Transcription of Oundle Lit Fest (March 2011) – Day 3 of 5 (Mark Billingham & Michael Robotham)

The twenty-second special episode of the Bailey’s Writing Tips podcast was released on 30th May 2011 and featured the third day of five as a volunteer at Oundle Literature Festival here in Northamptonshire, England. The content has never been released other than website links (on my website).

Arriving at Oundle late afternoon, I met up with, and chatted to, Oundle Literature Festival Chairman Nick Turnbull at his Oundle School Community Action office in the town centre, which formed the second part of special episode 12.

That evening in the picturesque venue of the Long Room opposite St Peter’s Church, I was fortunate enough to get to sit in the ‘green room’ to chat to Mark Billingham and Michael Robotham before the event started (having nipped to Tesco to buy Mark a bottle of beer) :). Covering a variety of topics including writing (as would be expected), I was in my element especially as Mark and I were already Facebook ‘friends’ and he’d said he’d been looking forward to meeting me (and me him, obviously).

When the official event started, introductions were made by Molly Bickerstaff before she asked Mark what happened to him in a hotel room in 1995. He explained that he’d been there with a colleague and had ordered room service. The door bell rang and three men in balaclavas burst in, tying them up, before taking their valuables including their credit cards (and pin numbers). The colleague got himself then Mark free, grabbed a fire extinguisher and they ran to reception where the staff were oblivious of what had happened so were equally frightened to see two men charging at them. A year later his first novel came out and said he knows fear and can do that well. Because of what happened to him, Mark said he wanted to give the victims in his novels a voice.

Australian Michael then said that he’d been working for the Mail on Sunday in the UK and one story was about a £4M betting scam. His editor had sent him across to Ireland to investigate quoting him as saying to “send the Australian” making Michael feel very expendable. He said he’d had a similar experience to Mark where some men in balaclavas had tied him up, taken him to the airport and told him to go home. When he phoned his editor, the editor had said to wait 20 minutes and return to investigate but understandably Michael had taken the first out of Ireland.

Molly then asked how they create their characters, and how they feel about them? Mark said that even though it’s realistic writers need to engage the reader with heightened realism – if too realistic it would be too boring (going home to their spouses etc). Michael added that it’s hard to operate within the rules and gave an example as court procedures – too boring; so trimmed. So they have to make it richer…

Michael explained that his main character is a clinical psychologist and that he, Michael, worked with a respected clinical psychologist and admire someone who can get inside people’s head. His character though is flawed; he has a sharp mind but weak body (suffering from the onset of Parkinson’s).

Mark then referred to Tom & Jerry scenes where they’re hit by an anvil and suffer an anvil-shaped dent, but in the next scene they’re fine, and said it is similar in some books; they’re too unrealistic. They have to stay anvil shaped. Also each book has to read independently as well as part of a series; it’s all about realistic characters, and they’re not always likeable. He also said that he’s received lots of feedback from readers asking questions about the characters, even being asked when they’ll get married.

Michael said that he’d been asked if a character had had a baby and the reader had been stunned when Michael said he didn’t know!

Molly turned the talk to villains.  Mark said evil has a religious connotation which he’s not comfortable with. He doesn’t think people are inherently evil/good but have elements of both.

Michael said that when he was a young journalist: murderer on the run would phone him in the early hours, tipping him off when he’s committed a crime. It turned out that the criminal was only a couple of years older than Michael; very normal looking; like an ordinary Joe. He’d expected him to look like a thug.

Mark then talked about true-life cases and how down to earth even some of the most prolific murderers had been. Michael mentioned that his wife said they’d lose dinner invitations because he wrote such dark books!

Molly asked Mark and Michael about their use of prologues. Mark replied that a book should always start with unanswered questions so the reader says “why, what, who” etc. then the rest of the book should answer them. Apparently his wife will continue reading a book that she doesn’t enjoy saying “it’s not going to beat me”! whereas Mark would be quite happy to abandon it.

Michael explained that he uses the prologue to entice and that you should subtract your age from 100 and that’s how much you give a book, which I liked.

Molly then turned the conversation to plot. Michael doesn’t plot and once even pulled out 30,000 words which weren’t working. He said he may use them again and I’m sure they wouldn’t have been wasted. And this is a conversation I’ve been involved in recently on one of the LinkedIn forums.

Organic and exciting he said and added that Jeffrey Deaver apparently writes c. 250 page outline so he knows what he’s doing. Michael loves not knowing and the characters surprise him so he figures the reader won’t know either. (me too)

Mark does some sketching but a character’s never surprised him, which I think is a little sad. He wants them to surprise the reader but they don’t him and said the writer is in charge which is true but I do go with the flow and am often enthralled by what comes out.

Mark said that writer’s block is rubbish and quoted the phrased I’ve heard before about plumbers not being able to work because they’ve got plumber’s block so it should be the same for writers. And I totally agree.

Michael quoted Stephen King as saying “dig and reveal” – see a bone, what will it be? Dog or dinosaur bone? Michael hopes it’s going to be a dinosaur.

Molly then asked how to avoid the clichés? Mark replied first saying that crime readers know it’s going to be crime so you have to make the readers care about the characters. Michael added that twists and turns are vital and it’s unrealistic when a character is in a dark warehouse with no reason… to which Mark said writers should try and avoid the parts that the readers will skip, which made the audience laugh.

Mark then said it’s all about economy and that every writer needs editing. Michael then gave Steig Larsson as an example as having too much content.

Molly asked how to write quick dialogue so readers don’t lose track. Michael said that good writers make it look easy (he writes longhand so the dialogue is sharper then types it up). Mark added that dialogue is a strength and should tell you everything about the character. You should know what you’re good at.

Molly said that as they’d both written about women, how do they do it? Michael explained that was a ghostwriter for 15 autobiographies (Geri Halliwell, Lulu amongst them) and initially he was worried as most of the readers would be women but has three women (his wife and two daughters) as his first readers.

Mark said that you have to write them and be able to write them, and that his favourite book to write was In ‘The Dark’ where main character was a heavily pregnant woman, although he admits that it was harder work.

Molly: how important are jokes in the books? Great mix of humour then dour and vice versa. Mark: life isn’t all dark – said he’d been out with the police and they joke because they’re nervous. Michael: agreed, it’s not because they’re insensitive, it’s their safety valve.

The audience was then invited to ask questions and the first was one that I was planning on asking; what Mark thought of David Morrisey’s TV portrayal of Tom Thorne. Mark said he had wanted him from the very beginning but that reader feedback said there were too many changes, but he was very pleased.

When Mark was asked whether he’d written the screenplay, he said he wasn’t but was involved in the making of the TV series.

The next question, directed at Michael, was about how he heard that his novel ‘Bleed for me’ had been shortlisted for the TV Book Club and what impact had it had.  He’d received a phone call from his publicist, and he was sure that it had made an impact, certainly in gaining awareness of him and his books.

Michael was then asked whether he is going to be easier on Joe? to which he said that Joe plays a small part in next book out and the one he’s writing now he has a bigger part. Someone then requested that Joe back with Julianne to which Michael laughed and said that he’d had mixed feedback on this and that he’d consider it.

The conversation then turned to how they were published. It turns out that they both submitted around 30,000 words and were both accepted. Mark admitting that he was ridiculously lucky especially, he said as British crime writer RJ Ellory had 28 unpublished novels before he was accepted. Michael said that he was known as ghostwriter so think that helped. Word then got out which resulted in a bidding war for his novel which then obviously put pressure on him for the other 2/3rds of the book. He even had no title for it, just a working title of ‘The Suspect’ which he felt  to be too much in the vein of John Grisham. Mark said had come up with shout line for his book: “he doesn’t want you dead, he doesn’t want you alive, he wants you somewhere in between”, which I really like.

When asked what the police think of his books Mark said how supportive they were and even assigned him a detective who put him in touch with others and he said that they can’t wait to tell you (official and unofficial juicy stuff), especially happy to talk about murder.

A member of the audience sitting near me asked Michael what made you give Joe Parkinson’s Disease? He said he had a two-book deal and had the idea for the second one of a religious mystery but the contract meant he had to write in a similar style. Hadn’t planned to use Joe again but loved the idea of healthy mind but crumbling body, quoting Stephen Hawking as example but then said that he loves Joe so much that he wishes he hadn’t done it to him now.

Mark was then asked whether his work shows up a dark side in him to which Michael said that he likes people look like their dogs which, as a dog-owner, made me smile. Mark said that it’s what he likes to read and that he likes closure (when the cases are solved) and he’s bored if there’s no action (bodies, car chases etc.). Michael added that there are even bodies in Shakespeare’s plays; so drama and conflict.

And really, that’s what it’s all about. Even in romance there has to be some element of drama and in every good story, a conflict.

Again, the book stall was a sell-out with me buying the last copy of Michael’s book. I’d already bought my collection (of six) of Mark’s books with me so I didn’t buy his latest, especially it was in hardback, which I’m not so keen on.

When everything was tidied away, lights turned off and the building locked up, Mark, Michael, committee member Leigh and I headed towards the pub to kill time before their train. As I’d not been directly invited I didn’t want to outstay my welcome so bade them goodnight and went to my car parked nearby, to drive home a very happy person.

So, that’s what happened on day 3 out of 5 – links to the transcriptions of the other days will put listed on when they’re posted.

Oundle Lit Fest day 3 (Mark Billingham & Michael Robotham) special podcast no 22

A 12-minute review of my third day spent volunteering at the recent Oundle Literature Festival is now available as ‘Bailey’s Writing Tips’ special podcast episode number 22 and features a talk with crime authors Mark Billingham and Michael Robotham. Links to iTunes, Google Feedburner, Pobean and Pocast Alley are available via my website ( and in the ‘Where to find me’ section of this blog.

Day 1 (released as special episode 16 on 25th April) featured Young Sherlock Holmes/Dr Who author Andy Lane and philosopher Nigel Warburton, and Day 2 (released as special episode 18 on 9th May) featured children’s author/illustrator Sarah McIntyre and the festival’s literature quiz.

Days 4 (featuring Nick Sharratt, Simon Scarrow, Warwick Davis and Michael Wood) & 5 (featuring Katherine Jakeways and the ‘Rhymer’s Revenge’ murder mystery events) to follow as special episodes in the not too distant future.

Next Monday’s episode will be the return of the standard format hints & tips (regular episode 33) and I shall be interviewing novelist Jane Davis that day so that will be a special episode later that week. The next interview will be with crime writer / tutor / columnist Adrian Magson at the end of June.

I shall then be interviewing crime novelist / tutor Sally Spedding at the Winchester Writers’ Conference early July, and currently have free interview slots from mid-July onwards; so if you write (published or otherwise) and think you’d make an interesting subject, do email me.