Saturday, January 5, 2013

Homes, Sweet Homes

by Timothy Hallinan

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.

January 2013

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.

November 2012
In For the Dead, the sixth Poke book, which isn't yet finished, we see all those Bangkoks and several others as well, and I hope they provide their own kind of rhythm, the same way a series of camera placements can change the rhythm of a film.

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.

August 2012
One of the things Sandra Parshall asked me to think about, when she so generously invited me to blog, was (sort of) whether writing in the two cities felt different somehow.  Wherever I am, the writing life consists of a few friends, my wife (if I'm in Los Angeles), food, and a keyboard.  The keyboard doesn't vary because it goes with me.  My Bangkok friends are, arguably, more eccentric than my LA friends—Bangkok expats are a self-selecting group who really don't fit anywhere else.  Food is better in Bangkok than it is in the States.  Food is better in Bangkok than it is anywhere.  

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 for more information.


Peg Brantley said...

"… ongoing collisions between dreams and concrete." I love that!

It's clear, Tim, that you truly know the spirit of the places where your stories come alive. They have their own rhythms and smells and the reader is right there. You write them seamlessly (and effortlessly *wink*) because you know them so well.

I'm off to check my Hallinan collection because I think I must be missing one.

Timothy Hallinan said...

Thanks, Peg -- and if you're missing one, e-mail me and if I have extras I'll send you the one you don't have.

lil Gluckstern said...

What a nice surprise to find you here. It is clear, by your writing, that Bangkok has taken up residence in your blood. What is interesting is the contrast and the similarity between the two cities, which I wouldn't have thpught of. Glad to know there's more coming.

Julia Buckley said...

What in interesting post! I'm looking forward to discovering these books.

Kevin said...

Really enjoyed that, Tim. Thank-you. I have never liked science fiction writing. I think I understand that a little better now. While I cannot write like you I am fortunate to live in Bangkok and a California coastal community each year for the past twelve years. What I have learned from that is, when I am in Thailand, I enjoy Thailand. And when I am in California, I enjoy California. And if I run into anyone who complains about where they are at that moment, I do my best to distance myself from them as soon and as fast as is politely acceptable. Although, sometimes I have science-fiction fantasies in the middle of a conversation with them. Time travel has its place ...Looking forward to the next Poke book and I think it's time for me to get to know Junior too ... even if I have to read about him in Bangkok.

Sasscer Hill said...

Tim, love your comment about writing in a coffee shop surrounded by characters in the city you are writing about. I have to get out more . . .

Timothy Hallinan said...

Hi, Lil -- I bump into you everywhere, and it's always a delight. Both towns are dazzlers, for sure.

Hi, Julia. Thanks for the comment, and I hope the books don't disappoint.

Hey, Kevin -- you and I are identically bi-continental. I also flee those who moan about where they are--they seem to have forgotten that there are planes, trains, cars, and hiking boots. But the people I absolutely abjure are the one who tell you how much a place was 20 years ago, or at any rate, before I got there. These people I pay thugs to beat in the streets.

Sasscer, seems to me you get out quite a bit, given the number of cities where we've run into one another. But it is a short cut to have your cast of characters at the next table.

Kevin said...

These are the good old days, Tim. For Poke, Junior, you, me and anyone else who wants to join in. Admission is free ...

Sandra Parshall said...

Tim, I can't help it: Every time I hear or read mention of Thailand, I think of the song that goes, "One night in Bangkok makes a hard man humble..." The place does have a one-sided reputation, but your books offer a fuller and more forgiving view. You should have a lot of Thai fans.

We're delighted to have you here this weekend!

Donis Casey said...

Your comment about Thais being exotic to us, but them it's Tuesday, really resonated with me. I hesitated for years about setting a novel in Oklahoma because I thought of it as so ordinary, but I changed my mind on a flight to Ireland, when I told my seat mate where I lived and she said "What a place to be from!" No matter where you're from,it's exotic to most of the rest of the world. (Seat mate was from Tea Neck NJ, by the way. Now that's exotic.)

Mike Orenduff said...

"Place without character is, I think, just scenery." A great line and a great insight. I love the Poke books because they make Thailand - a place I've never been - seem familiar. They do that because of Poke's interactions with the city and its characters. And I love the Junior Bender books because they make even Southern California exotic. Good writing has no geographic boundaries.

Timothy Hallinan said...

Hi, Sandra -- Bangkok gets bad press and deserves it, but it doesn't get the good press it deserves. It's full of spirituality--one of the most profoundly Buddhist cities in the world, and the people (most of them) are good and sweet-natured. It's like any city in that sense -- complex and full of contradictions.

Hi, Donis, how you doing? That's exactly what I meant, and it's one reason I think "exoticism is so dangerous for writers--they're not writing the city, they're writing some fictionalized romanticized claptrap projected on the inside of their foreheads. I don't think I could write any place I didn't know well enough to know it's just Tuesday. We all come from exotic places, but we're too busy just getting along to notice it.

Mike, thanks so much for that. Both Poke's Bangkok and Junior's LA are filtered through those characters' consciousness, and I created both of those characters (I think), so they're probably more alike than I usually like to admit. Great to see you here.

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