Tuesday, April 28, 2020

SAYING GOODBYE: Guest Post by Timothy Hallinan


The world is full of lists of things that people are likely to regard as stressful experiences, a seemingly endless cornucopia of potential discomfort that rages from ingrown toenails and hangovers all the way through bereavement. Writers — or, at least, most of the writers I know — look upon the events on these lists as a kind of nascent material, something they might be able to fictionalize for a book, at least until they bang their real-life heads and/or hearts up against one of them. (Even when the real thing opens its dark wings and hovers above them, many writers are mentally taking notes.) After we've survived a couple of these life-changers, we start to look at those lists with a new and wary kind of interest, as though life's bummers are the bad songs on a limited playlist: sooner or later, whatever we do, they're going to pop up. These potential bereavements acquire a new weight and solidity and we begin, consciously or not, to measure ourselves against them, getting ready for the inevitable.

And then, bang, along comes one we haven't even dreamed of. In my case, it is a kind of bereavement, the bereavement of saying goodbye to characters I've lived with for years, who have become as real to me and as close to me as the people I say hi to most mornings. It's a family, although not a conventional one, and I'm just now realizing that emotionally I have been a member of it for more than a decade. I could say I created them, but our relationship seems to have changed me as much as it did them.

A long time ago when the world was young—in 2006, in fact—I decided to open a book called A Nail Through the Heart with a scene in which the protagonist, an American travel writer, holds his adopted daughter’s hand as they follow his wife down a Bangkok sidewalk, shopping for groceries.

I knew that this homey domestic tableau wasn’t the most electrifying opening in thriller history, but I wanted to say on the very first page that this was not a novel about Bangkok in which beautiful young Asian women threw themselves incessantly and inexplicably at uninteresting Caucasian men. My line of thought was something like man + wife + daughter + groceries = family.

The word family did the trick. Since I don’t know how to plot in advance, I barely knew who these people were, but the moment I realized they were a family, the primary aspects of their relationships revealed themselves to me, even though I hadn't yet discovered any of the details. I thought that it might be interesting to drop a normal—if intercultural and self-assembled—family, who are trying to establish and preserve relationships along traditional lines, into the world capital of instant gratification —Bangkok. It felt to me like the family might serve as a friendly campfire in a world of cold neon.

Most writers, I am convinced, make decisions on the fly because a notion feels right at the moment, and then they are forced to live with that decision for the rest of the book.

Or, in this case, nine books. Miaow, the street child whom Poke Rafferty and his Thai wife, Rose, adopted, was, on that opening page, little more than a prop to make readers think, “Look, a family man,” but she ultimately became (much to my surprise), the heart of the entire series.

The claim she staked in the series’ narrative line (and in my affection) was a total, and not always welcome, surprise. I had never written a child before and I’ve never fathered any in real life, and there were times when the challenge of getting her onto the page kept me up at night. But somehow, she always knew what to do, even when I didn’t have a clue. Especially when I didn’t have a clue. I’m going to miss her. Hell, I’ll miss all of them.

Writing is similar to theater in that characters—both major and minor—are like actors: some stick to the script; some rewrite their parts on the fly; some fight their way downstage center and demand more lines; and some just want to hide in the wings.

When a series grows, those wings get crowded as characters from earlier books begin to congregate there, waving their hands and whispering to each other, hoping to be called back into action. Some made it and some didn’t. I had good relationships, if that doesn’t sound too schizophrenic, with most of them, and the ones who refused to rise to the occasion were simply omitted from the following books or, in a pinch, got killed. Fortunately for writers, literary characters (unlike actors) don’t have unions.

When I finished STREET MUSIC, I realized that I had answered the last remaining big question about Rafferty, Rose, Miaow, and the members of their extended literary family. I felt vaguely morose at the time, wondering where I could let them take me next time out; I always feel like I follow the characters from place to place, from crisis to resolution. To put it into dance terms, they lead and I follow. So where would we go next?

The answer, which took me months to discover, was nowhere, at least for now. I had long thought I'd close the door on them when Miaow, at the age of 18 or 19, got her own apartment, almost certainly looking for a career as an actress, leaving Poke and Rose to wander disconsolately through the little apartment that had always seem so cramped but suddenly feels bigger than Versailles.

But here we are, in the final days, figuratively speaking. In writing, as in life, I never seem to know when the end will come. I think about my inky little family several times a day, and my melancholy at leaving them is offset partially by the realization that I can move on to write other places, other times, other characters. There are a hundred potential characters in my head, and I feel like they've realized that their time may have come, so they're jostling for position, clearing their throats, and advancing snippets of where they might like to take me.

And that's exciting, but for the moment, I feel — I can think of no more accurate word — bereaved.

* * *
Timothy Hallinan's STREET MUSIC, the final Poke Rafferty Bangkok thriller, has just been released by Soho Crime.


Mason Canyon said...

Congratulations on your upcoming book. From a reader's viewpoint, it's sad when a series comes to an end. We, readers, have come to think of those characters as friends, people that we look forward to seeing what adventure they get into next. Best wishes on a new series.

Unknown said...

This is quite a touching essay. Have fun with your new characters.

Claudia H Long said...

Beautiful essay.