By Brett Battles
I seldom do interviews here at Murderati. Okay, that’s a lie. I have never done an interview here yet that I can remember. But when I looked at the calendar and saw that a book I really love by a very good friend of mine was coming out this month, I contacted him and asked if he’d like to share some time with us. So today I bring you the immensely talented Tim Hallinan.
Tim writes a series of thrillers set in Bangkok. His main character is Poke Rafferty, a travel writer who has created a new life with a patched together family that have come to mean the world to him. Rose, a former bar girl, is the love of his life, and Miaow, a girl who spent her first several years on the street, is the adopted daughter he will do anything to protect. If you have not picked up one of this books (A NAIL THROUGH THE HEART, THE FOURTH WATCHER, BREATHING WATER), you need to do so now. They are, quite simply, outstanding.
Tim’s latest is THE QUEEN OF PATPONG, and it is…well, you’ll quickly see what I think about it. Let’s get started:
THE QUEEN OF PATPONG has just been released. First, congratulations! Now down to business. The book is a very ambitious work in which you’ve done something that many writers would have balked at even trying. The fact that you not only pulled it off, but pulled it off in a way that has helped you create one of the best books of the year (my opinion) is an amazing achievement. Did you ever have any doubts as you were writing this story? How did you overcome them?
Well, thanks for being so nice about the book, and thanks also for the great blurb.
It’s easy to blurb a book that I love. So…doubts?
I was all doubts. My doubts were so deep-seated that when I turned the book into William Morrow I more than half-expected them to reject it.
I was worried about two things. First, and less of an issue, was the way I was screwing with the thriller form. The first 30,000 words set up a thriller in an efficient way. Probably gives the reader the expectation that he or she is in for a fast-moving, tightly focused wham-bam story. A nightmare figure from Rose’s life as a bar girl suddenly materializes, placing the family under physical threat and also revealing up all sorts of emotional fault lines among them: Rose has lied about her past; Miaow, on the verge of becoming a good little bourgois in her fancy school, is horrified that her mother’s life as a prostitute is reasserting itself; and Poke is finding that there are some secrets he may not be able to accept. So the action intensifies and the emotional conflict comes to a boil and just the family is on the verge of flying apart, Rose sits them down and says she’ll tell them what happened.
And the reader turns the page expecting the story to continue and instead finds himself or herself in a dusty little Thai village a dozen years or so earlier as an awkwardly tall, tremendously shy teenager named Kwan, which means “Spirit,” spends her last hour in the life she knows, because she’s just about to learn that her father has contracted to sell her into prostitution. That’s the beginning of the longest section of the book, almost 45,000 words, as Kwan runs away to Bangkok, goes to work in a bar, is befriended and betrayed, and gradually reassembles herself as Rose, the worldly woman whom Poke fell in love with and married, and who quit the bars to be with him and Miaow. When this section is over, we’ve learned where Rose came from and why she is what she is.
That was definitely taking a chance, but it worked out beautifully. In fact, I could have read even more of Rose’s story. And your second worry?
In one word, women. This part of the book takes place in a world of women, and I’ve always been nervous about writing women. I wrote eight published novels before I had the nerve to put two women in a room without a man present, and that scene was as short as I could possibly make it. And there I was in QUEEN, not only writing women all over the place, but women at an intimate juncture of their lives. It’s a story about female friendship and enmity and trials. The men in the story are mostly customers, faceless, like walking ATMs. They’re just shadows – the characters are all women. Scared me to death. I can’t tell you how many times I almost junked the whole book.
It’s funny. When I started that section I had no idea how to tell the story – and then, out of nowhere, one character threw a sapphire earring to another. And the whole story of those earrings came to me as a single piece, and it helped me lead Kwan into this strange new world where she would be merchandise and where everything has a price and where there’s no way to tell what’s real and what’s an imitation. Writing is the single most interesting process I know of.
One other thing that scared me about this section was that I had to do it right – it couldn’t cheapen what the women go through. I’m part of a small group that tries to keep at least some girls out of the sex trade by paying their families to maintain them in school rather than selling them down to Bangkok. The very day I started to write the Rose section, I got a long e-mail with a picture of a 16-year-old girl whose grandmother had been going to sell her until the local school teacher got wind of it and called one of the other people in the group. And they went up north and had a sort of intervention, and grandma accepted the offer, and the girl is still in school. The photo broke my heart, and the intervention went straight into the book, where it happens to Rose (or Kwan, as she’s called then). Knowing what that little girl was almost put through made it extra-important for me to try to get things right. And I kept remembering a quote from David Sedaris: “Writing gives you the illusion of control, and then you realize it’s just an illusion, that people are going to bring their own stuff into it.” So I decided that if anyone was going to read this book looking for titillation, I was going to make it very difficult for them to find it.
Anyway, after the long section/novella about Rose, we’re suddenly jolted back into the present and the world of the thriller, through a long action scene that I will say with complete immodesty is the best action scene I ever wrote.
This is your forth Poke Rafferty novel – and in my opinion, the best so far (which I seem to have gotten into the habit of saying after each book you finish) – is there anything you set up at the start about Poke, Rose, Miaow and the others that you wish you’d done differently now? If yes, what?
No. In my first series, the Simeon Grist PI mysteries, I wrote Book One, and three weeks later I had a three-book contract. I was stuck with everything in the first book, including some unsatisfactory relationships and a few crappy ideas. That series lasted for six books and I kicked myself a dozen times, every time I wrote a new one, about the decisions I’d made in the first.
So before I did anything with the Poke series I wrote a whole novel, Bangkok Tango, just to make sure I’d asked myself all the questions that seem so obvious later. The mistakes I made in Bangkok Tango surfaced in the second book, A Nail Through the Heart, which was the first one I submitted for publication, and I was able to fix them as they arose. If I ever write another series, which I doubt I will, I’ll write another “drawer book” first to get the kinks out.
And I’ve cannibalized Bangkok Tango for everything that was good in it. I feel like one of those guys who rips copper wiring and wooden molding and hardwood flooring out of old buildings. Poor old Bangkok Tango has been stripped pretty bare.
Well, it served its purpose. Don’t know if I could write a book knowing ahead of time that it was just going to go into the drawer. But what a great idea. So is there anything you did set up in the books that did come out that has paid off unexpectedly in later novels?
You know how it is. Everything pays off eventually. Probably most conspicuous is the street kid named Superman who took care of Miaow before the books begin and who’s a main character in the first book, A Nail Through the Heart. I got hundreds of e-mails asking what happened to him after the end of Nail, and two books later, in Breathing Water, when Poke came up against the most powerful people in Thailand and I wanted to show the other end of the scale – the most powerless people – there Superman was with his army of street kids. And in The Fourth Watcher, a very shady former CIA guy, Arnold Prettyman, takes Poke to a bar where old spies hang out. A bunch of those superannuated spooks will be Poke’s main allies in The Fear Artist, which might be the next book.
Sooner or later, everything seems to come back.
So I guess that semi-answers the what’s next for Poke question…well, sort of. But that brings up a larger view question…since this is a series, I’m wondering if you have an end point in mind? Not so much as the plot of the last novel, but an idea where Poke, Rose and Miaow end up when you’re done. Is this something that you think about? Or maybe you haven’t even let your mind go there yet.
I’d like to write this family until Miaow gets married. And then, who knows? Maybe I’ll write a much older Poke and Rose, enduring the perils of thrillers and empty-nest syndrome at the same time. Maybe they’ll split up and Poke will have to deal with being alone. I have no idea, but I want to stay with them.
One thing I hadn’t realized about the series until I got to the third book was how much attention Miaow was going to require. Children change all the time. In four books she’s gone from being a former street child who still can’t believe she has more than one pair of shoes to a burgeoning teen who’s desperate to leave her old identity behind and be more like the kids in her semi-snotty school. My God, she’s got a budding boyfriend now, a stuffy little Vietnamese 12-year-old who has no idea what he’s getting into. As much as I’ve loved everything about writing these books, Miaow has been a total gift of the universe, a joy to write from start to finish.
In addition to THE QUEEN OF PATPONG, I understand there are some exciting things happening with your first series, the Simeon Grist books. First can you give those of use who are not familiar with them the quick low-down on what they’re about, and then share what’s going on?
Odd you should ask. This hardly looks prearranged at all.
Simeon Grist is a Los Angeles private eye with a useless string of UCLA diplomas; he stayed in college because he knew how they graded people in college but he wasn’t so sure how it worked in the outside world. He finds his vocation by accident when someone throws a friend of his then-girlfriend, Eleanor Chan, off the roof of one of the UCLA residence halls and Simeon solves the case.
There are six books in the series, which one critic called “One of the great lost series of the 90s,” which I guess is a compliment. They qualified for cult status by getting great reviews and zero sales.
The first two books series, The Four Last Things and Everything But the Squeal, are now available on Kindle for the – are you sitting down? – amazing price of $2.99. That’s practically cheaper than free. And I’m writing Simeon again right now, for the first time in fifteen years, but in a book that’s very different from the first six.
But if I have a message here, it’s that everyone in the world will approach life differently – be taller, happier, better looking, richer, more popular, sexier, and more like the person in the world they most idolize – if they buy and read The Queen of Patpong. And I can say that completely impartially.
Thanks so much, Tim, for stopping by! Just wanted to tell all of you again how fantastic Tim’s new book is. Seriously, it is stunning, and, as far as I’m concerned, a must read. Tim mentioned above that I provided him a blurb for the book. Here’s what I said:
Queen of Patpong is simply outstanding. Compelling, heart-wrenching, and oh so satisfying. I didn’t think there was any way Tim Hallinan’s Bangkok Thriller series could get any better, but it has. Hallinan has once again proved to me why he is one of my all time favorite authors.
I meant every word of that.
If you have anything you’d like Tim or any comments you’d like to make, go for it! I’m traveling today, so I’ll check in when I can, but Tim will be in and out. Otherwise you can learn more at Tim’s website.