Wednesday, August 18, 2010

My thriller author guest: Timothy Hallinan

As promised yesterday, thriller author Timothy Hallinan is visiting my blog today to answer my interview questions and ones asked by my blog readers. Above is the cover photo for the fourth book in his Poke Rafferty series, The Queen Of Patpong, which was released yesterday to rave reviews.

Life in Bangkok looks good for American expat travel writer Poke Rafferty and his little family – his wife, Rose, is happily running a domestics agency that offers bar girls an alternative to The Life, and their adopted daughter, Miaow, once an abandoned street child, is now enrolled in a good school and trying desperately to conform. And then, out of nowhere, comes the nightmare customer from Rose's life in the bars, who threatens not only their lives but their emotional relationships as well. To do battle with him, Rafferty needs to know more about Rose's past, and there are things he may be unable to confront as we follow the path that took a shy village teen to Bangkok and turned her into the queen of Patpong.

“You won't read a better thriller this year.” NY Times Best-seller John Lescroart

See what Timothy Hallinan has to say in response to my questions below, and feel free to ask him additional questions in comments. And readers, he has agreed to award copies of Breathing Water and The Queen of Patpong to a lucky winner whose name will be drawn from those who ask a question or comment on his interview here today. So I expect lots of comments!

1. Who or what inspired you to start writing and when did you start?

I started writing when I was eight or nine. Adventure stories featuring boys who were a lot braver and smarter than I was. Essentially, what I'm writing now. I was alone a lot – we changed houses 22 times before I turned 18 – and shy, and a total book junkie, so it was a small step to move from hiding inside other people's stories to hiding inside my own. And I learned early – probably earlier than was healthy – that in my stories I could do all sorts of things to people I didn't like.

2. What tools and process do you use to “get to know” your characters before and while you’re writing the books?

None at all before. I learn who they are by writing about them. I regard my first 10,000-15,000 words as circling the drain – I spiral inward until I eventually figure out what and whom I'm writing about. Then I toss most of it and start over. As new characters pop up (and boy, do they) I just listen and watch to make sure I know who they are and that they don't sound just like everybody else in the book. Generally speaking, I let the characters emerge and define themselves and then I follow them into the story.

Having said all that, it's partly a lie. On my first series, back in the 90s, I finished the first book and three weeks later I had a 3-book contract. For the rest of the series (five more books) I had to work with bad choices I'd made in the first book. When I got the idea for the Poke Rafferty books, I wrote an entire novel, Bangkok Tango, just to make sure I knew who I was writing about and what their relationships were. The second book, A Nail Through the Heart, was the one I submitted for publication. It made an enormous difference to have already written 100,000 words about Poke, his wife, Rose, and their adopted daughter, Miaow.

3. How do you construct your plots? Do you outline or do you write “by the seat of your pants”?

I start with a situation. In The Queen of Patpong, it's very simple: Just when it looks like Poke's little family is finally safe and sound, a nightmare customer from Rose's life in the bar materializes and threatens everything – even their emotional stability. Because of this, we go back in time and learn what really happened to Rose, whatever that was. Then there's some sort of ending.

That's every single thing I had. The book flowed through me as though it already existed and my job was to find the words for it. Some things brought other things with them: at the beginning of Rose's story, a girl who's come back to the village from Bangkok throws Rose – then seventeen years old – a sapphire earring. I had no idea that earring was coming, but the moment it appeared, I saw its entire story. In a way, Rose's run to Bangkok, her introduction to the life of the bars, and the first major betrayal are all the story of those sapphire earrings. That doesn't happen often, but when it does I grab it with both hands.

4. In the age-old question of character versus plot, which one do you think is most important in a mystery or thriller and which one do you emphasize in your writing? Why?

Character is everything. Plot is what characters do. I read to meet characters and if they interest me, I'll read their stories. If they don't interest me, it doesn't matter what the story is. I think when people generalize snottily about “genre fiction” they're talking about plot-driven writing in which the characters are essentially hand puppets.

5. What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced as a writer and what inspires you and keeps you motivated?

The biggest challenge is finishing whatever I'm writing. In every book I go through periods of absolute certainty that this is the one I won't be able to finish, the one that's just junk piled on top of junk and covered with frosting. And, sometimes, it is. So I keep my butt on the seat and my fingers on the keys, and if I have to write it twelve times to find out what I actually mean, I'll write it twelve times. And twelve more, if I have to.

What keeps me motivated is the fun of writing the thriller aspects of the books and the joy, which is obviously a different thing, of writing the relationships.

6. What is a typical workday for you and how many hours a day (or week) do you devote to writing?

Seven days a week (unless I have a book coming out, in which case I do a lot of what I'm doing right now). In Southeast Asia, I take my laptop and about nine hours' worth of batteries and go to a coffee shop and drink coffee and write until (a) I make a minimum of 2000 words, or (b) my batteries run out. Every day of the week. It's the only way I know to keep the world of the book open and alive. If I leave it too long, it turns into a little diorama where I have to reach in and move the weensy people around. If I write every day, they're already in motion by the time Windows boots.

7. What advice do you have to offer to an aspiring author?

Start writing today. Write tomorrow and the day after. Write the book you would most like to read. Don't wait for inspiration. As Picasso said, “Inspiration exists but it has to find you working.” Write on tiptoe; try to do things you're not certain you know how to do. And remember, the less you want to write, the more you probably need to.

8. Now here’s a zinger. Tell us something about yourself that you have not revealed in another interview yet. Something as simple as your favorite TV show or food will do.

My wife and I met Bill Clinton at an event in the White House. As it turned out, I talked to him for 30 minutes nonstop, one-on-one, even though there were about 100 people there. The White House photographer shot picture after picture. And in every single one of them, my wife was gazing adoringly up at President Clinton. I didn't get a glance.

9. What are you working on now and what are your future writing plans?

The next Poke, which is tentatively called The Fear Artist, and a very odd book called Pulped, which brings together fictional detectives from the 1900s to the early 70s. It's pretty funny but I have absolutely no idea in the world where it's going. And I've got a standalone thriller based on Scheherazade that I'm messing around with.

10. Is there anything else you would like to tell my blog readers?

I'll talk to anybody. Put two book buyers in a room and I'll be there. Mostly, I'm just enjoying the response to The Queen of Patpong: starred reviews in the trades, Mystery of the Month in BookPage (making me the first writer ever to get Mystery of the Month three years running), a nice review in the Washington Post, a Notable Book in BookSense, and a bunch of other nice things. Oh, yeah, and here's the video for the book (Turn up the volume.)

What a video! Fire away folks!


Beth Groundwater said...

Thanks for visiting, Tim, and for offering up free books for a contest here!

I want to remind my readers that I also still have a contest for free mystery books ongoing for those who subscribe as followers both here and at Inkspot. You can find details at my July 29th post.

Unknown said...

Hi Timothy - Thanks for all the info. I'll be picking up one or two of your books as I have a friend who lives part time in Thailand and part time in LA.

Natalie said...

Thank you to you both for an interesting interview.

Mr. Hallinan, your setting is in Bankok. Is this because you are familiar with that area or is there another reason you chose it?

Thank you,

Pauline Alldred said...

Congratulations to Timothy Hallinan on his many successes as an author. I'm so happy to find a successful author who writes out his characters and their story until he knows where they're going. I've tried so often to plot first and it just doesn't work for me. I have to write thousands of words and make multiple revisions until the story seems right.

Maryannwrites said...

Really enjoyed the interview. Especially liked this "If I leave it too long, it turns into a little diorama where I have to reach in and move the weensy people around. If I write every day, they're already in motion by the time Windows boots."

I love your books, Tim, and look forward to reading this one.

BBibel said...

Your work sounds fascinating. I can't wait to read it.I am going to make sure that my library has copies, too.

Carol-Lynn Rossel said...

Sounds fascinating.

Marni said...

Tim, great premise and neat interview.

Timothy Hallinan said...

Hi, everybody, and sorry for not dropping in earlier. This is the day after QUEEN's pub date, and it's been crazy -- the book is selling MUCH better than was projected, which is a good problem to have. There's a lot of excitement right now, and I'm giving a little push whenever it's appropriate.

Beth - thanks for having me, You draw a great crowd.

Mary Ellen -- hope your friend likes the books. They're available in Thailand (or at least the paperbacks are) in English. Your friend and I have the same life pattern: we're both back-and-forthers.

Hi, Natalie -- I've lived half of my life in Bangkok for almost 30 years, and I love it. And I've already written a series about Los Angeles, where I live the other half of the year,

Pauline, this is a topic of endless discussion among writers. In fact, I just ran a thread on my blog, "Plotting ve Pantsing," in which 14 very good writers weighed in on how they plot and why their approach works for them. Most of them, like most novelists in general, plot by the seat of their pants by following their characters. The blog is at and you'll have to page down to see the Plotting/Pantsing posts. Some great stuff.

Hi, Maryann -- we keep bumping into each other. I like the diorama line, myself. I've written so much about writing in the last month, mostly for guest blogs, that I've forgotten where the good bits are. Got to go back and recapture them for the writing book I'll be putting on Kindle at the end of the year.

Bbibel -- thanks for the kind words, and I hope your library will csrry them. About half the mail to my site comes from people who found the series in the library.

Carol-Lynn -- well, it fascinates me, while I'm doing it, anyway. Sometimes I'll open an old book and wince, usually at over-writing.

Thank you, Marni. Nice to hear.

All best to everyone.

Carolyn J. Rose said...

Much continued success, Tim. I want you to know that I use your story about your first novel, The Wrong End of the Rainbow, to conclude my novel-writing boot camp. It's great inspiration to get out there and either revise or jettison what they've done.
Thanks again for contributing that bit of personal wisdom.

Beth Groundwater said...

Kaye Lynne Booth told me on Facebook that she had problems posting a comment here, so I'm doing it for her:

"How exciting! Doesn't it make you feel great to be able to feature an interview with a successful author who you admire? I was just tickled when bestselling author, Stephen White agreed to answer my questions, so I could do a profile of him on my Examiner page. I'll be sure to catch your interview. Good job."

If anyone else has problems with Blogger, feel free to email me your comment or post it on the announcement of Tim's visit that I put on Facebook, and I'll post your comment here so you can be entered into the contest.

Chester Campbell said...

Great interview, Beth. I've had the pleasure of meeting with Tim on several occasions, and he's a genuinely nice guy as well as a helluva writer. I've read all the other books and am looking forward to delving into the Queen.

Donnell Ann Bell said...

Looks like a fantastic read, Beth, thanks for the introduction, and Mr. Hallinan best of luck to you with your newest release. Love the story about Bill Clinton. It's also reassuring to know you worried you won't be able to finish the book, but somehow you do. Must be a common condition to writers. Thanks!

mybillcrider said...

Great interview. I like the idea of PULPED. Sounds like fun.

jrlindermuth said...

Hi Tim,
I just read and reviewed Queen and am recommending it to everyone. I just bought Nail Through the Heart and can't wait to get started on it.

Patricia Stoltey said...

I love the image of "circling the drain" as you write the first 10,000-15,000 words. Getting to know the characters and letting them lead the way into a story seems a very logical approach, much better than creating a sterile outline.


Anonymous said...

Wow, Tim, I am impressed that you are writing seven days a week. That is awesome. But I understand it a bit better when you mentioned the other two books you're either thinking about or semi-wroking on.

Thanks for visiting us today!

Joann Breslin

Timothy Hallinan said...

Well, this is a little overwhelming. Beth really knows how to throw a party. Beth, I should probably ask you to manage my bookstore appearances so the clerks wouldn't have to work so hard at looking interested.

Carolyn, really glad to know that story is helpful with your students. I don't know whether you've ever looked at the Blog Cabin area of my site but if you click on the button called CREATIVE LIVING you'll find some amazing posts by writers filmmakers, classical composers, song writers, and even some literary fiction types about how they build a daily stint of creative activity into their lives. Some very illuminating stuff, which I can say because I didn't write any of it. Might interest your students.

To Kaye Lynn, thanks for the use of the word "successful." When I'm as successful as Stephen White, I'll consider myself successful. Although on another level, I experience a certain amount of success every time I finish a page that doesn't have anything I hate on it.

Chester Campbell is every bit as good a writer as he is a nice guy, and that's saying a huge amount. I love to read him because he gets setting, character, dialog, and story right. There are a few things left, but he's good at all of them, too.

Hi, Donnell, and you should see the pictures. My wife looks like her dream just materialized directly in front of her, and I'm not it. And I generally have one full-blown nervous breakdown on every book, a period of weeks when I know it's total claptrap, beyond fixing, not even worth spell-checking. The only writer I know who's immune to this angst is Bill Crider. I'd love to be Bill Crider.

Oh, hi, Bill. In case any of you think that was a setup, read Bill's blog in the PLOTTING VS PANTSING thread. To hear him tell it, he gets up about nine, whistling, and writes most of a book that morning. pausing only to wet his lips. He is the most carefree writer I've ever corresponded with, and the funny thing is that his books are as good or better as those produced by any worrier, like me. Maybe I'm missing something.

More to come. I have to get cleaned up and go to the launch event for QUEEN at the Mystery Bookstore in Westwood, here in LA. Will come back tomorrow.

Beth Groundwater said...

Thanks so much, Tim, for your interesting responses to the comments, and many thanks to my blog readers for your interesting comments and questions! A free-books winner's name has been drawn, and Tim has the information. I'll post a blog in a few days with that winner's name, as well as the winner of my birthday contest. You all know about that, right? (See my July 29th post.)