An Interview With Timothy Hallinan: Edgar, Macavity, and Shamus Awards Nominee and Lefty Recipient

James:                  How long have you been writing?

Timothy:              I started writing terrible short stories when I was in my teens. In ninth grade I had a profoundly beautiful and very young English teacher named Miss Reid, and I wrote her an epic love poem, my first and last attempt at being a poet. The next-to-last day of school I slapped it onto her desk and ran out of the room, and the next day―the final day―she asked me to stay after class for a moment. When everyone was gone she put the poem on her desk and pushed it toward me, and my heart sank when I saw that she’d marked it up in red. But then she said, pointing at a circled word, “Look here, Tim – you’ve used this word three times in two lines, and I’m not sure this one means what you think it does, and this one here is a really fancy word where a simpler one might be better. But that’s not important. What is important is this, that you have a lot of talent, and I hope you’ll keep writing. Thank you for showing me this.” When I left, I was walking on air. To this day I’m dazzled by how well she handled what could have been a very ticklish situation, and I think that’s when I began to think seriously about writing. Still, it took me something like 30 years to sit down and write an entire book.

James:                  What motivated you to become a writer?

Timothy:              Misery, curiosity, and the memory of Miss Reid. In my 40s I had a very successful company with offices in New York, L.A. and London, dealing with everyone from movie stars to museums and I was making lots of money but I was living on airplanes and burning out, just really exhausted from solving other people’s problems. And I was reading endlessly, as I always have, one book after another, and telling myself that sooner or later I’d write one of my own. One day in L.A. I stopped on the way home from the office and bought an entire case of really good wine, for courage. That night, somewhere through the fourth glass, I sat down and started my first book, The Million Dollar Minute, and, by God, after four months of terror, hangovers, and terror plus hangovers, I had an actual novel. It wasn’t very good, but there it was: a really thick stack of paper with words all over it. I started a second book, The Wrong End of the Rainbow, almost immediately and finished that, too. It was about an over-educated slacker private eye named Simeon Grist. Then I wrote another book about Simeon, Skin Deep, and gave it to an agent I knew, and two weeks later I had a three-book contract with William Morrow.

James:                  How many hours a week do you commit to your craft?

Timothy:              I write every day unless I’m either travelling or hopelessly blocked. Usually I shoot for three hours or 1200 words, whichever comes first. When it’s really coming, I write until my chin hits the keyboard. No more wine, though; I stopped that in 1990. I think you have to write frequently and regularly, or the energy stales and the book loses its electricity and its momentum. Leave it alone too long and what had looked like an interesting world with real people in it becomes one of those lifeless little dioramas like you sometimes see in high schools and new housing developments, where everything is miniature and dusty, and you have to move the characters around like chess pieces to get anything going. I’m a great believer in not telling characters what to do.

James:                  Do you use a formula for your books?

Timothy:              I’m not even sure what a formula is. I know I need characters (first) and a basic situation that seems like it might offer interesting complications. And a tone. The tone is drawn from my first glimmerings about the situation. In my new book, Nighttown, the opening tone is almost formal, complete with quotations about darkness from the Book of Genesis, and then we’re in an old, empty, pitch-black mansion that reeks, for some reason, of baby powder, and the tone turns gothic, almost horror-movie. From then on, although it’s a very funny book (according to the reviewers) that gothic tone was always available to me, like a pedal on an organ. But to answer the broader question, I don’t outline and I generally have no idea where the characters will take me until they take me there.

James:                  What is the source of your inspiration?

Timothy:              I share Picasso’s view: “Inspiration exists but it has to find you working.” In my experience, inspiration is a product of work. Repeatedly working on something tells a part of the brain, a kind of sorting mechanism called the Reticular Activating System, that you’re interested in your topic and that it’s important to you, and that things that might be related to that topic shouldn’t be tossed away but rather brought to your attention, (We all toss—so we won’t drown in data and impressions— about 85% of the stuff we see or hear during the course of a day.) The R.A.S. is why you can hear your name spoken in a loud room, it’s why, when you begin to think about buying, say, a Toyota, that you suddenly see Toyota billboards and commercials everywhere. It turns on a kind of mental sorter that takes things in, evaluates them, and then either dumps them by the side of the road as irrelevant or tells you about them. If you’re writing, it singles out practically everything that might have a bearing on your book. Get that little bugger pumping away and the world will offer you ideas all the time.

James:                  Your character concepts are ingenious. Not to mention Horton House and the Koreatown building. Where did they come from?

Timothy:              In “The Taming of the Shrew,” the heroine, Katerina, is sparring verbally with the man she doesn’t yet know she loves, Petruchio, and she says, “Where did you study all this goodly speech?” implying that he’s just repeating something clever he heard elsewhere, and Petrucio replies, “It is extempore from my mother wit.” In other words, he made it up. That’s what I do, I make things up, and that especially applies to characters. I usually don’t know who they’ll be before they pop up in the page. Itsy Winkle, and the waitress, Glinda, in NIGHTTOWN are two good examples. I had no idea who they’d be until they made their entrances. The moment I can hear their voices I know I’m going to be okay with them.  As far as settings are concerned, the spooky old house is a trope, that goes back to Jane Austen and before, but this is my own spooky old house—old by Los Angeles standards, which is not to say all that old – about 110 years – and everything else in this book is pretty much lifted from L.A. or is a sort of imaginative variation on L.A.

James:                  What are some common traps aspiring writers should avoid?

Timothy:              That’s a hard one. I think of writing as work, partly because frequent work is, for me, the best way to breathe life into a book, but I also know that writing is a very mysterious process that brings the best in us to the table at times and also summons the Nozers, the parts of us that exist just to say “no, you can’t do that.” I’d say the worst thing an aspiring writer can do is wait for inspiration. Inspiration comes, as I mentioned above, when you’re working. The Nozers have an easier time blocking inspiration than they do the flood of story and characters that come when we’re working. People who wait for inspiration rarely finish their books.

James:                  What advice would you give to a writer whose manuscript has been rejected several times and told he or she will never make it as a writer?

Timothy:              Write another one immediately. Remember that J.K. Rowling was turned down by a dozen publishers before the first Harry Potter book sold. And if the editor(s) who turn you down explain why they did so, think about what they said. But ALWAYS write the book you want to write.

James:                  What is the most important tip you can share with other writers?

Timothy:              Write every day. Don’t let circumstances stop you. Raymond Chandler said something like this: “a writer needs to sit for a period of three or four hours at the type writer every day. He doesn’t need to write, but he can’t do anything else: he can’t sharpen pencils or thumb through magazines. He writes or he does nothing.” I would add to that: When you’re not writing, read. I think we can learn more about writing from reading good books than from anything else . . . except writing.

James:                  What was one challenge you had to overcome to become an author?

Timothy:              Lack of self-confidence. It made me happy to call myself a writer when I hadn’t yet written anything and I kept things that way because I was afraid that, in fact, I couldn’t write anything. When I started in earnest, an important aspect of my identity was at stake.

James:                  How did you overcome that challenge?

Timothy:              Alcohol helped initially, but I don’t recommend it. Anyway, I haven’t overcome the challenge. Virtually every book I’ve ever written has fallen apart on me at least once during the writing process, and every time it happens I think, “That’s it. I’ll never be able to do this again. I’ve written my last book.”

James:                  Pick one excerpt from one of your books you would like to share with readers.

Timothy:              This is the first-draft, from my next Bangkok book, STREET MUSIC. The woman we’re with, whose name is Hom, is homeless, and her mental processes have been muddled by drugs. She’s on Patpong Road, which is one of the hearts of Bangkok’s tourist-driven sex trade, because she’s being paid a very small sum of money every day to look for a specific man and follow him home. She regularly forgets what she’s supposed to be doing but the money and her fear of the man who’s paying her usually refocus her.

As we’ll see, she loathes the street, although we haven’t learned why yet. It’s 1 AM, and the bars are closing so Patpong, which is closed to traffic, is full of men going home, some of them with the bar girl of their choice.

*

“Hom hates Patpong. She has a long list of hates, which, fortunately for her, is usually forgotten, folded tightly and tucked out of sight, but Patpong is different. If she had her way, a two-story wall of filthy water would churn through it, smashing the bars as though they were cardboard, picking up the customers and the pimps and the police and sweeping their corpses all the way to the Chao Phraya River where they would be carried out to the broad emptiness of the Gulf. No cremation, no funeral, no rites, no mourners, no priests, just howling phi tai hong, ghost-souls severed abruptly from their bodies, raging and weeping eternally as they fight against the winds that scour the surface of the sea.

But not the girls. The girls don’t deserve that.

She shakes her head to focus herself and takes a few steps down the sidewalk in the direction of the bar she’s been told to watch. Instantly she realizes that her scraped knee has stiffened. Still walking, she looks down at it, half-expecting to be able to see the stiffness surrounding it, like the ghost of the cast she wore years ago when she broke her foot and she still lived in a world that had doctors in it. At that moment someone throws open a swinging door directly in front of her, and she walks into it, banging the top of her head in a starry burst of pain. She freezes for a moment, waiting to see whether she’s going to fall down, and by the time she realizes that she won’t, she’s lost her purpose. Idly, with one hand pressed to her head, she lets her gaze sweep over a slow tide of people in the street until her vision is snagged by a glimpse of white.

A smile.

Smiles, she sees, are going off here and there in the crowd, like struck matches. She’s watched this procession often enough by now to know that the smiles belong to the women from the bars. As they’re towed along by their customers they gaze at nothing, or at the people coming in their direction, until the man they’re with looks down at them, and then they smile. She feels herself smile; the same absolutely meaningless smile the tall, slender woman is giving the short, tubby man who’s hauling her toward the waiting taxis. The smile is the one called yim mai ork, forced and without any spark of happiness or pleasure behind it. The young woman knows, and so does Hom, that the farang won’t see through it; to a farang, a smile is a smile. A little farther away, a younger girl, probably new to the bars, offers her suddenly attentive customer a yim sao, the smile that masks sadness. That’s the smile Hom is most familiar with; she can feel its muscle memory in her own face. Her destination forgotten for the moment, she searches for her favorite of the smiles, the one that makes her feel kinship with all these sad, beautiful girls: the yim yae-yae, the smile someone assumes when she’s facing something hopeless and is determined to make the best of it, no matter what. There it is, on the face of the woman who’s trying to match her steps to a drunken man’s stagger.

She can feel her own smile broaden as she watches the man stumble and go down on one knee and then put both hands down to grope for his glasses. By the time he looks up again his companion for the evening has melted into the crowd.”