14th Apr2014

Interview with Mark Billingham

by Lloyd Paige


Mark Billingham is the acclaimed author of the bestselling Tom Thorne books. From Sleepyhead and Scaredy Cat, to Good As Dead and The Dying Hours, the detective has continued to capture our imagination. Billingham has also been shortlisted for a CWA Gold Dagger and worked as a stand-up comedian and a TV writer. Naturally I had a few questions to throw his way and this is what happened.

1. Our early life tends to mould us all so what was yours like growing up in Birmingham and what experiences have stayed with you?

It was a great place to grow up. I had a pretty good time at school, which was where I blossomed as an out and out show off, where I developed the reading habit (thanks to Sherlock Holmes) and where I began to write, purely to entertain classmates.

As I grew older I came to appreciate the amazing music scene in the city at that time which was very influential. I’m hugely fond of Brum and annoyed that it gets such a bad press. Easy for me to say, of course, as I left there over twenty years ago, but it’s where my roots are.

2. With regard to your debut book Sleepyhead, did you expect its success or was it a pleasant surprise?

It was a MASSIVE surprise. I knew I’d written a book with a very strong hook, but luck plays such an enormous part in anyone’s journey to publication that it was still a long shot. I got VERY lucky. Most importantly, I found my way to a fabulous publisher (Little, Brown, where I’ve been ever since) who did an amazing job in getting that book into the top ten. “Pleasant” doesn’t even come close to describing how I felt.

I can still remember exactly where I was when I found out my book was going to be published! (Brent Cross shopping centre, if anyone’s interested…)

3. Tell me, at what point in your writing career did you feel established as an author?

Probably after the second book, Scaredy Cat. That was the one that really broke through in terms of sales and was also shortlisted for the CWA Gold Dagger which was amazing. From then on I knew that I would have to screw up pretty badly for things to go wrong. The crime-writing community was and continues to be so welcoming, that I felt part of the gang very quickly.

No, there’s never been a long-term plan for Thorne. I have no dossier on him, no compendium of facts.”

4. The Dying Hours has been well received. Does it get more difficult with every new release to keep things fresh and what can a writer do to achieve longevity?

It does get harder, but I learned early on that it SHOULD. You’re always trying to write a better book (or at least you should be). That’s not always possible, of course, but it should be what you’re shooting for.

Yes, of course, there are certain commercial pressures, but the bottom line is that you’re just looking for stronger stories and more engaging characters. If you start to suspect that you’re writing the same book, then it’s time to do something else. If you don’t, you’re on a hiding to nothing.

5. One of the great things about any memorable character is watching their ongoing development. Do you have an idea of what will be in store for Thorne far in advance or do you get a feel of things just before you begin to write?

No, there’s never been a long-term plan for Thorne. I have no dossier on him, no compendium of facts. The important thing for me is that he does not become predictable, that he can continue to do things that will surprise readers.

Occasionally they may not approve of the things he does, but that is OK as long as he is growing as a character. How can a recurring character NOT change and develop? If your character stays the same then he or she is no more than a cartoon. The most recent books have definitely seen quite a big change in Thorne. He is getting older and the books reflect that, I think.

I don’t think he’ll be retiring and running an antiques shop in the Cotswolds any time soon, but aside from that, I don’t know what he’s going to be getting up to beyond the book I’m currently writing.

6. Does the popularity of Thorne add more pressure for you when creating something new?

Perhaps, but it’s a nice pressure to have. It’s hugely flattering that readers have become attached to him. I get sent CDs of music he would like and heavy hints as to what I should be doing vis a vis his love life.

Should he settle down with Helen?

Should he settle down with Phil?

I think that the best crime fiction is all about the characters. This becomes obvious when you consider how many books are still being written about characters whose creators are long dead. I’m not planning to pop off any time soon, but I think that it’s the characters readers really care about. It’s the characters that will be remembered long after particular books have been forgotten.

Writing is certainly a craft and, as such, I believe that it’s something you can get better at.”

7. The character has been brought to television in the guise of David Morrissey but what crime drama/film of the last 30 years has resonated with you and why?

There has been so much great stuff – a revolution in TV drama, I think. The Wire, of course was hugely influential, and The Sopranos. I have been less influenced by any of the Scandinavian stuff because I have actually seen very little of it. Of late, True Detective was simply astonishing; as good as anything I’ve seen in years.

8. You’re used to appearing in front of an audience but do you think that authors can be over-exposed, especially with the array of social media tools at their disposal?

Well, nobody makes an author do anything. There isn’t a gun to your head. Yes, I’m very happy to do all that stuff. I enjoy events very much and find things like Twitter to be no great hardship. Equally, I respect those writers who choose not to engage with the world in that way.

It is true though, that in this day and age, you aren’t doing yourself any favours by ignoring it. It’s just about managing your time. There are demands on your time over and above writing your books, so you need to organise, that’s all.

9. There’s been a lot of talk about the value of creative writing courses for those wanting to be authors, where do you stand on the issue?

Writing is certainly a craft and, as such, I believe that it’s something you can get better at. I don’t believe that anyone can write, certainly not well, but we can all learn. We can learn to identify the things we’re good at and the things we’re not so good at. We can try to get rid of bad habits.

There will always be those who seek to take advantage of people who are desperate to write and there’s a lot of that going on with e-books, I think. But to damn creative writing courses across the board, as some people have been doing lately, is just ridiculous. I have done some teaching and found it enjoyable and valuable and a lot of writers I respect enormously devote a lot of time to it.

10. You’re a crime fiction fan so do you think that the genre needs to take a fresh direction or is its strength in sticking with what it knows?

No genre will thrive if it sticks with what it knows. I hate the notion of “transcending” the genre because I don’t think it needs to be transcended. That doesn’t mean however that it cannot be stretched into different shapes. If a writer finds the demands of the genre to be confining, they should go and write something else. Of course there are certain things that go with the territory, but there are no rules. Yes, I think that in certain areas it has perhaps become a little stale, but someone will come along and kick it up the arse soon enough

11. Where do you think the genre will be in ten years time?

I have no idea. I suspect that the predilection for Scandi-Crime will have come and gone, but I couldn’t say what will replace it. I hope that kick in the arse that I mentioned has been firmly administered by somebody. It will still be popular, I’m in no doubt about that. There are so many brilliant new writers around, from all over the world, that readers will not be disappointed.

If you don’t stick with one of my books, I’ve not done my job properly.”

12. How important is it for an author to create engaging characters that the readers will care about?

There is nothing that is MORE important. As a crime writer, I am often being asked the “best way to create suspense”. Of course, there are certain tricks and techniques: the reveal, the twist, the cliffhanger. But they are just that – tricks of the trade. Tricks usually become predictable.

The best and most certain way is simply to give readers characters they care about. Then you have suspense from page one. That does not mean that these characters must be likeable or even heroic all the time. It just means that they are engaging. If they aren’t, then all the flash-bang-wallop in the world means bugger all.

13. If you pick up a book and then find that you’re not enjoying it, do you stick with it to the end?

God, no. I know there are plenty of people who do, and good luck to them, but reading is not a battle of attrition. I read for pleasure and if I’m not getting any, then I’ll find another book. I fully expect my readers to behave in exactly the same way. If you don’t stick with one of my books, I’ve not done my job properly.

14. At this stage in your career when you work with an editor do you find that the changes to the manuscript are minimal or is there still a lot required?

It all depends on the book. My book has already been rewritten many times before it gets to my editor, but there are always things that need to be changed. It doesn’t matter where you are in your career, a writer always needs to be edited. Any writer who thinks their stuff cannot be improved by input from elsewhere has…lost the plot.

15. How would you advise an aspiring writer to rise to the top in the current competitive climate?

Work hard and be lucky.

16. Finally, what can fans of your work expect from you next?

The next novel is called The Bones Beneath and is coming in May. The Dying Hours ends on something of a cliffhanger, with Thorne being told that there is “good news and bad news”. The bad news turns out to be a “who” rather than a “what” in the shape of a man called Stuart Nicklin, who is the most dangerous killer Thorne has ever put away.

He promises to reveal the whereabouts of one of his earliest victims, but only if Thorne accompanies him. The action, for the most part, takes place on a remote island off the Welsh coast. It is almost completely cut off from the mainland; spooky and – God be praised – without a mobile phone signal.

I’m already well into the book that will come out in 2015 and I can’t say much about it except that, once again, it takes place outside London. Thorne is hot on the trail of someone who has overdue library fines and in the course of an intense investigation, he renounces country music and takes up Morris dancing. I may be lying about some of the above.

Visit Mark’s official website here


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