Interview With an Author: Timothy Hallinan

Daryl M., Librarian, West Valley Regional Branch Library,
Author Timothy Hallinan and his latest book, Rock of Ages
Author Timothy Hallinan and his latest book, Rock of Ages. Photo of author by Morgan Schmidt-Feng

Timothy Hallinan has been nominated for the Edgar, Nero, Shamus, Macavity, and Silver Dagger awards. He is the author of twenty-two widely praised books, including the Poke Rafferty Bangkok thrillers, most recently Street Music and the Junior Bender Hollywood burglar mysteries, including Herbie's Game, winner of the Lefty Award for Best Humorous Mystery. After years of working in the television and music industries, he now writes full-time. He lives in California and Thailand. His latest book is Rock of Ages and he recently talked about it with Daryl Maxwell for the LAPL Blog.

What was your inspiration for Rock of Ages?

I can't speak for other writers—never having been another writer—but in this case, as in most of the others, I basically cannibalized aspects of my own life and the lives of people I either know or imagine. And then I closed my eyes, crossed my fingers, and made stuff up.

I was actually in rock and roll for a few years. My college friend Robb Royer—later a member of Bread and an Oscar winner for best song, “For All We Know,” and I joined up with a woman who could out-sing both of us, Michele Cochran, and a guitarist who could out-play all of us, Stephen Cohn. And we wrote a bunch of songs, got a publisher, and were signed to a recording contract as the Pleasure Fair, the best name we could steal. We made records, did tours, and even got a song on the Billboard top 100. It skyrocketed all the way to number 88, coughed itself up to number 84, and then sank like a stone. Our album, which had the best session layers of the day, including Glen Campbell, is now virtually impossible to find, probably for good reason. Hell, I've turned down as much as $12 for my copy. On the other hand, I had the earthshaking experience of suddenly hearing a song I co-wrote on the radio, with me singing lead. I almost rear-ended the car in front of me.

My most vivid memories, though, are of being up all night every night, actually living and sleeping in the famous folk/rock club, the Troubadour, and exploring the Los Angeles of the late, late hours, eating at Cantors at three in the morning sleeping wherever fate took me if I couldn't get back to the Troubadour in time. Closing the late clubs most nights and hitting the supermarket for a cheese sandwich at 4 a.m. It all thrilled me to my toenails, and I wouldn't have missed it for the world. It's still with me.

Are Junior, Rina, Lavender, Dressler, or any of the other characters in the novel inspired by or based on specific individuals?

Junior is basically me on a good hair day when I've been given the chance to edit everything I say. Rina is based on a few terrifying teenage girls I've met—terrifying because they appeared to be so complete at such a tender age, so much smarter and cooler than my friends and I were that they seem like a different species. The other characters, as Shakespeare says somewhere, are “extempore from my mother wit.” I just made them up.

How about the bands and musicians on the Rock of Ages tour? Are they inspired by any actual bands/performers?

I assembled some of them from bits and pieces of people I had known way back then, but they changed as the story shaped them. The most disagreeable one, Lionel, is based in small part on an immensely talented but very difficult star whom I probably should not identify but whom I put onstage several times while working in an L.A. rock club. Lionel is much less gifted than the man who inspired him, but there were times during the writing of the book that they seemed to share a personality. When I look back on my interactions with musicians, I realize that they were, like most groups of people, generally so-so, with the occasional bristling jerk, often balanced by a demi-saint, like Emmylou Harris.

How did the novel evolve and change as you wrote and revised it? Are there any characters or scenes that were lost in the process that you wish had made it to the published version?

Generally speaking, I start with something so vague that I can't even tell if it's changing, since I barely knew what it was in the first place. Mostly it's just a voice, a gesture, or a way of choosing words that grabs my attention and won't let go. Then it settles in and solidifies, and sooner or later, he or she becomes a person in a story—almost never quite the person I first thought it was, and the story turns out to be in large part based on that person. He/She might not be the leading character, but often commits the actions that drive the story. That sounds complicated, but it's just as simple as catching a glimpse of someone on the street and immediately imagining his or her life.

When I start writing, I'm generally prodded by a notion as ill-focused as the one I had when I started Rock of Ages, which can be summed up as "old rockers and old gangsters". And I made up some terrible band names, posted them on Facebook, and asked for folks to come up with more. And the response was sensational, so creative I laughed myself stupid for weeks. Then someone who is sure to be sainted someday asked me, "Why not an old groupie?" and I just sat down and started to write. I can't actually type for beans, and much of the time the material flows so rapidly I can barely keep up. I also realized reasonably early that the old thugs who put the tour were doing it in large part as a swindle, and from then on the problem was keeping up with myself, since I'm a four-finger typist.

Do you have a favorite band or singer from the 60s or 70s?

Mavis Staples of The Staples Singers has one of the greatest voices in history; the one and only Aretha Franklin, Traffic, Dylan, the (later) Beach Boys, The Kinks (LOVED The Kinks); The Stones—especially Beggars' Banquet; and on and on. A little later, the sainted Joni Mitchell.

If you could put together a fantasy line up for your idea of the perfect concert, who would be performing that night and where would you be watching them?

This is going to sound pretentious as hell, but The Beatles from the first two albums and The Stones, ditto, Van Morrison around the time of Astral Weeks, The Beach Boys before Mike Love decided he had talent; Aretha singing whatever the hell she wants, Nina Simone, ditto. And I would be in the third row center with no one sitting in front of me. I could actually add to this list for several days.

Junior is quite the connoisseur when it comes to valuable objects. If you could hire Junior to steal something for you, what would it be?

This is going to sound even more pretentious, but a signed first edition of William Gaddis' novel The Recognitions, with a note thanking me for inspiring him.

Rock of Ages is the 8th Junior Bender mystery. What are your plans for the series?

Oh, boy. I have not the faintest idea. I didn't actually know what this one was about until I was 50 or 60 pages in. If I were asked to give a description of my approach to writing, I'd say it's roughly dropping a bunch of half-framed story fragments onto my desk and watching them roll around. Then I pick what looks interesting and dive in. Usually, by the time I get to page 70 or 80, I'm pretty sure I know what's going on, and sometimes I'm right. By the last third, I definitely know, and then I can plow ahead and then go back to the earlier parts of the book to make it look like I knew what I was doing all along. And then my wife and my sainted editors at Soho jump in, and the story comes into a much sharper perspective, although even then it can make a sharp, unexpected turn.

What’s currently on your nightstand?

I just finished a couple of Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe books, which I love, and am now reading, for the first time, Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility. Sort of a change of gears, but it's working. Also reading a lot of nonfiction histories of Hollywood in the 1930s for an idea that won't leave me alone.

Can you name your top five favorite or most influential authors?

Yikes. If I were to get this question again in an hour or two, some of the answers would probably be different, but here goes: These are pretty longstanding, not the most influential, and it's going to seem sooooo pretentious. Shakespeare because he is, to me, a miracle: just an ever-flowing wellspring of people, settings, and absolutely cosmic language that never get old. Dickens because no one else has written more novels that I love, and no one's humor is more underrated. Jane Austen because I can't think about Dickens without thinking of Austen and because she's just irreplaceable. This is actually pretty much impossible—I'll end up churning out a list of writers who have nothing in common except that they've all floated to the surface and stayed there. If it's okay with you, I'll pass on those answers—I'm too fickle to put this into print. If I did, sure as hell, I'll be awakened by bolts of guilt in the middle of the night for weeks, remembering people I should have named.

What was your favorite book when you were a child?

The Wizard of Oz. We moved all the time—five times before I turned ten—and Dorothy and the Scarecrow and The Tin Woodman were with me wherever I went, and I, like them, was in unknown territory.

Was there a book you felt you needed to hide from your parents?

No. I was a boringly good boy. By the time I was reading books I'd hide from them they were living 400 miles away.

Is there a book you've faked reading?

Do I have to tell? Okay, Siddhartha because everyone spoke about it in hushed tones, and I figured they couldn't all be wrong. But since I couldn't bring myself to buy it, much less open it, this seemed like the way to go.

Can you name a book you've bought for the cover?

No, but I can guarantee that I bought it in an airport back when I was logging 80,000 miles a year, living in Los Angeles, New York, and Bangkok.

Is there a book that changed your life?

Dozens of them, too many to name. I feel like I learned much of what I know about life from books. But I would have to single out A Dance to the Music of Time, The Recognitions, and Randall Jarrell's Pictures from an Institution.

Can you name a book for which you are an evangelist (and you think everyone should read)?

Oh, lord. So many.

What is the question that you’re always hoping you’ll be asked, but never have been? What is your answer?

How in the world did you get so good-looking?
“Have you had your eyes checked lately?”

What are you working on now?

I'm trying to dodge an idea for the next Junior and, at the same time, write something outside the series. Not doing very well with either, but that's the way it works sometimes. And a lot of the time, it's fun anyway.

Book cover for Rock of Ages
Rock of Ages
Hallinan, Timothy