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Interview with Mark Billingham 2008

Image: Mark Billingham“Two strikes and you’re out”. Mark Billingham’s warning to aspiring authors.
By Chris High.

Mark Billingham has long been regarded as one of the best in modern crime fiction. Now, with the release of his seventh novel, that same reputation as being a master of his art is surely secured.

Mark, who was born and brought up in Birmingham, worked for some years as an actor, TV Writer and stand-up comedian and though still occasionally working as a stand-up comic, now concentrates on writing the series of crime novels featuring London-based detective, Tom Thorne.

In light of the recent discussions surrounding the seeming rise in real-life crime, particularly those involving guns, Mark to an extent disagrees with suggestions of an increase. ‘I don’t think there is necessarily any more of it but rather that we are simply more aware of it. I don’t know, but I certainly think it’s the job of the crime writer to engage with it on some level. If you want to write about Lords and Ladies, Aunt Jemima’s tea-set and gentlemen detectives then good luck to you, but I can’t see how you can ignore what’s happening every day on the streets. This may mean the books are not always an easy read but that’s tough. I’m not claiming that writing about these things necessarily changes anything, but I’ve become far more interested in writing that reflects this world than that which seeks to escape it. There has to be a story though. The story comes first, always.’

Mark’s first crime novel, Sleepyhead, was published in 2001, becoming an instant bestseller in the UK and selling widely throughout the world. In a business in which it is increasingly difficult to break into, Mark sees the problems facing aspiring authors as to being mainly those of pressure. ‘I think these days it’s hardest for those writers who have been published for a few years without making the significant breakthrough in terms of sales,’ Mark said. ‘These are the writers who are getting squeezed as publishers continue to spend money on either new or established authors. Retailers, too, continue to exercise an increasing amount of power in terms of what gets published which means writers do not have the time and space to learn the craft any more. You might think the future is rosy when you land that first, two-book deal, but the reality, increasingly, is that you only have those two chances to crack it so it really is a case of two strikes and you’re out. If your books are on supermarket shelves within a year or two, you’re laughing, but if not, you might find the future difficult. My advice is to write the kind of book you’d like to read. Don’t hold on to what you’ve written for too long; get it out there. Don’t fiddle with it too much. James Lee Burke said a book is finished when “nothing rattles”. As soon as it’s rattle-free, leave it alone.’

Mark has an extremely popular Website, a tool with which he would now find very difficult being without as a means of readership feedback and promotion. ‘The site seems to be expanding all the time and, of course, you’re right in that it’s a very important way of promoting yourself and the books, but it’s also a great way to keep your ear to the ground and to gauge the response to the work. The forum in particular is going great guns and I enjoy the contributions and suggestions of the many members. It’s also important to have skilled and committed people running and moderating the site as it means it doesn’t take up too much time and doesn’t get infiltrated by nutcases as so many other sites and forums have been in the past. I’m very proud of it and very grateful to have such a team behind me.’

So how important are events such as the Harrogate International Crime Writing Festival to authors? ‘Some more than others, but when it comes to festivals devoted to crime fiction, Harrogate is the best there is. It’s grown every year and is now virtually unmissable. Yes, there’s all sorts of networking going on and I’m sure deals are hammered out over a glass of wine or two, but above all it’s a chance for readers and writers to engage; for readers and writers to get together. It’s a brilliant social occasion which, to be fair, is also a polite way of saying it’s a weekend when a lot of crime writers and readers get utterly slaughtered in each others company.’

A way of keeping a serial character’s appeal going with the readership is, of course, for the author break away from him or her completely. Risky for sure, but a gamble Mark has been willing to take. ‘I think if any writer is going to keep his or her series fresh, it’s important to move away from it now and again. Though it was scary and exciting to leave Thorne behind for once, when I come to write about him again I’ll be a lot more fired up. Having said all that, the man himself may make the briefest of cameo appearances in the book and readers may well discover something new and very important about him. It’s a very different book from any of the Tom Thorne novels. It’s not a police procedural and, dare I say, I think it’s a book that will appeal to a lot more female readers of crime fiction. In The Dark will be out next year.’

Death Message (Little Brown)is the  latest Tom Thorne novel. A story based on different levels around revenge and the search for closure, the scenario is sparked by one significant event – the sending of a photograph of a body to Thorne’s mobile phone – though inspiration for the story came from a far deeper level. ‘The story was instigated by the phrase itself: Delivering the ‘Death Message’. This is what coppers call telling somebody a loved one has died. I asked myself what the circumstances might be in which receiving a death message tips someone over the edge and makes them capable of terrible things; things that might even be forgivable considering what had motivated them. I love gadgets but I’m hopeless with them even though I am well aware of how reliant we have become on these things. So I asked myself “what happens when they are used against us”? That’s where using the mobile as a courier of the messages came from.’

In Death Message, Thorne seems to be a lot more content with his lot in contrast to the usually amiable Phil Hendricks, Thorne’s closest friend, who’s seems the more discontented. Is there set to be a closer examination of Phil’s personality in coming books? ‘Actually, that’s a pretty good idea. I’ve always enjoyed the relationship between Thorne and Hendricks and in this book it gets particularly spiky. Hendricks is a character I’m very fond of and if I came up with a vehicle for him I would happily climb on board. As to Thorne being more content, it just came around, I think. Stressful as Thorne’s life is, those of us that write series need to cut our protagonists some slack now and again. Life isn’t all angst and soul-searching and, of course, any degree of contentment I see fit to dole out can be snatched away at a later date if I’m in a bad mood. I don’t keep a diary, but I’m sure there is an element of therapy in all forms of writing,’ Mark said.

So with the sixth Thorne novel, Buried (Little Brown), recently released in paperback and with Death Message now being devoured by his legion of fans, what’s next for Mark Billingham? ‘I’ll be starting the next Thorne novel in a month or two and at the moment it will be called The Life Thief. Right now I’m still on the road with Death Message and as soon as that’s done I need to press on with the second in a trilogy of kids’ books. The first one – Triskellion – came out in February. There’s also some radio stuff happening and at some point I need to find time for a nervous breakdown.’
And with such a hectic schedule ahead, it’s difficult to tell if the author / stand-up comedian, on this occasion, is joking or not.

More information:

Parts of this interview have, or will, appear in other publications and in other formats.

If you would like to comment on this interview with Mark Billingham, 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.
© 2008 all rights reserved