Author Interview: Mark Billingham

Mark Billingham Photo

Mark Billingham is an English novelist, actor, television screenwriter and comedian whose ‘Tom Thorne’ crime novels are bestsellers. He was brought up in Birmingham and worked for some years as an actor and more recently as a TV writer and stand-up comedian. His first crime fiction novel, Sleepyhead was published in 2001 and was in instant bestseller in the UK.

The crime fiction series featuring London-based detective Tom Thorne that started with Sleepyhead continued with Scaredy Cat and was followed by Lazybones, The Burning Girl, Lifeless, Buried, Death Message, Bloodline, From The Dead, Good As Dead, The Dying Hours, The Bones Beneath, Time Of Death and the most recent, Love Like Blood. Billingham is also the author of several standalone novels namely In the Dark, Rush of Blood and Die of Shame.

His works aren’t contained just to his novels, his ‘Tom Thorne’ novels were adapted to television and were aired on Sky One in Autumn 2010. A new series based on the novels In The Dark and Time Of Death will be screened on BBC1 in 2017.

You can purchase some of the most popular books by this author on Amazon by clicking here, here and here.

So that’s my Introduction and here’s my Interview:

Do you have any rules for writing which you think have served you well?
Not really. It’s important to read a lot. Everything I learned about writing came from reading. I’m always amazed at people who say they want to write then confess to not reading. In terms of specific rules for crime fiction, lots of people have written them over the years and most of the best writers have ignored them. My favourite would be Elmore Leonard’s “try to avoid the parts readers tend to skip”.

What attracted you to writing crime fiction?
It’s because it’s what I liked to read – pure and simple. I just set out to try and write the kind of book I would enjoy.

Can you think of a few tips of the top of your head for writing the perfect antagonist/protagonist?
The secret to creating suspense is not about cliffhangers and twists but lies simply in giving readers characters they can engage with. I never have a plan for Thorne and I don’t know any more about him than the reader does. Hopefully he can still surprise me and, consequently, surprise the reader.

What problems did you encounter when you first started writing crime fiction?
I was hugely lucky with my first book, so there weren’t too many. Perhaps it was not such a crowded marketplace as it is now, but the crime writing community was hugely welcoming. It continues to be, I think, because we are quite a tightly-knit gang.

Do your prefer your work to be faced paced or build towards a conclusion?
Well, I think you can do both. Pace is obviously hugely important. The narrative engine needs to keep ticking over. There are always moments in any book where you leave the “crash bang wallop” behind for a few pages and perhaps you’re being a little more reflective. But it must always serve the story. Anything that doesn’t do that has no real reason to be there.

How much research do you do in preparation for writing a novel?
less and less. I used to be a fanatic but I’ve come to realise that often it’s an excuse for not writing. Some writers fetishise research, spending days on police boats and in helicopters or whatever, but it’s just a displacement activity. It’s usually pointless anyway, because this is a heightened realism. It’s a deal we make with the reader who would certainly not read any book that accurately reflected how a murder is investigated. There is often a world of difference between fact and truth.

Can you give me some tips for crafting an intimidating criminal/Killer?
You need to make any character real. For me, it’s an acting exercise. It’s fun to get inside these characters’ heads. That doesn’t mean that you need to explain everything. He kills because he never got given a bicycle or whatever. Often the most intimidating villains are the ones you know nothing about. Hannibal Lecter ceased being scary when Thomas Harris chose to explain why he was the character he was.

Do you read much and if so who are your favourite authors?
It’s hard to read as much as I would like, especially when I’m in the middle of a book. So, I save them up for holidays. My favourite authors – in the crime genre – are the ones who raise the bar. Great writers like George Pelecanos, Daniel Woodrell, John Connolly, Denis Lehane, Michael Connelly, Laura Lippman. And of course the greats like Leonard, Crumley, Chandler and Hammett. Though I rarely RE-read. Too many great new books out there.

What was one of the most surprising things you learned in creating your books?
That it gets harder every time. It took a while to come to terms with that. Of course, it SHOULD get harder, because each time you’re trying to write a better book. That won’t always happen, of course. But it has to be the ambition.

Do you have any advice to give to aspiring writers?
Read. Be lucky.

Do you think your work has moved well onto the screen, or do you think it could have been done better?
I was very happy with the screen adaptations. We had a fantastic lead actor in David Morrissey and that is all you can ask for. I had a great deal of input into scripts, casting etc and I thought they did a fantastic job. A film will always be different from the book because they are very different animals. There have to be cuts, changes etc. There are things you can do in a book which simply will not work on screen. Of course, that doesn’t mean that readers won’t give you a hard time afterwards about the things that were changed, but having been on the inside of the process, I know that those changes were made (usually) for very good and obvious reasons.


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