Timothy Hallinan is the other of sixteen published novels (eleven under his own name). His latest Poke Rafferty Bangkok thriller, The Queen of Patpong, was published in August, and his newest book, Crashed, is available for the Kindle (I’ve read the beginning, and didn’t want to put it down!). Timothy also maintains a website with an awesome “Finish Your Novel” page – several authors have published books after using the material. I really like the installment “What’s a Scene? (And What’s a Chapter?),” but there are other gems to be found there as well.
BH: What’s your one-paragraph pitch for Crashed?
TH: Junior Bender is a San Fernando burglar who moonlights as a private eye for crooks. In his first outing, CRASHED, Junior finds himself on the wrong side of his own already paper-thin moral code, being forced to prevent sabotage against a multi-million dollar porn film starring exactly the kind of person he’d normally want to protect. At the age of 23, Thistle Downing is broke and strung out – but between the ages of eight and fifteen, she was the biggest television star in the world. Now desperate, she’s facing the ultimate humiliation . . . and she’s so wasted she doesn’t even know that someone’s trying to kill her. And in between her and all that, there’s no one – except Junior.
BH: Which book in the Poke Rafferty series would you encourage new fans to begin with? Should they start with the first book, or can they pick up somewhere in the middle?
TH: The first book, A NAIL THROUGH THE HEART, is the roughest in the series in terms of subject matter, but it’s probably the best place to start. The thriller elements are self-contained from book to book, but the heart of the series is the ongoing story of the American travel writer Poke Rafferty and the little family he’s assembled in Bangkok with his wife, Rose, a farmer bar worker who now helps other women leave that life, and their adopted 9-year-old daughter, Miaow, who spend most of her childhood on the street. (She’s nine in NAIL and eleven in the fourth book, THE QUEEN OF PATPONG.)
BH: The Poke Rafferty series is your second series, is that right? How do you feel that your writing has changed throughout your career so far?
TH: Well, I hope I’ve gotten better, but who knows? One thing that strikes me is that back in the 1990s, when I was doing the Simeon Grist mysteries, I wrote a pretty male world. I was not at all confident about writing women. That changed in part because Miaow, Poke’s daughter in the Bangkok books, is for some reason the easiest character in the whole series – she comes to me as fast as I can write her. After nine novels without a single scene between women when there wasn’t a man present, in THE QUEEN OF PATPONG, I wrote a 45,000-word section – practically a novella – about Rose’s road from being an unworldly village girl to the “queen” of the bars of Patpong. It’s all women, and it’s the part of the book most reviewers (and all female reviewers) paid special attention to. And women are vital characters in the new series, the Junior Bender books, too.
BH: Tell us a little about your path to publication.
TH: I wrote two really awful books that I showed to no one and then a third, SKIN DEEP, that introduced Simeon Grist. I took it to a Hollywood agent and she sent it to a New York agent, and ten days later I had a three-book contract with William Morrow. Not much drama there. Then I wrote three more Simeons for a total of six, took about six years off to make money so I could write full-time, and then wrote the first of the four Pokes, which sold in an auction between two big houses.
What’s most interesting to me is the e-book revolution. I’ve been very fortunate in my relationships with major publishers, but I’ve always had to write what they thought they could sell or what they thought readers wanted from me. CRASHED is an edgy thriller with a laugh track, and two publishers said, in essence, “Nobody wants to read funny thrillers.” But I wanted to WRITE funny thrillers, so I wrote two and a half Junior books and put CRASHED up for the Kindle, and it’s doing very well, Seven reviews so far, and all five-stars, and they’re not people I know, AND there’s some serious TV interest. The second Junior book, LITTLE ELVISES, will go online in about three months, and I’m writing the third. I’m also writing the first Simeon Grist book in fifteen years – just because I want to. This is a new world for writers. (I’m also writing the fifth Poke.)
BH: The scope of the “Finish Your Novel” on your author site is simply amazing – it’s as if you made an entire book on the craft of writing available for free. What motivated you to create it?
TH: I needed a lot of help when I started trying to write, and I didn’t know where to go for it. After the Simeon books came out, I decided to teach a college-level class on finishing. Anybody can start a novel (or any other large-scale project) but most people don’t finish. So I focused on what I knew about finishing, and along the way I had to talk about story and character and setting and writing habits and all of that. A LOT of people who took the class over the years finished their books. So when I did my site, I expanded the class notes into a series of relatively short interactive essays and put them up. And I’m happy to say they’ve helped a lot of writers, including some who sell better than I do, to finish their first novel Helen Simonson, who wrote MAJOR PETTIGREW’S LAST STAND is one of them. I love that book, and it knocks me out that I was to some degree helpful to her in finishing it.
BH: You mentioned that you aim for 1500 words a day. I remember when I was drafting my latest work-in-progress, shooting for 1200. It was tough. Do you always get your 1500? What is your writing schedule like?
TH: Seven days a week, as many hours as it takes. I shoot for 1500 but will quit at 1000 if they’re a good 1000. But then I try to make it up later in the week. I start every writing session by editing the last 3-4 days’ worth, so about half of those words get cut or rewritten before I finally move on.
BH: What does your workspace look like?
TH: In Asia, where I write the Poke Rafferty books, I work in coffee shops, mostly in Bangkok and Phnom Penh, Cambodia. I have apartments in both cities. The Poke books are set in Bangkok, but Bangkok is very distracting, while Phnom Penh is much sleepier. So I tend to spend a couple of weeks in Bangkok, getting ideas and jotting down descriptions, and then I go to Phnom Penh for four or five months to draft the book.
In Los Angeles, I tend to work at home, on a big table because I’m disorganized.
BH: What is your favorite book on the craft of writing?
TH: Anne Lamott’s Bird By Bird. I think it’s very important that it was written by someone who actually writes novels (and good ones), as opposed to someone who writes books about writing novels. It’s an indispensable book, and Lamott is great company.
BH: What is the best writing advice anyone has given you?
TH: I’ve had several great pieces of advice, and I follow all of them. First, write the book you would most like to read. Second, create a shrine to your writing – not so much in space as in time; time that is set aside each day for writing and nothing else. Third, write on tiptoe – the only way to get better is to try to do things you don’t know how to do. Fourth, remember that in the end, it’s only a book, not a bad chest x-ray or a truck barreling toward you on the wrong side of the street; in other words, the day’s failures are never fatal and might just lead you toward something more interesting.
Flaubert said, “Talent is a long patience.” I love that line.
BH: Thank you, Tim, for sharing your books and your inspiration!
Link from Tim: www.timothyhallinan.com/blog I’m currently engaged in The Stupid 365 Project, which is a commitment to put up a blog of not less than 300 words every single day for a year. It’s been very interesting so far – I’m just into the third month – and I have no idea whether I’ll be able to finish.