Left Coast Crime 2015 | March 12-15, 2015 at the DoubleTree by Hilton Portland Register Online
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Timothy Hallinan Interview

by Bruce DeSilva

Below is an extended version of the interview Tim did with Bruce DeSilva for the Crimelandia print program book.

Bruce Desilva: You have two critically-acclaimed crime series going, one featuring Poke Rafferty, an American journalist living in Bangkok, and the other chronicling the life of Junior Bender, a Los Angeles burglar with tormentors on both sides of the law. This has you turning out two books a year. How do you manage this and remain sane – or am I making a false assumption?

Hallinan: It's a false assumption. I actually missed the deadline for the 2013 Rafferty book, For the Dead, and unless I put my ass in the saddle and keep it there, I'm going to miss the deadline for this year's Junior, King Maybe. Despite all the energy I sink into looking carefree, I live chin-deep in a freezing tidepool of anxiety. If I'm not writing, I'm anxious that I'm going to miss the deadline. If I am writing, I'm anxious about the quality of the work I'm doing and—since I'm the poster child for Pantsers Anonymous—whether I'll ever figure out whodunnit and how to catch him or her. Raymond Chandler once said, “The best way to keep the reader from guessing whodunnit is not to know yourself.” What he didn't mention is that it can also turn your hair prematurely gray.

The two series are startlingly different in voice and tone. The Rafferty novels are dark and literary. The Bender novels verge on slapstick-noir. They are so different that I would never guess the same person had written them if your name wasn’t on the covers. While this isn’t unique (Lawrence Block’s  Matthew Scudder and Bernie Rhodenbarr novels spring to mind), it is a rare display of virtuosity. How can you be two different writers at the same time?

First, thanks for the huge compliment. I love Block, and I also love Donald Westlake, who wrote both the noir Richard Stark novels and, under his own name, the hilarious Dortmunder books.

The root of the difference in my books is the voice. I can't think of any single aspect of writing that changes the way a story is presented more than the voice in which it's told. The Poke Rafferty books are written in a sort of close third person, with the camera often trailing a few feet behind Poke but occasionally flying off to show us something else, something Poke doesn't know about. I try to make this voice neutral, to keep the narrative transparent so that we're more aware of the characters and their feelings than we are of the writer who's between us and them. Ideally, the third-person narrative works like a clear window through which we see the story and which rarely calls attention to itself.

The Juniors, on the other hand, are in first person, and it's Junior's first person, which means it's devious, it's skeptical, it's got a very wide frame of reference and—most important—it's fundamentally crooked. There are people he always deals honestly with (two, to be precise, and it's going to widen to three if I can ever finish King Maybe), but for everyone else, the truth is just one more conversational gambit. Once I write an opening sentence in Junior's voice, eighty percent of the book's characteristics are set in stone. It's going to be irreverent. It's going to be deceptive. It's going to be smart, because Junior is very smart, and sometimes he's smarter than he needs to be, just to keep himself from getting bored.

The voice changes the way we read the story. There's as much injustice, as much violence, as much exploitation, as much killing, in a Junior Bender book as there is in a Poke Rafferty story. There are even similar family ties and sentiments. It's the voice that makes them so different. To take one example, in Little Elvises, Junior opens the door of his motel room, finds a barely sentient killer there carving words into himself with a blade, and his girlfriend, Ronni, either asleep or dead from a massive injection of horse tranquilizer. The killer is damage to hurt Junior and to warn him to drop an investigation. All pretty grim. And yet, I think it's a really funny scene, and the thing that makes the difference is the voice in which it's told.

Graham Greene famously said that some of his novels were literature and that others were mere entertainments, but he kept changing his mind about which books belonged in which category. You’ve told me that you consider the Rafferty novels your serious work and that you bat out the Bender novels for fun; but I think the two are equally good—that Bender is today’s Los Angeles as Raymond Chandler would have written it. Has the reception the Bender novels have received changed your assessment of them?

I love Graham Greene, but I hate that division of his work into, essentially, books and something less than books, and I think the reason he kept changing his mind is that the entire concept of “this book is a novel and this book is an entertainment” is poppycock. The division of works of fiction into genres is, I think, meretricious and insulting to those of us who don't write “literary fiction.” A good book is a good book. Yes, some books are towering achievements, some are smaller achievements, and some are failures. But you don't catch art historians looking back at, say, Renaissance frescoes and saying “Giotto was an artist but Taddeo Gaddi was a cartoonist.” They were both artists, they both worked in the same medium, and the work of one is more historically significant than the work of the other, but both painted on their knees, so to speak, to communicate their vision to us. As do most writers who take their work seriously.

I think the assignment of certain kinds of books to a genre ghetto is stupid and meretricious. Is Chandler an artist? Is James Lee Burke? Is Lippman? Of course, they are. Are they better writers than many of those who are dubbed “literary writers?” Of course, they are; they're better than some and worse than others.  So, uhhhhhh, where's the distinction?

And thanks for the Chandler comparison. I'll work to deserve it.

And the Juniors aren't actually easier to write than the Pokes. They're just more fun.

Some crime novelists such as Elmore Leonard, who wrote some of the finest prose American writers have produced in a century, are basically just trying to entertain. Others such as George Pelecanos and Laura Lippman use the popular form of the crime novel as a vehicle for wrestling the social ills that keep us up at night. Which kind do you prefer to read – and write?

I think the most important thing in any book is character. I believe that fiction exists in large part to allow us to live lives we otherwise couldn't, and we live them through the characters, not the stories, in the books we read. The revelation of character when it's stretched out, turned semitransparent, by crisis, is perhaps the basic mechanism of fiction. If those crises are provoked by what we term social ills, that's fine. If they're occasioned by purely internal issues or conflict, that's fine, too. I think the main thing is that the characters have to live on the page and in our imaginations, and the things they do and experience have to arise naturally and even inevitably as a result of their characters, and not be imposed upon them by the writer's need to make a social or political point, on the one hand, or, on the other, to create a tricky, multiple-reversal plot. Your Mulligan books are great examples. Yes, they're very much about social and political issues on one level, but ultimately they're about how a decent and resourceful man deals with those issues as he comes up against them. Ultimately, I think all good books are about character first and foremost.

Which of your two protagonists is most like you? (I’d like to think it’s Junior.)

They're both me, on a good hair day. I like the same things about Junior that I like about Poke: his commitment to the people he loves, his ability to improvise, his innate fairness, the fact that most people can beat him up, and do. They're actually both better and more interesting people than I am. But I think we are all alike in the sense that we all try to keep the promises we've made, and we feel disappointed in ourselves when we don't. Of course, Junior's moral code is much more flexible than either Poke's or mine, which is one of the things that makes him so much fun to write. My moral code is a little more restrictive than Junior's.

Actually, my favorite character to write in either of these series is Poke's adopted daughter, Miaow.

Bangkok and Los Angeles are more than just your settings. They come to life as characters in their own right. Tell us about the importance of place in your work.

To me, setting is the interaction between character and place. One of my least favorite kinds of bad writing is the “laundry list” way of handling setting: “As the sleek black car purred its way uptown, threading its way between mirror-buffed limos and dented taxis, Doris passed the retail palace of Bloomingdale's, the child's paradise of FAO Schwartz, and the shining art deco spire of the Chrysler Building.” (If those are in the wrong order, please pretend it was on purpose.) This kind of writing tells me nothing about either the Chrysler Building or Doris.  It's just postcards.

The Bangkok we encounter in the Rafferty novels is actually several different Bangkoks. Miaow, who lived on the sidewalk for years, has a very different Bangkok than Rose's, who ran to it as a teenager being forced into the sex trade, and hers is almost completely unlike Poke's, who arrived here as a relatively privileged adult and still feels at times like the whole thing is on the other side of a pane of glass in a department-store window.  Arthit, as a cop, occupies a different Bangkok than any of them. If you do get the sense of a three-dimensional city from the books, I think it's because you see it from multiple perspectives.

The Los Angeles in the Junior Bender books, is a burglar's L.A. A burglar sees a block of expensive houses very differently than a guy with a map to the stars' homes. What realtors like to call, as a selling point, a cul de sac, is, to a crook, a dead end, plain and simple. The hilly, curving streets South of Ventura Boulevard aren't just where TV series second leads and minor studio executive live; they're also a great place to lose a follower or to turn the tables on one.

Additionally, Junior has a broad but specialized frame of reference; he knows a lot about how Los Angeles and the Valley grew, and why they sprawl across the map as they do and why some areas are  tempting pockets of luxury and others aren't. As a professional asset, he's developed considerable knowledge about a wide spectrum of luxury goods, from jewelry to Shaker furniture to the history and evolution of the croquet set. He's developed the ability, as someone says in one of the books, to tell the stuff from the duff. So even your living room would look different to Junior than it does to me: I'd say something like “Nice rug,” and he'd spend his first thirty second spotting the two or three things worth pocketing. All that information shapes his environment and his reaction to it, and (since the narrative is in his voice) the way it's described.

Your novels display a mastery of your craft, but writers tend to shrivel unless they grow. What can you continue to do to get better with each novel?

I appreciate the kind words about my mastery of my craft, especially since I almost never feel like I know what I'm doing. Most of the time, I'm just trying to write a story that I would personally like to read. In terms of growth, though, I think all good work is done on tiptoe. If you're not stretching, you're not growing.

I usually have only a vague idea of what the story will be when I begin to write a novel. But I do like to try to set myself a challenge: I usually try to write something I don't know how to write. When I wrote The Queen of Patpong, I was terrified of writing women when there were no men around. Nevertheless, there's barely a male character in the 40,000-word section that tells the story of how a shy, freakishly tall village teenager named Kwan became Rose, the “queen” of Patpong—a kingdom, as she describes it of whores and viruses—and how she survived it with her heart and spirit intact. Writing it was one of the most difficult and liberating experiences of my life.

In this year's Poke, For the Dead, I wanted to tell the most important parts of the story from the perspective of a female adolescent. In next year's, The Hot Countries, most of the story is about guys in their seventies and early eighties, guys who came to Bangkok straight from the hellhole of Vietnam, and one of them is in the grip of Alzheimer's. I'd never done anything like that before.

With the Juniors, the central challenge was how to make a thief sympathetic without turning him into The Hallmark Burglar, a sort of criminal unicorn who steals from the bad and leaves sparkly hand-wrapped gifts for the kiddies. In the first book, Crashed, I pushed it to the point where Junior kills someone who's essentially defenseless just because, in Junior's point of view, he really deserved to die. In Herbie's Game, I wanted to write about the impact on Junior of being set rudderless by the death of the person who served as his surrogate father, Herbie Mott, and the dawning realization that Herbie wasn't really the man Junior thought he was.

And on and on. I'm always trying to do something I'm not certain I can do.

What are your strategies for overcoming obstacles when the writing comes hard?

Just keep writing. I've come to believe that writing isn't so much making something up; it's more like uncovering something that already exists, preferably without breaking it. I usually feel like I'm working in an old dark mine, and the story is an undiscovered vein that meanders through the earth. All I can do is keep digging. I might not hit the vein even if I do dig, but I'm guaranteed not to hit it if I don't. And if I write a bunch of junk, well, that's one direction the vein isn't in. But I do know it when I hit it. Or so I like to tell myself.

What books that you've read lately do you most admire?

I loved Emily St. John Mandel's Station Eleven and David Mitchell's The Bone Clocks, as well as the nonfiction A Spy Among Friends, by Ben Macintyre, If anyone had told me I'd ever read another book about Kim Philby I would have laughed politely into my hand, but Macintyre's is a stunner. Wendy Hornsby's new Maggie MacGowen novel, The Color of Light, is the latest, and one of the best, entries in a favorite series. And you're asking this question at an auspicious (or suspicious) time because I just finished the ARC of your 2015 book, A Scourge of Vipers, and I think it's your best yet, the richest and (so far) the saddest in your sustained and very lively elegy on the death of the American newspaper. On the classics front, I'm reading Trollope's six Pallisers books for the fourth or fifth time, and they're holding up great. I read Proust for the first time last year, and it was like spending a decade in a perfectly proportioned cathedral full of very dicey people who had no business being there. I loved it.

Now that the film rights to Junior Bender have been acquired by Eddie Izzard for NBC, do you plan to do any screen writing? And now that you’re going Hollywood, who are you going to morph into, Sean Penn or Phil Spector?

Well, let's see whether the series makes it onto the air. There's many a slip, etc. But whatever happens, I'm thrilled that Junior got a laugh out of Eddie Izzard, who I think is the funniest comic working. And if I do turn into Sean Penn, I hope I can find a little more to enjoy than he apparently does about being rich and famous. There's a guy who should get a pie in the face every time he scowls.

And no, I'm not going to do any screenwriting. It's taken me most of a long, long life to learn how to write a novel, and there are times when that eludes me. At my pace, I'd be 150 before I wrote a page worth filming.

Hell, I'll be happy if I finish another book.

Interviewer Bruce DeSilva grew up in a parochial little mill town bereft of metaphors, assonance, and irony. Nevertheless, his fiction has won the Edgar and Macavity Awards; has been listed as a finalist for the Shamus, Anthony, and Barry Awards; and has been published in ten foreign languages.  Previously, he’d been a journalist for 40 years.  He and his wife, the acclaimed poet Patricia Smith, share a book-clogged house in New Jersey with two enormous dogs. His fourth Liam Mulligan novel, A Scourge of Vipers, will be published next month, April 7.