife, which usually results in wholesale rewrite.
The salient fact of all this is that at no point prior to about 80% of the way through do I know where the story is going. My wife said it was like walking a tightrope without a net and I said, "And also without the tightrope." I'm sure writing would be less anxiety-ridden for me if I could actually plot, but I can't.
OBAAT: You are among the kings of listening to music when you write. Do you have a theme song for this book? What music did you go back to over and over as you wrote it?
TH: This book had two playlists, one that was all female for the parts of the book that belong to the female characters and one that was mixed for the rest of it. They're not really playlists -- I just stack LPs in the Amazon music player. For the Vietnam stuff, it was Creedence, the Doors, Mavin Gaye, the Stones, the Buffalo Springfield -- obvious stuff. For the women, it was Lake Street Dive, Tegan and Sara, Brood, Ingrid Michaelson, Rachael Yamagata, Mindy Smith, Kacy Musgraves, on and on. And always, for the book as a whole, mid-career Dylan and a few others.
OBAAT: If you could give a novice writer a single piece of advice, what would it be?
TH: Read everything you can get your hands on, and when you particularly like or dislike a book, figure out why.
OBAAT: Generally speaking the components of a novel are story/plot, character, setting, narrative, and tone. How would you rank these in order of their importance in your own writing, and can you add a few sentences to tell us more about how you approach each and why you rank them as you do?
TH: Character is pretty much everything for me. Plot is what they do, dialogue is what they say, setting is place as they experience it, narrative for me is always either first person or a close third person that allows us inside the character's skull, so tone and narrative tend also to arise from character. What I do -- all I do, actually, is conceive a situation that involves several characters and then drop the characters on my desk, like marbles, and follow them as they roll. I try my hardest not to impose preconceived "story" on them. I'm always happiest when characters take over, say, an expository scene and turn it into something else. Books for me are all about people, and the people in books are characters, so that's easily the thing I care about most.
OBAAT: If you could have written any book of the past hundred years, what would it be, and what is it about that book you admire most?
TH: Oh, boy. If I can list a series, it would probably be Anthony Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time, which follows four relatively upper-class English guys from school to old age, contrasting them with one other boy, of (as they say) humbler origins, Widmerpool, who over the course of the books goes from being the boy they all looked down upon to one of the great comic monsters in fiction. When I was in my early twenties and on the verge of a breakdown I read the first three books, which follow the five characters through school and into their first bruising encounters with the "real" world, and it restored my sanity. I know that sounds flip, but it did: it gave me a completely different, and much healthier, perspective on what I'd done and been through. And as I get older, the characters get older with me. A great piece of work.
OBAAT: What are you working on now?
TH: The Junior Bender Christmas book, Fields Where They Lay, and the eighth Rafferty, Fools' River. And a standalone all-female thriller, tentatively called Girlfriend Highway, that I might self-publish, just to keep my hand in.