Back when I had a real job, I was bi-coastal in the sense that I had homes in both Los Angeles and New York. Now that I just sit around with my feet up, occasionally knocking off yet another effortless novel (this is a pathetic attempt at self-hypnosis), I'm more widely “bi” then ever. I'm bi-continental.
My home towns, Los Angeles and Bangkok, are also the homes of the central characters in my two current series. Burglar-cum-private eye Junior Bender is an Angeleno, and American travel writer Poke Rafferty has taken root in Bangkok.
While I come by Los Angeles naturally (I was born there), Bangkok is one of life's little surprises. In 1981, I was in Japan, working on a PBS series about the first multiple-city tour of Japan by a western symphony orchestra, the Los Angeles Philharmonic. I planned to spend a few weeks there after the shooting wrapped, but it was the coldest February in decades, so I decided to go someplace warm, someplace that didn't require a visa. That pretty much narrowed it down to Thailand.
I fell in love with Bangkok within 24 hours. Part of it was how little like Los Angeles it seemed to be at first sight, but most of it was simply that it's the most cheerful big city on earth. Big Thai smiles everywhere—on the surface, at least, and at that point I was experiencing mainly the surface.
It took me quite a while to realize that Bangkok and Los Angeles are a lot more alike than I initially thought. That's one of the realizations that's dictated the way I write them.
All big cities are, on one level, ongoing collisions between dreams and concrete. They're driven by aspiration and exploitation, need and greed. It's probably not a coincidence that the traditional cozy is often set in a small, enclosed community while its hard-boiled cousin usually has a big-city ZIP code. In both Bangkok and Los Angeles, achieved dreams are on ostentatious display and protected by the invisible walls of the power structure, and new, usually powerless people arrive daily to seek everything from regular meals to the key to Aladdin's cave.
In Bangkok, Thailand's financial elite, discontent with its lion's share of the income from the nation's major cash crop, is slowly taking ownership of the rice farms in the Northeast, breaking down the tight-knit community support that ensured that no one starved between crops. Bangkok's population has grown by millions as impoverished, uprooted families poured in, ripe for exploitation. It's not that different from the Los Angeles exploitation of Hispanic immigrants, powerless without a green card.
Most Americans would probably share my initial impression, that Bangkok is more “exotic” than, say, the San Fernando Valley, where Junior hangs out. But I believe that exoticism, for writers, is a trap. That's why I lived in Bangkok for more than twenty years before I tried to write about it. To me, as a new arrival, the Thais seemed alien, otherworldly, graceful, dreamlike, venal, generous, other, but I came to see that for them, it's just Tuesday. They think we're exotic, and I'm eternally grateful that I didn't attempt to write about them before I understood that.
The other thing that makes these two settings a bit more alike has to do with my idea of what a “setting” is. I believe that setting is the interaction between character and place. Place without character is, I think, just scenery. “Bangkok” in the Poke Rafferty novels is actually several Bangkoks: it's Poke's, seen from the perspective of the foreigner who never quite breaks through the invisible film between him and this new world; it's Rose's, that of a northeastern village girl who was forced south into the sex trade and survived it; it's Miaow's, forged by her years as a homeless child being harried from one piece of sidewalk to the next. And it's Arthit's, the perspective of a somewhat disillusioned cop who once thought he'd change the world but has learned to be grateful for the opportunity to do the occasional small good deed.
The Junior Bender books are written primarily in the first person, which means they're set in a burglar's—Junior Bender's—Los Angeles. A burglar sees a street lined with palatial houses very differently than does someone with a map to the stars' homes. The real setting of the Junior novels is the shadow Los Angeles of crooks, with its own set of perils and opportunities.
But, of course, Los Angeles is also Show Business, and in all three Juniors thus far, we've entered the vast and often larcenous fringes of “the industry.” In Little Elvises, coming out in January, it's the fringe occupied by a specific kind of music business hanger-on, someone who had a hit in the past and can't stop trying for redemption.
But I write about Bangkok in Bangkok and LA in LA. It's nice in either case to be able to look up and grab a face, an interaction, a phrase—some sort of snapshot of life in your setting. (I steal faces from people in coffee shops all the time.) It's such an invaluable resource, being able to write, surrounded by your setting.
It almost makes me feel sorry for science-fiction writers.
Tim Hallinan authored the Simeon Grist mysteries and currently writes the Poke Rafferty thrillers and the Junior Bender mysteries (which have been optioned for film). A longtime writing teacher, he has also written a nonfiction book on Charles Dickens and recently edited the essay collection Making Story: Twenty-one Writers and How They Plot. In college Tim wrote songs and sang in a rock band, and many of his songs were recorded by well-known artists. He began writing books while enjoying a successful career in television. For more than 25 years he has divided his time, on and off, between Southeast Asia and his native California. He feels fortunate to be married to Munyin Choy-Hallinan. Visit his website at www.timothyhallinan.com for more information.