New Light Through Old Windows

Zoë Sharp

It’s my great pleasure to welcome Timothy Hallinan to Murderati for today’s Wildcard. Tim is an Edgar and Macavity nominee and writes some of the most elegant prose I’ve come across. I was honoured when he swapped e-book excerpts with me last year.

The advent of e-publishing has allowed Tim to relaunch his original Los Angeles PI Simeon Grist series, including this, the sixth and final title, THE BONE POLISHER. Booklist urged readers to “Do yourself a favor and read it!” while Mostly Murder called it “Creepy and screamingly funny.”

The book takes place in the West Hollywood of 1995, where the community is shaken by the brutal killing of an older man who was widely loved for his generosity and kindness. In a time when the police were largely indifferent to crimes against gay people, Simeon is hired to catch the murderer—and finds himself up against the most dangerous adversary of his career.

As always with Tim’s writing, I savoured his descriptions, dialogue, characterisation and turns of phrase in this book. If you haven’t discovered Timothy Hallinan yet, you’re missing a real treat.

Zoë Sharp: You wrote the Simeon Grist series in the early 1990s, and I know the order of publication was not the order in which you actually wrote the books, so tell us what happened there? And what complications arose from this, in terms of ongoing character development?

Timothy Hallinan:  Dutton bought the first book to be written, SKIN DEEP, and offered me a three-book contract about a week after I finished writing it.  The sale sort of lit me on fire and I knocked out the second, THE FOUR LAST THINGS, in about three months [Erm, he means ‘carefully and agonisingly handcrafted it’, ZS] and sent it in, having no idea how slowly publishers worked.  They preferred THE FOUR LAST THINGS and changed the order.  Then, before  FOUR LAST came out, I sent them EVERTHING BUT THE SQUEAL, and they decided they liked that better than SKIN DEEP, too, so SQUEAL came out second and SKIN DEEP third.   Funny thing is, when I read these books all this time later, SKIN DEEP is one of the best. 

Zoë Sharp: And what complications arose from that, in terms of ongoing character development?

Timothy Hallinan: I intentionally entangled Simeon in a somewhat static relationship, a long-term estrangement, because I didn’t want too much development in that area, and I didn’t know enough to make my other characters change from book to book.  (These books were written through imitation and sheer chutzpah.)  The only real oddity in sequence is that, in the order in which the books were published, Simeon meets in the third book a woman he’s sleeping with in the first.

Zoë Sharp: Your series characters go by the highly memorable names of Simeon Grist, Junior Bender and Poke Rafferty. Where did you find such wonderful names for them?

Timothy Hallinan:  I always think they’re just regular names and later ask myself what I’d been smoking.  Actually, that’s only partially true; I was reading a ton of stuff on early Christianity when I started the Simeon books and named him after a favourite saint, Simeon Stylites, who spent the last 37 years of his life standing on an ancient pillar in the Syrian desert.  As if that weren’t enough, he wouldn’t allow any woman anywhere near his pillar.  When he got sores on his legs and the sores developed maggots, he would encourage the maggots, saying “Eat, little ones, what God has provided you,” or words to that effect.  I thought that was a little stiff, and he came to embody for me Santayana’s famous definition of a fanatic as someone who redoubles his efforts when he’s forgotten his aims. 

So I was being pretentious when I named Simeon and later found that most readers pronounced it “Simon” anyway.

Zoë Sharp: I particularly loved the title for this book, THE BONE POLISHER. How did that come about?

Timothy Hallinan:  When members of the Chinese diaspora, in the early days, had the misfortune to die in whatever country they had emigrated to, they were buried where they died.  A generation or two later, the now-prosperous family would pay to have the bones disinterred, cleaned, polished, and sent to China for permanent burial in The Middle Kingdom.  The specialist who did this was called a bone polisher.  In the book, the killer puts a malign twist on this,  He kills men who came to West Hollywood from small towns where they lived closeted lives, and each time he murders one, he sends evidence of his victim’s “deviancy” back to the town from which he came.  (This was in 1995, when, arguably, a much higher percentage of gay people were in the closet.)  So in this case, it’s the dead person’s reputation that’s returned—with the goal of destroying it.

Zoë Sharp: I’m always interested in the underlying theme of a book. What theme was in your mind when you wrote THE BONE POLISHER?


[Tim with Brett Battles, working hard …]

Timothy Hallinan: I’d been writing about a character—Simeon—for five years at that point, and he was a sort of idealized version of me: braver, more resourceful, wittier, better-looking, and much more interesting.  And I decided to see what would happen if he were actually like me, which was to say weary of the way his life was going, uncertain about his skills and abilities, and suddenly very sensibly afraid of the people he was going after.   How would those things affect his picture of who he was?  How would they affect his chosen career?  And I decided, if I was going to write about that, to put him up against someone who was really, genuinely, bone-marrow evil.  The kid—the Farm Boy—who’s going after the gay men in this book is one of the worst people my imagination has ever offered up to me.  And I thought the idea of killing a victim twice—first the body and then the reputation—was worthy of someone so dreadful. 

Zoë Sharp: You mention in your preface to THE BONE POLISHER that it was written at a different time – a time when AIDS was usually a death sentence. If you were writing this book from scratch today, what differences would that make to the way you tell the story?

Timothy Hallinan:  The AIDS aspect of the book was inescapable then; it would have been impossible to write with any accuracy about that community without AIDS being a major concern.  It’s still a concern, obviously, but one that millions of people are quite literally living with.  Christopher Nordine, who hires Simeon at the beginning of the book, knows he has only a short time to live, and this consciousness informs some of what he does.  These days, it’s unlikely the disease would have been allowed to progress so far unchecked.

Zoë Sharp: I thoroughly enjoyed THE BONE POLISHER—the descriptions are just wonderful, like this:

‘Drive-time disk jockeys, preternaturally alert guys who couldn’t have passed for wits in a gathering of battery-powered appliances, made smutty jokes and played twenty-year-old music to ease the world into the gray disappointment of another day.’

But how hard was it to republish a novel you’d written in 1995? Inevitably you must feel that you and your writing have come a long way since then, so how much fiddling and rewriting did you do to it?

Timothy Hallinan:  I actually hated the book in retrospect.  It had failed to win me an extension on my contract, and I remembered it with no fondness at all.  In fact, I hesitated to put it up, primarily because I didn’t want to have to read it.  I finally did it because I kept getting emails from Simeon’s few but fanatic followers, asking where the hell it was.  And when I read it, it sort of knocked my socks off—it was much better than I’d feared it would be. 

I pretty much left it alone.  I had a couple of mistakes of fact in it, and I fixed those, but otherwise, with the exception of clarifying a few pronouns, I did virtually nothing to it.  One of my favourite descriptive passages in the book is right after the one you quoted, something about dawn coming up hard and wet, two fingers of vodka in the eastern sky.  (I haven’t looked, so if that’s from a different book, I’m sorry.) 

I hope my writing has come a long way.  There are few things more complicated than the smile on the face of a writer who’s just heard, “But you know what?  I really like your first book best.”

Zoë Sharp: I was fascinated by the Finish Your Novel page on your website. What inspired you to produce such a comprehensive guide for would-be writers?

Timothy Hallinan:   As I said, I wrote the first ones with no idea what I was doing, and as I figured out what worked for me I began to make notes.  I knew I wanted my website to be more than “Here’s me.  Buy my books,” so the first thing I wrote was the Finish Your Novel section.  It’s been used by literally hundreds of writers and some of them have gone on to be published and have thanked me in their books—I get a nice thank-you in Helen Simonson’s MAJOR PETTIGREW’S LAST STAND, for example.

Zoë Sharp: I’m always interested in the form a writer uses to tell their story. You classify the Simeon Grist and Junior Bender novels as mysteries. Both are written in first-person, past tense. But the Poke Raffety books you describe as thrillers. These are in third-person, present tense. The choice for third-person in a thriller is entirely understandable, because you so often need to show that race against time by letting the reader know what else is going on, but why the change to present tense? And which do you enjoy more?

Timothy Hallinan:  I think of both the Simeon and Poke books as private-eye novels, and the great thing about first-person is that you encounter the mystery exactly as the detective does, whereas I think third-person works better for thrillers so you can hop on over and see what the bad guys are up to or check out how the screws are being tightened.

I went to present-tense in my first draft of the first Poke, A NAIL THROUGH THE HEART, as an experiment and found that I really liked it.  Past-tense implies that someone –the narrator, if no one else—lived to tell the story, whereas present tense sort of rolls by in real time.  I also think that action scenes can be written with great immediacy in present tense.

I like them both, but switching back and forth from book to book is a major pain in the ass.  Whole pages slip by in the wrong tense.

Zoë Sharp: You’re working on another Simeon Grist novel at the moment. What’s made you decide to return to that character after a break – will you age him or start where you left off? And what’s it about?

Timothy Hallinan: People have written to me for years to ask whether I was ever going to bring him back.  I decided, now that he’s out of print and remaindered, that it might be fun to ask myself where fictional detectives go when the last copy of the last printing of their last book gets pulped—when they are, effectively, out of print.  So I figured it out, and Simeon now resides in a sort of limbo, along with a lot of other out-of-print detectives.  It’s a relatively shabby, genre limbo; the Literary Fiction Limbo is much more upscale and has better weather.  Simeon is paralytic with boredom; his only connection to the “real” world is when someone opens one of the old, used copies of one of his books.  When that happens, Simeon can see them through the window of his Topanga house.  And one day, he’s watching someone read him—looking up at the person, as it were, from the page—when his reader is murdered.  He doesn’t have enough readers to spare any, and he resolves to solve the crime.  Problem is, it happened down here.  So, anyway, it’s called PULPED, and I think a lot of hard-core mystery writers will just hate it, although I laughed myself stupid writing it.

Thanks for all these great questions, Zoë.  Hope I didn’t rattle on too long.

Zoë Sharp: Tim, it’s always a pleasure talking to you. As well as Tim’s series books, it’s also worth mentioning that he’s also been involved in two special project. One is his contribution to BANGKOK NOIR, edted by Christopher G Moore, a collection of stories with part of the proceeds going to a charity for Bangkok’s poorest children.

The other is SHAKEN, a collection by twenty mystery writers, edited by and including Tim, who donated their work to benefit the 2011 Japan Relief Fund. Every penny of the purchase price goes to the fund.

So, ‘Rati, let’s hear your questions for Timothy Hallinan …

21 thoughts on “New Light Through Old Windows

  1. Shizuka

    Tim, Is Poke Rafferty's father coming back in any of the upcoming books?
    The ending of THE THIRD MAN suggests no, but he's a great mix of unethical,
    responsible, and greedy, plus an interesting contrast to Poke.
    He grated like a bad tooth and I still want to see him again.

    And thank you for donating a story to SHAKEN.
    My friends and family in Japan are amazed by all the overseas support.

  2. Schwartz, Stephen Jay

    Tim is one of my most favorite human beings in this universe. His writing is exceptional, and he is a beautiful soul, to boot.
    When I grow up, I want to be just like him. Really. He's good people.
    He writes from the heart – about topics that simply must be heard – and he does it with wit, grace and humility.
    Zoe, thank you for bringing him to us today.

  3. Allison Davis

    This is wonderful, Zoë. One of the things that gets me through a page of writing is one of Tim's examples of why he doesn't write at home (Stephen, your chair at your coffee house comes to mind):
    "When I try to write at home, I find myself cleaning things that have never been cleaned and probably shouldn't be cleaned. A few weeks back I poured Drano down a perfectly good drain and waited the recommended hour for nothing to happen. Anything to get away from writing."

    Other than cheering me up when I read this (you can't help but laugh) it reminds me to just sit down and fill up the page. Between some of Tim's "rules" and Alex's "the book responds" to even one sentence a night…I'm crawling through each page more and more. And now I get to say THANK YOU. Not just for the writing, but also the very effective coaching.

    And I will forward info on Shaken, I have family here and in Japan who will be glad to see it. Thanks again.

  4. Sheri Hart

    Great interview Tim and Zoe!

    I'm one of those constantly referring to your Finish Your Novel pages, Tim, so thanks for that too. I love Poke and can't wait to dive into the Simeon Grist stories. However, Zoe is currently keeping me occupied burning through her Charlie Fox series.

    I've discovered so many great authors through Muderati and the Blog Cabin!


  5. Timothy Hallinan

    Hi, everybody, and thanks for stopping by, and mega-thanks to Zoe for getting me through the door.

    Shizuka — I don't know about Poke's father. I almost brought him back for the new one (THE FEAR ARTIST, coming in July) but instead decided that he had enough problems without adding his father to them, so I brought in Ming Li, his half-Chinese half-sister instead. It works great (I think) — Poke's only allies in this book are a bunch of long-inactive spies in their 60s and 70s, and Ming Li, thanks to Frank's training, is a sort of baby spy, and an interesting relationship springs up among them. But maybe Frank will come back some day. I'm glad you enjoyed him; he's such a crook.

    And all of us who worked on SHAKEN, including Gar Haywood, who did the wonderful cover, felt privileged to be able to do something in the wake of that massive tragedy — only a year ago, as of the 11th of this month,

    Stephen, thanks for the amazingly kind words. I'm lucky to have some extraordinary friends, and it's all I can do to live up to them.

    Allison, good to know my writing mishaps entertain and even, occasionally, inspire. Everything I know about writing I learned from failure, except for a handful of ecstatic revelations, all of which came when I was actually writing. As Picasso said, "Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working." Hope your book turns out great.

    Sheri — We writers frequently get together behind Zoe's back to discuss how to slow her down. we get frantic thought-grams from copies of our books that are being mercilessly squished beneath all of Zoe's. And just as the last one gets picked up and we can breathe again, she writes another one.

    One of the many fascinating things about doing this interview is that Zoe's iteration of Word insists on British spellings. I found myself aiming for words that the Brits fancy up just so I could watch the word processor at work. Thanks, Zoe!

  6. Reine

    Tim, your work is wonderful, and I look forward to reading PULPED. I love how you let your imagination take its course. You don't seem to tie it down, overly.

    Terrific interview, Zoë!

  7. Gar Haywood

    It burns me up when Stephen leaves the exact same comment I would have had I gotten around to it first, and this is just such an occasion. Everything he said about Tim and his writing is on the mark. Great human being, even better writer. No one deserves stardom and a worldwide readership more.

    Thanks for stopping by, Tim!

  8. Schwartz, Stephen Jay

    I also wanted to mention how great Tim and Brett look in that photo. Cool dudes.
    And I forgot to give Zoe kudos on her interview questions – top notch stuff!

  9. Zoë Sharp

    Thanks, folks. And thank you, Sheri!

    Hang on a moment, Tim – erm, I'm doing what? Please don't try to slow me down any further, I'm hoping to write a trilogy this year!

    Anyway, glad people enjoyed the Q&A. Tim is, as always, a delight to interview – even if I do make him type with a British accent while doing it … 🙂

  10. Timothy Hallinan

    Whew! My poor wife, having to put up with me after all this praise.

    REINE — (What a beautiful name.)If I don't tie my imagination down it's because everytime I try to do it, the book stops dead. For me, writing should always be about "yes," at least through the first draft — the only time I allow myself to say "no" is when I have something better to replace the original idea with. I do allow myself to say, "ummmmm" when I'm REALLY not sure about where I'm going, and take 24 hours or so to think about it, But no more. And the thing that keeps me open is that sometimes I'll write the wrong scene and something in it will show me where I should really be going. Could be the tack a character takes, could be three words, but it's like the GPS coming on.

    Gar, since you published ASSUME NOTHING only days before I finished writing precisely the same book, I can only sit back and sneer if Stephen stole you words. ASSUME NOTHING would have been my best book if you hadn't beaten me to it. My agent is livid.

    Stephen, hanging with Brett always lightens me up, and I'm sure it's the same with you. And I loved Zoe's questions. I sometimes think I should do a site that's just writers talking to writers, with the hope that some of what we say would be helpful. Have a different writer interviewed BY a different writer every few days.

    Zoe, thanks again. And the problem wasn't just the spelling. The fourth time I typed "favourite," my sport coat grew leather patches on the elbows. I feel like Ronald Colman. (Sorry about the ancient reference — I'm writing about old Hollywood right now.

  11. PD Martin

    Thanks for the great interview, Zoe and Tim. And I love the concept of the leading ladies and men who are waiting for their authors to give them another crime to solve!


  12. Jaden Terrell

    Terrific interview, Zoe and Tim.

    Tim, I was at a Sisters in Crime meeting tonight, and your praises were being sung. Everyone agreed that your stories are wonderful and your writing exquisite. Pure gold for readers, but an alloy of gold and envy for the writers in the group. Can't wait to read THE BONE POLISHER.

  13. Timothy Hallinan

    Thank you, Sarah — So glad you like the FINISH YOUR NOVEL stuff. It took me weeks to write, and I had no idea whether anyone would ever read it, much less use it.

    Phillipa, I think we all sense that our characters get impatient to break through our skulls and onto the light of the page. All the writers up in Simeon's limbo would give everything they have (which isn't much) to get back into print. The book is finished but needs a head-to-toe edit.

    Jaden, you really know how to tickle a guy. Nothing pleases us more (does it?) than to learn that other writers don't think we're fakes. Still thrills me, after all these years.

  14. Reine

    "… And the thing that keeps me open is that sometimes I'll write the wrong scene and something in it will show me where I should really be going. Could be the tack a character takes, could be three words, but it's like the GPS coming on."

    Thanks, Tim – I think that's brilliant.

  15. Timothy Hallinan

    Thank you, Reine — I rarely really know where I'm going, but I'm open to accident, if that's what it is. I actually believe that we already have the whole story inside us somewhere, and writing is less like architecture — building something — than it is like archaeology, uncovering something carefully enough that we don't break or distort it.

  16. Zoë Sharp

    Hey Tim
    Good job the interview wasn't longer or you would have started trying to drive on the left … 🙂

    I keep thinking it would be nice to do a series of linked interviews, where one writer interviews another, and then the second writer interviews a third, etc. Maybe we should try that here on 'Rati for a week …?

  17. Reine

    Zoë, I think that sounds like great fun. I love the Rati interviews. I'd hate to lose the other formats. Maybe this could be a Tuesdays event? Or bring back the weekends? I miss the weekends.

  18. jenny milchman

    I love reading about your evolution as author, Tim–and it's terrific that enough time could go by that the character could really come into his own. Sometimes that process is aborted, and the books–and readers–lose out. Thanks for the interview, Zoe.

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