Timothy Hallinan Interview
by Brett Battles
Below is an extended version of the interview Tim did with Brett Battles for the Crimelandia print program book.
There was a time a few years ago when Tim Hallinan and I would write at the same café in Santa Monica—the aptly named Novel Café. I’d get there right when they opened, and Tim usually came in closer to lunch. For a few hours we would sit at neighboring tables, write, and occasionally run ideas by each other. One thing we always did was talk about writing and how much we enjoyed telling stories. I never saw Tim write when he wasn’t wearing headphones. Often, I’d even see him drumming along on the table, and mouthing the words. It was clear that music was critically important to him. When I was asked to interview him for Left Coast Crime, I knew that was what I want to question him about.
Brett Battles: One thing I always enjoy is checking out your Facebook page and seeing what music you’re listening to. Do you always listen to music as you write, and if so, how did this habit evolve?
Hallinan: I almost always write to music. The exceptions are the days when the scene has already written itself in my head while I was doing something else, and I just have to get it onto the page before I forget it. Otherwise, I've always got some playlist or other in my ears as I work.
It was a necessity at the beginning. I wrote most of my first series (which was about Los Angeles) in Bangkok, mostly in a restaurant, at a table on the other side of a window from Patpong Road, which every afternoon would transform itself from a dozey little stretch of banks and shops into the reality-rattling, neon-garbed sex queen of Southeast Asia. Needless to say, there was a lot of distraction. Since this was in 1990, so I used a portable CD player to seal myself off so I could concentrate. It became an essential part of my writing routine.
It was so essential that I designed a special piece of luggage and found a Bangkok leather worker to make it so I'd never run out of music. It held 40 CDs in a long row and two CD players, one each in a zippered compartment at both ends, pluscartridge loops for 36 double-A batteries. The whole thing hung from my shoulder and weighed a ton. I have no idea where it is. Now I have 10,000 songs on my hard drive and another 3500 on my phone. And I've become a freak for earbuds: my search for better ones never ends, and I currently have nine pairs. I think it's just barely possible that I'm obsessive.
What do you think music does for your writing?
Well, first, it builds this sort of bell jar in which it's just me, the music, the story, and the keyboard. Writing isn't that different from dreaming, and music can provide a soundtrack for the day's dream.
Second, it helps me manage anxiety. I have a certain amount of permanent anxiety when I'm writing. It's always there, like the universe's cosmic background radiation. From one perspective, my writing is all about anxiety. I have anxiety about writing (the current book is always the one that's going to collapse completely, and I'll never be able to write another) and I have anxiety about not writing. My “writing routine” is essentially waiting each day until my anxiety about not writing is stronger than my anxiety about writing, and it forces me to sit down to work.
Music lessens the anxiety. For one thing, it somehow reduces the height of the first step into the act of writing, which is to say, Sentence One. Occasionally, real magic happens, and the music and the words become one thing and I can write for quite a while with no anxiety at all. That happens without music, too, but most often the music is part of it.
Finally, like coffee, music can supply energy. For those stretches in which the story is moving along and there are no gigantic emotional high points or low points, what I want is just good, reliable energy, and that comes mainly from rock and roll and country. (Country snobs should skip to the next question.) I'll use everyone from Dylan to Jason Isbell to Aimee Mann to Vince Gill to Sleater-Kinney to The Fratellis to Arcade Fire to Lake Street Dive, just solid music with dependable, straight-ahead rhythm. Keeps the mind open, keeps the words flowing.
It almost seems like you create a soundtrack for every book you write. Is that how you feel about it?
For certain kinds of things, I try to match the music to the writing. An example: until a couple of years ago, I'd never had the nerve to write women alone in a room without men. That changed massively with The Queen of Patpong, and I've been writing almost continuously about women ever since. At this point I probably prefer to write about women.
But, of course, I've never had the pleasure (I assume) of being a woman. Fortunately for me, popular music is full of amazing women who write and perform their own work, so you're getting not only the perspective, but also the vocabulary, the spirit, the emotions, even the mode of expression of women at various stages in their lives. For Queen, which was mostly about Rose, and also for the latest Poke Rafferty, For the Dead.” which is mainly Miaow's book, I pretty much worked at the center of a crowd of gifted, emotionally open female singer/songwriters. My playlist for For The Dead included Tegan and Sara, Taylor Swift, Vienna Teng, First Aid Kit, Jenny Lewis, Frou Frou, Haim, Joni Mitchell, and dozens of others, And since Miaow is an adolescent and adolescence is essentially a country song, I also found insight in the work of a bunch of young country women including Lindi Ortega, Ashley Monroe, Amanda Shires, Kacey Musgroves, and on and on.
This music absolutely affected those books. They were, in a sense, written inside a cloud of estrogen.
But music affected For the Dead in another way, too. The band Miaow is listening to most often in the book is Fun (this was written while they were still relatively unknown), and their lyrics wound up supplying the book with its section titles: “We All Float…”; “…Until We Sink”; “Drowning Girls”; and “Aim and Ignite.”
And then there's mood. For the most suspenseful scenes, I use music that's got those properties, often classical. The Queen of Patpong contains the longest action scene I'd ever written to that point, when Rose is in the dark water of the Andaman Sea at night, dodging lethal jellyfish and trying to avoid a lunatic in a boat who wants to kill her. I wrote the entire sequence to Ravel's Piano Concerto for the Left Hand, just looping it over and over, and it pretty much handed me the scene.
As I write this, I'm in the middle of an action scene that may be even longer than that one, an extended burglary that's also an elaborate setup, in a pitch-black 54,000 square-foot house in Beverly Hills, built in the popular Americus Vulgaris style. There are several things in that house even more lethal than bad taste, things that can kill Junior. It's the (I hope) slam-bang beginning of the final act of King Maybe, the fifth Junior Bender book, and I'm using Beethoven's late string quartets, which are dark and full of dissonance and dynamic shakeups.
Do you have certain go-to artists? Who are they and what is it about their work that draws you to them over and over?
Dylan, especially the middle period from “Blonde On Blonde” through the beginning of the “born again” era. He was just surfing a tsunami of creativity at that point and dragging everyone else in the studio with him, and he can drag me, too, when I'm writing. The single piece of music I've used most frequently is his 8-9 minute masterpiece of undependable narrative, “Brownsville Girl.” I've written probably 70-80 pages to that single cut. It makes me feel like my imagination is a big, empty, electric room, and I'm sitting in the center of it with nothing else except my keyboard and my story.
The music thing has created a sort of dialogue with your readers, hasn't it?
Has it ever. At the end of each book, I write a little afterword in which, among other things, I talk about the music I used to write the book and ask people to go to my website and suggest music I might not have heard.
And I've gotten literally thousands of suggestions. Some people send me entire playlists. One guy did a whole page on his own site, actual mp3 files of music he thought I'd like. (It was great music too.) And this broadens my musical tastes and, more importantly, opens up a correspondence with these people—long-distance friendships.
It also paved the way for the most unforgettable fan interaction of my life. From the minute the first Poke Rafferty book came out, with one plot line focused on Poke and Rose's adopted daughter, Miaow, I began to get mail from people who were involved in the adventure of intercultural adoption. By and large, they said the same thing: it was like I was hiding in their closet and writing down everything they said and did.
I answered every email. The family with whom I exchanged letters most often were a couple living somewhere in the midwest who had adopted a little Thai girl, named Tippawan, who was a year or two older than Miaow. Naturally, Miaow gets older from book to book, and the couple kept writing to say that their daughter and Miaow had gone through the same phases. After the fourth book in the series came out, I went to a Bouchercon in Cleveland, and the last night was held at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The place was open to the general public, too, so there were lots of other people on hand. I was standing with a bunch of folks who had books they wanted signed when one of them, a young woman, said “I think she wants to talk to you,” and stepped aside so I could see a little girl of 11 or 12 smiling at me.
Before I could say anything, she said, “Hi. I'm Tippawan.” Standing proudly behind her, grinning their heads off, were her parents. I practically felt the floor move under me. We wound up going to dinner, where Tippawan told me I'd gotten her wrong some of the time but I'd absolutely nailed her parents, and they said I'd gotten them wrong once or twice, but I had Tippawan dead to rights. At the end of the evening, when we said goodbye, Tipawan's mother said to me, “You made it all easier.”
Best thing anyone ever said to me about my books, and I owe it to music.
Brett Battles would like you to believe he’s an extrovert who is the very epitome of normal. While at times he can project this façade, let’s face it, he’s a writer, so he spends most of his time alone in his head. If truth be told, he kind of likes it in there, though, realizing that he hasn’t had a real conversation in several days can be unnerving. Thankfully, he does occasionally get together with friends, emphasis on occasionally. Oh, and he has a dog who isn’t quite sure yet what to make of him. His new Quinn thriller, The Buried, will be out later this month.