Mark Billingham: “I don’t really attempt to convey any message…The story has to come first”
Born and raised in Birmingham, Mark Billingham did not choose just one career path, he’s currently on several! Originally working for some years as an actor, Mark then became known as a TV writer and stand-up comedian in 1987. Since then he has been a guest on over 30 TV and radio shows, and played at every comedy club in the UK, still often performing at the Comedy Store in London. So, what happened in the summer of 2001 when Mark’s name appeared on the front cover of Sleepyhead, a “sensational” crime fiction debut and instant bestseller in the UK? “What is surprising is that writing a dark and disturbing crime novel and performing stand-up comedy are not as different as one might suppose…I was basically trying to keep it simple, and write the book I would like to read”. Thus began Mark’s award-winning series featuring the Met Detective Inspector Tom Thorne. The series has rapidly grown in popularity, with a television adaptation taking off on Sky1 last October. Mark has also written one stand-alone novel, In the Dark, as well as a series of children’s thrillers, Triskellion under the pseudonym of Will Peterson. Supported by his wife and two children, the next installment of the Tom Thorne thrillers, Good as Dead was released back in August this year.
Well, we’re not really sure what to ask you about first! You must be incredibly busy, it’s no wonder you take time-out with your family in Hertfordshire occasionally. Thank you for agreeing to an interview. Now where to begin….
Q: You once told Writing Magazine, “the most wonderful thing about being a published writer is that you get to hang out with other writers who are your heroes” – *cough* jealous *cough*. What other perks are there to the job?
– Well I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of being able to get free books. It was the reason I first began reviewing crime fiction and writing articles about it – my first connection with the crime-writing community. Now I get sent books to blurb and to this day I open each parcel with excitement. I STILL get a thrill from meeting writing heroes. Getting a chance to hang out with Elmore Leonard and to meet the great James Crumley before he died was about as great as it gets. I think the day you become blasé about this kind of thing is the day you should stop writing.
Q: Speaking of your frustration when writing a script for a TV series, you say “…when it’s done, it’s jumped upon by a dozen people and torn to pieces and rewritten and messed about”. This alarms us! How drastically have some of your ideas been changed? What have we missed out on?!
– At its best, writing for television is “collaborative” but at its worst it is no more than writing by committee. I got tired of taking my name off projects that had ceased to so much as resemble the idea that I had started out with. I once wrote what I thought was a sophisticated piece of comedy-drama for older children and had to fight the urge to punch the producer when he insisted that I put a rubber chicken in it, because rubber chickens were “funny”. God, I’m SO glad I now write books for a living…
Q: For all crime-novel wannabes out there, how extensively do you research for your novels? Where does your research come from?
– I do a lot less research now than I did when I first started. Back then I believed that you had to get EVERYTHING right; that you had to drive to a set of traffic lights to be sure the car your character was driving could turn left. I have learned what you need to get right and what doesn’t matter. There’s always something that needs to be researched but you need to be careful not to crowbar in the stuff you find out at the expense of the story. All that said, I STILL get irate letters from readers complaining if I have put a coffee shop where there isn’t one or taken some limits with geography. You know what, though? These are novels. I make stuff up.
Q: In your 2009 stand-alone novel, In the Dark, Tom Thorne makes a cameo appearance. You admit that the “…day a character becomes predictable is the day a writer should think about moving on”. Considering his cameo appearance, how difficult do you find it to ‘let-go’ of Thorne? How often does he crop up in your mind?
– He’s there a lot, of course. But I stick by what I said and if he starts to become predictable I will say goodbye to him. I’m writing a standalone now and guess what? Yes, he will pop up again, but I like this device, as it gives readers a clue about where Thorne will be in the next Thorne novel.
Q: Your newest book, Good as Dead, came out in August. For those that haven’t read it yet, what can your die-hard fans and new readers alike, expect this time from their hero?
– I hope readers enjoy the change of pace in this book. I wanted to write a much faster and more immediate thriller this time around. And I enjoyed putting Thorne together with Helen Weeks who was the main character in my standalone novel, “In The Dark”.
Q: “Tom is a character I am immensely fond of and, as you’d probably expect, there is plenty of myself in him. He is probably more honourable than I am, and certainly braver”. What would you say are your top three attributes?
– Not sure I even have three. OK…I’m extremely punctual. I HATE lateness, in myself and others. Life is short enough as it is. I’m polite. And I think I’m very loyal, to people as well as to failing football teams.
Q: In a world where the news is unpredictable and often full of human atrocities, do you feel that TV has presented the danger of us becoming too familiar with violence and corruption? In your novels, what are the final messages you attempt to convey?
– I don’t really attempt to convey any message…well it’s certainly not a primary intention. The story has to come first. If during the course of an entertaining story you can shed light on one issue or another, then so be it.
Q: On a brighter note – A day in the life of Mark Billingham?
– I’d love to tell you that I spend all day shackled to my desk, but there’s actually a lot of staring out of the window and playing Scrabble online. Most of a book comes together when you’re not physically writing – when you’re out and about, walking the dog or pushing a trolley around the supermarket. My writing is structured around family life, so the best work tends to happen late at night or into the early hours when the kids are asleep and it’s dark outside. It’s tough to delve into the murky depths of people’s dark desires when you’re looking out at squirrels in the garden.
Q: Here at World of Books we think your trilogy of thrillers for older children, Triskellion, is great! Did you find these harder to write than your adult novels? Would you consider other genres one day?
– The writing process was exactly the same. The books were every bit as dark as the Tom Thorne novels, in fact there was probably a higher body count! I’m not sure about any other genre. I find it hard to write so much as a shopping lost without a murder or two…
Thanks for the interview Mark! Why not check out his books (and get up-to-date on Tom Thorne’s adventures) by visiting our site.