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Wednesday, 11 July 2018

Did you hear the one about the actor, the comedian and the novelist? Mark Billingham Interview

Billingham dressed to kill Pic by Donna-Lisa Healy.
Did you hear the one about the actor, the comedian and the novelist?

Well, they're all the same man! Boom Boom!!

Not much of a punchline granted, not even a punchline, but it's the best I could come up with after weeks of footie fatigue; the World Cup being in full swing. And although it might be inane it is fitting to precede our interview with bestselling crime/thriller writer Mark Billingham. 

Billingham, born in Solihull, grew up in Birmingham and spent most of his formative years there. After leaving university, with a degree in drama, he remained in Birmingham and helped set up Bread and Circuses, a socialist theatre company, and after several years of touring shows he left for the bright lights of London to pursue a career as a jobbing actor. It was now the 1980's and Billingham saw himself taking small parts in shows like Dempsey and Makepeace, The Bill and Juliet Bravo. His best known role was as Gary, the dim witted guard employed by the Sheriff of Nottingham in the successful children's series, Maid Marion and her Merry Men.

Billingham though soon grew tired of acting, feeling that the  secret for success was largely based on how an actor looked rather than talent  -' I seemed to be offered bad guy roles such as a soccer hooligan, drug addict, a nasty copper, a racist copper or a bent copper' - and he instead opted to concentrate on stand up comedy. Staring out with 5 - 10 minute unpaid open mic sessions, he soon moved onto 30 minute paid slots, and from there he found himself headlining gigs at the prestigious Comedy Store. 

' Back then it was fairly easy to get into,' Billingham says of his stand up comedy career.  'You'd go to a couple of clubs and do what are called 'Try-outs' which are unpaid spots. You got five minutes, and if you did well that progressed into 10 minutes, and then 20 to 30 minute paid slots. But now it is really big business, and there are big chains of Comedy Clubs. I feel sorry for young comics of 18 or 19 today, as it is so tough now. It's a lot tougher now than it used to be.'

Despite his success as a stand up comedian though, Billingham's first love was writing, something he had been doing since an early age and although his first attempt at a novel, the Birmingham set Mechanic (as yet unpublished), which was a comic crime thriller that he abandoned before completion, the writing bug had bitten.  He loved reading crime novels and so he decided to concentrate on a straight forward crime novel. This would become Sleepyhead - the 2001 novel that all but make him an instant
bestseller. 

Sleepyhead is a serial killer thriller with a truly ingenious twist, since if a victim dies the killer considers this a failure. He's not trying to kill his victims but rather to induce a permanent catatonic state through the skillful manipulation of nerves and pressure points - it's called Locked In Syndrome or pseudocoma, a condition in which a patient is aware but cannot move or communicate verbally due to complete paralysis of nearly all voluntary muscles except for vertical eye movements and blinking.

The thriller introduced us to hard living, country music loving, Detective Inspector Tom Thorne and readers instantly took to this new cop on the fictional crime landscape. Despite his rather dodgy musical taste, the reading public loved him and this past month saw the publication of The Killing Habit, the fifteenth book in the Tom Thone series.

TAINTED ARCHIVE: So after so many books featuring the same group of characters, I wonder if the author found it difficult to maintain reader interest. Is it actually easier now that the readers are so familiar with Thorne's universe or is it harder to keep them interested?

MARK BILLINGHAM: I suppose it's a little of both. The tricky part is writing a book in the series which honours those readers who have followed the Thorne novels since the start, while not alienating those who may not have read any of them. It's a tough balance to get right. There SHOULD be pressure, because unless you're always trying to write a better book than you did last time, you really should not be bothering. You certainly cannot take reader familiarity for granted...


TA: A particular strength in the Thorne series are the secondary characters - Tanner, Hendricks, Helen etc. In some way there's something of a soap opera vibe to series fiction in the way that the private lives of character that make up the fictional universe come and go. How to do you keep track of everything that is going on with such a large cast of recurring characters? Is there a series bible for instance?


MB: No, there's no such thing as a bible when it comes to my fictional world. It was a choice I made early on, specifically for Thorne, that I would not lay everything out or know everything about him and the same goes for Phil, Helen and the rest. This can cause problems of course, the most obvious one being that I forget stuff. But I think it's the right way to go in the long run, because it means that the characters can stay unpredictable. If they're surprising me then they have more chance of surprising the reader.

TA: to step away from Thorne for a moment - from time to time you write standalone thrillers. Are these a chance to rest from Thorne's world? Do they enable you to tackle subjects that may not work in a Thorne thriller? 

MB: That's absolutely right and it's a lesson I learned from writers like Michael Connelly. I think it's the best way - possibly the ONLY way - to keep a series from getting stale. You need to step away once in a while and do something else. That way, in theory at least, you can return to your series a year later fired up and ready to get back into it. While it's sometimes scary - and you ask yourself why you didn't just play safe and write another series novel - it's enormously liberating to leave your comfort zone. The standalones are among the favourites of all my novels and I'll certainly be doing some more. As you say, sometimes it's a story that simply has no room for a miserable north London copper... 



 TA: You are all over social media - often giving live Facebook broadcasts whilst wearing some pretty loud shirts, hosting the excellent Podcast A Stab in the Dark. How important is social media to the modern writer?

   
MB: Social media has, of course, become tremendously important, both to writers and publishers. On the down side, it can be a way for some publishers to do marketing and "publicity" on the cheap, but from a writer's point of view it's a fairly easy way to keep in touch with readers and fellow writers. To let people know what you're up to. Increasingly in recent years, writers have needed to sell themselves as much as their books, so a presence on social media has become pretty much compulsory. For those of us who are not averse to showing off, it's great, but it can also be an enormous time-suck, so I look at it as a treat that I need to earn. I get a chapter done, I can treat myself to 10 minutes on Twitter or whatever. the podcast was great fun and I hope we'll be recording some more very soon.




A STAB IN THE DARK PODCAST: I would urge fans of crime thrillers to check out the podcast - it can perhaps boast the finest line of big name guests of any podcast. Sofia Helfin, Mark Gattis, Michael Connelly, Belinda Bauer and Patricia Cornwell are just a few of the luminaries who have appeared recently. Find details HERE



TA: Given your knowledge of the genre, let's touch on other writers. Who do you particularly like? Are there any authors who you read as each book come out?


MB: There are SO many great writers out there at the moment. In terms of those writers whose early copies I scrounge from publishers it's all the usual suspects. Mick Herron is definitely one of those. His books are like crack! Same goes for Belinda Bauer, Martyn Waites, John Connolly, George Pelecanos, Laura Lippman, Michael Connelly, Steve Cavanagh, Susie Steiner, loads more that I've forgotten and, of course, all my band-mates from the Fun Lovin' Crime Writers. I'm only in that band so I can hang out with them.


THE FUN LOVING CRIME WRITERS:  The band, genre fiction's answer to John, Paul, George and Ringo are Mark Billingham, Val McDermid, Chris Brookmyre,  Stuart Neville, Luca Veste and Doug Johnstone, and they regularly appear at festivals and - in their own words: murder songs for fun. 

 This month they will be appearing at the Harrogate Crime Festival and later this year they will be appearing at Bloody Scotland, the highland's own international crime writing festival.


 


 
TA: Along the same lines - what are your influences?
  

MB: There are so many influences. When I was a student I read all the classic US authors - Hammett, Chandler, McDonald, and then later those writers who were shaking things up in their wake - Burke, Ellroy. Before I'd written a word I'd read pretty much everything by the likes of Connelly, Pelecanos, McDermid, Rankin and Harvey, and I still do. It tickles me constantly that all those writers are now my friends. I think I was as influenced by TV and film as much as by anything I read.


TA: The crime/thriller genre in itself is in rude health with some great stuff out there. And it is so fluid - I recently listened with great interest in you chat with John Connolly in which he stated that setting does not define a crime novel. He used a hypothetical crime story set in the old west as his example and I think I agree with him. Another case in point is Brookmyre's Places in the Darkness being taken for SF. I guess what I'm trying to ask is are there genre boundaries that can't be crossed without a work transforming into an entirely different genre? Are there firm and hard rules to the crime genre? Your thoughts on this please.


MB: I really enjoyed that chat with John, who is another writer whose stuff I will try and read as early as possible. I agree that the genre is in great shape and I really don't believe it has boundaries. There are certain conventions and I think you'd be foolish to ignore all of them, but there really isn't anywhere you can't go. That said, if you're writing a crime novel that features wizards and dragons, then even though it might still BE a crime novel, it's also fantasy. Maybe mash-ups are the way forward.


TA: Let's get onto your own writing - your work habits?   

MB: I don't really have work habits. I write a book every year, so there are obviously certain things I have to do, but it's not a 9-5 job. If I'm on the road promoting a book that's just come out, I won't be writing the current one. I can't do both things at the same time. I need my office, my desk, my things. When I AM working, it's usually done at night. I TRY to write during the day but I'm easily distracted, so it works best when emails aren't arriving and Twitter has gone quiet. On top of that, I think it suits the kind of stuff I'm writing if I can look out of the window and see only darkness. 

TA: And back to Thorne - what are the chances of him returning to TV?


MB: The notion of bringing Thorne back to TV surfaces every six months or so and there has been plenty of interest, but nothing's going to be happening very soon. Mind you, in television nothing EVER happens very soon. Rush Of Blood is still in development and I'm working on something original for TV, but 99% of all my energy and attention is focused on the books. Oh, and the band of fellow crime-writers I sing and play guitar with. 


 THORNE TV SERIES: The series debuted on Sky 1 in October 2010 with David Morrisey in the title role. Despite considerable success the series has yet to return.



TA: Finally, will be ever see the return of Nicklin? If Thorne is Holmes then he is his Moriarty, and the character is a huge hit with readers. So will our favorite psycho come back?


MB: Ha! I get asked this a lot. Nothing is certain, but the book that will come out in 2020 will be my twentieth novel and will mean 20 years of Thorne. If I WAS going to bring Nicklin back - for one last appearance - that would probably be the time. But I won't do it unless I have an idea that really works...



FIND MARK BILLINGHAM HERE
FUN LOVING CRIME WRITERS HERE

   

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