Welcome to the two hundredth of my blog interviews with novelists, poets, short story authors, bloggers, autobiographers, agents, publishers and more. Today’s is with crime novelist and stand-up comedian Mark Billingham (who I had the pleasure of meeting, with Michael Robotham, and chatting to in the green room! when I volunteered at the Oundle Literature Festival March 2011).
Morgen: Hello, Mark. Please tell us something about yourself and how you came to be a writer.
Mark: Hi, Morgen. I’m tall, extremely punctual at all times and overly fond of spicy food. If you need something a little less trivial, I’m married with two kids and live in London (and a bit in the US) I think I’ve always been a writer in that I’ve always written. I wrote (or tried to write) funny stories at school, bad poetry as a student, terrible plays, average television programmes and eventually… crime novels. It was only when I’d written my first crime novel that I really found what I wanted to do. So I write full time, which is a real privilege, but time gets tighter due to the other stuff that goes with it. There’s part of me that still thinks like a freelancer, so I tend to say yes to far too many things. But life is pretty good. Especially if it involves spicy food.
Morgen: Well, thank you for saying “yes” to this interview, despite there being no spicy food on offer. You’re best known for writing crime novels, have you considered other genres?
Mark: Not really. Crime fiction has always been my passion as a reader, so I’ve never thought about writing any other sort of book. I’ve written a lot of comedy for radio and TV and have done some YA fiction, but that was very dark stuff. In fact, I think more people die than in the Thorne novels.
Morgen: :) What have you had published to-date? Can you remember where you saw your first book on the shelves?
Mark: So far there have been eleven novels – ten in the Tom Thorne series and one standalone novel – In The Dark. As well as that, three YA novels in the Triskellion series. I remember vividly hearing the news that I was going to be published. I was standing outside what is now Wagamama in Brent Cross shopping centre when my agent called with the news. I still get a buzz in that place. I think the first time I saw Sleepyhead on the shelves was in Waterstones on Oxford Street and I was beside myself. The day that stops being exciting is the day you should give up.
Morgen: I listened to Sleepyhead on audiobook – it made my walk to / from work much more bearable. Have you ever seen a member of the public reading your book… in any unusual locations?
Mark: Nowhere too unusual, but on the train and on the beach and stuff. It’s always exciting. But it’s NEVER a good idea to in any way acknowledge that you’re the writer of the book. Most people will just think you’re insane and run away.
Morgen: Unless they recognise you. :) I went to talks by Stephen Booth and Peter James recently and they both had incidents where “that’s my book” went wrong so I think you’re very wise. How much of the marketing do you do for your published works or indeed for yourself as a ‘brand’?
Mark: Well I do stuff online. I “tweet” as I believe the young people call it and I look after a Facebook page. Everything else is done by my publisher. These days a writer markets themselves in terms of public appearances and events and I always try and take those things seriously. As someone with a performance background, I always try and give a decent performance.
Morgen: And you certainly did at Oundle. :) Presumably you have an agent, do you think they’re vital to an author’s success?
Mark: Yes, absolutely. The simple truth is that it’s almost impossible to get published without an agent. They will also negotiate all your foreign deals and look after everything that you should not have to worry about while you get on with writing the books. My agent is amazing and I simply would not be a full time writer without her.
Morgen: “while you get on with writing the books” I think that’s the key – writers should be writers after all. Your books are available as eBooks, were you involved at all in that process? And do you read eBooks?
Mark: I’ve never read an eBook, but am involved in the ongoing discussion with my publisher as to how best use them. It’s a branch of publishing that’s very much in flux right now and you have to keep on top of it. As a reader though, I’ll stick with books.
Morgen: Most of my interviewees to-date have said they’d stick with paperbacks (or hardbacks) and I’m the same. I have an eReader but I think they serve different purposes – pBooks for home, eBooks for travelling. I mentioned earlier that some of your books are also available as audiobooks, did you have any involvement with those?
Mark: Well I just read my first one. I read “Good As Dead” and it was a great experience. Much more exhausting that you’d imagine and a lot harder. I blithely create these characters with a variety of accents which then came back to bite me in the arse when I had to DO them in the studio…
Morgen: Wow. It’s not often that an author reads his own. I’ve had more empathy with the narrators since I’ve been podcasting – they probably don’t do as many takes in a whole book as I do in a half-hour programme. :) Do you have any say in the title and covers of your books? How important do you think they are?
Mark: Yes, I do and they are VERY important. I work in very close consultation with my publisher on these things. If my editor really hates a title, I will change it. If I really hate a suggested jacket idea, they will change it. It’s a co-operative process. This only really applies in the UK. You don’t have the time (or the energy) to get involved with how a book looks in Latvia or Brazil. It’s always a surprise, though not always a pleasant one.
Morgen: Oh dear. It must be strange too to see a translated title in those languages. Kate Atkinson’s ‘Started Early, Took the Dog’ is ‘Das vergessene Kind’ (the forgotten child) in Germany. :) Do any of your books have dedications? If so, to whom and (if appropriate) why?
Mark: Most of them do, I think. Many to my wife, some to my kids. I’ve dedicated books to my editors and to my agent and the last one was dedicated to David Morrissey and the producer Jolyon Symonds, for bringing Thorne to the screen so brilliantly.
Morgen: Have you had any rejections along the way? If so, how do you deal with them?
Mark: I was incredibly lucky and got my publishing deal on the strength of the first 30,000 words of Sleepyhead. I had an awful lot of good luck and that can’t be overestimated in terms of getting published. I DID get rejected a lot when I was working as an actor though. Probably why I became a writer…
Morgen: :) What are you working on at the moment / next?
Mark: Just finishing up the next novel, which is another standalone. So… very nervous.
Morgen: You’ve been so prolific, do you manage to write every day? What’s the most you’ve written in a day?
Mark: No, I don’t sit at the computer every day, but the book is in your head all the time – taking shape, problems getting solved etc. When I am at the computer, I’m usually happy with about 1200 words in a day, but I HAVE done 3000 when I’m really flying and there’s a lot of coffee or Red Bull on hand.
Morgen: And spicy food. :) I know the answer to this because someone asked it at Oundle but… what is your opinion of writer’s block?
Mark: No such thing. Unless someone has broken all your fingers there’s nothing stopping you writing. It won’t always be any good of course, but writers have good days and bad days, same as anyone else. It’s one of those things I hate – another weapon in the armoury of those who try and make the craft of writing into something mystical.
Morgen: Absolutely… and then there’s always voice recognition software. Do you get any of your plots from real incidents and do you plot your stories or do you just get an idea and run with it?
Mark: It can be both. I usually just start with an opening scene that leaves unanswered questions, for both myself and the reader.
Morgen: Do you have a method for creating your characters, their names and what do you think makes them believable?
Mark: I often use the names of comedians I know or have worked with. I try and create characters as far as possible through their dialogue. That’s far more important to me than what they look like or what they wear.
Morgen: You mentioned earlier that British actor David Morrissey recently played your lead character Tom Thorne in a six-part TV series ‘Thorne’, how involved were you in that and did it end up as you imagined?
Mark: I was very involved and delighted with how it turned out. David and I worked (and are still working) very closely together. We wanted to make a good piece of television – not something that was necessarily slavish to the book. That said, David has always been hugely respectful of the source material. He is first and foremost a fan of the books.
Morgen: We’ve talked a lot about your novels but you’ve contributed short stories to a number of anthologies, have you ever considered writing your own collection?
Mark: Not yet, though I enjoy writing them very much. I believe that writing a great short story is harder than writing a good novel. I write a story if I’m approached, if it’s an interesting idea and if I find myself in good company. It is very sad that short stories are no longer successful commercially, though that may change now that so many are finding a home in the world of eBooks.
Morgen: As a short story author, I’m hoping so. :) You’re also a stand-up comedian, do you keep that completely separate from your writing or do the lines ever blur? If you had to choose stand-up or writing would it be an easy decision to make?
Mark: Yes, an easy decision. I did stand-up for 25 years and for most of that time I loved it. I still tell cheap jokes at the drop of a hat and try to make my events as entertaining as possible, but I don’t miss the stupidly late nights and the crazed egos of certain comedians. They are a FAR darker bunch than crime writers, I can promise you that. I’ve stopped gigging now, but who knows, I may do it again, some day.
Morgen: Or maybe both at somewhere like Edinburgh. Who do you first show your work to?
Mark: When a first draft is finished, I show it to my wife, my agent and a close friend who is a voracious crime reader. Then I do another quick draft and deliver it to my editor. Then I cross my fingers and have a long lie down.
Morgen: With some spicy food. :) Do you do a lot of editing or do you find that as time goes on your writing is more fully-formed?
Mark: Yes, there’s less editing now than there was. I take a perverse pride in delivering a very “clean” manuscript and there’s usually no more than two more drafts after that. That said, the work still NEEDS editing. There isn’t a writer alive whose work cannot be improved by the suggestions of others.
Morgen: Because sometimes we’re too close to it. I totally agree. I wouldn’t release anything without a second opinion and my editor not only spots flaws (thankfully not too many) but also comes up with some wonderful suggestions. Do you have to do much research for your novels?
Mark: There’s usually something specific I need to research, but as to the general business of police procedure, I’ve become less manic about it than I was. It’s a novel, so I’m no longer bothered by emails from readers pointing out that there isn’t a coffee shop where I said there was one or whatever. If something is crucial to the plot, I’ll make sure I get it right, but beyond that I’m not overly fussed. I really hate those novels where you can SEE the research.
Morgen: What’s your writing process – do you write on paper or do you prefer a computer?
Mark: I write on a laptop, though I do have a notebook with scribbled ideas, fragments of dialogue, doodles and so on.
Morgen: Some writers like quiet, others the noise of a coffee shop etc. Do you listen to music or have noise around you when you write or do you need silence?
Mark: I love music so much that to have it playing while I work would be far too distracting. So, silence, yes – though that usually means moments of silence in between kids shouting, dogs barking etc etc.
Morgen: In my case the one dog. What point of view do you find most to your liking: first person or third person? Have you ever tried second person?
Mark: Not tried second. I like a mixture of first and third, though one day I will write a book entirely in first. I think writing in first person, though it has disadvantages in terms of ‘point of view’ is a little easier. At least, you can write quicker.
Morgen: I adore second person and it suits dark, you might like it. :) Do you use prologues / epilogues? What do you think of the use of them?
Mark: I certainly have done. I know some writers hate them and Elmore Leonard advises against them, but I’ve often found them useful. They work like a theatrical tease or trailer and can set a mood. I like a prologue that you then spend the rest of the book getting back to.
Morgen: Do you have pieces of work that you think will never see light of day?
Mark: No, there’s nothing hidden away in a drawer as far as I can remember. Probably for the best.
Morgen: What’s your favourite / least favourite aspect of your writing life?
Mark: Starting a book is always hideous. It’s as if you’ve forgotten how to do it. I really enjoy live events – especially sharing a platform with other writers who are friends. Overall, there’s not really very much to complain about. It’s not digging a ditch, is it?
Morgen: It isn’t, thankfully. I’ve said this already but I really enjoyed listening to you and Michael at Oundle – apart from a Bloomsbury Readers’ Panel (four authors) at Chorleywood Literature Festival the previous November and the previous Oundle Literature Festival Readers’ Day (five authors) it was great seeing more than one author together, to bounce comments off each other. If anything, what has been your biggest surprise about writing?
Mark: That each book is harder to write than the last.
Morgen: What advice would you give aspiring writers?
Mark: READ! You’d be amazed how many would-be writers tell me they don’t read. How can you be a chef if you’ve never eaten anything?
Morgen: Guilty as charged, although I do listen to short story podcasts and audio novels (just finished the 7-hour Girl with the Dragon Tattoo). I do read books, I just tend not to get to the end, no fault of the book, I just spot another one I want to start (which is why I tent to stick to shorts / novellas). What do you like to read? Any authors you could recommend?
Mark: There are so many great writers out there. I would heartily recommend George Pelecanos, James Lee Burke, Dennis Lehane, Laura Lippman, Megan Abbott, Michael Connelly, John Connolly, Martyn Waites. And you absolutely HAVE to read Daniel Woodrell, who is so good it’s sickening.
Morgen: :) Is there a word, phrase or quote you like? (I love your ‘He doesn’t want you alive, he doesn’t want you dead, he wants you somewhere in between’)
Mark: Knock hard, life is deaf.
Morgen: What do you do when you’re not writing? Any hobbies or party tricks? :)
Mark: Listen to country music, follow Wolverhampton Wanderers FC and try to get better on the guitar. Party tricks? I can play tunes on my teeth…
Morgen: Are there any writing-related websites and / or books that you find useful and would recommend?
Mark: There are hundreds. In terms of books, you can’t do any better than “On Writing” by Stephen King. I think he’s a writer who’s done pretty well for himself.
Morgen: It’s the most recommended book in these interviews. You’re based in the UK, do you find this a help or hindrance with letting people know about your work?
Mark: No, not really. The internet reaches just about everywhere.
Morgen: Isn’t it wonderful. :) You’re on Twitter and Facebook, how valuable do you find them?
Mark: Well, they are a HUGE time-suck, so you have to be careful, but they are useful ways to let people know what you’re up to; when you have a book out, where you might be doing an event or whatever.
Morgen: And pretty much the only places for us newbies who just have eBooks. :) Your website is www.markbillingham.com, is that the best place to find out more about you and your work?
Mark: That’s the best place. Apart from inside my head, but I don’t recommend that.
Morgen: Oh, I think a few people (including your readers) would love to go there. What do you think the future holds for a writer?
Mark: Well for this writer, I’m just going to carry on writing the books as long as people want to read them. I certainly don’t think the eBook revolution is going to kill off writers or anything like that. Although the ease with which anyone can “publish” now does mean there’s a lot of rubbish out there. Mind you, there’s a lot of rubbish in bookshops too.
Morgen: I’m glad you added the last bit. There’s a lot of talk on LinkedIn about the whole issue and I still maintain that reviews will highlight the quality. If you could have your life over again, is there anything you’d have done differently (writing-related or otherwise)?
Mark: I would have learned to play the guitar earlier, and I would never have tried to defrost a freezer with a chisel.
Morgen: Ouch. I use a metal spatula. Is there anything else you’d like to mention?
Mark: I think I’ve probably wittered on far too long already.
Morgen: Not at all. Is there anything you’d like to ask me?
Mark: Morgen is an unusual name. Where’s it from?
Morgen: A dog I used to have. I called him Morgen because of the German saying ‘Guten Morgen’ (good morning – I have German connections) but sadly he wasn’t a very well-behaved dog so I didn’t get to say it very often. My current dog is Bailey and he’s a star. :) Thank you Mark. I’m so grateful for your time.
Mark Billingham is one of the UK’s most acclaimed and popular crime writers. His series of London-based novels featuring D.I. Tom Thorne has twice won him the Theakston’s Crime Novel Of The Year Award, the Sherlock Award for Best Detective and been nominated for seven CWA Daggers. His standalone thriller In the Dark was chosen as one of the twelve best books of the year by the Times and his debut novel, Sleepyhead was chosen by the Sunday Times as one of the 100 books that had shaped the decade and is one of the titles chosen to be given away on this year’s World Book Night. Each of his novels has been a Sunday Times Top Ten bestseller.
A television series based on the Thorne novels was screened in Autumn 2010, starring David Morrissey as Tom Thorne heading an all-star cast that included Natascha McEhlhone, Eddie Marsan and Aiden Gillan. The second series of Thorne is currently in production for Sky One and a series based on Mark’s standalone thriller In The Dark is in development with the BBC.
Mark Billingham’s latest novel is Good As Dead. His next novel, a standalone thriller called Rush Of Blood, will be published in August 2012. You can read more about him and his writing at www.markbillingham.com and www.tomthorne.com.
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