Author Interview:


By Sandra Ruttan

Mark Billingham: Author, Comedian, Potty Mouth.

Sandra Ruttan sat down with Mark during his Calgary stop of his Canadian tour. After evading a horde of Mark’s adoring fans, they hid in some brand name coffee place.

She started off with news about the shenanigans on his flourishing forum, where Scottish author Stuart MacBride was up to no good.

Sandra: Stuart MacBride has declared that he thinks you could play the role of, “Hendricks. Or Tughan! He looks deviant enough to play that frottage-obsessed wee poop”.

Mark: Fucking MacBride.

Sandra: He posted that on your forum.

Mark: I actually emailed Stuart the day before I left, going “Don’t you fucking run amok on my forum. You behave.”

Sandra: He’s now trying to determine what role you should play, should there ever be TV or a movie.

Mark: Well, bizarrely, the TV is actually moving on a pace. There have been quite significant developments in the last few weeks. I’m still not counting any chickens because it’s pointless where television is concerned, but it’s looking a lot more positive. And of course, there will be all manner of changes for the small screen.

Sandra: Between now and then?

Mark: Well, even if it happens there will be a lot of changes to the books which may upset readers, but they’re the things you have to do when these kind of adaptations happen. For example the slot that the show would go out in would be between 8:30 and 10 o’clock, and that means for the first half hour we have a kind of watershed thing that kicks in until 9 o’clock, so in the first half hour you have to be very careful about the kind of material that goes out. So the tone of the show would be quite interesting, certainly for the first half hour.

In terms of the pitch that was made to the broadcasters, we changed a lot of the chronology, so that even if they were doing a TV version of Sleepyhead, Thorne’s father would probably already be dead, because one of the hooks of the TV adaptation would be that Thorne talks to his dead father. And the relationship between Thorne and Hendricks would be much more significantly developed. It may well be that they’d be living together from the start of the series, even though that doesn’t actually happen until The Burning Girl. And I’m perfectly cool with all that kind of stuff…

Sandra: How much involvement will you have with it?

Mark: I’ve been involved up until now in terms of coming up with stuff to pitch at broadcasters, but I won’t be involved in the script, other than seeing it when it’s been written and giving some notes. I absolutely do not want to write it, because, having written for television before I started writing novels, I know how hideous that is. Why would I want to spend a year doing 25 drafts of a screenplay for Sleepyhead when I’ve already written it? I could have written a whole other novel by then. I just think that you’re in a no win situation if you get involved, whereas you’re in a win-win situation if you don’t, because if it’s rubbish, you go, “It’s got nothing to do with me,” and if it’s great you go, “That’s my book.”

I think it’s best to stand back and see if it happens, and if it happens, great.

It’s the BBC, which is a good thing because it’s not star-driven. Not quite the way ITV is. Who’s playing Thorne is not their first question.

I say all of this, it still might not ever happen, but the BBC are showing a significant level of interest.

As far as Stuart wondering who I’d play, I’ll probably end up as a body on the slab somewhere or I’ll have some kind of nice Hitchcockian walk-on, you know. In my head I’ve always wanted Eddie Izzard to play Hendricks and I’m still going to try and push for that and I don’t think I’m anything like Eddie. And Tughan’s Irish.

Sandra: What’s wrong with the Irish?

Mark: I can’t do the accent.

Sandra: John Connolly might be good.

Mark: Yeah, we’ll get John Connolly to do it. Actually, that would be really cool, just to have a TV adaptation of a crime novel with all of the parts played by other crime writers.

Sandra: That would be a great spoof, actually.

Mark: Is there a part for Stuart? I’ll find some hideous way to kill Stuart.

Sandra: Some chubby cheeked, unbearded guy…

Mark: I would like to do something in it. I was an actor before I did anything else. But when writers ask, “Can I be in it please? I’m an actor,” the producers just look at you and say “Yeah, yeah, you just play a body.”

Sandra: But you had this previous career, and I was going to ask you about this. With the script-writing background, how does that translate over into your writing of the books? Do you think more visually?

Mark: Yeah, I think so. A book always starts for me with some visual scene, like a teaser for a movie. The start of The Burning Girl is the best example of that. I saw that really visually, like a kind of pre-title sequence. I knew it was going to be the start of the book and I had no idea where it was going to go from there. Why’s the guy doing this? What possible reason could he have? Who’s the girl? I just had that image in my head.

I find it hard to imagine writers not thinking visually. If you’ve grown up on TV and movies it’s very hard not to. What writing for television has also made me very hot on is dialogue. When you’re writing a screenplay you’ve got to try to nail a character in terms of dialogue. You can write a stage direction that says “X enters. He is 40ish and tall” but that means nothing by the time that part’s been cast anyway. But if you can nail that character in a couple lines of dialogue, that’s what the best writers do for me. Elmore Leonard is the king of this and I think Laura Lippman does it stunningly well. Within a couple of lines of dialogue you know this person. You don’t need three pages of description of this character and their upbringing and what drives them. It’s all there in what they say.

For me, if a writer can’t write dialogue, they can’t write. That’s really my outlook on it. You can write the most breathtaking, lush prose about the description of a sunset until you’re blue in the face, but if you can’t write dialogue you shouldn’t be writing fiction, you should be writing poetry.

Writing for television does two other things. It gives you a sense of pace, which is the other thing I’m kind of obsessed with. I’m not saying everything has to be fast, but there always has to be a sense of pace; there always has to be a shape to it.

And the other thing is a healthy respect for deadlines. I’ve never missed a deadline in my life with the books and writing for television teaches you that, because you just don’t get paid if you don’t deliver the screenplay on time or the new draft on time, so I’m very conscious of that as well.

Sandra: Since you’ve touched on The Burning Girl… Sometimes you’re reading along in a book and you go, “Okay. We’ve hit the ‘insert back story’ part here” and then you’re going to get dumped with that. The Burning Girl was the book that broke the formula, which was how it got labeled… Do you think, because of how some of the critics seem to view that book, not being very happy that you had changed your approach, do you think it’s ever possible to win back their favour without reverting to the formula?

Mark: You’ll never write a book that pleases everybody. When a few people said about that book, “What a shame, he’s changed a winning formula,” it made me really cross. Surely, if something is a formula you have to change it. Isn’t that kind of the point? If something is starting to become formulaic then you’d better fucking change it or you’re going to end up like these writers who just write the same book over and over again. I was very aware that I didn’t want to do that, so I deliberately wrote a book that was nothing like the books that had come before it. So some people go, “Oh, there’s no serial killers in this book,” and to be honest, I don’t mind losing readers like that. That doesn’t break my heart. If people only want to read books that have that kind of stuff in them, then they’re not going to like anything I’ve written since The Burning Girl anyway, so I’m really not bothered. And there were an equal number of people who actually got turned on to the stuff by that book, who didn’t necessarily like the first three. You’ll never please everybody.

I’ve read stuff on various blogs, where people go, “That’s my favourite book,” and other people go, “That’s the book I like least,” and you just have to throw your hands up. In the end, none of that matters, and actually there’s nothing wrong with polarizing opinion in that way. Some of the books I’ve liked best have been like that. Take a book like Shutter Island, which I think is a wonderful piece of work. I know people who really hated that book. I thought it was fantastic, and in a way, it makes me quite happy that there were people who couldn’t see it.

I think that’s kind of the job of these books, in a way. You can write these kind of lukewarm books that bobble along and keep everybody reasonably happy. You can write to a formula and give everybody what they want and in the end you’re just like a rock star playing all your greatest hits. Having said all that, I can understand it, because when I go and see Elvis Costello I want him to play Pump It Up and of course I know that all he wants to do is the stuff off his new album, because that’s that’s the stuff he’s there to promote.

You just have to write the book you have to write. The fact that I’m writing a standalone now is down to the voice in my head that said it was time to write a standalone. You ignore that voice at your peril. If you ignore that inner voice that says, “It’s time to do this, you know it is” then eventually you’ll hear it from people you don’t want to hear it from. You’ll hear it from readers and from critics and from your peers, and then it’s too late. By the time they start saying it, it’s much too late.

Sandra: Yeah, because the next book is already turned in…

Mark: Yeah.

Sandra: Well, that brings up the other side of that equation, because there seems to be so much pressure on authors to produce a series, particularly in crime fiction, and we all love our great series characters that we get attached to, but how do you balance out the pressure to continue on with a series against doing what is of interest to you? Are you under any pressure?

Mark: Absolutely not. I’ve never had any pressure whatsoever. I went to my publisher, said, “I’m writing a standalone” and they went, “Great.” There wasn’t even any discussion. There wasn’t even five minutes of “What about another Thorne novel?” They just said, “Fine…whatever you want to do,” which is obviously what you want to hear as an author.

I do think that’s changing, maybe, that whole series versus standalone thing. It’s changing because of the success that people like Harlan have had. People are starting to think maybe these series characters aren’t the holy grail anymore and I don’t think that’s any bad thing. I always loved series. The books I read before I started writing were the Harry Bosch books, and I always wanted to write a series because it’s what I always wanted to read. When Conan Doyle wrote Sherlock Holmes he knew exactly what he was doing. He knew the power that a series could have and when he killed him off people were wearing black armbands on the streets of London and he had to bring him back from the dead, for God’s sake. Some writers who write series can experience a drop in sales when they write their standalones, and that can be quite a scary thing. I mean, at the end of the day nobody likes to see sales fall…

But like I said before, when that voice says it’s time to write the standalone it’s time to do it, and I’ve written seven Thorne novels on the trot now. The people who do this best, like Mike Connelly, keep a series fresh by stepping away from it and writing a Poet or a Lincoln Lawyer…great books. Some of the standalones these people write are just fantastic, and they then come back to the series really fired up and their character is energized somehow.

We all know these series that are way way past their sell-by date, and you know that’s happened when you just completely confuse the books in your head. When you’ve got no idea which book is which because they’ve all got those four or five key ingredients.

Sandra: Don’t you find that after a while when you do write a series character that the books all bleed and become one big book?

Mark: Yeah, to some degree you can look at each book as a chapter in a much bigger book. It was like that with the Martin Beck books. Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo always envisioned them as one big book in ten parts. I think there’s something to be said for that, but there’s an inevitable problem in that you start to think, I’ve written this scene before. It’s another scene with Thorne and Hendricks drinking beer, watching football, talking about the case. Maybe it’s a different case and they’re saying different words, but you think, I’ve written this before, and that’s when I think you need to break out. This book I’m writing at the moment is scaring the life out of me but it’s also exciting because I’m stepping out of a comfort zone. I think it will either be the best thing or the worst thing I’ve ever written. There will be no in between.

I’m in the fortunate position where I can do it. I’ve got a publisher who’s very supportive and happy for me to do it. I’ve got, hopefully, enough of a fan base that some people will buy it. Even if they’re disappointed it’s not a Thorne book I hope they’ll go, “Let’s have a look.” It’ll be interesting…

Sandra: I think more and more fans seem to see the need for people to do something different.

Mark: You’ve got to. I’m always full of admiration for writers like Minette Walters, who’ve only written standalones. That’s all they’ve ever written. And I think, God, how do they do that?

Sandra: I always think you get really attached to your characters and then… you’re done.

Mark: Of course, it’s all about whether you are actually seriously interested in your characters or whether you’re just trying to do this for readers.

Sandra: So, no fear that after walking away from Thorne, you’d walk back towards that door and realize there’s nothing left there?

Mark: Maybe. I do know roughly what the next Thorne book’s going to be, but it wouldn’t be much more than a paragraph if I wrote it out now. It may well be when I get to it that I go, “Ah, no, there’s fuck all there.” I can’t say that won’t happen. I mean, he’s still alive. I haven’t killed him off at the end of Death Message or anything, but you might be right. That’s kind of exciting, in a way.

Sandra: Well, obviously if there’s nothing there, then you shouldn’t be writing him anyway.

Mark: Absolutely. I’ve always said the day I’m bored with him is the day I’ll stop writing him. I’m sure that Ian would say the same thing about Rebus and that Michael would say the same thing about Bosch. You have to be interested in these characters, and the way I’ve stayed interested in Thorne is that I don’t know him any better than any of the readers do. I genuinely don’t.

Sandra: So you don’t outline your whole character’s history and backstory…

Mark: Absolutely not. There is no dossier on Thorne. There is no file telling me This is where he went to school…these are his cousin’s names… I have no fucking clue. I haven’t got that information at my fingertips. So I will discover something about him in a book at exactly the same point that the reader does.

It’s not like it’s planned out or I have any prior knowledge of him. I’m just working on the basic principle that if I’m still interested in him, the reader will be, because it’s fresh information to me as much as it is to the reader.

Sandra: I always had the impression, when I read about the genesis for Sleepyhead, that the book was driven by the crime, that that seemed to be where the idea came from, by how this guy was attacking his victims. So I tended to think of it as more of a plot driven book than a character driven book, but obviously it launched a series. So, was it plot driven or character driven?

Mark: I think if you have this big dossier, you have a character that just emerges fully formed in book one. Part of me thinks then, Well, where do these characters go? When you get to that situation, writers have to start doing all sorts of vaguely unbelievable things, like introducing some kind of fucking son that this character never knew he had, or he has to suddenly get a fatal illness to keep developing his character.

I hope that Thorne has developed at the same kind of speed as I’ve developed as a writer. I think that first book was plot driven. It was a book…though I’m sure every writer says this…that I would write very differently now, if I could. Annoyingly, a lot of people who read the books, say it’s their favourite. People on the forum, when they’re talking about favourite books, will choose Sleepyhead and I want to write and go, Why? Why that book? If I meet someone and they say, “I’m reading your first book,” I want to go, “No, no, read Lifeless, read one of the later books,” because I think they’re better books. Because hopefully you get better. If you don’t get better what’s the fucking point in doing it? You’re always trying to write a better book, aren’t you? Always.

Sleepyhead had a hook. It was a plot-driven thing and I’d like to think that the later books are more character driven as Thorne has grown and developed, and I’ve got better. Scaredy Cat, which was the book that broke out, that sold in big numbers and got nominated for the Gold Dagger, is probably my worst book by a country mile. You can’t prejudge these things and say what people are going to like.

Sandra: With Scaredy Cat, there’s almost a thriller aspect. Was that deliberate?

Mark: Probably. One of the reasons I tried to do something different with The Burning Girl was that by the time I’d written the first three books, I was starting to get labeled as a scary writer. All the blurbs and the marketing stuff was all about Don’t read this with the lights off, which always makes me laugh. How the fuck are you going to read a book with the lights off? Don’t read this alone. Like you normally read in pairs. But I was generally being perceived as a scary writer and that wasn’t what I was trying to do. Not exclusively, at any rate. I’ve got no problem with being labeled a thriller writer. Of course I want the books to be thrilling, or compelling, whatever you want to call it. I don’t want the books to be boring. But I also don’t want to write something scary or shocking on every page. If you’re going to have any kind of longevity as a writer you can’t do that because you’re going to end up being a hack. You’re going to end up being formulaic and I didn’t want to do that.

Sandra: You’re just going through the motions. There isn’t a big tradition, though, in the UK of thriller writers.

Mark: No, there absolutely isn’t. Which is why somebody like Simon Kernick is now writing kick-ass, American-style chase thrillers. And good luck. There is a space for that kind of book because traditionally we don’t do them well. Traditionally, in the UK, we write procedurals or we write psychological thrillers or we write cozies.

Sandra: And yet people are always saying about you, that you take the best aspects of the American genre and mix it with the best aspects of the British, and that’s your trademark.

Mark: It was what I was trying to do, because most of my favourite writers up to were American. I grew up with American crime fiction, reading Chandler and Hammett. Then a bit later I read everything I could get hold of, from pulp to Thomas Harris. I read Michael Connelly and George Pelecanos and James Lee Burke and Carl Hiaasen. Just every American author I could get a hold of. But at the same time I was also a huge fan of Ian, of John Harvey…

I knew I was going to write a British police procedural, but I wanted it to have that American pace and economy. So yeah, I suppose I was trying to mix the two things up a bit.

Sandra: And people seem to think that you’ve achieved that.

Mark: Good. But then, when I felt like I was starting to get labeled as somebody who writes scary books, I tried to move away from that.

Sandra: You know what my favourite book is, don’t you?

Mark: It’s The Burning Girl, I know. But for every one of you that likes The Burning Girl there’s ten people that go, “No, I like the scary serial killer books.”

Sandra: I know. I end up in arguments with people.

Mark: An argument like that is a great thing though, because it does make you realize that you’re writing in a vacuum. It’s pointless to try and write for those people that like one kind of book because if you do you aren’t going to please those people that like that a different kind. Having said that, I certainly write for an audience. I’m not one of these writers that says, “I write for me and I don’t care what the audience thinks.” I absolutely care what the audience thinks. But it’s not a particular audience. You know when you see Amazon reviews? Amazon reviews are always five star or one star. Anything you write polarizes people and I think that’s good. If you write something that just gets a whole slew of three star reviews, you’re not actually making anybody particularly happy, are you? You’re not thrilling anybody.

Sandra: Having some people be opposed to something, the controversy is what sparks the interest. I mean, will people stop talking about Dan Brown already? But it’s controversial, so everyone gets drawn into it, so sometimes it fuels more interest.

Mark: What I do know is that however you feel about a book is not going to be the way a book is perceived. You can think, That’s the best thing I’ve ever written, and then get a slew of terrible reviews and readers who don’t like it. By the same token you can write a book that you think, Actually, that’s not the book I tried to write, and everybody loves it.

Sandra: Would you subscribe to the Reader Response Criticism theory? That it isn’t important what the author was trying to say, but only what the reader believes the book says?

Mark: More or less. Whatever you try to say as an author only ever really matters to you. It means jack shit to the person who picks the book up in a bookstore. It’s not like in the back of the book you can write an essay that says, Now, what I really really was trying to say… It doesn’t make any difference. What you tried to say doesn’t matter. It’s what’s the reader gets out of it.

Sandra: Now people are meeting authors and they’re wanting to talk to you about your books and you’re getting invited on the radio… How do you think that that’s changing the business? This seems to be a growing trend, more and more, that you’re seeing authors on TV, people are emailing, joining forums, if you have a blog they want to read it. They’re wanting more and more of authors and it’s almost like authors are being pressured to become celebrity-style figures. What do you think about that?

Mark: I think it’s fine if you’re a gobshite like me. If you’re a show-off and you’re not phased by that kind of thing. I think if you’re the way an awful lot of authors are, which is that you actually don’t like that stuff, then it’s not great. But you can’t un-invent it. You can’t go backwards. I was talking about this to a bunch of writers last night, about how dreadful a lot of author events can be, because people don’t actually care anymore. Why should they? Author events are ten a penny. In London or New York there’s hundreds of the bloody things. There’s nothing special about meeting an author. If you want a signed copy of a book you go to a bookshop and get one. It’s not a big deal.

What is good is getting that reader feedback. When I moved from stand up to writing the big difference for me was in that kind of instantaneous feedback, because if you tell a joke on stage, you know whether it works or not. Boy, you know. You write a book and it’s out there and you’ve got no idea whether people are loving it, whether they’re throwing it across the room, whether they’re using it to wedge up a coffee table, whatever. So, to actually get some feedback is great, even if you’re only finding out little things. If 100% of readers say, “Boy I fucking hate your new jackets,” you can actually take that, and go to your publisher and go, “Listen, a lot of readers are really not liking these.” How can that be a bad thing? Of course, other stuff might not be so helpful. When people say to you, “I don’t like Thorne’s new girlfriend” or “I don’t like the fact that he stepped over the line in The Burning Girl,” or something, you just have to go, “Well, I’m sorry you didn’t like it, but that’s what I felt he needed to do at that point.” You can’t really be any more honest than that and you’re not going to change what you write because you upset one reader or a hundred readers.

Sandra: Obviously you can’t take any random opinion that gets thrown up on Amazon. Who would be the people that you would most listen to, if they came to you and voiced a concern about your book?

Mark: Professionally…my agent, my editor. My agent looks at a draft and gives me notes before a book is delivered. Ditto my wife and two or three close friends, some of whom don’t read mysteries and some of whom read every kind of mystery. So I get every shade of opinion, and if all of them think something is wrong you know you’ve screwed up. Sometimes you think you’re being desperately elegant and subtle and actually you’re just being unclear and it’s important to find the people who are going to tell you that. That kind of feedback is hugely important.

I take the opinions of other writers seriously, although I don’t shuck my stuff at other writers because it’s an imposition. If someone like John Harvey looks at a manuscript and tells me what he thinks I take it very seriously, because I know he’s not going to bullshit me. There’ve been books of mine when he’s said, “This isn’t as good, I don’t think this one cuts it.” But then when he’s gone, “Yeah, this is really great,” I know he means it because he hasn’t blown smoke up my ass, as Americans are fond of saying. There are a couple of people I know who’re always going to be very honest. You take the opinions of those people very seriously.

Sandra: We talked about this a little bit before, about the fact that you just had Lifeless come out in the States. You’ve got Buried out in the UK and Canada. You’ve already delivered Death Message and you’re writing the next book. How the hell do you keep it straight?

Mark: It is very difficult. John Connolly was blogging about this the other day, and he was absolutely spot on. The minute you’ve actually delivered a book it’s gone. You’re still a year away from publication, but the minute it’s away from you you’re kind of done with it and you’re already thinking about the next thing. It’s very hard. Suddenly three months later the galleys arrive back and oh fuck, you’re half way into a new book and you’ve got to go back. So when you’re a year behind in the States, I’m a book and a half ahead. Suddenly, I may even have to do re-writes on a book that’s already out, that’s already between covers. It is difficult, trying to keep everything in perspective.

Sandra: You obviously have a good relationship with the people you work with, but there’s this external perception that the authors who’ve been successful don’t get edited any more. Is that not true?

Mark: God, no, that’s really not true. It’s not true of any of the writers I know who’ve been successful. They’re all edited. Wait…there are people who continue to be at least commercially successful, who haven’t actually written a decent book in a long time who are no longer edited, and that’s crazy, but certainly all the authors I really respect are edited. It’s all about guidance. My editor is one of the most seriously impressive people I’ve ever met in my life. I write to please her. I write to impress her and I don’t want to let her down. If she thinks something is wrong with the book, it’s fucking wrong with the book.

Sandra: So what do you find is the hardest thing about writing?

Mark: Just plain sitting down and making yourself do it. I don’t really believe in writer’s block. The closest I come to writer’s block is just plain not wanting to do it. Not wanting to sit down and actually write that day. I do have a good inbuilt calendar in my head, so I know if I can afford to take a day off or if I can think for three days and then make it up by writing solidly for a week. But I do actually find sitting down and actually physically making myself do it quite hard. I certainly find it far harder than touring. I mean, even if you’re a long way from home, you’re occasionally lonely, whatever, being on tour is still not digging a ditch. I do have to put a little caveat in here and state that touring in American is hard work, and I don’t know how American writers do it every year. I’ve done it a few times and it’s fucking brutal, just the geography of it. 12 cities in 14 days, 20 cities in three weeks, whatever. But this is just a joy. I can’t believe it when I hear writers moaning about it. You’ve been flown business class halfway around the world and you’re staying in nice hotels and talking about your book for a few weeks. What a fucking nightmare. I do just think these people need a slap.

So this bit isn’t hard. I actually love this bit.

Sandra: Well, touring in Canada…

Mark: I don’t just mean touring in Canada. Any kind of promotional stuff. I really like it. When you’ve been sitting on your own for nine months in a room writing this stuff, it’s a joy to get out and meet people and just get some feedback and try to talk about the work.

Sandra: Is that why you stay with some of the stand up, to give you that balance?

Mark: Yeah. Also it’s a bit of a drug that I can’t quite kick. Having said that, I’m in the fortunate position now where I can pick and choose which stand up gigs I do. So I play at The Comedy Store, which is the best gig in the world and just a joy to do. I do genuinely love it. It’s nice, and I like to hang out with comics every so often, although I would say as a group that they’re not as nice as crime writers. Comics are by their nature competitive. You want the person on stage before you to die. You genuinely want them to struggle.

Sandra: Well, it makes you look better.

Mark: Right, but crime writers, in the majority, are not like that. Most of them don’t feel that I have to do badly for them to do well. It’s a big genre, there’s room for a lot of people and generally, they’re an incredibly supportive and decent bunch of people. I don’t want to make it sound like we’re all just cuddling up to one another all the time, because there’s idiots like there is in any other group, but by and large, a lot of my close friends now are crime writers and I’m very happy about that. They’re a really nice bunch. Ian says it’s like being in a gang, and he’s right. You feel a little bit outside the mainstream because you’re a genre writer. And we’re a useful gang, I reckon. We could take the literary mob any day. You bring on Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie, Ian MacEwan… Me, Rankin and Martyn Waites will beat the shit out of them any day.

Sandra: Maybe not the romance writers though.

Mark: No, they’d kick our asses. Definitely. We’d probably fight quite dirty thinking about it.

Sandra: Well, you’d have to if you’re fighting against them.

Mark: They’ve got long nails.

Sandra: They’re not afraid to claw your eyes out.

Mark: In the end, I think Ian would just drop the nut on one of them. I’d quite like to see that….

Sandra: That would be your wish, huh?

Mark: PD James pitching in with a broken bottle…

Sandra: Forget having the Harrogate Crime Festival, we’re just going to have the all-out brawl.

Mark: A great big boxing ring. That’s what we need. Or what’s it called? Ultimate fighting, where there are no rules.

Actually, the people who get really cross are the cozy writers. They can get very bloody stroppy. That would be good value, actually, to get a bunch of hard-boiled crime writers and stick them in against the cat mystery writers. That’d be an interesting bout.

Sandra: I have a feeling that those cat mystery writers might be able to take you.

Mark: Okay, lets set this up. Swierczynski and Guthrie tag team against a couple of cat mystery writers.

Sandra: I don’t know who the cat mystery writers are.

Mark: No, I don’t know any of their names.

Sandra: I know Rita Mae Brown, right?

Mark: Yeah, but she’s knocking on a bit now, isn’t she?

Sandra: We went into the bookstore. Kevin was wanting to look at covers and he’s pulling out these books. He’s got no idea, because he only sees what I bring home. So he pulls out this book and he goes, “What the hell is this?” And I said, “Well, that’s a cat mystery.” He’s like, “What the hell is that?” I didn’t know how to explain it… “This book is co-written by her cat and the cat solves the crime…” and he puts it back and carries on and then he goes, “There’s another one! What is this?” I had to explain it was a whole little subgenre and he couldn’t believe it.

Mark: It’s massive. I had great fun in Madison with John Rickards, just going through some of the sub-genres. The mad cow mysteries and the real estate mysteries. Moving Is Murder, that was my favourite. You just imagine people sitting there coming up with this stuff, going, “Okay, okay, a chef. A chef mystery. No…a vet! An eighteenth century vet. He’s an eighteenth century vet. No, she’s an 18th century vet and she’s got a cat, no, not a cat…a hamster and the hamster solves…” It’s like, for fuck’s sake…

Sandra: What about you and Ian against Al and Duane? Who would win that one?

Mark: That sounds like a nasty one. Duane’s…solid, you know? And Al’s Scottish, and they all carry knives, don’t they? Mind you, I’ve got Ian so he’ll have knives of his own. I’m probably not even the fastest runner, so I think I might just hold Ian’s coat and let him get on with it…

Sandra: Tell me, what were you like as a student as a kid?

Mark: I think I was probably a horrendous, cocky little gobshite, and I don’t think a lot’s changed. I was a show-off. I was a class clown.

Sandra: That was my image of you. Did you behave at home?

Mark: I think so. I was one of these annoying kids who actually loved school. I really enjoyed it, I did school plays and stuff. I was in one of those schools where you needed to shine at something, either sporty or academically or in some extracurricular way. I was the school actor and if you could do that then you could get on in the school. The teachers would call you by your first name, you know, or take you out for drink maybe.

It was also a way to get in with the girls in the girls’ school. We had a boys school and a girls’ school next to each other, but we had joint plays. So it was basically a way to get off with girls, which was good fun. I loved school, and I loved being a student even more. I still have dreams about that wonderful time of having no responsibility. Three fantastic fucking years. These were in the days when we had a government that funded our education and didn’t expect students to pay for it.

Sandra: So, the one thing that you’ve done in your life that you regret?

Mark: I’m going to need some time for this.

Sandra: Or that you’re willing to admit to regretting. Or, put it this way. If you could go back and change one thing that you did or didn’t do, what would it be and why?

Mark: That’s not an easy one to come up with off the top of your head.

Sandra: I don’t know if you saw the Simon interview.

Mark: What did Simon say?

Sandra: I didn’t ask him this, but-

Mark: What was the big secret?

Sandra: I had been waiting for a year to ask about if he’d had a near death experience, because of the intro to The Murder Exchange. He said yes, and I asked what, but he wouldn’t tell me. He said nobody had ever asked him that in an interview.

Mark: Well, it’s not something I regret, but you know when I was done over in that hotel? If I could go back and beat the living, fucking bejesus out of those guys, I would. You go over these things in your head and when they burst in and went, “Down on the floor or you’re fucking dead” I hit the floor like a fucking infant, which is what I think most people would do. But in my head, sometimes I’ve gone back over it and when the guy swung the first punch, I ducked and I picked up the fire extinguisher and I smacked his teeth down his throat and then I hit the other guy over the head with a chair and laid the three of them out and wandered down to the lobby like a hero. If I could go back and have that moment, I would adore to do that. It wasn’t a moment, it was actually an hour and a half when I was lying hogtied on that fucking carpet, not knowing if I was going to see my kids again, crying like a fucking girl. So yeah, I wish I could go back and do that differently, but that’s just wish fulfillment. And it’s the sort of wish fulfillment that we get out in our books.

Sandra: And that was before you wrote a book, wasn’t it?

Mark: Yeah.

Sandra: So did any of that factor into it for you?

Mark: Yeah, it did. Big time. I actually used quite a lot of it as a subplot in Scaredy Cat. I think I knew what it was like to be afraid. Not a rollercoaster-ride afraid or scary-movie kind of afraid, but bouncing off the fucking carpet with my heart thumping afraid. And when I wrote Sleepyhead, I was determined that the victim in that book was going to have a voice. In a lot of crime novels you’ve got a cop and you’ve got a killer and the victim is just this plot device and you don’t care about them. You don’t find out about them, their families, whatever.

Sandra: You’ve always done that. You’ve always touched more on the victim.

Mark: Maybe that hotel thing is what fed into that. The character that most people talked about after Sleepyhead was Alison. It wasn’t Thorne. In that book Alison is probably a much more developed character than Thorne is, even though Thorne has more stage time. He’s probably a supporting character in that book. The character I enjoyed writing more than anything was Alison.

Sandra: One of the things I read about Sleepyhead, came from Laura Lippman. She said that you had breathed more life into a victim who couldn’t talk than most people could put into their regular characters. Doesn’t this seem to be the trend lately, that there’s a lot of victimless crime? This is one of my beefs with the cozies and the cat mysteries. Whoever died, it’s all very tidy and neat and it doesn’t really affect anybody and at the end of the story we’re all supposed to have a big group hug.

Mark: Absolutely. There’s a wonderful moment in an Agatha Christie book. It’s in Ten Little Unmentionables or And Then There Were None as it’s been re-titled, when the servant’s wife is killed, and the next morning he’s serving all these people drinks. His wife isn’t even cold and he’s doling out the cocktails. That’s what I can’t stand and that’s the kind of stuff you get in the cozy mysteries. It just doesn’t matter. It’s just a puzzle, it’s just a murder. With all the writers who I respect, who I enjoy reading, it’s about the crime. It’s about the person and the hundreds of other people and the families that are affected by that crime. It’s not about some heroic cop. So, I think the business in that hotel fed into that. It’s probably the closest thing I’ve got to a regret. I mean, I’ve done some stupid things. Who hasn’t?

Well, I’m going to get Kernick very drunk, because that isn’t hard, and try and find out what it is that he won’t talk about.

Sandra: And then you have to tell me. He promised me at the beginning of the interview he’d answer anything, which was a big mistake.

Mark: What else have you got?

Sandra: I can ask you all kinds of terrible questions. Do you really want me to do this to you? If you were to die and come back as a piece of clothing what piece would you be and why?

Mark: Halle Berry’s underwear. To be honest I can’t see any major advantage to coming back as Bruce Springsteen’s hat or anything, so it would probably be something vile and sexual, of that nature.

Sandra: Okay, so if you were a household appliance?

Mark: I’d probably be a vacuum cleaner. I’m actually surprisingly tidy. I keep my hotel room extremely tidy. There’s a difference between tidy and anal.

Sandra: You’re tidy but not anal?

Mark: It’s about appearances. Everything has to be arranged just so and if that means sweeping something under the carpet, then I’m more likely to do that.

Sandra: Ah. So you’re superficial.

Mark: I’m very superficial, and very organized. I’m an absolute fucking travel Nazi. You don’t want to travel anywhere with me because I’m such a pain in the arse. I have to be there three hours early. The thing I hate most in any person is being late. I think it’s the rudest fucking thing. I am punctual to the nth degree and if someone says, “Hey I’m ten minutes late, it doesn’t matter,” I’m thinking “well it doesn’t matter to you but that’s ten minutes of my time you wasted. You waste your own fucking time.”

Sandra: So do you feel the need to kill PJ off in a future book? PJ from the forum?

Mark: The forum is great, I have to say. The forum is just terrific. I’ve been reluctant to do it for a couple of years…

Sandra: With good reason.

Mark: Well, I wasn’t aware of any of the shit that had gone on Ian’s forum** or any of that. I just thought it was going to be one of these things that for me was a technological and logistical nightmare and in fact it wasn’t. Yaron, who runs my website, just did it all. And it’s very user-friendly and Jayne, who moderates it, just keeps it all going brilliantly, and the people are great.

It’s strange. You’ve got to keep an eye on it and make sure it doesn’t become so cliquey that people come to it one day and look through the list of topics and it’s just holidays, football, whatever. But you can’t tell people what they can and can’t talk about, and I’m very cool about it. People can pretty much say what they like as long as they don’t start slagging other authors, a lot of whom I’m likely to know personally. People can certainly say they don’t like a book. You can’t stop people doing that. I can’t stop them saying they don’t like my books. But I do know where they all live…

For more information about Mark Billingham, his bestselling novels Sleepyhead, Scaredy Cat, Lazybones, The Burning Girl, Lifeless and Buried and his work as a comedian visit his website at and check out his forum the Talk Zone.

You can also read a recent fun interview with Mark at

** Ian Rankin’s forum, which was shut down last year when one member began impersonating him. Ian Rankin had no direct involvement with his forum and did not post on it.


Sandra Ruttan is the Editor and Submissions Director for SPINETINGLER Magazine. Sandra Ruttan’s debut suspense novel, Suspicious Circumstances, will be released in January 2007. Read her interview in this issue.

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