My Crime Cafe guest blogger this week is Timothy Hallinan, one of my favorite crime writers and just an overall good guy.
As my guest on the upcoming Crime Cafe podcast, we’ll discuss his many works, including the one you see pictured there off to the left. Looking like an old-fashioned pulp paperback book, worn from multiple reads and the usual wear and tear such books endure. Which is fitting, given the subject of the story. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
You can find out more about that intriguing-looking book, along with the many other series books Tim Hallinan has written. Just listen or watch the podcast/video that I’ll post here next week.
I might even throw in a question or two about Tim’s brief flirtation with a musical career! 🙂
In the meantime, you can enter Tim Hallinan’s giveaway contest for a copy of PULPED. Just leave a comment here expressing your interest, and I’ll make a note of your email entry.
So, without further ado, here’s Timothy Hallinan!
BLAME THE “WIND”
The summer I was eleven, my life changed.
We were living a suburb of Los Angeles where in July you can almost bake bread by putting it outside. Summer vacation was a bust. It was too hot to move, my best friend’s family was gone until August, and I had reached the state of paralysis that’s probably unique to energetic kids whose every impulse has been frustrated by a universe that seem to have turned against him. And it’s too hot.
I had taken up permanent residence on the living room couch. From time to time my mother would come in and pretend to dust me and say motherish things like, “Why don’t you go outside for a while? It’s not good, being cooped up in here,” and on and on and on, as mothers do.
At the end of the living room that I faced from the couch were the shelves containing my mother’s books. One of them stood out for its sheer, threatening thickness, and I decided to see whether I could read the whole thing before I died of boredom.
It was Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind. Within ten pages I had learned two things that changed me forever.
First a thick book is not necessarily a forbidding book. Thickness just means you’ll be able to stay in its world longer. Second, characters on a page can be more real than your mother, even when she’s standing over you in the flesh, brandishing a dust rag.
Say what you want against Gone With the Wind, and God knows there are things to be said against it. But that book drew a line across my life, and when I had finished it and crossed the line, my course was set in two ways: I was a reader of fat books, and I was going to be a writer.
Both of these things shaped the person I am today. Thanks to the sheer thickness of Gone With the Wind, I dove unafraid into the Victorian novelists, into Dostoevsky and Tolstoy and Pynchon and Proust, books that opened me to previously unimaginable people, places, and ideas. Thanks to the fact that the real appeal of GWTW is its characters, I became a writer who puts character ahead of everything, who has no idea where a story is going until a character takes him there. I couldn’t create an outline in advance even if failure to do so would result in the loss of my creative license.
Which means that my characters, for better or (sometimes) for worse, are real to me.
So, finally, to the point. In the first half of the 1990s I wrote six books about an overeducated Topanga Canyon slacker named Simeon Grist who worked-when forced to-as a private eye. The books were greeted with enthusiasm by the critics and total indifference by the reading public. After the sixth one sank into the cluttered seascape of the remainder shelves, my publishers declined a seventh and I decided to take a hiatus from writing and focus on something less psychically bruising, like making money.
And in 2003 or 2004 I began to be published again, writing two simultaneous series this time, which should have kept me busy, but . . .
. . . but I couldn’t stop thinking about Simeon.
He’d felt so alive to me. I’d invested half a million words in him. He’d led me into story after story without seeming to sense me as I looked over his shoulder, frantically taking notes. He’d made friends and earned enemies. What had happened to them? What had happened to him?
That question refused to leave me alone, and a few years back I attempted to deal with it in the first draft of the seventh Simeon Grist novel, which is called Pulped. Seven more drafts, and at long last it’s done, it’s out, and it’s available on Amazon.
The biggest question the book had to answer, of course, is what happens when a fictional character is abandoned-when his writer stops writing him, his publisher stops publishing him, the bookstores stop carrying him, and his readers turn into a shrinking tribe whose members pick him up once or twice a year for nostalgia’s sake? When, to all purposes, the series vanishes?
In the amount of time it took me to write the first sentence, I knew what happens. At some point after a series tanks, the last unsold copies are pulped-ripped apart, shredded, and pressed into newsprint for those annoying shopping papers that land unrequested and unwanted in front of your door.
And at the exact moment those books are pulped there’s a pop, and the detective finds himself in a low-budget crime fiction limbo, in the house or apartment that was written for him. His neighbors are other failed detectives from all periods and genres of crime fiction. They’re depressed bunch.
Most bewildering of all, the character-Simeon Grist, in this case-discovers he’s fictional. He realizes suddenly that all those times it felt like it took him too long to solve the crime, or his dialogue wasn’t all it should have been, or he didn’t score with the dame in the raincoat-it was because his writer wasn’t very good. But, of course, that means that his heroics, his best moments, weren’t really his, either.
And as he’s trying to digest all this “up there” in the limbo, he learns that someone “down here” is murdering his few remaining readers. Well, he’s a detective, even if he is fictional. He has to find a way “down here.” He has to discover the limitations of being fictional in the real world. He has to find the killer. And he has to do all of that in twenty-four hours.
Oh, and there’s this young woman. A real young woman, with parents and everything. And the possibility of real love, whatever that might be. With his hands both full and his heart in danger of breaking, he has to face another wild card: his writer is “down here” somewhere.
The first few early readers to whom I sent the book remarked that it wasn’t exactly what they were expecting. Well, it wasn’t what I was expecting, either. As I’ve done in everything I’ve written since I read Gone With the Wind, I just tagged along behind the characters and, more or less, experienced the story at the same time they did. One of the advantages of this approach is that I hear the jokes at the same time they do, and I can honestly say that I’ve never laughed out loud more often while writing a book than I did with this one.
So I hope you’ll give Pulped a try and that you’ll like it. But if you don’t you can blame it on Margaret Mitchell.
Timothy Hallinan is the author of twenty-one widely praised novels and has been nominated for every major crime fiction award. He currently writes two series: the Junior Bender Mysteries, which include Herbie’s Game (winner of the Lefty Award for best comic crime novel), and the Poke Rafferty Thrillers, set in Bangkok―most recently The Hot Countries―and, coming in November, Fools’ River. Pulped is his first novel since 1995 to feature Simeon Grist. He lives in Los Angeles and Bangkok and is fortunate enough to be married to Munyin Choy.