The Undercover Soundtrack – Timothy Hallinan

for logo‘A lyric I misheard…’

Once a week I host a writer who uses music as part of their creative process – perhaps to tap into a character, populate a mysterious place, or explore the depths in a pivotal moment. This week’s post is by award-winning mystery and thriller novelist (and musician) Timothy Hallinan @TimHallinan

Soundtrack by Jack’s Mannequin, Ravel, Tegan and Sara, Fun. , Arctic Monkeys, Franz Ferdinand, Jon Fratelli, Emmylou Harris, Mindy Smith, Lindi Ortega, Over the Rhine

I could not write without music.

With more than 7,000 tracks on my hard drive and the best pair of earbuds money can buy, I can create a distraction-free workspace anywhere in the world.  That’s necessary because I like to write in public, usually in coffee-shops, where there’s already caffeine in the air and I can look up and steal a face whenever I need one.

I work to playlists with different qualities, most of them 400-1,000 songs long.  (My current all-purpose playlist has 1,356 songs on it, heavy on Arctic Monkeys, Franz Ferdinand, Jon Fratelli, Emmylou Harris, Mindy Smith, Lindi Ortega, Over the Rhine, etc.)  Generally, music seals me off from distraction, provides a source of energy, and, depending on what I’m writing and the playlist I’ve chosen, an actual entry point to certain emotions and even imagery.

timcolor.jpg crop smallerI virtually never write without those earphones plugged in.  (I’m listening to Jack’s Mannequin right now.)  About half the time I work to the all-purpose playlist, which changes all the time as I add new stuff and yank the old.  But occasionally a piece of music will emerge and take over the writing of a book.

In my fourth Poke Rafferty novel, The Queen of Patpong, a young woman has leapt from a boat into the dark Andaman Sea near three large rocks called The Sisters.  It’s the middle of the night, rain is pouring down, and the water bristles with sea-wasps, a particularly lethal jellyfish.  The man in the boat has brought her there specifically to kill her.  This is the turning point of the book, and it became the longest action scene I’ve ever written.  A few pages in, Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand kicked in, and I immediately put it on a loop.  I wrote to it for several days.  In the acknowledgments at the end of the book, I wrote:

the chapter when Rose is in the water was written mostly to Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand, a piece of music that’s got dark water running all the way through it.

I mention the music I use most at the close of practically every book, and many, many people have emailed me to suggest new artistes.  I get a lot of good music that way.

The forthcoming Rafferty book, For The Dead, is largely about a 13-year-old girl having her carefully constructed and entirely fictional identity ripped from her, revealing her to the kids in her exclusive school as a former street child who’s befriended them under false pretences. Much of it was written to Tegan and Sara, who create great, hooky, irresistible rock about girls and young women.  They were the primary soundtrack for Miaow’s sections of the story.

Fear Artist cov art smallBut early in the writing process, I began to listen to Fun., and their music crystallized certain aspects of Miaow’s story.  At the beginning of the book a phrase from a Fun. song called Benson Hedges, We all float until we sink, keeps running through her mind, and that also song provided the titles of the first two sections of the book: We All Float . . . and . . . Until We Sink.  The third section is Drowning Girls, which is a lyric I actually misheard, but there was no way to drop it because it worked so well, and the fourth section is Aim and Ignite, which is the title of a Fun. album.

Finally, in the new Junior Bender book (due out July 2), The Fame Thief, Junior is hired to find out who destroyed the career (and the life) of a young actress in 1950.  The central section of the book departs from Junior’s first-person to take us back to the 40s and the early 50s, and for this section I listened to pop music from the day, which had a real impact on both the dialogue and the visual landscape.

If anyone who reads this has some recommendations for me, please comment below or email me at thallinan@gmail.com  And thanks in advance.

Timothy Hallinan is the Edgar- and Macavity-nominated author of two current series, the Poke Rafferty Bangkok thrillers and the Junior Bender mysteries.  His musical roots run deep: back in the 1970s he was in a band that recorded an album for Universal and which ultimately, minus him, morphed into the gazillion-selling group Bread.  Songs Hallinan wrote were recorded by a number of top artists in several genres. The most recent Poke Rafferty book, The Fear Artist, was named in several ‘ten best’ lists in 2012, and the third Junior Bender, The Fame Thief, will be released this July.  The Bender series has been bought for film by Lionsgate.  Hallinan also wrote six Simeon Grist private eye mysteries in the 1990s and edited Shaken: Stories for Japan, an ebook collection of Japan-themed short stories that raises money for Japanese tsunami relief.  He’s also the editor of the Twenty-One Writers project, a series of books in which writers talk about their craft. He lives in Bangkok and Los Angeles. Find him on his blog and Twitter @timhallinan.
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  1. #1 by Timothy Hallinan on May 1, 2013 - 6:06 pm

    Thank you, Roz — this was really fun. It’s a great idea for a blog series, and I congratulate you for coming up with it. (And thanks to Beth Rudetsky for playing matchmaker.)

  2. #3 by Jen Squire on May 3, 2013 - 9:55 am

    Hi Timothy – I really enjoyed your interview here, thanks for some great suggestions. I’m sitting in my local cafe listening to Over The Rhine. Good choice. Yesterday I had a major structural breakthrough for a short story whilst listening to ‘Lanterns On The Lake’ in the library. You might enjoy them? I also really enjoy Dan Sultan whilst writing. In fact I could go on and on, I can’t imagine writing in silence.
    I also try to substitute music for going to the pantry when I feel like a procrastinating break. This week’s Time Out Tune (I love good music videos as well) is on my blog http://jen-squire.blogspot.co.uk
    Hope you enjoy.
    And I’m really looking forward to reading The Queen of Patpong – if I can get my hands on a copy!

  3. #5 by Timothy Hallinan on May 4, 2013 - 4:25 pm

    Hi, Jen, hi, Roz — Sorry for the silence — been recuperating from minor eye surgery and staying away from backlighted screens. Jen, I’m hopping over to Amazon to listen to Lanterns on the Lake and Dan Sultan, neither of whom I know. But I do love, love, love Over the Rhine. Her voice just takes me away. And “substituting music for the pantry” is the best idea yet. Will check out your blog, and thanks so much for the comment, plus congrats on your story breakthrough.

  1. ‘A piece of music with dark water running through it’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Timothy Hallinan | Nail Your Novel
  2. Only connect: how to wake a dormant muse | Nail Your Novel

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