An Interview with Timothy Hallinan
Author of THE FOURTH WATCHER
Timothy Hallinan is author of The Fourth Watcher, the second in a series of Bangkok novels featuring travel writer Poke Rafferty. Hallinan, who divides his time between California and Bangkok, agreed to an interview via e-mail with Guy Savage of MostlyFiction.com. Also read Guy's review of The Fourth Watcher.
MF: Please describe THE FOURTH WATCHER for those who haven’t yet read it.
TH: My protagonist, Poke Rafferty, writes a series of “rough travel” books – the first two were Looking for Trouble in the Philippines, Looking for Trouble in Indonesia – and he went to Thailand to write the third. He'd intended to skate across the surface of the culture as he had when he wrote the previous books, but – to his surprise – he fell in love with Thailand and, inevitably, with two Thais. One is his fiancée, Rose, a former go-go dancer (and prostitute) who quit working on the infamous Patpong Road in order to be with him, and the other is Miaow, an eight-year-old street girl whom Poke and Rose are adopting. At the time the book begins, the adoption is almost final and Poke is ready to propose (for the second time) to Rose, thus formalizing the little family that has come to mean more to him than anything else in the world. And then all hell breaks loose, threatening everything he's created.
In The Fourth Watcher, he's working on a new book, Living Wrong, in which he apprentices himself to six people who live on the edge of the law, and at the moment the novel begins he's learning spycraft from a former CIA operative named Arnold Prettyman. In the first chapter, Poke spots three men Arnold has hired to tail him, and he almost succeeds in shaking them off – but he doesn't spot the fourth watcher, who's trailing him for a completely different reason. Then, in the middle of the night, an aggressive Secret Service agent practically knocks down the apartment door to accuse Rose of being part of a distribution network for counterfeit American money made by the North Koreans. And if that weren't enough, the fourth watcher turns out to be in the employ of the person Poke wants least to see in the world – his estranged father, who has fled from China with a box of rubies, some irreplaceable forged identity papers, and, hot on his tail, one of the most dangerous gangsters in the new China. Before the story ends, everything Poke holds dear is put into absolutely mortal peril.
MF: The novel’s protagonist is Poke Rafferty, a Californian who’s chosen to set down roots in Bangkok. Please tell us about Poke. How much of Timothy Hallinan went into Poke’s creation?
TH:Like most thriller writers, I've come up with a character who is sort of me from my best angle, with all the warts Photoshopped out. He's a writer, as I obviously am, and that's important because he sees the world in terms of narrative – when he's in a jam, he more or less plots his way out. (This is not meant in any cozy Jessica Fletcher sense. These books are very uncozy.) And, like me, he was gobsmacked by Thailand, where I've spent a good chunk of my life since 1981. Also like me, Poke has a father who ran away to China while he was in his teens, came back to America when the Chinese revolution drove him out, and then never talked about China again. My mother believed her entire life that he had a family in China. In no other way, however, was my father like Poke's. My father was a wonderful man, and Poke's father emphatically isn't.
MF: What was the inspiration for THE FOURTH WATCHER?
TH:My father's backstory, for one thing. I think I inherited my “yellow heart” -- my love for Asia – from him. Poke's father, unlike mine, abandoned Poke and his mother to return to China the moment the country opened up again, and I found myself wondering what he'd been doing there for the past seventeen years. Finally, I became fascinated by the North Korean counterfeiting operations. North Korea is the first country since Nazi Germany to practice large-scale counterfeiting of another nation's currency. The U.S. bills they produce are virtually perfect; they're so good they're called “supernotes.” North Korea, by the way, makes more money from counterfeiting – currencies, prescription drugs, cigarettes – than it does from legitimate international trade. As someone says in the book, it's not a country, it's “The Sopranos.”
I got interested in counterfeiting on a broad scale, including in relationships among people, and especially among family members. Poke has survived a broken family and is trying to create an authentic one, and the various kinds of counterfeiting braided together pretty easily to create the story.
Although the novel is set in Bangkok, part of the novel includes Rafferty’s memories of growing up in Lancaster in California’s Antelope Valley. Lancaster and Bangkok are extreme opposites. Was this choice of these two cities deliberate and or accidental?
Instinctive, I think. I love Bangkok more than any other city, and my family, a million years ago, homesteaded a bunch of dirt near Lancaster, which we still own, although no one has ever lived on it. I've visited it a few times – it's not good for much more than walking across and dodging snakes on – but it seemed like the perfect place for a semi-recluse like Poke's father to build the house in which he would install his wife and child. And, of course, someone like Poke, who grew up in a place where the weather changes maybe twice a year and even plants have to fight for territory, would be blindsided by the sheer operatic lushness of Southeast Asia, with its monsoons and jungles and the temples flowing down to the edge of the sea.
MF: In the 1990s, you created PI Simeon Grist who appeared in six LA novels, and now you’ve created Poke Rafferty for A NAIL THROUGH THE HEART and THE FOURTH WATCHER. The Simeon Grist novels take place in L.A. while Poke Rafferty is squarely in Bangkok. Obviously location influences plot, but how much are protagonists Grist and Rafferty products of their location? Are there any similarities between these two men?
TH:Well, they're both me. Like Simeon, I have more university degrees than I will ever need because I was reluctant to leave college. I understood college; I knew how they graded you there, and I didn't know how they did it in the real world. And, of course, Poke is a writer. They both have Asian women in their lives – Simeon has his off-and-on girlfriend, Eleanor Chan, and Poke has Rose – and the woman in my life, my wife, Munyin Choy-Hallinan, is Chinese. But Poke has been challenged in a way that Simeon wasn't. He's trying to become part of a new culture, and that's an experience that makes one question even the most basic assumptions. At one point in A Nail Through The Heart, Rose rejects his first proposal of marriage, and in part, this is what she says:
He's being flip, which is one of his reactions when he's challenged. But he knows that up until now he's seen the cultures he wrote about as though they were on display in a department-store window, through a thick pane of glass. And if he wants this new life and this new family to work – if, in fact, he wants to survive the situations in which he finds himself – he has to find a way through that plate of glass. So he's caught between two worlds in a way that Simeon never was.
MF: When I read THE FOURTH WATCHER, there were several points in the plot when the action could have become a lot more grisly and violent, but instead most of the violence occurs off the page. Why did you decide to make this a fairly non-grisly novel?
TH:It's easy to write violence, but I think it's dangerous. Violence is like fireworks: it makes a terrific impression and a lot of noise, and then there's nothing left. I have a lot of respect for my readers, and I don't think they need to be hit across the nose with a blunt instrument to convince them that there's danger on the horizon. I'm more interested in creating a sustained atmosphere of dread and/or suspense, and the best way I know to do that is to put most of my effort into creating characters the reader wishes well and then bringing them up against something that threatens everything they hold dear. I think it's important for the reader to understand that literally anything can happen, no matter how bad – as I said, these are not cozies and the villains in the first two books have no scruples whatsoever – but it shouldn't be necessary for me to actually show these people doing something unspeakable to make it clear that they can. I think the most violent scene in The Fourth Watcher is when Frank and Wang come back to Wang's apartment and find Chu there. What Chu does to Wang in that scene is so brutal I hated myself for thinking it up, but he never lays a finger on her. After that, though, I think the reader knows that Chu has no limits.
MF: THE FOURTH WATCHER screams to be made into a film. Any thoughts on that, and who would you like to see directing and starring in the film version?
TH:I wish someone in Hollywood could hear the scream. Since Poke is part-Asian, I've thought in terms of Johnny Depp (who can look it with no problem) or Keanu Reeves, but the actors who have expressed interest so far have been resolutely Caucasian. Good actors, though. I think Kevin Spacey would be great as Prettyman, a man who tells the truth as infrequently as possible, and Gene Hackman would be dream casting as Poke's father, Frank. Rose, Arthit, and Miaow would have to be played by Thai actors, and there are lots of good ones. The film needs a director who understands the peculiar sizzle of Bangkok, and there are two Hong Kong filmmakers (and brothers) with the wonderful names of Oxide and Danny Pang who have made a couple of great Bangkok movies.
MF: On your blog you maintain a monthly reading list in The Blog Cabin cataloguing, reviewing and rating your current reading materials. Your entries are engaging, lively and funny. What inspired you to include monthly reading lists on your blog? (By the way, I think it’s a wonderful idea and I wish more authors did this.)
TH:Thanks for saying that you enjoy the book reviews. They're a lot of fun to write. I actually think of them as a sort of adjunct to the biggest area of my site, the Writers' Resources section, where I put everything I know about finishing (as opposed to starting) a novel. It's based in part on a course I used to teach. And one of the things I stress is that people who want to write have to read. They should read widely. They should challenge themselves. They should see how good writers solve problems, how they approach the organization of information or story elements. A bunch of people e-mailed me to ask how they're supposed to write and read at the same time, so I started putting my monthly reading up to prove that one can do it without going blind.
MF: Your blog seems to be an effort to connect directly with your readers. Any comments on that?
TH:Ideally, that's what it is. In practice, it's just something I do for fun. Right now, because there's a new book out, it's heavy on all that stuff – reviews, etc. But that's not normally the case. The piece called “Not-So-Intelligent Design” is actually more characteristic, and the blog is usually jammed with stuff about living in Asia or things that I obsess over, such as my lifelong loathing of coat hangers, or “Long, Slow Revenge,” which is about the silent war declared on all living things by inanimate objects. (I think that piece got more comments than any other of my blog entries.) And since a lot of people come to the site for writing advice, I tend to blog about my writing process, even when it's really rocky. I'd love it if the site brought me readers, but mostly it's just me screwing around.
MF: Would you explain “The Dickens Challenge” for our readers?
TH:I can certainly try. Some time back I wrote on a writer's site something to the effect that I don't outline; I write by the seat of my pants, letting my characters lead me, because, I said, “Plot is what characters do, not a box to jam them into.” And it went online and all sorts of people (outliners) got mad at me. The general criticism was that “pantsers,” or people who write the way I do, wind up with rambling, unfocused books, etc. These people were pretty irate. So I pointed out that Charles Dickens was a pantser, and that when he died in the middle of writing The Mystery of Edwin Drood, he didn't leave so much as a sentence fragment to tell anyone where he planned to take the book. And, what's more, he couldn't even do what most pantsers do when they finally figure out where the story is going, which is to go back and rewrite the beginning so it all makes sense – because Dickens' work was published monthly, as he was writing it. He was stuck with whatever he'd written in the first third of the book. So I challenged people to write a novel in real time, publishing their chapters online as they finished them. A lot of good writers jumped in – we had people in the States, in the U.K., in Pakistan, Africa – you name it. I started a murder mystery called Counterclockwise as my contribution, but about twelve chapters in I hit a very rough patch in the third Poke novel, which lasted for months, and I tabled Counterclockwise temporarily, although I do plan to return to it. In the meantime, the other writers took the Challenge private, onto a members-only site, so they could function more like a writing group. There are some good books there.
MF: One thing that confuses me—the inside book jacket to THE FOURTH WATCHER states that the book “firmly establishes Hallinan as a brilliant new voice in the world of suspense.” And yet you already had the impressive Simeon Grist series under your belt before creating Poke Rafferty. Also the Grist novels aren’t highlighted on the blog. Does the creation of Poke Rafferty represent a literary rebirth for you as a writer?
TH:The decision not to refer to the Simeon books (and thanks for the “impressive”) was an economic one on Morrow's part, although they do list the titles on the “Also By” page. The reviews for the Simeon Grist stories were sensational – anyone who read them would have thought I was Robert B. Parker rolled into one. But the people who buy books had other things on their minds, and the six books about Simeon went largely (very largely) unread. Since the chains only look at one thing – what's the writer's sales expectation? -- Morrow decided to be discreet about the Simeon Grist titles. The books aren't on my site just because they're not easily available, and I can't think of any reason to wave them around in front of people who can't get them. In between the end of writing the first series and the beginning of Poke, I concentrated on making money so I could write full-time, but I never really stopped writing for publication.
MF: Please tell us about your next book.
TH:It's tentatively called Misdirection, and it's an exploration of the enormous gulf between the have-nots and the have-alls in Southeast Asia, and the massive corruption that preserves that gulf. It begins when Poke wins in a card game the right to write the authorized biography of a controversial Thai billionaire who has previously resisted all attempts to tell his life story – in fact, the one book that made it to press was lost when the printing complex mysteriously caught fire. Within twelve hours of winning the game, Poke gets a call from someone who tells him that he and his family are dead if he writes the book, and an hour after that, he's snatched off the street and told that they're dead if he doesn't write the book – and that the book he's to write has to be profoundly negative. What he doesn't know is that he's caught between two enormously powerful factions, the people who own everything in Thailand, who, through institutional corruption, siphon literally billions of dollars a year out of the economy. And into this story is braided the tale of someone from the absolute opposite end of the spectrum, a seventeen year-old girl from the impoverished Northeast, who leaves her village when someone turns off the river that gave it life, diverting the water to a golf course for the rich. She's come to Bangkok to beg, and the gangsters who run the beggars grab her, tell her the rules, and hand her an infant because a woman with an infant makes more money than a woman without one. So it's her story, too, and the baby's story, and all of it intersects through Poke. It's the broadest canvas of any of the books yet, which is probably why I hit that prolonged rough patch.
MF: Thanks for your time, Tim.
TH:These are great questions, and I've enjoyed answering them. Thanks for asking for the interview.
Read our review of THE FOURTH WATCHER at MostlyFiction.com