It’s not just Poke, Poke, Poke all the time.
Six books into the Poke Rafferty series, my interest in writing the books is higher than ever. There’s none of the “series fatigue” that I felt late in the writing of the Simeon Grist books and that many of my friends have described as their own series stretched out toward double digits. In the Rafferty books I somehow had the sense to create, rather than a single viewpoint, three protagonists: Poke, Rose, and Miaow. That instinctive and almost accidental decision has given me not only triple the material to deal with, but more than triple the perspectives because Miaow’s perspective, between the ages of seven and 13, has changed from book to book.
One of the great treats of writing the Rafferty books has been exploring the domestic life of this oddly-assembled, slapped-together little family. The moment my imagination takes me into the living room of that two-bedroom apartment on Soi Pipat, things begin to happen: conversations begin or continue, differences of opinion arise, somebody laughs, the three of them group and regroup, and they generate a kind of familial force field that no one of them could create alone. And from that rich mix of feelings and mutual commitment (and love), the book’s story almost always arises.
Of the three of them, Miaow is the one who most engages me. In book after book I’ve had to resist letting her walk away with the story. In FOR THE DEAD, I just gave it to her and let her run with it.
At the age of two, or possibly three, her parents abandoned her on the street to beg or steal for survival. (She’ll tell the story of the night she was abandoned, for the first time, in the seventh book, THE HOT COUNTRIES, which will come out in 2015.) Poke and Rose adopted her when she was seven, or possibly eight, putting her into an apartment eight stories above the sidewalk, a height that symbolically means a great deal to her.
Her experience on the street has scarred her with shame for having been the lowest of the low, for not being worthy of her biological parents’ love, for being filthy for years (Thais are very particular about personal cleanliness), and for having stolen and lied to stay alive. But it’s also given her strength, daring, and internal resources that most kids her age can’t even imagine. And when she demonstrates those qualities in this book, to save her boyfriend’s privileged little ass, it leads to her unmasking, the ripping away of the new identity she’d created.
Her combination of almost morbid sensitivity and stainless-steel toughness makes her my favorite character to write out of all those who have pushed their way onto my pages, not just in this series, but ever.
She steals–for me, anyway–every scene she’s in. When she’s being difficult, which is not infrequent, I know exactly why. I can calibrate in some unnamed (so far as I know) unit of emotional measurement the differences in Poke’s and Rose’s attitude to her moment by moment, and it’s all instinctive — I never, ever have to think about it. Poke is easier on Miaow than Rose is, but the relationship between Rose and Miaow is the deeper and more complex.
Quite a few of the largely excellent reviews for this book have noted that I spend a lot of energy on dramatizing the gulf in Thai society between rich and poor, especially the difficulties faced by villagers in the Northeast, the most populous and poorest region of the Kingdom. All I can say is that the social commentary, such as it is, arises directly from my feelings for Miaow and Rose, both of whom have roots up there, and that I’m thinking about these issues in purely personal, rather than political or economic, terms.
But what I really want to say in this blog is that here, at long last, is Miaow’s book, and I feel like I’ve owed it to her for a years. Why she’s so real to me I can’t say, but she is, and one of the reactions to the book that’s most delighted me is that of Julie Campbell, who reviewed it on the popular mystery listserve “4 Mystery Addicts.” She wrote, “How Tim Hallinan is able to perfectly channel all that is a 13-year-old is a question I’ll never be able to answer, but I am oh so glad that he can.”
Thanks, Julie, and to all the reviewers who focused on Miaow in reacting to this book. I’d say it pleases her, but I know instinctively that she’d find something wrong with it.