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Mystery Writers Key West Fest: Murder and Mayhem in Paradise!


Interview with Author Timothy Hallinan

With more than two-dozen titles to his credit, Southeast Asia and California-based thriller author Timothy Hallinan is the acclaimed author of three mystery/thriller series and several writing compendium projects, as well as a biography of Charles Dickens. His thrillers have earned prestigious Edgar, Shamus, Macavity, and Nero award nominations and several have been optioned for television and film.

Hallinan's first series, written in the early to mid-1990’s starred the "uselessly over-educated" LA private eye Simeon Grist. In 2007 he launched the Poke Rafferty series - thrillers with heart, soul and a keen social conscience - set in Bangkok. His third series, which hit the stands in 2010, takes a comic twist with the adventures of Junior Bender, a "thief's thief with a moral compass" who works as a PA for the criminal element.

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Q&A with Author Timothy Hallinan

Q: When you wrote your first Simeon Grist thriller, were you already thinking ahead to a series? Was Grist based on someone you knew?

TH: Yes, since it was a slavish and entirely unsuccessful attempt to channel Raymond Chandler, I was thinking of it as a series. I proved that by throwing away the first one (The Wrong End of the Rainbow, a title I still like) and immediately writing Skin Deep, which landed me a three-book, and then a six-book, contract with William Morrow.

Simeon and I have too much in common for me to duck the question of whom he was based on. We both had useless college degrees and failed relationships, we were both rudderless slackers, and we both lived in that awful Topanga Canyon shack. I've always thought that Simeon was a braver me. On a good hair day.

Q: Following Simon Grist you have alternated between dramatic and comic suspense: Your seven Poke Rafferty thrillers, released between 2007 and 2015, center around Bangkok-based travel writer Rafferty, his wife Rose - former “queen” of the Patpong bars - and their adopted street-child Miaow. Your Junior Bender series - the fourth of which won a Lefty Award as best Comic Mystery of 2014 - were released between 2010 and 2016. Do you ever work on both series simultaneously? Do you find it at all difficult to transition between the very different worlds inhabited by your heroes?

TH:  It's so difficult I don't even attempt it without a buffering period between one series and the next.

Just recently I was forced to violate that rule—to abandon the next Bangkok book, Fools' River, and write a Junior Bender Christmas book (!) Fields Where They Lay. When I say "forced," I mean I was in the happy position of having my editor, the remarkable and infallible Juliet Grames, say she really wanted the holiday book my agent had described to her, and what's more, she wanted it two weeks before he described it. Putting down Fools' River and jumping into Fields Where They Lay was about as hard as anything I've ever done as a writer. Everything was different: the rhythm, the tone, the emotional pitch, my relationship to the reader, my attitude toward the issues at the center of the two books, just everything.

And when I finished Fields Where They Lay I had to turn right around and go back to Fools' River. It was just as hard to reverse the process. In fact, a couple of months later I still don't feel I've made it all the way back in to Fools' River.

Q: Can you describe a bit of your personal writing process? Day? Night? Warm-up activities? Special music or environment?

TH: Writing is many things to me. It's what I love to do best, it's the activity that gives me the greatest feeling of accomplishment, it's the thing that has the greatest power to threaten my self-esteem, because it's hard.

But it’s also my job. That means I do it seven days a week, whether I want to or not, and probably especially when I don't want to. The only excuses are illness, impossible travel arrangements like the one I'm recovering from right now, or absolutely unbreakable commitments.

It doesn't matter what time of day I start to write, although it's usually afternoon because it takes me that long to get over the anxiety of possible life-ending failure. Warming up means making some improvements to the last week's worth of work so I'm already in motion when I hit the blank page. Music, always, and all kinds other than jazz and EDM—everything from baroque to R&B, from Puccini to punk, from country to urban. I usually attach a note to the end of every book describing, among other things, what music I wrote the book to. As a result, readers send me suggestions for new playlists all the time. And I have no outline, no definite plan. I just follow the characters.

Q: How involved are you with the creation of your book cover artwork?,

TH: Not at all, and I'm very happy about that. Soho's design sense is marvelous. For a long time, I said that getting published was a three-step process: write your book, sell your book, hate your cover. But not any more. They pass the cover concepts by me as a courtesy, but I love what they do to my books.

Q: You have credited Anthony Powell’s 12-novel epic, A Dance to the Music of Time, as having possibly saved your life. That is a very dramatic statement. Would you share the story behind it?

TH: At about 26 or 27, I was having what, if I'd known any better, I would have recognized as a nervous breakdown. I'd prolonged college as long as possible, and when I finally walked away I also walked away from the network of friends and lovers that are the primary things that make college worthwhile. So I was alone on a hillside, feeling abandoned and adrift, and completely unsure what I would do with my life.

And then I came across British editions of Dance. The first three books, written in the 1950s, take the series' four young male characters through school, university, and early careers, and my experience was mirrored on practically every page. At that time my private metaphor for youthful  friendships was a skyrocket—go up as a unit, then separate spectacularly. And there it was, all of it, on the page. Also there was the beginning of new interests that would lead those characters through the next stage of their lives. I'd been experiencing new interests, too. So it was staring me in the face, told in the most amazing language, courtesy of Anthony Powell—it was all normal. I was sane.

I really do think it may have saved my life.

Q: Before becoming an enormously successful writer you worked in television. In college you had a band and some of your songs were recorded by renowned artists. Are there any other careers that you might have liked to try on, given the time and opportunity?

I acted as a kid, and I love the theater. The magic that happens among a bunch of strangers on a bare stage as a play sputters into life is a completely unique experience in my life. Writers work alone, but theater is collaborative. I would give practically anything to be, say 30 years younger and going into the first rehearsal of a really good play. Or a rotten play, I don't care.

Recognized as a masterful writer, Hallinan is also a writing instructor. He is the facilitator/editor of Making Story, in which 21 novelists (Hallinan included,) describe how they go about turning "an idea into a plot and a plot into a book" and he is author of “Finish Your Novel” which is available for free on his website at www.timothyhallinan.com

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