Friday, August 15, 2008

Chatting with Tim Hallinan

When I posted my Q&A with Alafair Burke, Timothy Hallinan stopped by to check it out. After, he contacted me and asked me if I would read and review his book The Fourth Watcher. WOW! I was pretty awe-struck. No one had ever asked me to read their book before. And yeah, yeah, before anyone starts saying, "oh, that's why Jen gave him such a good review." NO WAY! The only thing I'll ever promise anyone with a review is my honest opinion. And my honest opinion of The Fourth Watcher was "it's fantastic!" I don't "fake it" well, so you would have been able to tell right off the bat if I wasn't being honest.

That being said, Tim will always have a special place in my heart for respecting me and my opinion enough to send me his book.

The Fourth Watcher is the follow-up novel to A Nail Through the Heart. Both center around Poke, a travel-book writer, in Bangkok. Poke isn't your traditional travel book writer, though. Poke writes books that focus on the traveler who is "looking for trouble." So, Poke's research tends to put his life in "troublesome" spots. Also prominent in Poke's life are his girlfriend/fiance Rose and his adopted daughter Miaow.

After reading The Fourth Watcher and scrounging around to discover what else I could learn about Tim, I turned to the man himself. He was kind enough to take time out of his busy writing schedule...I know he has a deadline looming here pretty soon...and answer some of my questions.

So, let's get to know this fascinating author a little better. My fellow readers, I present to you, Timothy Hallinan!

Q. "Poke" is a very unique character name. Was there an inspiration for this name or was it merely born from your imagination?

Tim: "Poke" is a nickname that was given to him as a baby by his Filipina mother, Angela Obregon, because he kept poking his nose into everything, and especially things that babies should leave alone, like sharp knives, electric nailers, and his great-grandmother's china. (This was in the first book I ever wrote about him, but that book was written solely to familiarize myself with his world and was never submitted for publication. Some day the moment will come in a book when that explanation would make sense, and I'll leap at it.) In the meantime, however, the name has proven to be prophetic, since he continues to poke his nose into dangerous places. In other words, it's completely imaginary.

Q. Does Poke embody any of your own traits/qualities? Other than a sharp wit that is!

Tim: He's a writer, and I think that's a mindset more than it is a profession. Both Poke and I tend to see the world as narrative, which means that we both believe we can to some extent "write" our lives. (Even if it's hard to rewrite it.) I look back at my life and see a series of linked stories with themes that change depending on what my perspective of the moment is, and when I look at the future, I see it as something that I can play a role in shaping, the same way I would shape a story. In the Poke books there's always a point at which he sits down and starts running through potential scenarios - what will happen if he does this, what will happen if he does that. In NAIL, he does a sort of "floor plan" of where he is, looking for connections and a safe exit. In WATCHER, he actually works his way through a potential course of action that might get everyone out of trouble...

"...trying to sequence the stepping-stones that might lead them out of this cataclysm. Looking for the surprise, the wrong turn, the ankle-breaker, the gate that won't open, the twig that will snap in the night, the stone that's poised over a hole a hundred feed deep.

He knows he can't see it all. So small things first. Things he knows how to do.

What he's doing is writing. And in this case, he writes his way out.

Q. What has been an especially fun and/or memorable event that has happened on the book tour for The Fourth Watcher?

Tim: They're all fun, every store, every stop. One thing you realize is that the people who put their lives into running independent bookstores are just heroes. They care about their customers; they care about writers; they care about books. It's a low-margin business that's been badly impacted by all sorts of things - Amazon, the chains, the slow death of newspaper reviews - but they're hanging on because they enjoy spending their time surrounded by books and interacting with people who read. And I don't know about you but when I go into a house and there are no books, I get creeped out. What do these people do with their time?

Q. What kinds of hobbies or interests occupy your time when you aren't writing?

Tim: I pretty much write, read, and travel. I must read 75 - 100 books a year, sometimes more. And I spend a lot of time in airplanes, which used to be a lot more fun than it is now. And I have the great good fortune to be married to someone I love without any reservations at all, and spending time with her is actually the most fun I ever have.

Q. You obviously have a love for Southeast Asia: the Poke Rafferty series is set in Bangkok; you have apartments in Thailand and Cambodia. Peter over at Detectives Beyond Borders helped us find out what got you to Thailand; how did you end up in Cambodia? And what are some of things about these areas that you wish more Westerners were aware of?

Tim: I first went through Cambodia to research the Cambodian backstory to A NAIL THROUGH THE HEART. It's an endlessly fascinating place, with a tremendously conflicted past and present. For the past three decades it's been the poor cousin of Southeast Asia, deeply envious of the boom economies of Thailand and Vietnam. In the seventies, they had the tragedy of the Khmer Rouge, who in four years killed one-quarter of the population. And way, way back there, sort of shimmering like the last notes of a gong struck a long time ago, is the glory that was Angkor, which ruled all the way from what is now Southern China down to Java - just an enormous empire that more or less collapsed overnight in the 12th century, leaving the ruins in the jungles and the imprint of lost empire on the people's memories.

What I wish more visitors understood is that what they - the visitors - experience as exotic and even odd is just daily life for the people who live there. It's sort of like the way we feel when we look at photos of people from, say the 19th century: we think they must know somehow that they're wearing costumes, that the world they live in is sort of quaint and cozy - when in fact, it was often brutal, terrifying, unsatisfying, occasionally transcendentally beautiful, that it was, in fact, the real world as far as they were concerned. And the same things are true of the monks in the temples and the people living in the stilt-houses over the rivers and the village kids following the buffalo along the dirt roads to the rice paddy.

Q. You've had a variety of writing experiences in your career. What or who originally sparked an interest in writing for you? Do you have any writers you feel have influenced your work and style?

Tim: Since reading is my favorite pastime, I always wondered whether I could write. Dickens was the first writer to completely capture my imagination, and from him I learned that it's important to establish character strongly, preferably as soon as possible after the reader meets the character for the first time. The writer who most influenced me in terms of work habits was Anthony Trollope, Dickens' contemporary, who wrote every day of his adult life with a clock running - and if he finished a novel with three minutes left, he reached for a blank sheet and started the next one. (Trollope said, "If boot-makers waited for inspiration, we would all be barefoot.") But it was Raymond Chandler who taught me that good writing didn't have to call attention to itself - that good writing simply moved the story forward in the best, most economical, and most memorable way. That it could almost be hidden, and in fact probably should be.
Q. When you started writing novels, you were working in the television industry. What did you do in that chapter of your career? What's a standout memory from that time? Do any experiences from that time period play into your writing now?

Tim: I was a consultant to large companies that sponsored television shows - IBM, General Motors, Hallmark, Ford, Bank of America, and a bunch of others. The job was to work with them to decide what kinds of programs they should sponsor to reach their core audience, and then to make sure that those programs did reach those audiences. At one point, my company had more than 50 people, in New York, Los Angeles, and London.

The greatest memory I have of that time is working with Katherine Hepburn and Laurence Olivier on a wonderful show called "Love Among the Ruins." It was one of the great privileges of my life, and they were both completely unforgettable people.

Q. Speaking of moving pictures, if the Poke Rafferty series were to be turned into a TV series (like, say Spenser for Hire) or a big screen movie (like, say, Hostage), is there an actor out there that you think would make a good Poke?

Tim: For the movies, Johnny Depp. He's who I had in mind when I first wrote Poke. For TV, I have no idea, but any actor who projects intelligence would be great.

Q. Will we be seeing more of Poke, Rose and Miaow in the near future? How about Agent Elson? The Fourth Watcher seemed to leave a door open for him to return. Is he going to be a regular face?

Tim: If you don't see more of Poke and the family, it'll be because I can't finish the next book, which is presently called MISDIRECTION and is scheduled for release next summer. I think Elson might show up in the future - I certainly had that in mind when I had him assigned to Bangkok at the end of the book - but who knows? I also think Ming Li will be back.

Q. I like to ask this question of everyone I highlight on my blog: There is a book out called Not Quite What I Was Planning: Six-Word Memoirs by Writers Famous and Obscure. What would be YOUR six-word memoir?

Tim: Lived seriously but wrote for fun.

When Tim said that he had Johnny Depp in mind while creating Poke, I thought, "wow! I knew Poke always felt familiar to me, and I couldn't place why. But Depp would be a perfect Poke!" And I'm really looking forward to MISDIRECTION. When you connect with characters like Poke and gang, you miss them in the intervals between books.

I'm also with Tim on the creeped out feeling from folks with no books. They're probably playing video games!

Tim has a great blog at his website. I have it on my bloglines and look forward to the days when there is a new post listed. You can find out more about Tim and both the Poke Rafferty novels at his site as well.

Tim, my sincerest thanks for making time for me and my questions. It has been a wonderful experience getting to know Poke through the books and you through this interview!
And to all, Happy Reading!!


beauvallet August 15, 2008 at 12:45 PM  

Oh, man, I loved 'Love Among the Ruins.' And it's referenced in an episode of my all time favorite tv show, 'Remington Steele.'

Another author to add to my 'must read' list. Jen, I can't keep up with you!

Peter Rozovsky August 16, 2008 at 6:22 AM  

Some good questions, Jen.

Some good back story on Poke, Tim.
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

Tim August 20, 2008 at 6:39 PM  

Thanks so much, Jen. You've been so generous with your time and the valuable real estate on your site.

I would have replied earlier, but between trying to preserve Poke's neck in book three and traveling to promote book two, I'm in serious time trouble.

And speaking of travel, on Sunday I did an event at the Poisoned Pen in Phoenix, and Michael Koryta was one of the other writers who participated. Boy, is he smart.

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