MysteryPeople Q&A with Timothy Hallinan

Timothy Hallinan has been making a name for himself with his Bangkok set, Poke Rafferty series.  A Nail Through the Heart, The Fourth Watcher, Breathing Water, and The Queen of Patpong. They’ve been translated into several languages and made several “best of” lists. The Queen of Patpong was nominated for the 2011 Edgar and Macavity as Best Novel. His personal favorite, Breathing Water, was named by the Japan Times as one of the ten best Asia books of the year (2009). His latest, The Fear Artist has received starred reviews from PW, Booklist, and Library Journal.

We’re happy to host Mr. Hallinan with fellow SOHO writer Martin Limon on Sunday July 15th at 4pm. To give you an idea of what to expect, Mr. Hallinan was kind enough to answer some questions for us.

MysteryPeople: How would you describe your books?

Timothy Hallinan: The Poke Rafferty books are thrillers, which I hope are character-driven. While the thriller plot begins and ends in each book, the story of the little family that’s at the center of the series (and that’s the element I care most about) continues from book to book. The father figure is Poke (short for Philip) Rafferty, an American travel writer who came to Thailand to write a book and stayed to start a new life; his wife, nicknamed Rose, whom he met when she was dancing in one of the red-light bars on Patpong Road, once Asia’s most lurid street; and their adopted daughter, Miaow, now 12 or 13 (no one knows) whom they adopted off of the sidewalk. They’ve all been damaged and they all need to make a home, so they’re trying with all they’ve got to create one across gulfs of religion and culture and expectations and personal experience. They’ve been together five years now, and if anything the bonds are getting stronger, although Miaow is now entering a very difficult age.

MP: What first took you to Bangkok?

TH: In 1981 I was working on a PBS series about the first tour of Japan by an American symphony orchestra, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and I was supposed to take a few weeks off in Japan when filming ended. But it was the coldest February in decades, so I called my travel agent (there were still travel agents then) and asked her to send me someplace that was both Asian and warm. She suggested the Philippines, but I’d spent a couple of months there working on a dreadful movie, and it wasn’t a happy experience, so I went for choice number two, Thailand. I landed in Bangkok wearing a down jacket and a woolen cap on a day when the temperature was just below 100. The immigration guys were falling off their chairs laughing at me as I crossed the terminal, and that was the first time in my life I ever saw immigration people laugh. I was in love with Bangkok by the end of the first couple of days. I’ve had an apartment there ever since.

MP: What makes Bangkok a good setting for thrillers?

TH: It’s got everything, and at both extremes. It’s rich, it’s poor. It’s notoriously libertine and deeply religious. It’s one of the fastest-growing cities in the world as people stream in from the countryside to find new lives and find instead poverty and exploitation. It’s the most cheerful big city in the world but it’s also tragic. You can stand on any busy corner and see material for ten books in five minutes. And it’s rich in having a very peculiar expat population; it is, as Somerset Maugham said about Monte Carlo, a sunny place for shady people.

MP: There are people who look down automatically at books written about Bangkok by western men.

TH: Yes, and in some cases there’s good reason. There’s no shortage of what I think of as “me love you long time” books, rhapsodies of wish fulfillment in which gorgeous young brown women fall bewilderingly in love with uninteresting, middle-age white men. Those are rather emphatically not what I’m trying to write. The love stories in these books are among individual human beings (I hope), not two-dimensional racial slide projections. And it’s overwhelmingly monogamous. Rose and Poke have never fooled around, and Poke’s Thai best friend, Arthit, loses his wife in book number three and is inconsolable until he makes a somewhat problematical choice in the new one,The Fear Artist. If there were none of the bar life in the books, though, they wouldn’t be true, so there’s an aging group of discontented sexpats who hang out at a bar in Patpong and serve as a sort of chorus. They’re also a handy expository device.

MP: What’s The Fear Artist about?

TH: It’s about the War on Terror and what happens to someone who is, completely innocently, caught up in its periphery. There’s an ongoing Muslim insurrection in the south of Thailand, with five or six thousand people killed in the past four or five years, and the Americans are very much involved, largely behind the scenes, although they’ve tripled the U.S. Military presence in the country. One component of the War on Terror that most people aren’t aware of is The Phoenix Program, a campaign of assassination that the CIA managed for a couple of years in Vietnam—1800 people a month, on average, mostly civilians who were being suspected of being Vietcong cadres. It was the first time America engaged in wholesale assassination of possible noncombatants, and when the Pentagon was charged with coming up with a plan for the War on Terror after 9/11, they looked at the situation: the enemy largely unidentifiable, living invisibly in the general population in isolated villages, in a country where everyone hates us anyway, and they turned to The Phoenix Program. (When some suspected terrorist leader gets dusted by a drone in Afghanistan, that’s a late, high-tech echo of The Phoenix Program. The villain whom Poke faces in the book, Haskell Murphy, is a veteran of both Vietnam and Phoenix.

MysteryPeople welcomes Timothy Hallinan to BookPeople to speak about his work this Sunday, July 15 at 4p. He will be joined by Martin Limon. This event is free and open to the public. All are welcome.

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