Wednesday, June 27, 2007

A Stand-up Crime Writer

I first bumped into Mark Billingham way back in 1999, when he was a still-unpublished British crime writer standing in a lengthy queue outside London’s Murder One Bookstore, waiting for the release of Thomas Harris’ sequel to The Silence of the Lambs (1988), Hannibal. I encountered him again a year later at the Dead-on-Deansgate conference, after his debut novel, Sleepyhead, was published. We shared a few beers, and I took some photos of the young Mr. Billingham before he went off to interview American writer George Pelecanos. After enjoying Sleepyhead, I was captivated by his follow-up, Scaredy Cat (2002), a sweaty novel about two serial killers working “in concert.” But of course, those slayers didn’t stand a chance, when pitted against Billingham’s series protagonist, Detective Tom Thorne, who would go on to win his creator a Sherlock Award at the Crimescene 2003 conference in London.

In the years since, Billingham has been juggling his composing of the Thorne series with his stand-up comedy work, his writing for television, his acting, and his efforts as one of the organizers of the annual Harrogate Crime Writing Festival. Not an easy set of responsibilities to handle, but he’s done it. And did I mention that he was once also a contributor to Shots, back when it was an in-print magazine, rather than the Web publication it is today? It was the dry-witted and insightful Billingham, in fact, who convinced me to join editor Mike Stotter at Shots (a memorable moment I captured on film). As his renown has risen, Billingham has himself become the subject of a Shots interview.

Anticipating this month’s paperback release in the UK of his sixth Thorne novel, Buried, and a hardcover version of that same book finally being due out in the States at the beginning of August; and with his latest novel, Death Message, debuting in Britain on August 23, I tracked down this award-winning Birmingham-born writer for The Rap Sheet, and talked with him about his works-in-progress, his extracurricular activities, and his history as a humorist.

Ali Karim: It’s been a while since I saw you last, so let me begin by asking: What it’s like having a successful police-procedural series under your belt?

Mark Billingham: Yeah, it’s been a while, Ali, nice to talk to you again. It’s brilliant that the Thorne books are doing so well. As a massive fan of series crime fiction, it’s great to be part of the gang. That’s how [Ian] Rankin describes the crime-fiction community and I think it’s spot on. We’re outsiders to a degree, but within our own ranks there’s an amazing amount of great work being done, and it’s a supportive place to be.

AK: I’m looking forward to seeing Death Message. Can you tell us something about that seventh Thorne outing?

MB: I’m very excited about it. It’s a book that draws a line under several of the issues that have been developing over the last few books. It sees the return of one of the nastier characters it’s ever been my pleasure to create, and on top of that, something that has haunted Thorne for a while is finally sorted out once and for all. It seemed like a good place to take a break.

AK: That’s right. You’re set to publish your first standalone next. What’s that story about?

MB: I’ve nearly finished that book. It’s called In the Dark and will be published simultaneously here and in the U.S. next year. I’ve always admired those writers, like Michael Connelly [The Overlook] who can step away from a series and write fantastic standalone stuff. I think, if you can do that, you come back to your series re-energized. This was a story that had no place for Thorne (though he moves briefly through it) and was something I was desperate to write. I’d done seven Thorne novels on the bounce and I knew the time was right to do something else. There’s a voice in your head that lets you know these things and you can’t ignore it. If you do, you’ll end up hearing the same thing from readers, by which time it’s probably too late. It’s been scary stepping out of that comfort zone, but also really liberating. This is not a procedural novel at all. Broadly speaking, it’s about how a fatal car accident affects the lives of three very different people. The main character is a woman, and I’ve had to do some research into the latter stages of pregnancy, but I drew the line at writing while wearing false breasts.

AK: So what about poor old Thorne. He’s not going the same way as [John] Rebus, is he?

MB: Well, I don’t think any of us know which way Rebus is going to go! My money’s on a sex change, and I’m very much looking forward to the continuing adventures of Joanna Rebus, the female cop with the suspiciously hairy hands. As for Thorne, I certainly haven’t killed him off and he will be in the next book, which I think will be called The Life Thief. I’m just giving the old bugger a break, you know? When the time comes to put him out to pasture for good, I may just let him retire to the countryside and make jam and annoy the neighbors by playing Hank Williams at three in the morning.

AK: And your UK publishers? How have they taken to this hiatus from the Thorne series?

I’ve been very lucky in that Little, Brown have always been hugely supportive of everything I’ve wanted to write. They see nothing until the book is delivered. They’re very keen on the standalone. Actually, a change of direction, as well as being liberating for an author, can make the job of marketing and publicizing a book a bit easier. It’s hard sometimes when all you have to say is “it’s another Thorne novel,” whereas “the first standalone from the author of the Thorne novels” can give people more to play with.

AK: And what of your American publishers?

MB: They’re actually very excited about the standalone, which is why they’ve decided to publish simultaneously with the UK edition, which is fantastic. It’s hard to turn U.S. readers on to a series which is already a good way down the line, so a standalone thriller makes more sense, I think. If people enjoy the standalone, then obviously we hope they go back and pick up some of the Thorne novels, all of which should be able to stand on their own. That’s the plan, anyway.

AK: You have been linked with Harrogate Crime Writing Festival. So tell us a little about your involvement with that annual event.

MB: I’ve been lucky enough to be involved in some way with every one of the festivals, and last year I was invited to chair the programming committee. This basically meant that I could ask all my favorite authors to come, and the whole thing felt rather like a huge party that was all over far too quickly. The festival has a great atmosphere--very informal and enthusiastic--and readers and writers spend the whole weekend together. There are no multi-track events, so everything is very well attended and there are also events played strictly for laughs, which makes it pretty unique, I think. I had a ball chairing the festival and I’m really looking forward to taking part again this year, when the festival is being chaired by Natasha Cooper.

AK: What have been the highlights of Harrogate for you?

MB: I was thrilled that George Pelecanos came across as our special guest and that not only was his sell-out event a huge hit, but he then proceeded to sell every single copy of each of his books in stock at the festival bookshop. The standing ovation for P.D. James was pretty special too, and I also enjoyed doing the quiz on the last night. I will always remember asking the question, “How does Hercule Poirot die?” and hearing a horrified voice in the audience whispering, “Oh my God … he dies?”

AK: And you seem to spend a lot of time on the forum at your Web site. Why start such a forum, when many other writers have closed theirs down?

MB: I thought long and hard about it, but I’m glad I decided to do it. I think the key is having a really great moderator, which I have. She keeps on top of things and ensures that everything runs smoothly. The people who contribute are real enthusiasts of the genre, and enjoy the fact that a number of other writers drop by and post on the forum. We’ve recently started a monthly book club, which is really taking off. I suggest a book each month and then the writers come on board for a couple of days and respond to comments. So far the likes of Laura Lippman, John Harvey, John Connolly, and Chris Brookmyre have taken part, and I think they all had a good time. That’s what they told me anyway …

AK: Are you still working the comedy circuit?

MB: I’m still keeping my hand in, but not much more. It’s hard to find the time to write material when I have books to write, and it’s even harder to be away from home doing shows when I spend more time every year on the road with the books. I still love it, though, and can’t quite kick the habit. Sometimes, after a day spent writing about death and darkness, it’s nice to get out and tell a few cheap jokes. It cheers me up, if no one else.

AK: How integral is humor in your writing then?

MB: Well the books are pretty dark, you know that, but there is certainly humor in them. There has to be. Sometimes the funniest things happen at the darkest times, and I try to reflect that in the mood of the books. You’ll close a chapter with something painful and kick the next one off with a joke, because life is like that. Also, the people I’m writing about have the blackest sense of humor. You want to hear jokes flying about, go to a crime scene.

AK: Have you ever fancied going for the Carl Hiaasen or Colin Bateman full-on comedic sort of crime novel?

MB: I considered doing that, early on, and I’m a big fan of those writers; but in the end it felt too much like a busman’s holiday, you know? I tend to prefer the darker stuff and I have something approaching a full-on allergic reaction to any book that could be described as a “caper.”

AK: Like many writers, you tour and promote your work. So tell us about some of the funny moments you’ve had on the road.

MB: I did an event with Stuart MacBride last year, and afterwards we went out for dinner with his agent. We were joined by a guy who just wandered across with us from the bookshop, and of course we were all far too British and polite to ask who he was. He sat and drank with us and then ate dinner with us, and finally got up and walked out without paying. Actually, I kind of admired his chutzpah. I always prefer to do events with somebody else. They can be very hit and miss and it’s always nice to have someone to share the misery with. I’ve had some great times out and about with the likes of John Connolly and Chris Brookmyre, and l’ll be touring this year with Peter Robinson, which I’m really looking forward to.

AK: Some writers absolutely dread the self-promotion side of book publishing. What’s your take on promotional work and the commercial aspects of being a novelist?

MB: Well, nobody has a gun to your head, but I think, unless you come out in a cold sweat at the thought of doing it, you need to get out and promote your work. It’s not digging a ditch, is it? Most of the time you’re very nicely looked after and it’s a pleasure to sit there and meet readers and talk about your stuff. Of course, there are always events you’d rather forget, but most of the time I really enjoy it. If you spend nine months sitting on your own writing this stuff, it’s positively therapeutic to actually engage with people. You’d go a little bonkers otherwise. For me, it comes down to promoting the books, or running mad with a rifle in Starbucks.

AK: With a body of work to your credit, tell me what motivates your writing nowadays.

MB: I don’t think I need too much motivation. It’s the dream job and I can’t think of anything I’d rather be doing. Well, there was that thing with Halle Berry, but she wasn’t interested ... I think every writer is always trying to write a better book, so each time you sit down there’s a bit of you hoping that this will be the one. And it’s important to treat it like a job, I think, to sit down each day and go to work.

AK: I heard a rumor that you’re setting a future book in the USA and have been researching U.S. police methods. Is that true?

MB: No more than a rumor. It may have been something I thought about for two minutes and it somehow ended up in print. I think I’ll leave that to the likes of Lee [Child] and John [Connolly]--oh, and the hundreds of American writers who do it rather brilliantly.

AK: As a lover of translated crime fiction, I see you were guest of honor at the Scandinavian Crime Writers Association and attended the Glass Key Award ceremony. Would you care to tell us a little about the event?

MB: I remember lots of pickled fish, and equally pickled Scandinavians. And I have a vague memory of tottering about in a karaoke bar in Helsinki with a very drunk Icelandic writer and singing “Jambalaya” before they threw us out. Everything else is a blur.

AK: And what books have passed over your reading table recently?

MB: Laura Lippman’s new one, What the Dead Know, is an amazing book, as is John Connolly’s The Unquiet. I really enjoyed Sebastian Junger’s A Death in Belmont, too. A few others have passed very briefly across the table, in that I abandoned them. I’ll give up on a book if it hasn’t got me by 50 pages or so, and I would fully expect anybody reading one of mine to do the same thing. Life’s too short and there are too many good books out there.

I just want to thank you for giving us this time, and send you back to your writing.

MB: No problem. Now I must go and feed chocolate to the team of elves I employ to actually write the books.

READ MORE:Mark Billingham’s Top 10 Fictional Detectives” (The Guardian).


Anonymous said...

Thanks so much for this interview! Mark Billingham is one of my favorite authors, and I love the character of Tom Thorne. You've made my week pointing out that "Buried" will be published July 3 here in the US -- I didn't think it was being released until August. I'm looking forward to the standalone mentioned in the article. Mr. Billingham deserves all the success he is enjoying, and more.

J. Kingston Pierce said...

Sorry, Dorie, but it turns out that you caught a typo in Ali's piece. lists BURIED as being due out at the beginning of August, rather than the beginning of July. We regret the error.

Anonymous said...

July 3 is also the date listed on Mark Billingham’s web site, so understandable. But according to publisher HarperCollins (aka the horse’s mouth), the release date is August 14. Rats. It’s okay though, it will be worth the wait, I’m sure.