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Interview with Mark Hill 2016

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Mark Hill’s debut novel The Two O’Clock Boy (Sphere) is quite simply sensational; a taut, gripping page turner that oozes drama and sweats intrigue. Not bad on the first time of asking, although in truth Mark isn’t exactly new to coming up with results when asked.  Here the author talks to Chris High about the novel and how things changed throughout the writing process.

This is your debut novel. What’s been the biggest challenge to overcome to get to this stage and when did the idea for The Two O’Clock Boy first come to you?

The Two O’Clock Boy kind of developed as I wrote it, there was no lightning-bolt moment of inspiration. But there were definitely certain things I wanted to do when I sat down to write my first crime novel. I wanted to write two parallel timelines where each scene, set decades apart, revealed a little bit more of the puzzle. And then at the end I wanted to pound those different periods together like a pair of cymbals to the head – so that the past crashes catastrophically into the present.

I also like compromised characters, and to see what happens when you take them to the brink, so I needed some kind of shared traumatic experience to bring a variety of characters – young and old – together. Setting the earlier timeline in a closed community like a children’s home seemed a good way to do it, and I found it was an excellent way to subsequently explore the fractured lives of those characters as adults. Reviewers have been very kind about that aspect of the book, which is wonderful.

Do you come from a writing background and what was it you read growing up?

I didn’t come from a writing family at all, and my parents were never readers. I think they had a copy of Jaws on the bookshelf, and a couple of those Reader’s Digest abridged classics. But I had one of those lovely English teachers who saw something in me – some spark – that nobody else did. She encouraged me to write. But you know how it is, life gets in the way, and years and decades whizzed past before I got round to seriously pursuing that dream. I always knew that I would end up writing one day, and I feel like, finally, I’m home, I’m where I was always meant to be.

I read loads of stuff growing up. Lots of crime, all the usual noir suspects Chandler and Hammett and James M. Cain; Stephen King, of course; and also Ira Levin, William Goldman, Ian Fleming, George McDonald Fraser, Charlie Dickens, Patricia Highsmith and Graham Greene.  And I consumed novelizations of movies and TV by the bucket load. Because they were written directly from a film script, they were all plot, plot, plot, pace, character and more plot. In retrospect, they taught me a lot about storytelling.

Front cover of the book 'The Two O'Clock Boy'.You have also worked as a journalist and as a producer for Radio for BBC Radio 2. How have these experiences helped your writing of The Two O’Clock Boy?

I was a journalist on local newspapers for a while but then went back to college – I tend to do everything back-to-front – and ended up at BBC Radio 2 where I produced a variety of shows, such as Steve Wright and Drivetime as well as various other documentaries and projects. It was a wonderful experience, but I’m not sure to what extent it helped me write the book. However, everything you read or listen to has a structure, a hierarchy of information.

Everything has a beginning, a middle and an end, whether it’s a newspaper article, a radio show, a three-minute pop song, documentary, or even a guest interview – and I think that helps when you’re learning where to reveal information in a story and how. Mostly, though, I learned from reading. Good books, bad books, average books – you learn from every single one of them. What to do, what to avoid doing.

How much research did you undertake before writing the novel?

I did it as I went along. Some authors love doing it, but I find research a necessary evil! I do it in small doses, and I’m lucky to have a number of brilliant police contacts.  Actually, I’ve got a great idea for a techno-thriller – it’s a real high-concept thing – and a historical thriller, too. But I’ll have to take a big breath before I do the research – it would feel like going back to school all over again.

How did the characters of Ray Drake and Flick Crowley from how you first envisaged them evolve into what they finally become in The Two O’Clock Boy?

Drake was a far less ambiguous character when I first started writing him. Less intense, perhaps, far more rough-and-ready, more of a man of action. Flick, too, has changed beyond all recognition. They both evolved, but when you write a novel everything evolves constantly – it does for me, at least. The characters grow in ways you don’t quite expect. I personally found that writing a novel is a bit like herding cats.

As a result, The Two O’Clock Boy became a far more emotional and psychological book, and all the better for it. Writing the book was an amazing journey for us all. But I do think that somewhere in the multiverse, that version of Drake, that version of Flick, and all the other abandoned characters from earlier drafts of the book, are out there living their lives.

The dialogue is slick and smooth and, as a result, keeps the pace rolling along. Is this something you learned to develop as a scriptwriter (what scripts?) and how does the process differ between the two disciplines?

My scriptwriting career hasn’t exactly caught fire. I’ve had one thing optioned – for tuppence. If any bigtime Hollywood producers are reading this, hey, over here, I’m available. But I used to do a lot of script-reading for the BBC and, of course, one of the first things you notice in a good script is the dialogue. It’s hugely important. Good dialogue, as you say, adds pace and defines character. One of the good things about writing in prose is that you get to have your cake and eat it.

You get to play with dialogue, but also you get to burrow into the heads of your characters, you get to have a little bit of fun with the subtext. Because, as we all know, what people don’t say is far more important than anything that comes out of their mouths.

The plot at times is harrowing. How emotionally invested do you become in what you are writing and how do you “switch off”?

As reviewers have pointed out, the really dark stuff all happens off-stage. There were certain things I couldn’t – and wouldn’t – write. But there is plenty of blistering emotion in The Two O’Clock Boy, it’s one of the reasons, I hope, that people have enjoyed it. I confess I loved writing that side of things. In fact, the more I write, the more I find myself attracted to writing those big, dangerous emotions – terror, guilt, fear, love, obsession, rage. I’m not a hugely demonstrative person in real life, so I find it quite cathartic. I like experiencing stuff through my characters. True, sometimes those same characters end up dead for their troubles, but still…

Is there a book you have read that you wish you had written? If so, why?

Oh God! This question!!? I don’t know. There are so many. The first one I clapped eyes on on my bookshelf as soon as you asked me this question was: A Simple Plan by Scott Smith. A brilliant morality tale, beautifully written, in which good people somehow end up doing unforgivable things. Good movie, too.

What’s the best piece of advice as a writer you have been given?

Every writer has a different journey, of course, but there are certain phrases you hear again and again when people talk about writing, and I’ve found a couple ring absolutely true for me.

Trust the process. I’m still learning how to write. I will never stop learning how to write. But I think at some point, if you work long and hard enough, you start to form instincts about how you want to go about things. Listen to those instincts and a process – a way of working that is utterly unique to you – gradually emerges. Trust that process, listen to what it has to tell you, and it will get you safely through to the other end. But don’t rush anything.

One of the main challenges I found writing The Two O’Clock Boy was coming to terms with how long that process takes. As a journalist and a radio producer I was used to working to tight deadlines. But when you’re writing a novel those deadlines become months, maybe years. Writing a book takes bloody ages – well, it does for me, anyway – and you live it every day. In the end the only way to keep going was to convince myself that I would be writing The Two O’Clock Boy for all eternity – so when the day came when it was actually all done, it came as a pleasant surprise!

Writing is rewriting. One of the biggest challenges to overcome was to keep going back to that story – again and again and again. I had to get into a mind-set where I was able to return to that same material, some of which I loved to bits, and rip it to shreds based on feedback by people I trusted. It was a leap of faith and hard to do at first. The Two O’Clock Boy evolved very considerably, but it absolutely improved with every single rewrite. Once I embraced rewriting – once I trusted in the fact that I could replace one good sentence or chapter or entire subplot with another, better one; once I trusted that process – the whole thing became easier.

What’s next?

Flick and Drake return and their problems are only just beginning. I’m afraid I’m going to make their lives very difficult indeed. Because I’m bad like that. Sorry, Flick and Drake.

If you would like to comment on this interview with Mark Hill in 2016, please feel free to contact me - GUESTBOOK

“Writing gets me away for a while' from this world and into one where I, alone, can make or
break the rules as I see fit.” - Chris High 2003.
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