I am happy to report that I am on the mend after a nine-round title bout with the Japanese healthcare system (more about that process in my next blog post); in the meantime, here is part two of a recent email interview with author Timothy Hallinan, whose new thriller, The Queen of Patpong, will hit bookstores late this summer. For those unfamiliar with Hallinan’s last several novels, the protagonist is an author by the name of Poke Rafferty, who writes a series of adventure travel books entitled “Looking for Trouble in (insert the name of exotic locale here)”. Needless to say, he finds trouble on a regular basis, and if somehow he misses it, trouble seems to find him. He lives in Bangkok with his Thai wife Rose, a former exotic dancer in the city’s notorious Patpong district, and their adopted daughter Miaow, a charmingly streetwise orphan speeding up the onramp to adolescence. They are a tightly knit family, but not without growing pains, both from cultural and historical perspectives:
Rafferty’s family figures into all the books, but it’s really front and center in THE QUEEN OF PATPONG. Where did the family come from?
It’s amazing to me that I started out to write a series of thrillers and wound up writing a family, but I did and they’re the most important element for me in the series. Every time in a new book when I describe, for the first time, the three of them in that living room with the sliding glass door and the couch and the white leather hassock, something in my chest sort of unlocks, the same way it does when I walk into my living room after months away.
First, I knew I didn’t want Poke to be alone. I can’t think of a reason why male protagonists in thrillers should always be solitary. Also, as someone who’s not Thai and never will be, I know that there’s truckloads of stuff I don’t understand about Thailand and Thai life, and I wanted to emphasize Poke’s status as an outsider and also give him a really good reason to need to understand better. He loves Rose and Miaow, and he needs to understand their world if he’s going to share it with them. I pretty much put that issue front and center in A NAIL THROUGH THE HEART when he proposes to Rose and she turns him down, in part because he doesn’t understand how disastrous for her a misstep could be.
It’s interesting for me to write the family because I’m partially writing about my relationship with my wife, but also because I’ve never been a father and Poke’s got a daughter, Miaow. The oddest thing of all is that Miaow is the easiest member of the family for me to write although I didn’t even have a sister. Somewhere inside me there’s a preadolescent (but not for much longer) Thai girl trying to get out.
And I always knew that I’d go back at some point and build a book around the story of Rose’s and Miaow’s lives before they met Poke. So this is Rose’s book (that was one of its early titles) and if the series continues for three or four books more, I’ll write a book about Miaow being abandoned on the sidewalk at three and how she survived. We told a little of that story in NAIL but there’s a lot left.
ROSE’S BOOK was an early title, and you’ve suggested there were several more. How did you wind up with THE QUEEN OF PATPONG?
The people at Morrow thought the book needed a more thrillerish (if that’s a word) title. I’d suggested ROSE’S BOOK and THE ROCKS, because of the barren rocks in the middle of the Andaman Sea that are so important toward the end of the section that tells Rose’s story, and the rocks that make up Prospero’s island in Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” which is woven throughout the book, and also the emotional rocks the family hits in the first third of the book. Besides wanting a less languid title, my editor also wanted, design-wise, to get the series down to street level. Up until now we’d had these sort of artsy titles and architectural snippets of Bangkok on the covers, and for this one and the paperback edition of BREATHING WATER they wanted to get closer to the things most people think of when they think of Bangkok. So the new cover of BREATHING WATER has a foreign guy and a Thai girl silhouetted in really lush fashion, and this one has the word PATPONG in the title and a very strong pink-neon cover.
All my warning alarms went off when I saw the two titles they proposed, THE QUEEN OF PATPONG and THE PATPONG GIRL. I’ve tried very hard to make it clear that these books aren’t in the me-love-you-long-time tradition of Bangkok writing in which beautiful young Thai women fall hopelessly and inexplicably in love with boring middle-aged Western men. So I screamed and waved my fists and they proposed I take it public – to “the cloud” as my editor put it. I went onto Facebook, CrimeSpace, DorothyL, and The Huffington Post asking people to vote for the title they liked best: THE ROCKS, THE QUEEN OF PATPONG, or THE PATPONG GIRL. THE QUEEN OF PATPONG won in a walk, and now I love it because the phrase acquires a completely new, and much darker, meaning as you read the book. So Gabe, you were right.
You’ve said you broke some rules in this book. Which ones, and why?
Well, the big one is kicking off a thriller plot, letting it intensify for about 30,000 words, and then abandoning it entirely for almost 43,000 words of backstory – the biggest chunk of the book, and Poke doesn’t appear in it. The backstory ends with Rose’s encounter, years ago, with the guy who’s threatening the family at the beginning of the book, and then we’re back in the present and the thriller plot picks up again.
I had no idea this was going to happen. I thought I’d tell Rose’s story in three or four chapters, maybe 8,000 words in total, maybe woven through the book. But when I went back in time to Rose’s village and started to write, the material just took hold of me. I knew something was happening when one character gave another an earring, and that earring and its mate had a story arc of their own that sort of parallels Rose’s entrance into the world of Patpong. When something magical like that happens – here’s an earring out of nowhere, it burns in Rose’s hand during the most difficult moments in her life, and then there are two of them and they become an essential part of her transformation – it’s at times like that when I know why I write.
I also give a lot of time to a very complicated antagonist, a really bad guy, without spending a syllable trying to explain how he got that way. I originally wrote a bunch of background, including childhood scenes and military psychiatric files, and I finally just decided the hell with it. We’d experience him the same way his victims did – whole and unholy. Toward the very end of the book we’re in his head for about thirty minutes, which was an absolutely brilliant idea suggested by my first editor on the book, Peggy Hageman. Thanks, Peggy.
So I had no idea whether the book was good, mediocre, or awful. The past few days have brought me welcome news – several early readers whose opinions I respect (including you) have suggested that the book works. That’s good news, because this one is close to my heart. The path Rose takes in THE QUEEN OF PATPONG is the path thousands of young women and girls take every year. For most of them, it’s a one-way trip. Rose, who ends up happily married and economically comfortable. is the exception.
But, of course, she’s fictional.