Saturday 30 October 2010

Dancing With Myself: TIM HALLINAN interviews TIM HALLINAN

Now here's a new take on e-books. A Creative Revolution? Nice. Here's Tim:

Thanks for finding the time to do this.

No problem. I was in the neighborhood.

Well, to begin. You've been described as, “ . . . one of the angriest voices of his generation, a writer who uses a finely honed rage and a sure command of the thriller form to shine a light on the inequities and injustices of our age.”

I have?

Not really.

Didn't think so. I would have noticed.

Let me approach the point in a different way. What pisses you off?

Practically everything. The world we live in is run by political imbeciles, reported on by media imbeciles who are talking to an audience of ordinary, every-day imbeciles. That's kind of a sweeping statement, so let me provide some support. Afghanistan. Snooki. But what really pisses me off is being relegated by literary snobs to some genre slum. Oh, thrillers? How droll. My body temperature literally rose this morning in pure fury. One of the blurbs for Julie Zeh's ravenously wonderful novel In Free Fall mentions that the book is structured as a mystery and goes on to say, “Here's a piece of literature that takes the liberty to develop its very own rules, and to impose them upon an obsolete form . . .” What kind of arrogant, empty-headed elitism is that? Another way to look at it would be to say, “Here's a wonderful, brilliant story that benefits from being presented in mystery form.” And why would a writer as prodigious as Zeh choose the mystery form? Because it works. Honest to God, these people need to get out of New York (or in this case, Berlin) once in a whole and see what people are actually reading. We live in a Golden Age of thrillers and mysteries, and anyone who can't see that needs to come down from the alabaster tower and eat some solid food now and then.

Why do you think thrillers and mysteries are a good way to look at a world that you obviously find wanting?

Because the mystery is the perfect form for a broken age: it's an excuse to set loose upon all levels of society a character whose only function is to ask questions. You can explore ANYTHING, from the impact of the Hardy Boys to the fine points of quantum mechanics in a mystery or a thriller. In my private list of the best books of the last decade, about 55% are mysteries or thrillers, or use the form to get at the heart of their material. One other thing about the mystery in a world where so many things have so obviously gone wrong is that it's the most optimistic genre. People talk about it being dark and even scary, but no other genre has as its primary movement the restoration of order to a broken world. And despite the way I sound at times, I admire optimism. I think bleak sucks as a world view.

Would you like to plug your books?

Oh, no, I couldn't. Not possibly. Too embarrassing. Okay. The current series is set in Bangkok and features an expatriate travel writer named Philip “Poke” Rafferty who's married to a former Patpong bar girl, with whom he's adopted a daughter, a former street child named Miaow. They're three somewhat damaged people from wildly different worlds and cultures who are trying to cure themselves by loving each other. The books are standalone thrillers but the story of this little cobbled-together family is at the heart of them, and if you want to follow that, you have to read them in order. The titles are A NAIL THROUGH THE HEART, THE FOURTH WATCHER, BREATHING WATER, and the newest, THE QUEEN OF PATPONG. I'm happy to say they've gotten the best reviews of my life.

And I wrote a series in the 90s, six P.I. books set in Los Angeles, featuring an ovcreducated post-hippie named Simeon Grist, Since the last one came out, in 1996 or thereabouts, I've had a letter or two every week asking when I was going to write him again. Well, I am writing him again, in a completely different context; but on a short-term basis, the first three books in the series, THE FOUR LAST THINGS, EVERYTHING BUT THE SQUEAL, and SKIN DEEP, are now available on the Kindle for $2.99, which is almost better than free. And they're really selling.

Very discreetly done. What do you like best about writing?

The moment when I realize that the world is moving around on its own, that I've stopped making it up, as Anne Lamott says, and started getting it down. That's magic, and it happens to me only when I write every day, or at bare minimum six days a week. If I take a week off, the book's world turns into a dusty little diorama that I have to reach into and move the weensy figures around by hand. If I work daily, they're already walking and talking by the time Windows loads.

What do you like least about writing?

Well, we all have days when we're turning out crud and the harder you work, the cruddier it gets, and sometimes those days add up to a week or so, and that's no fun. But still, you know, even then, what I'm doing is writing. I hear these writers moaning and agonizing about writer's block, and I just want to remind them that even on their worse days, they're writing. I've had plenty of real jobs, and I know that every single working person in the world has days – lots of them – when he or she would rather be the subject in a colonoscopy marathon than go into the office. And they go into the office anyway. But we writers – we're so sensitive. I think, generally speaking, the less we feel like writing, the more we need to,

And I don't like the business end of things. But that's changing for the better.

Really? All we hear is how the publishing industry is falling apart and how there are fewer chances taken on unknown writers and how all the big advances go to the people who need them least, and how all anybody wants now is the big blockbuster . . .

Sorry to interrupt. Okay, here's my take, purely personal. My brother Michael is a successful painter. He works every day on his technique, just as I do. He refines his approach all the time, just as I do. He works his tail off, just as I do. And when he decides he wants to paint something completely different than anything he's ever painted, he sits down and does it.

Just as I never could, until now. Mike sells his creativity directly to people who like paintings. I sell mine to middlemen – publishers – that are corporate entities with very strict guidelines about what they will and won't put out, and who have me pigeonholed as the writer of a certain kind of book. And if I want to write a different kind of book, they don't want to hear about it. If I want to write something offbeat, that has nothing in common with anything on the current NY Times list, they don't want to hear about it. And until recently, that was the end of it. Interesting idea goes unwritten.

But now, because of e-books, I can write whatever the hell I want. I can plow through a book that, according to my agent, has slender commercial possibilities, just because I want to write it. And when I'm done with it, I can put it online as an e-book at a cost to me of $200-300 bucks, and people either read it or they don't. And I can price it at $2.99-$4.99 because my royalty rate is 70%. It's capitalism at its most Darwinian. Write it, put it out, let it sink or swim. This is the single most liberating development of my writing life. I feel like I've been cooped up in a small room for decades and the walls just fell down.

The new Simeon, for example – it takes place in a sort of limbo where the characters from failed detective series go when the last unsold copy in the series is pulped. It's a cut-rate, low-budget limbo, compared to the no-expense-spared Grecian elegance of the Literary Fiction limbo, but it's full of every kind of detective ever written – everything from hard-boiled PI's to the heroines of cozy cooking mysteries, the woo-woo mentalists of paranormal mysteries, etc. And then, back on earth, one of Simeon's few remaining readers is murdered, which Simeon witnesses because whenever someone on earth opens a book in which a character appears, the character can look up through the book as though it's a window on the world. Anyway, for most of the detectives whiling away eternity in limbo, a new murder is like a 50,000-volt shock. This may or may not sound promising to you – and it doesn't to my agent, who said, “There's no market for meta-books,” thereby pouring cold water on me and teaching me a new word at the same time – but I'm laughing my ass off writing it, and it's a whole genre that I don't really know how to do, and there's nothing more exhilarating than that. So I'm writing it, and it'll go on Amazon and iBooks, and maybe it'll float and maybe it'll sink.

Maybe I'll even make money on it. And that would be nice – if I've got ten books up there and I'm selling 2000 of each per year (a target I'm well exceeding with the current ones) that's a chunk of change. And it's money earned from writing what I want to write when I want to write it.

Everyone talks about the e-book market as though it were an economic revolution, which it is, but I think it's much more importantly a creative revolution. Got an idea? Write it. Put it up. Sure, there's going to be a ton of junk put online (I may even write some of it) but that shelf space is yours forever. Maybe the right people will find my book. Or yours. What the hell? Write the damn thing.


  1. Smashing stuff. Tim's guest post at my blog is one of the most popular. Still is.

  2. Not only an excellent writer, but a creative revolutionary. Brilliant.

  3. Jeez, what did I do? Thanks to all of you for being so sweet, especially when I was so sour. And thanks to Nigel for allowing me this long moment of self-indulgence.

  4. Charles Dickens and E. A. Poe would certainly agree with you on self publishing as both were published as serials in newspapers. Dickins had to pay all the publishing costs for A Christmas Carol out of his own pocket. As well as Homer and The Greek Poets who literally sang or told stories for their supper. Homer particularly. I mean how else was a blind old man gonna make a living in as savage a place as ancient Greece. Thought provoking interview. Cool.