Please welcome December's author of the
Mark Billingham's latest stand-alone suspense novel:
Mark Billingham's titles from his Tom Thorne series:
Mark Billingham was born and brought up in Birmingham, England. Having worked for some years as an actor and more recently as a TV writer and stand-up comedian his first crime novel was published in 2001. Sleepyhead was an instant bestseller in the UK. It has been sold widely throughout the world and was published in the USA in the summer of 2002.
Though still occasionally working as a stand-up comic, Mark now concentrates on writing the series of crime novels featuring London-based detective Tom Thorne. The second novel, Scaredy Cat was published in July 2002 and was followed by Lazybones, The Burning Girl, Lifeless, Buried and Death Message. The newest novel, a standalone thriller called In The Dark is published in the United States in October 2008. Mark is at work on the next Tom Thorne novel called The Life Thief and the second in a trilogy of thrillers for children - Triskellion - written under the pseudonym Will Peterson.
Mark was kind enough to take some time during the promotional tour for In The Dark to submit to questioning from NMRís Dana King.
NMR: Your first seven books all featured Tom Thorne. What made you go in this different direction? He has a cameo in In the Dark; will he be back to re-established his series?
MB: I think anyone who writes a series lives in fear of things becoming stale and though a few writers maintain an amazing level of quality throughout a long-running series, there are plenty who should have stopped a long time ago. You donít want to end up like one of those. It seems to me that a writer like Michael Connelly keeps his series fresh by stepping away from it every once in a while. He does something different and can then go back to Harry Bosch re-energised and I think thatís the approach Iíd like to take. This was a story that had been rattling around my head for a while and it wasnít one for Tom Thorne to play a major role in. I wanted to write a much more domestic novel, to move away from police procedure and Iím really glad I did. It was hugely liberating but also a little scary to write Ė to step out of that comfort zone Ė but I reckon thatís what a writer has to do, at least once in a while. Yes, Thorne has a small walk-on role in this book, but will be centre stage in the next novel, out next year in the UK. I wish I could tell you what it will be called, but right now weíre still arguing about the title.
NMR: The plot twists in In the Dark are ingenious and well-prepared, though still jaw-dropping. The scene after the car crash reminded me somewhat of the movie The Sixth Sense in its unexpectedness. Did you have these planned in advanced and worked your way toward them, or did they occur to you as you moved through the plot?
MB: I had a few of the twists worked out, but others, such as the reveal about Frank Linnell and his family life, occurred to me later on, during the writing. Itís a wonderful moment when you come up with something that you really believe will shock and surprise a reader. Readers are pretty savvy, so you have to keep working harder to come up with those things.
NMR: In the Darkís characters are as well-rounded a bunch as a reader is likely to find, but Frank Linnell interested me the most. Where did he come from, and do you have plans to use him again?
MB: There are three, perhaps even four major characters whose stories I wanted to tell and the book really grew from that. This isnít to say that those characters didnít end up very different to the ones Iíd originally conceived, but unlike the Thorne novels, there are very few wholly good or wholly bad characters. Itís interestingÖtalking to those who have read the book and seeing which of the characters they cared about most. Iíve been pretty surprised that Frank Linnell has been such a favourite. I really enjoyed writing about him, especially the secret about his life that is revealed at the end. This twist may make it tricky to revisit him, but if the right situation came along I would love to.
NMR: Youíve said your stand-up comedy background has helped you with the ďpull back and revealĒ aspects of writing crime fiction. Youíve also worked as an actor, and writers are sometimes encouraged to take acting classes to help with their writing. Has anything learned from your acting career found its way into your writing?
MB: Iíve said before that writing is, in some respects, a performance, so it probably helps that I have that background. Acting for TV taught me that less is more and thatís a lesson that I often try to put into practice with the books. My favourite writers are fat-free and I try to learn from the best. If it doesnít need saying, why say it. What acting DID teach me is that I was I was not really cut out for it, or at least not cut out for failing at it. Writers have to be pretty thick-skinned sometimes, but one bad review is not anywhere near as bad as the sense of rejection an actor lives with for much of their working life. Plus of course, nobody gives a hoot what a writer looks like. Thank God.
NMR: Did your American editors express any concern about the ďEnglishnessĒ of the book? For example, the vernacular used in the dialog, and some of the popular cultural terms. It does a great job of keeping the setting in the readerís mind, but I have heard reports of authors who were asked to make changes when their books traveled across the Atlantic.
MB: I have changed stuff before for my US publisher, but not a word of IN THE DARK has been changed. Iím really delighted about this and I think itís a wonderful act of faith on the part of Harper Collins. Yes, itís English, but as you say in your review (for which the cheque is in the post, by the way) this is a story that could be taking place in Chicago, or New York.
NMR: What do you see as the primary differences between crime fiction in the UK as opposed to in the States?
MB: I think that as far as the procedural novel goes, US fiction tends to favour the straightforward A-Z approach, with a lot less use of sub-plots, parallel storylines and so on. I think that, as a result, the stories move faster. Iíve always tried to write stuff which, although it obviously is very British in terms of setting and character, leans towards the US model when it comes to pace. I think that US readers probably expect the pace of a mystery novel to be a little snappier. There is possibly a greater demand for action and less interest in introspection. I have heard that US readers prefer there to be fewer characters, but I donít know if this is true or not. I canít see that there would any major differences; I would hope that readers in both countries are looking for good stories that are well told and characters with whom they can engage.
NMR: Do you get notably different feedback from your American fans than from your UK readers?
MB: At conventions and festivals I find US readers to be really enthusiastic which is great but the comments tend to be the same as those I get from readers anywhere else. I think they respond to the characters. Having said that, some US readers can get a little more worked up than their UK counterparts when it comes to the issue of bad language in the books.
NMR: Youíve worked as an actor and as a stand-up comic. What got you into writing novels? How did you choose your initial story and characters?
MB: I was enjoying performing, but the writing side of life was very frustrating. Iíd been working as a writer in film and television for a number of years. Itís a very ďcollaborativeĒ enterprise and thatís putting it politely. At its worst this means having your scripts changed completely by people who can barely cobble together a shopping list and unless you can write without caring it can be pretty soul destroying. At the same time I was devouring crime fiction and writing about it for a number of papers and magazines, reviewing, interviewing crime writers and so on. In 2000 I sat down while on holiday, and started to write the kind of novel I liked to read. The story for SLEEPYHEAD popped into my head after reading about Locked-In Syndrome and asking a neurosurgeon if that was something that could be inflicted on someone deliberately. Thorne was probably not the major character in that book, even though he had the most Ďon-stageí time. The character that got the biggest response was Alison, the girl in the comaÖ
NMR: Who are your major influences as a writer?
MB: It was reading Sherlock Holmes that first got me interested in crime fiction but after that I was hugely influenced by US crime fiction; everyone from Chandler to Thomas Harris and many of my favourites are still American. I think itís important to read those people who are raising the bar in the same area as you and there are many. George Pelecanos, James Lee Burke, Michael Connelly, Laura Lippman. These are wonderful stylists but also superb storytellers.
NMR: You were the victim of a harrowing robbery. What effects has that had on your writing?
MB: It made me determined that the victim would always have a voice in anything I wrote. Often, in mystery fiction the victim is no more than a catalyst for the plot; someone you neither get to know nor care about. I think thatís pretty shameful. It also gave me a lot of confidence when it came to writing about fear. I think I understand fear pretty well after what happened.
Some writers are intimidated by the blank page and love to tinker with the craft of editing; some love the freedom of the first draft and resent the tedium of revision. Where do you fall in that spectrum?
Iím right in the middle, I think, because my first draft is FULL of revisions. I re-write as I go, going over sentences many times before moving forward. So a first draft is actually a HUNDRED and first draft. With any luck, the revisions that follow will be fairly easy. Iíd be worried if an editor turned round and said a manuscript was perfect as it was. Iíd know they hadnít actually read it.
NMR: What are you working on now?
MB: Iíve just finished that hundred and first draft of the next Tom Thorne novel. Those that read IN THE DARK will know that something fairly important is revealed about Thorne. The next book deals with the ramifications of that, as well as there being a fairly nasty killer for the man to try and catch. Iím now writing the final part of a trilogy for children called TRISKELLION that I write under the pseudonym Will Peterson. Theyíre almost as dark as the Thorne novels. But with less bad language. And lots of beesÖ
Please complete the following: If you enjoy readingÖgripping thrillers by a writer who will personally send you cash if you tell all your friendsÖyouíll like Mark Billingham.