Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Sunny Places For Shady People - Tim Hallinan

It's hard to believe that MurderIsEverywhere is coming up to its ninth anniversary, but Leighton Gage wrote the inaugural post on November 11, 2009. Some of us have been writing the blog since then, others have joined the gang as some of the earlier authors needed to move on to other commitments. But many of those early posts are excellent and it seems a pity to let them disappear without trace.

So, as a treat, here's one from Tim Hallinan whose brilliant Thailand books have been short listed for the Edgar and many other awards. In this post he tells us about why he sets books in Thailand and speculates more generally on why authors set their books where they do. As soon as I reread it, I knew this was one we'd all like to read again. And if you didn't catch it in 2009, enjoy!

What makes a good setting? If you were to shelve books by setting instead of by genre or author, some settings -- London or New York, for example -- would take up an entire wall, while others, such as Bliss, Arizona (where I'm thinking of setting a thriller) would be the width of a folded road map. What's that about?

Not much, I think. Ninety percent of the time, I've come to believe, a setting is just the neighborhood a writer knows best. Back in the 1930s, Robert Benchley wrote a piece called "Mind's Eye Trouble" or something like that in which he complained that his mind's eye was stunted -- limited to places he'd actually seen -- and that this failing affected his reading. So the vast armies in "War and Peace" marched through the residential back yards of Connecticut, where he'd grown up, and Madame Bovary threw herself beneath the wheels of the Hartford Express.

Benchley was exaggerating, but I think it makes sense for many writers to set their stories in, so to speak, one of their neighborhoods. More people have experienced London, over time, than any other English-speaking city in the world, so it follows that thousands and thousands of novels have been set there. "London" books embrace every possible literary genre: everything from Tristram Shandy to sci-fi. London serves them all well.

And that's because London has, from a fictional perspective, everything: teeming millions, history, beauty, ugliness, palaces, hovels, angels on the churches and shit in the street. Same goes for Los Angeles or New York, Rio de Janiero, any big city. Small towns worked for Faulkner and Trollope and work today for James Lee Burke and -- well, you supply a name.

Bangkok, where I've lived part of every year since 1981, works fine for me. I can't claim to know it exhaustively (not half as well as, say, Christopher G. Moore, who created the western-private-eye-in Bangkok and writes it better than just about anyone), but I don't have to be the guy who'd get chosen to write the Encyclopedia Britannicaarticle on Bangkok. Why? Because my
Bangkok -- like Chandler's Los Angeles or Balzac's Paris or Murakami's Tokyo or -- well, you supply a name -- is imaginary.

All settings are imaginary. Ultimately, all settings exist only in the writer's mind. If you could map them, they would begin in the writer's mind and end in the reader's. Authenticity, actual familiarity with the emotional gestalt and physical geography of the place, are tools the writer uses to make sure that the reader's brain doesn't reject the setting as nonsense. You don't want to be like the French writer, raised in the fine-food atmosphere of Paris, who wrote a western in which a bunch of illiterate gunmen sit around a campfire arguing about cheeses.

What makes a setting work is that it resonates with that writer's imagination. Bangkok is endless, flat, built on water and sinking, choked with people who are unimaginably rich and desperately poor. It's simultaneously hideous and beautiful, sacred and profane, vulgar and spiritual. It has a terrible government and wonderful people. Once called the "Venice of the East," it was originally built around a leafy network of placid canals, but it became, in the
1960s and 70s, a dusty, swinging-door saloon town, sort of Dodge City with sex. Now it's morphing into one of the world's great cosmopolitan centers, with a skyline that dazzles even the most calloused traveler.

Bangkok is one of the cities that loose folks roll downhill into. It is, as Somerset Maugham said about Monaco, a sunny place for shady people. Sex of the saddest kind brings some of the West's most appalling ambassadors, tens of thousands of them, set loose in a place where they think they can behave without constraint. These people may be dull company (and are they ever), but they're great material. And the Thai people, who put up with all this and sometimes profit from it, are the best-hearted, most sympathetic people I know.

So there's lots to work with, if you're me. I could see myself writing about Bangkok for the rest of my life and never even scratching the depth of the possible. If I'm lucky and William Morrow keeps asking for books, I may.

And if, reading my Bangkok, you find the setting difficult to believe, you can comfort yourself with the knowledge that millions of visitors every year feel exactly the same way about the real city.

Tim - Sunday

16 comments:

  1. By the way, the intro was written by Michael Sears.

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    1. I also should have said that Tim gave his approval for us to repost some of his blogs.

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    2. It's a great intro, and I'm honored that MIE wants to dust some of these off and put them back in the light.

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  2. I hadn't read that before. Fascinating. My friend who lives in the middle of nowhere in a place called 'The Hole In The Wall' (population 8) has just written a book set in New York. It was published this week in the UK, coming to USA soon. I feel a guest blog request coming on...

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    1. Sounds good! I suppose in The Hole in the Wall everyone knows everyone else. Probably not quite the case in New York!

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    2. Thanks, Caro. It's probably extra-important for those of us who write about places many people haven't visited to work the setting into the story in as many ways as we can.

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  3. It looks like you could have left off the "...and William Morrow keeps asking for books..." sub-clause, Tim. Good thing the editors at Soho are smarter than the ones at William Morrow! One of the craziest decisions ever, dropping Poke after "The Queen of Patpong." Just goes to show: when a pile of money is your lodestone, you'll rarely find the best places to live... ('you' in the generic sense)

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    1. Ahhh, well -- they paid me a bunch of money for the first books and did their best with them. It wasn't the fault of the really wonderful people who worked on them that the company is now just a corner on a Rupert Murdoch spreadsheet.

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  4. Tim, what a gem this is. I hadn't seen it before. ALL my stories begin with setting. A fascinating place it the first thing my imagination needs. How wonderful to get this peep into your thinking about a place you have found and then MADE so fascinating!

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  5. Setting is so important in your books, Annamaria -- it's so frustrating to read a story in which the setting is a two-dimensional backdrop-- "The Eiffel Tower glinted coldly in the distance." Who cares? What does the Eiffel Tower have to do with the characters?

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    1. Thank you for your king words,Tim, and especially for dropping back in your old stomping grounds for a visit. I have the same problem with setting that you describe so aptly (NO SURPRISE!!) as two-dimensional. In a mystery/thriller that I wanted to throw out the window, the main character was running for his life through a European square, and the author told me about the statue in the square and its relationship to the town's history. None of which had anything to do with the plot or the guy who was on the run. ARRRGH!

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  6. One of the many reasons why I love your writing, Tim-- the setting.

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    1. Thanks so much, Cathy. I really appreciate that.

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  7. Late to the party as always, Tim, but I've thoroughly enjoyed reading your blog. Your writing is, as always, a delight, my friend.

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    1. I've never thought of you as late to the party, except in the sense that any party in its right mind would wait for you ro show up.

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