Foreign Intrigue

July 27th, 2007

Los Angeles — Tuesday night I was invited to share a stage with two talented writers, Eric Stone (www.ericstone.com) and David Corbett (www.davidcorbett.com) at the amazingly beautiful new Martin Luther King, Jr. Auditorium of the Santa Monica Main Public Library.

All three of us write thrillers set outside America, and the ostensible topic was the challenges, advantages,and disadvantages of setting your character down somewhere like Salvador (Corbett), Hong Kong and Vladivostok (Stone), or Thailand (me). Like almost all discussions of writing everywhere, though, the conversation soon centered on two topics:

1. What the hell is writing, anyway?

2. How does (insert name of bad writer here) continue to make the best-seller lists?

Before I get to those issues, let me express my amazement at the evening’s most interesting fact: people actually came. I am perpetually surprised that anyone wants to listen to writers talk. Writing is an almost entirely internal process, which explains why (so far as I know) there has never been a great movie made about a writer. Someone who is sitting there conjuring up War and Peace or The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay looks exactly like someone who is translating Albanian instructions for assembling a barbecue.

And yet there were people there — not enough to found a political party or raise a barn — but there were people who had deserted the comfort of their homes, gotten into their cars, and driven the deadly dangerous streets of Los Angeles to hear three writers beat their gums.

It was enough to give me the willies.

Anyway, we waffled around for a few minutes talking about the importance of setting and the opportunities an especially interesting setting provides, and then people started to ask questions. One of the first was whether you could set a book in a country you’d never visited. Eric Stone confessed that he’d never been to Vladivostok, although he’s very familiar with Hong Kong, where most of his story took place, and his fictional Vladivostok was the product of a lot of research. I suggested that libraries were full of books by writers who’d set their story in, say, 16th-century France, which they’d obviously never visited, and David Corbett reminded us that there was a kind of safety in that because readers hadn’t, either.

And then people asked (as they always do) about characters: who are they, where do they come from, how do you write them, etc. Corbett said characters to him were something like melodies, and when he could hear the melody, he could write the character. I said that the key for me was when they started to talk; when a character said something that I didn’t feel had come from me. (Nothing makes me happier than when my characters start yakking among themselves.) I quoted Anne Lamott (I think) on the difference between making it up and getting it down and said that for me the most common experience of getting it down was just trying to keep up with a bunch of characters who wouldn’t stop talking.

As the evening closed, someone asked why some “bad” writers sold so many books. I’m giving my answer because I remember it most clearly. The more I write, the more I realize that every novel requires a whole spectrum of skills: story-telling, structure, character development, narrative style, visual imagination, empathy with the reader — the list goes on and on. It seems to me that all best-selling writers handle brilliantly at least one of those aspects of writing a novel. They may be wanting elsewhere, but there are one or two things they’re absolutely brilliant at, and that’s what keeps readers flipping those pages.

In all, a really pleasant evening, made even more so by Judith Graham, who ran the event for the Library. They can have me back any time they want me.

2 Responses to “Foreign Intrigue”

  1. Anabel Says:

    Tim quote:
    “It seems to me that all best-selling writers handle brilliantly at least one of those aspects of writing a novel. They may be wanting elsewhere, but there are one or two things they’re absolutely brilliant at, and that’s what keeps readers flipping those pages.”

    Do you read William Gibson [of cyber fame]? That man and his language, what he chooses to write and what he leaves out is fine-word jazz.

  2. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Hi, Anabel —

    Yes, Gibson is wonderful, and jazz is a great metaphor for the way he writes. I’m halfway through “Spook World” right now, and loving it.

Leave a Reply

 

 
 

 

 
©2006-2014 TIMOTHY HALLINAN, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED WEBSITE CREDITS