Timothy Hallinan is the Edgar-, Shamus-, and Macavity-nominated author of sixteen widely praised books, including The Fear Artist, For the Dead, Crashed, Little Elvises, and Herbie’s Game, winner of the Lefty Award for Best Humorous Crime Novel. His seventh Bangkok thriller in the Poke Rafferty series, The Hot Countries, hits shelves on October 4.
Of the three characters in the Poke Rafferty series—Poke, Rose, and Miaow—you say Miaow is your favourite. Who is she?
I really see the series as having a triple protagonist: the members of a makeshift family, three people with literally nothing in common—an American travel writer, a former bar worker, and a little girl who was abandoned on the sidewalk at the age of two or three. They all understand that this often difficult relationship may be their last chance at home and happiness. They’re in it together, so to speak.
Miaow—the adopted daughter—is based on a real child I met in the early 1990s, a gum-seller in the Patpong area, who used to stare in amazement at my laptop as I wrote in a restaurant window. Eight or nine, filthy, but with a ruler-straight part in her hair because that was the one aspect of her life that she could control. Eventually, I waved her in, bought her a Coke, set up Pinball on the laptop, showed her how to work the flippers, and took a walk. When I got back, the booth was empty, there were two packs of gum stacked neatly on my plate, and the pinball score was astronomical. I saw her dozens of times after that, until she disappeared a year or so later. Her name really was Miaow, and I put her in the books hoping that it might produce a little sympathetic magic; as things worked out for the child in the books, I hoped, some of it might shade over into the real child on the street. I actually tell the story of how I met her in The Hot Countries, but in the book it’s Poke she meets.
When you’re writing adults, three or four years don’t mean much, but to a child it’s an eternity. Over the course of seven books, Miaow has learned to trust her adoptive parents, she’s worked her ass off to get into a good school (where she hides the shame of her past on the streets), she’s had her heart broken, and now, at fourteen, she’s decided to be, God help us, an actress. And every day she changes a little more. I never know where she’ll be in the next book.
You’ve been described as a Dickens writing about modern-day Thailand. In fact, you once wrote a book about Dickens. You also weave Shakespearean references into the Poke series.
The Dickens comparisons come, I think, because he was the great Victorian writer of children, and there are so many kids in the Rafferty series. I think children are fascinating characters because they don’t get a vote. Up to a certain point, virtually everything in their lives is determined by adults. The Rafferty books are full of kids getting raw deals, whether they’re poor or rich.
Both Dickens and Shakespeare—certainly the greatest writer ever to work in English—had the gift of being able to see things whole: not just the street corner (or the throne room) but the complex network of fears and desires that drive what happens in those places, and at the same time they could place all that within their private understanding of how this endlessly mysterious world works. And, finally, they could take whatever they wrote and make it fascinating. I’m thrilled to be mentioned in a sentence with Dickens, but if anyone ever compared me to Shakespeare I’d say he or she was delusional. I’d say thanks, too, of course.
Describe Rafferty’s Bangkok.
Some people define setting as place, but to me it’s place as characters experience it. There are several Bangkoks in the Rafferty books. Rafferty, who first experienced it as an adult from the Western world, lives in a completely different Bangkok than Rose, who ran away to it and became a bar girl, or Miaow, who was given a big lemon ball by her parents and then tied by her wrist to a bus bench and left there, and who didn’t accept that they weren’t coming back until the candy was finally gone. The streets, to her, are nothing like the streets her parents experience, and that lets me write Bangkok, in a sense, in several dimensions. Of course, one of the magical things about Bangkok, from a writer’s perspective, is that it has all these kinds of people in it. You can stand on any Bangkok sidewalk and see three possible novels in five minutes.
There’s a kind of preview of part of The Hot Countries in the anthology Bangkok Noir. How did that come about?
I was thinking about the story that would become The Hot Countries (in a very different form) when the inestimable Christopher G. Moore e-mailed me to ask if I’d like to contribute a short piece to that book. I’d only written one short story since eighth grade, and I tried to beg off, but then Wallace came to mind and I took a fragment of one way my book might conceivably have gone and wrote it as a story called “Hansum Man,” unwittingly ripping off Dean Barrett. Much to my surprise, people liked it. Part of that story is in The Hot Countries, but framed differently and with a different ending. So having read the story doesn’t let you off of reading the book.
On the surface, Bangkok is not the city that I first saw in the 1980s, when parts of it deserved the descriptive phrase Somerset Maugham applied to Monaco, “A sunny place for shady people.” Now it’s a world-class city in every regard, and yet its spirit seems to me to be the same, a unique and almost musical mixture of the sublime and the appalling. “A man who is tired of London is tired of the world,” as Dr Johnson said, and in the 21st century, I think that’s true of Bangkok. I can’t imagine ever running out of things to write about it.