Saturday, November 12, 2016

Thriller Writer Tim Hallinan Chats About His Christmas Mystery, FIELDS WHERE THEY LAY

      Timothy Hallinan is the author of the Simeon Grist, Poke Rafferty and Junior Bender thriller series. His new Junior Bender holiday mystery, Fields Where They Lay, is now on sale.

            Your title, at first glance, is merely a line from The First Noel for a novel set at Christmastime. However, by the end of the book the title resonates with a powerful double meaning that takes the story to higher and more philosophical plane.

Did the title evolve out of the story, or did the story generate from the title?

I had a handful of titles before I started writing, as opposed my usual method, which is to have a title before I get much of anything else. Titles, for some reason, come easily to me. (I wrote an entire book, King Maybe, to figure out why those words were stuck in my head.)

So this time around, I was entertaining half a dozen possibles, and in the very first paragraph, which was supposed to be nothing but a description of the lumpish, rundown shopping mall in which most of the book takes place, I found myself writing this: “The lump, a hulking, windowless, three-story ellipse with a flat roof and stains shaped like dirt icicles running down its outer walls, was in the center of a field where herds of sheep or cattle might once have grazed but which was now covered in flat black asphalt, marked in white diagonal parking lines to create an enormous herringbone pattern.” And it was evident to me, since 100 words in I was already writing about grazing animals, that the title was Fields Where They Lay, and from then on the book sort of adapted itself to that.

And, of course, what happens to the shepherds in the fields not only announces the birth of a new King but also brings into the manger the ordinary witnesses, the shepherds, whose eyes in painting after painting, are glazed with the wonder of what happens there. It's already mysticism of the highest kind, whether you're a Christian or not.

In a fun twist, Junior spends much of the novel prowling around a shopping mall. At one point he goes into a shop filled with cheap reproductions of famous works of art, but the only thing that gives him pause are some framed Calvin and Hobbes cartoons.  It was at this moment that I really began to warm up to Junior.  :)

Are you a Calvin and Hobbes fan? And do you envision Junior as having been a Calvin-like child?

Calvin and Hobbes was the final enthusiasm of my father's life. He discovered the strip during his last decade, and after years and years of reading (and complaining about) the same old comics mostly Peanuts and L'il Abner suddenly all he wanted to talk about was Calvin and Hobbes. He'd had a very Dickensian childhood after his father abandoned the family, and my guess is that it was way short on fantasy and adventure. 

Before he died I got him the first C&H books, and they meant a lot to him. And although I felt pretty much the same way about them as he did; my childhood was much more comfortable than his, but I essentially lived in books, so I understood instinctively the power of the fantasy world Hobbes opened up for Calvin. So I guess that reference in the art store was sort of a salute to my father, who was nothing at all like Junior's.

Dickens makes it into the book twice, once in a reference to Mr. Pickwick, and another with a reference to Scrooge. Does Christmas make you think of Dickens? Is he a favorite writer?

He is a favorite, although I like Trollope better because I think Trollope's women are much more convincing than Dickens'. But Dickens was probably the first great writer in English to celebrate Christmas in stories, and he's probably still the best. The Victorians pretty much assembled the modern Christmas (it had been banned under the Puritans and wasn't even a working person's day off until well into Victoria's reign) bringing back Father Christmas and replacing the traditional holly and ivy of pre-Christian celebrations with the Christmas tree, which Victoria's husband, Prince Albert brought with him from Germany. Dickens wrapped it all up in a ribbon of wonderful prose and sort of froze it in time for us. And I think you could even argue that he played a role in putting children at the center of the holiday.

 I am also curious about some of your existential influences. Junior develops a friendship with a Jewish mall Santa named Schlomo, who alludes to the crucifixion of Christ when he calls Bender “the good thief.” But given Junior’s highly existential outlook, I’m wondering if you were at least partly thinking of Waiting for Godot, and the famous exchange in which Vladimir wonders about the two thieves, and why, despite four different versions of the story, the world only focuses on one: the story of the thief who was saved?

I'm not much of an existentialist. What I love about the Good Thief is the thing Junior says in the book: that his do-not-pass-go route to paradise created an awkward exception to the Church's insistence that they had a monopoly on Heaven because there was no getting there without a priest. 

There was some scrambling in Rome during the 5th and 6th centuries to make it very clear that this was a unique one-off, an impulsive and not-to-be-repeated act of mercy on Jesus' part, rather than a possible short cut to eternity. I'm sure that some cardinal called for a scriptural rewrite at some point. (I would have loved to have been in those meetings.) There's a kind of awful comedy here that appeals to me enormously, rich, fat Italian men of high birth taking charge of the spiritual legacy of a half-starved Jewish pauper. But I've never been a big Becket fan, so “Godot” wasn't on my mind when I wrote that part.

Timothy Hallinan
(photo: Morgan Schmidt-Feng)
Junior is an expert about antique goods and old manuscripts, and in one scene Junior humiliates a snobbish mall vendor who is overcharging people for what Junior terms pretty junk. Here Junior reminded me very  much of Jonathan Gash’s Lovejoy, who, like Bender, tends to be an underdog and an Other, but who is a “divvy” who can immediately sense a real antique from a fake one; the history of the piece sings to him, makes his skin vibrate with appreciation. Did you ever read a Lovejoy mystery?

Busted. I loved how Lovejoy's “gong” vibrated in his chest in the presence of the real thing. I can say shamelessly that whenhalfway through the first book, CrashedI realized that a good burglar needs to develop a good eye in order, as Junior says, to be able to tell the “stuff from the duff,” I instantly thought of Lovejoy. I haven't read those books in probably 25 years, but I thought of them in a hundredth of a second. I also admired Lovejoy's extremely equivocal moral code. So I didn't have him in mind originally, but in a scene in which Junior is looking at (I think) some art deco jewelry, all of a sudden there was old Lovejoy in the room with him, gonging away.
He's a great character. Junior meets a shop owner named Bonnie, who sums up Christmas by saying “Everything’s better at Christmas, but everything’s worse, too.” Why do you think Christmas has evolved into this binary opposition?

I think it's the enormous gulf between the event the holiday purports to celebrate―the birth, in a stable, of a desperately poor child who, for millions of people, heralded God's active interest in the world he was supposed to have createdand the way it's celebrated today, a mercantile orgy whose success is measured not in spirit but on spreadsheets. As I say in the book, the modern Christmas theme music is a duet for sleigh bells and cash register.

Jesus' parents, if they were alive today, would be in a kind of agony at their inability to afford to give their child the things the media would tell him he wants and needs. Christ's notion of of giving has been corrupted into gimme through a global campaign to dangle desirables in front of millions of children, and that can be hard on families at virtually all economic levels except the highest. The basic symbolism of Santa in a shopping mall (how convenient), where canned music stands in for the heavenly host, and tinsel and blinky lights stand in for the brilliance of heaven, sums up the problem with a kind of big-league, blunt-force impact.

So well said. These oppositions continue throughout the novel. On the one hand, Junior is depressed and not convinced about an overall meaning of life.  On the other, he is clearly open to small moments of joy or grace, as with the singing of a high school choir or the presence of little children. He says, “It’s impossible for me to be melancholy around small children. They deserve the effort it takes us to do better.”  Is this because Junior is a father, or because children are the best representatives of humanity?

Junior has had four rites of passage in his life: realizing that he wasn't what was wrong with his fatherthat it was his father's problem; meeting Herbie and being initiated into burglary; meeting and marrying Kathy; and the birth of Rina. He hadn't particularly liked himself as a child, and Rina sort of allows him to start over. He adores her, as he should, and like so many parents he realizes the extent to which children need, and deserve, the best that adults can do. If the world is ever going to be a better place, he thinks, it'll be because it's better to its children. He means literally the sentence you quoted.

Ultimately, being with Ronnie may prove to be a fifth rite of passage, but we don't know yet.

Junior extols the value of lists over emotion: “An emotion is a cloud, but a list is a stairway.”  Is this meant to demonstrate that Junior represses emotion, or that he prefers logos over pathos as a way of getting through life?

No, he's just a guy. Many guys react to cloudy circumstances, especially emotionally cloudy circumstances, by taking refuge in a list. There's something deeply reassuring about a) b) c). Just listing b) assumes you'll survive a).

That's a great point, although I am the list maker in my family, and my husband and sons avoid any sort of mental organizing.

Despite his sometimes grim worldview, Junior Bender is very funny. At one point he reveals that “Whole areas of my mind . . . distrust other areas.” Do you ever feel this way as a writer?

First, a comic view of the world that can't handle some pessimism and a few reversals won't outlast baby teeth. And second, I think that humor often arises from internal conflict; you catch yourself again and again doing something that part of you knows is wrong, unproductive, self-destructive, or just plain stupid. There's a narrow range of possible reactions: vowing to learn a lesson that you know from experience won't last; getting furious with yourself; thinking about suicide; or laughing. None of the first three reactions is likely to be productive, so you might as well laugh, even if it does, over the years, give you those annoying wrinkles at the corners of your eyes.

And there is an absolute iron curtain in my mind when it comes to writing, which is, after all, how I spend most of my time. I know that the entire story is somewhere in there, complete and perfect, before even I type the title. But it reveals itself to me in bits and pieces, many of them in the wrong order, as if after one part of me comes up with the whole thing, another part cuts it into jigsaw pieces so it can be fed to the part that sits there trying to get it down in the most confusing possible order. I almost never have the feeling I'm making up a story; I feel like I'm either uncovering something that's already there, like archaeology, or assembling it. like a puzzle.

What a well-written reflection on the mystery of the creative process!

Junior spends a couple of pages discussing keys as things of beauty. I had never thought about them this way, so this was fascinating, especially when he notes that people in the ancient world once wore keys as status symbols.

Did they do this because the keys were physically beautiful, or because of the idea that the keys could open things forbidden to all others?

I think it was partly the Louis Vuitton Syndrome. We all know that Vuitton stuff is actually ugly, but lots of people like to flash it around because of what it's supposed to say: I'm rich, worldly, and I have stuff you don't have.

Keys were the same, on one level. A key implies a lock, and a lock implies that the owner has something that's valuable enough to be locked away. In other words, I have stuff you don't have.
But in an age when metallurgy was a rough art, fine, graceful keys also had an aesthetic appeal. And finally, they were a badge of tank and trust: certain keys were entrusted only to specific members of the household.

Back to the existential for a moment: Christmastime is in many ways a perfect setting for a crisis of belief. Consider the words of Junior in these passages:

  --“I felt a pang for them, for everyone working here, selling their precious hours for small change, sealed away from daylight and moonlight, grubbing in a till, taking money from people who often couldn’t afford to spend it, and running mental addition and subtraction all day on their own bank balances, the strength or weakness of their family ties, the holes in their lives, now that the holidays were upon them. Tis the season.” 

 --“Christmas has always seemed to me to be an empty box, a broken promise . . . the last letdown before the theoretically Happy New Year.”

  --“The edge of sorrow is especially sharp in what is supposed to be a season of joy."

  --“It’s where we all lived  . . . . we’re out there in that darkness whether we’re alone or with someone.”

Despite all Junior’s moments of darkness, there is an implied waiting for the light, and Junior does experience the corresponding light in several ways.  Do you think that one needs to identify the darkness before they can see its opposite?

I'm kind of surprised that this particular book prompts these questions―when I wrote it, I was thinking mainly about the characters and trying to hold the reader's interest and, once in a while, make her laugh. But reading those passages sort of gets my attention. Yikes.

There's a lot of “Wasteland” and “Prufrock” sentiment in that, the mermaids not singing for us, and so forth, but at the center of it are, I think, two things. First is the reality that, for many people, both Christmas and New Year are emotionally complicated holidays. Second is the fact that we no longer live in the age of angels singing in the sky and kings following a star to divinity – and how much easier belief would be if we did. Toward the end of the book, Junior drives up into the hills and thinks about what he's been through.

“The breeze was quite cool—chilly, even—but the hood of my car was warm, and that was where I was reclining with my back propped up on the windshield, looking at the little points of fire in the broad cold expanse of the heavens."

“Must have been something to have been a shepherd, seeing that star. The angels, I remembered, were in Matthew and the star was in Luke. Dividing up the miracles, I supposed. I wondered how it felt to believe fully and unquestioningly in all that extravagant divinity.”

So there may be a little envy there, maybe a feeling that it's not fair to spill miracle after miracle across the earth in a short thirty-year period and then let us sit in the dark for 2100 years. This is, of course, a personal opinion, not an attempt at theology.

It's a starkly beautiful sentiment. Speaking of darkness and light, we just had a momentous election which, depending on how things go, could plunge the United States into a moral and spiritual darkness.  For whom would Junior Bender vote? Would he write in Calvin or Hobbes as a protest?

Junior gave good moneynot even stolen moneyto Bernie Sanders in the hope that our electoral process would be returned to us. In the absence of Bernie, he would have voted for Clinton. Without a second thought. And in this particular election, he would regard a write-in or a third-party vote as being the equivalent of memorizing the Constitution and the complete election laws of the state of California, then getting a ballot, researching the candidates and the propositions, meticulously filling it in, and then using it to polish his car.

      Would that Junior had some more influence on the voters. 

      There are many loved ones in Junior’s life, including his daughter, his ex-wife, and his girlfriend. However, he bemoans the fact that he really does not know his girlfriend at all. Can we fall in love with people we don’t know?

I'm the wrong person to ask, I fell in love with my wife in about ninety minutes. And--three decades later--so far, so good.

How wonderful and refreshing. Do you plan to write more books in the Junior Bender series?

God willing. There's a story to tell that begins in the last scene of Fields Where They Lay that I'd love to write. Also, I've figured out some extremely cool ways to steal stuff and I have several dozen really, ummmm, interesting crooks in mind.

Good to know!! Junior fans will be thrilled. Where can readers find out more about you and your work?

I almost never do anything to it, but my website is, and it's got a REALLY good section on how to finish the novel you begin.

Thank you again, Tim, for this well-written, funny and thought-provoking holiday mystery!