July 17, 2012

Made It Moment: Timothy Hallinan

Filed under: Made It Moments — jenny @ 6:50 am

The Fear Artist

I remember exactly where I was when I posted Tim Hallinan’s first Made it Moment. Sitting in the parking lot of a Barnes & Noble in Spokane, WA at the start of our return trip east.

And I remember how I felt as I posted it. “Timothy Hallinan is going to be on my blog! Timothy Hallinan is going to be on my blog!” I was already a fan. Tim’s books were the first in a series of foreign settings I was growing to love. Tim can make a person who’s never been abroad feel as if she lives there.

But there’s a darker edge to my memory, too, and it’s not related to the gritty underbelly of humanity that Tim’s fiction exposes. My memory has to do with the longing I felt as I posted Tim’s Moment. Would I ever be published? Would I ever have a moment of my own? Or a Moment?

It’s funny how life swivels. Here I sit the evening before we leave again on a cross-country odyssey. We’re about to head west, not east, and something else has flip-flopped as well.

My own publishing path. I don’t know yet if I will have a Moment, but at least I will have a book and hopefully be read. Tim is a writer who inspires with his work, and with his contact and offers of support. Tim always said I could do this, but that’s only part of why I am so glad to welcome him back to the blog with his latest (and dare I say best) Poke Rafferty book just hitting shelves and devices everywhere.

Congratulations on your release, Tim! Your readers and future readers are lucky.

Timothy Hallinan


It’s been almost two years since my first “made it moment,” and I still don’t feel like I’ve made it.  I haven’t sold a zillion books.  I haven’t written a book that entirely pleases me—in fact, there isn’t one that’s free of passages that make me cringe or characters who seem only half-born.

What I do feel is fortunate.  All I “have” to do in my little world, aside from the everyday demands of life and marriage, is make up stories and, once in a while, promote them.  I get to spend day after day with characters I like (most of them, anyway), following them through adventures I don’t seem to plot at all.

I’ve now “written” eighteen novels, and the process by which these things are created is more mysterious to me now than it was back in the Pleistocene, when I first sat down at a keyboard.  In fact, I understand it less.  Lately, the best simile I can think of for my writing process is that I feel like the window the book blows in through.

In the one I just finished, THE FEAR ARTIST, I started with the idea that my hero, Poke Rafferty, would be—through no fault of his own—caught up on the periphery of the War on Terror, which is being conducted with some vigor and a lot of U.S. support down south in Thailand.  I wanted him to seem completely innocent even to people who have never read any of the other books in the series, so I opened the book with him coming out of a paint store, toting cans of the colors (Apricot Cream and Urban Decay) chosen by his wife and adopted teenage daughter to brighten up their apartment.  A homely little chore with no danger in it.

I knew that he would promptly be knocked down by a running man who would subsequently be killed, and that a brief verbal exchange between the two of them would put Poke in the sights of the War on Terror with the potential to be “collateral damage,” which is a 21st-century euphemism for “dead.”

That was all I had.  Eight months and 100,000 words later, I was looking at a complex, compound story with half a dozen important characters.  It was full of intimate betrayal, unexpected loyalty, retired Cold War spies, Poke’s half-Chinese (but all-competent) 17-year-old half-sister, a hopelessly lost Thai street girl, a badly damaged child, and the scariest and most complicated villain I’ve ever written.  So where did it all come from?

It blew in through the window.

I mean, sure, it took a lot of work: I had timelines to check, details to verify, plot threads that ended nowhere, other plot threads that began out of nowhere, and flat, fat writing to liven up and lean down.  But the story itself, all those people—I don’t actually recall making all that up.  It’s the old distinction between making it up and getting it down; most of the time, I felt like I was getting it down.

There was one very clear exception.  Halfway through writing the book, the real, physical Bangkok began to flood, and it immediately struck me that the flooding, in its magnitude and imprecision, was an apt metaphor for the War on Terror.  I went back to the very beginning of the first chapter and wrote the rain in, and when Poke finally gets back to his apartment after the opening scene and sits at the window, nursing a beer, I wrote:

. . . The sky above the city is still there, although it’s been broken up into rectangles by girders like black fold lines, and he scans it for the halting, zigzag flight of bats. Bats in the city delight him—the preservation of wildness they suggest. Sees a lot of them, random tatters of black against a lowering gray sky.

To the north the sky grows even darker and the world disappears, as it has for weeks, in a shroud of rain: the worst monsoon season in sixty years, a huge blunt-force weapon a quarter of a country wide, striking wherever it pleases, filling and overfilling dams, swelling rivers, flooding entire towns, heedless of human life, human dreams, human prayers. As random, murderous, and unmalicious as a bolt of lightning.

And that—pretty much the only really conscious decision I remember making—set the tone for the rest of the book: the force arrayed against Poke as shapeless and massive, it seems to him, as the monsoon, and as impossible to fight. Virtually everything else in the book came to me as a discovery rather than as an invention, reminding me of the thing my friend Robb Royer likes to say—that writing is not so much architecture as it is archeology, that we’re not creating things so much as we’re uncovering them, and that the art is to do it so we don’t break what we uncover.

I’ve just finished editing an ebook called MAKING STORY: TWENTY-ONE WRITERS ON HOW THEY PLOT, and it was kind of reassuring to realize that nobody else really knows how it works, either; it’s a mystery to all of us, even those who meticulously outline.  (The book will be out in a month or so.)

So there’s another way in which I haven’t made it; I haven’t even begun to penetrate the mystery that’s at the heart of what we do when we tell stories.  And even though I’m obviously here under false pretenses, I’d like to thank Jenny for letting me natter on like this.  Or maybe she knows something I don’t, and I actually have made it.

Timothy Hallinan is the Edgar- and Macavity-nominated author of the Poke Rafferty Bangkok Thrillers (most recently, THE FEAR ARTIST, which Publishers Weekly called “heart-rending and unforgettable”), the Junior Bender Mysteries, and the Simeon Grist private eye series. He’s also edited two compilations of stories for ebook distribution—SHAKEN: STORIES FOR JAPAN, from which all proceeds went to Japanese tsunami relief efforts, and the upcoming MAKING STORY: TWENTY-ONE WRITERS ON HOW THEY PLOT. He lives in Santa Monica and Bangkok and he is fortunate enough to be married to Munyin Choy. After he makes it, he would like some day to edit an ebook without a colon in its title.


  1. Nice post, Tim. I can’t wait to read The Fear Artist. You make Bangkok so real for me–I know what Jenny means about feeling as if she lives there when she’s reading your books. Glad your window is wide open for the stories to blow through.

    Comment by Ellis Vidler — July 17, 2012 @ 7:47 am

  2. Thanks for sharing Tim! Your book sounds great and I have it on my list to read. That little bit you gave us did make me feel like I was there.

    Comment by Kellie — July 17, 2012 @ 7:58 am

  3. Lovely post. Thanks Tim and Jenny for being here.

    Comment by Theresa de Valence — July 17, 2012 @ 9:11 am

  4. Hello Timothy, Poke Rafferty is why I read your stories in the first place. The characters, the sense of place, the pacing and the plot were so well crafted I could not put the book down. Then Junior Bender came along, and he was just as captivating so I looked into Simeon Grist as well. Yep, I’ve read them all and while some are better than others, each one is a terrific read.

    So, I need to set aside a block of time for FEAR ARTIST. As soon as I buy it I will read it and once started, it will be impossible for me to put it down.

    Comment by G. Thomas Gill — July 17, 2012 @ 9:37 am

  5. Wow great post. Eighteen novels and he still doesn’t feel like he’s made it? His humility is admirable. Glad to know all artists still feel vulnerable at times.

    I am not alone.

    I wish him nothing but the best of success! Can’t wait to read the new book about plot.

    Comment by Ruth Douthitt — July 17, 2012 @ 10:25 am

  6. Hi Tim,

    I’ve always wanted to see Bangkok, so I will start with your book. The setting sounds so intriguing.
    And Jenny, I so look forward to your “MIM” post. You’ve introduced me to so many wonderful writers, including you.

    Comment by Kathleen Kaska — July 17, 2012 @ 10:28 am

  7. An open letter to the world:

    Colons are good. Protect them. Tim Hallinan is better. Correction: Tim Hallinan is the best. He delivers on what he promises. No more so than with THE FEAR ARTIST.

    Comment by Jeffrey Siger — July 17, 2012 @ 12:01 pm

  8. Tim, you put into words so eloquently the feeling I have about my writing, sophomoric as it may be. To be able to make sense of those “wind falls” is something else. You have definitely made it and good for you!

    Jenny, I look forward to your MIM, too.

    Comment by Coco Ihle — July 17, 2012 @ 1:36 pm

  9. Wonderful post, Tim. Ever since Jenny introduced me to your Poke Rafferty books, I’ve been doling them out to myself. Thank goodness there’s another one out. They’re not fast reads though because I keep having to say to my husband, “Listen to this paragraph!” He’s a fan of elegant writing. You provide it, even in your MIM.

    And, Jenny, I’m sure your many friends and fans across the country join me in chuckling at your modesty. Your Moment most certainly awaits you.

    Comment by Elizabeth C. Main — July 17, 2012 @ 1:53 pm

  10. Tim says his ideas come through the window. Got to thinking about where we get our ideas.
    Before my hearing started to fade it would be a line I over heard while eating out. Still have more than one napkin with notes.
    Enjoyed the post.

    Comment by Nash Black — July 17, 2012 @ 3:24 pm

  11. Hi, everyone, and thanks. Jenny draws such a nice crowd.

    I’m suffering a bit of post-partum depressionm (always, after a book comes out) and all the great things you’ve written cheer me up very considerably. I’m glad you liked the post, and I hope you like the book. And Ruth, it’s not that I’m humble, just that I know I’ve still never written a book that was as good as I’d thought it would be when the pages were still blank. But I keep trying.

    Comment by Timothy Hallinan — July 17, 2012 @ 4:30 pm

  12. Fortunately, for your readers, you keep trying, and succeeding, so well. The Fear Artist is so good, and with all your accolade, you may not please yourself, but you really have managed to please a ton of people, including me.

    Comment by Lil Gluckstern — July 17, 2012 @ 5:25 pm

  13. Hi, Tim and thanks to Jenny for putting up your fine post.
    My review of THE FEAR ARTIST is now up at Amazon. Amazing book! Good luck with it.
    Pat Browning

    Comment by Pat Browning — July 17, 2012 @ 5:40 pm

  14. Tim, can’t wait to get a grip on this book. And it will have to be a tight one because, if I want to read it first, I’ll have to keep it away from my husband. I’m a huge fan of Poke and his crew, but Mike’s admiration exceeds mine.

    Comment by Carolyn J. Rose — July 18, 2012 @ 10:03 am

  15. Tim,

    I’m very impressed by your writing style and creative depth.

    Best of luck with your new work.

    Comment by Jacqueline Seewald — July 19, 2012 @ 5:41 pm

  16. I think being dissatisfied is part of the condition of being a writer. I certainly identify with that cringe reflex. For what it’s worth,those two paragraphs sold me. I look forward to reading your work,

    Comment by Anita Page — July 19, 2012 @ 9:16 pm

  17. Great post Tim and Jenny. The more I write the more I think that the Made it Moments are so small that, standing alone, they don’t really make up a moment. Maybe after a decade or two or three they will all combine to be that perfect moment.

    Comment by Johanna — July 25, 2012 @ 12:05 pm

  18. Patti,We had basement fldooing after some bad storms last week. This isn’t the first time, and I decided while cleaning up to get this fixed once and for all. I couldn’t in good conscience spend the money on Bouchercon without knowing how extensive the waterproofing might have to be, ad whether anything else might need to be replaced.I fully intend to be in Cleveland. See you there.

    Comment by Isna — December 12, 2015 @ 9:06 pm

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