My thanks to Tim Hallinan, one of my favorite crime writers, for asking such good questions in this interview with me published today in the literary magazine, Literary Orphans.
1. Unlike many of us who turn to writing when the demon seizes us, or when we’ve failed at everything else, you’ve been writing your entire adult life. In what ways did your experience as a newspaper reporter and editor prepare you for fiction?
Daily journalism is the antithesis of nearly everything a fiction writer tries to do. Journalists write “reports” or “articles” that are typically organized into hideous, archaic forms such as the inverted pyramid. They rarely write anything with a story arc and seem opposed to suspense on general principle. Journalism serves up name, age, and job title as a substitute for characterization. Street addresses often pass for setting. And entire newspapers are written in the voice of the guy who drones on for an hour at the Cub Scout banquet while everyone fidgets and prays that he will stop. Journalists persist in calling their creations “stories,” but the irony is lost on many of them. I spent forty years rebelling against the traditions of the profession, striving to instill the qualities of so-called “literary nonfiction” into the daily news stories, explanatory journalism, and investigative pieces I wrote and edited. I had my share of successes, but the daily battle was exhausting. Journalism did provide me with a wealth of experiences to draw on—characters, places, and anecdotes that throb with story possibilities. But anyone who has lived a life and remained relatively conscious should be able to say the same. The most important lesson I took with me as I moved from journalism to fiction is that writing is a job, something you do every day whether you are in the mood or not. You do not wait for inspiration. You do not search for your muse. You are not allowed to have writer’s block. You plant your butt in the chair and write.
2. What are the rewards of doing journalism, and what are the rewards of writing fiction? I mean personal rewards, not prizes or money.
Because the public’s impression of journalists is formed largely by watching the likes of Rachel Maddow, Anderson Cooper, and Megyn Kelly, many people think it’s an exciting, even somewhat glamorous, profession. For the vast majority of journalists, it is anything but. Most news reporters spend their professional lives jotting notes at soul-sucking public meetings, shouting questions at a press conferences, interviewing the weirdo who amassed the country’s third-largest ball of string, being lied to by public officials, having doors slammed in their faces, and standing in the rain watching something burn. This is not what most of them signed up for. They enter the profession consumed by the desire to make a difference—to expose corruption, speak truth to power, and tell the public how our world really works. Few get the chance. I was one of the lucky ones. I spent the first twenty-six years of my journalism career writing and editing investigative and in-depth explanatory pieces for The Providence Journal and The Hartford Courant back when they were among the finest small-city dailies in America. I spent another fourteen years at the Associated Press editing a group of elite national writers and foreign correspondents who excelled at doing the same thing. The last story I edited there exposed the plight of children, some as young as five years old, laboring in the gold mines of West Africa. The story traced the gold as it passed through a series of middlemen into the coffers of Swiss banks and then on to some of the world’s leading producers of luxury goods. I took great satisfaction in seeing such stories in print, but the erosion of the news business’s economics have sharply reduced the opportunities to do such work. I didn’t leave journalism; it left me. Crime novels give me another way to reach mass audiences with stories that matter. My novels work as suspenseful entertainments, but each also addresses a subject of social concern. For example, my latest novel, A Scourge of Vipers, is both a hard-boiled crime story and an examination of the corrupting influence of big money on politics and the hypocrisy surrounding illegal sports gambling.
3. Taken together, your novels present an extended and melancholy elegy for the death of the great American newspaper. Is this a story you intended to tell from the beginning? What have we lost, and why does it matter so much? What, if anything, has arisen to take the newspapers’ place?
Although I’m critical of the way newspapers are written, there is no question that they have been the backbone of the American democracy since the founding of the republic. For more than two centuries, newspapers provided essential information about public affairs from the smallest prairie towns to the corridors of power in Washington, D.C. Now, newspapers are circling the drain. I cannot overstate what a catastrophe this is for all of us. There is nothing on the horizon to replace them as honest brokers of information. The old broadcast TV networks, undercut by competition from cable, have cut way back on their reporting staffs—and they were never all that good to begin with. Cable TV news has deteriorated into a platform for partisan propaganda, shouting talking heads, and celebrity trivia. And the few online news sites that try to do an honest job lack the resources to do much original reporting, drawing much of their news from shriveling newspapers. A handful of large papers, including The New York Times and The Washington Post, continue to do a solid job of covering national and international affairs, although they aren’t nearly as comprehensive as they were two decades ago. But as newspapers continue to decline, who will cover our town halls and state legislatures? When I worked at The Providence Journal in the 1970s and 1980s, that paper reported on every one of the state’s 39 cities and towns. Today, most of them go entirely uncovered. Good reporting is expensive. Investigative reporting is even more expensive. And so far, no one outside of the declining newspaper industry has demonstrated either the
willingness or the resources to pay for it. In my first novel, Rogue Island, my protagonist, Liam Mulligan, investigates a series of arsons that are destroying the working-class Providence, R.I. neighborhood where he grew up. I made him an investigative reporter, instead of a private eye or a cop, because I wanted to explore the sorry state of American journalism. In each of the succeeding novels, the dying newspaper Mulligan works for has continued to decline, making it increasingly difficult for him to do the serious reporting he lives for. It is my hope that as readers see the skill and dedication with which Mulligan works, they will gain a greater appreciation for what is being lost as the business Mulligan and I love fades into history.
4. Given the sheer number of American novelists who came out of a newspaper background, what effect do you think the decline of print journalism will have on American fiction?
Print journalism has long been a breeding ground for crime novelists. Michael Connelly, who made his bones at The Lost Angeles Times, and Laura Lippman, who once wrote for The Baltimore Sun, spring immediately to mind. Today, a startling number of newspaper reporters and editors are looking to crime fiction as their golden parachute. Nearly every week, I hear from one or two of them looking for advice on how to make the transition. I wish all of them well, but sadly, some of them don’t write well enough to make a go of it.
5. How much information about a book do you need to begin to write, and how much comes to you on the fly? How would you describe your novel-writing creative process? Can you give us some examples from one of your books?
I start only with a general idea of what a book will be about. For example, I began Cliff Walk, the second book in the series, with the notion of juxtaposing the two extremes of Rhode Island society—the Newport mansions and the state’s legal (until recently) prostitution business. I just threw those two worlds together and set my characters in motion to see what would happen. Writing this way allows the characters to take over the story, as if they have wills of their own. In my first book, Rogue Island, my protagonist’s ex-wife started out as a minor irritant and turned into a vengeful bitch. A big dangerous hit man shrank to five-foot five and developed a bad case of psoriasis. A fire chief who began as a minor character decided to become a major one. And then he decided he was a she. I enjoy discovering the story as I write; and I figure that if I don’t know what’s going to happen next, my readers probably won’t either. I never outline, partly because my mind doesn’t work that way but also because discovering what is going to happen next is what sits me down at my desk every day. If I knew in advance how the story would turn out, my need to write it would evaporate.
6. Given the components of a novel – story, characters, voice, setting, tone, etc. – which are most important in your novels? Which come most easily to you, and which are more difficult to get your arms around? Which is the most fun?
It’s become fashionable to insist that characters matter most, but I think each element is equally important. The quality of the work depends on all of them working together in harmony. I can’t begin, however, until I get the voice right. For me, everything flows from that. When I started Providence Rag, the third book in the series, the first sentence I typed was this: “Larry Bird had been living in Mulligan’s kitchen for less than a week, and already he’d become a big pain in the ass.” And with that, I was off and running. The sentence—about a parrot named after one of New England’s greatest sports heroes—ended up in chapter 12, but without it, I might still be staring at a blank screen. The book I’m writing now, tentatively titled Dreadline, was launched with this sentence: “He was a serial killer, but I didn’t hold that against him.” Thanks to that start, the book is now two-thirds finished. The late great Robert B. Parker, author of the Spenser and Jesse Stone novels, once told me that people read his books for the same reason they listen to certain songs—that they like the way they sound. That’s why I read every sentence I write out loud. The easiest and most enjoyable part of the writing for me is dialogue. I usually write it fast, letting it spin off in unpredictable directions, just as conversations do in life. Once I finish drafting such a passage, much of it has to be discarded. But there are always a few gems I would never have written if I’d planned it in advance.
7. At the end of your new book, A Scourge of Vipers, you credit poet Patricia Smith (to whom you are fortunate enough to be married) for editing “every line, adding musical notes to my sometimes toneless prose.” Most writers knows what it feels like to be edited structurally, sometimes well and sometimes not so well, but this is the kind of help that’s sadly unavailable to those of us who aren’t you. Can you show us how it works, maybe even citing a passage or two?
My wife is one of our greatest living poets. I speak at Mystery Writers of America. She speaks at Carnegie Hall and the Library of Congress. I win the Edgar Award. She wins two Pushcart prizes, the Rattle Poetry Prize, the National Poetry Series award, the Bobbitt Prize, the Lenore Marshall Prize, and a Guggenheim fellowship. I become a finalist for the Shamus Award. She becomes a finalist for the National Book Award. If she’d won that one, too, I might have had to kill her—or maybe myself. (In case you are
reading this, baby, that was a joke.) The fact that I am married to this amazing woman astonishes me daily. We’re a great team. I edit her poetry; she edits my fiction. Our writing styles are nothing alike, and that’s what makes the partnership work. Her writing is rich to the point of being sensual. Mine can be spare to the point of sensual deprivation. I help her make her work tighter and crisper. She helps me make mine more descriptive and lyrical. But her biggest contribution is helping me create credible love scenes (both on and off the page.) Writing about romance always leaves me flummoxed. What would Mulligan say to his girlfriend? How would she react? Darned if I know. But Patricia does. Once, when Mulligan needed to apologize to his girl, I decided he should buy her something. But what? Patricia’s answer: “Get her something she can wear against her skin.”
8. We’ve all seen talented writers who are lucky enough to write lengthy series slip in quality, sometimes through waning enthusiasm or even becoming dependent on repetitive tropes or story elements. You’re writing a successful series right now. How do you stay fresh, engaged, and growing?
Literature professors insist that a novel cannot succeed unless the protagonist is transformed in some meaningful way. Yet some of the most popular characters in crime fiction, such as Lee Child’s Jack Reacher, remain unchanged in book after book. I don’t write like Child. I don’t even know how. The ordeals I put Mulligan through in each novel can’t help but change him. In Cliff Walk, for example, he initially views prostitution as a victimless crime. He thinks that what men do with their money and what women do with their bodies is nobody’s business but their own. But as he investigates the public corruption that allows prostitution to flourish, he is forced to wade through the ugly underbelly of the sex trade; and what he finds there challenges everything he believes about both sexual morality and religion. The evolution of Mulligan’s character keeps each new story fresh for me. That said, I may take a break from Mulligan once I finish the novel I’m working on now. A new character named Dante, a young guy who grew up in a family of criminals and is trying to decide which side of the law to live on, is nagging me to write a book about him.
9. Name two novels you wish you’d written, and tell us what it is about them that you admire so strongly.
Only two? I guess Elmore Leonard’s entire oeuvre is out, then. So let’s see . . . As a grandfather of seven, I have to go with Mo Willems’ Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! and Dr. Seuss’s Sneeches. But as a lover of crime fiction, I’ll say Dennis Lehane’s Mystic River, James Lee Burke’s In Electric Mist with Confederate Dead, Thomas H. Cook’s Red Leaves, Kate Atkinson’s When Will There Be Good News, George Pelecanos’s Night Gardener, Richard Price’s Clockers, and For the Dead by some dude named Hallinan. . . . Wait. Was that more than two already? . . . Okay, okay. I’ll play along. For a limited time only, I’ll settle on The Friends of Eddie Coyle by George V. Higgins and Winter’s Bone by Daniel Woodrell. Higgins’s first book set a standard for lowlife dialogue that has never been equaled. When Leonard was asked to rank the ten best crime novels of all time, he named that one ten times. With Winter’s Bone, Woodrell created one of the most unforgettable female protagonists in all of fiction, and the writing is so musical that you could break it into lines of verse and read the entire book as a lyric poem. That said, the opening paragraph of John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row is my favorite passage in the English language.
Timothy Hallinan was nominated for most of the awards Bruce DeSilva won, including the Edgar and the Macavity. He is the author of two current series, the Junior Bender Mysteries, about a Los Angeles thief who moonlights (usually at gunpoint) as a private eye for crooks, and the Poke Rafferty Bangkok thrillers, about an American travel writer and his cross-cultural family trying to preserve their relationship in the instant gratification capital of the world. He divides his time between Santa Monica and Bangkok and is fortunate enough to be married to Munyin Choy.