I met Mark Billingham for the first time last year at ‘Dead on Deansgate 2001’ in Manchester. He was riding high following the debut of his sweaty and claustrophobic debut thriller ‘Sleepy Head’ published by Little Brown. We sat drinking coffee discussing the recent article he had published in The Sunday Times about his terrifying experience of being kidnapped in a hotel room in Manchester. He was a little edgy because he was back in the same city (but different hotel) but also as he had been set the task of interviewing George Pelecanos – The Guest of Honour in front of all the assembled delegates. He had no need for the apprehension considering that he is at home in front of crowds performing his stand-up comedy routine, be it on stage in The Comedy Store, or in front of TV cameras. The real reason for his apprehension was that Mark is a huge fan of George Pelecanos, in fact, he is huge crime fiction fan, and that forms only part of the portfolio that makes up this very interesting writer.
There was little evidence of nerves when he shared the stage with the legendary Washington crime writer, The audience were amused that at every opportunity, Pelecanos turned the interview around, and started asking Billingham about ‘Sleepy Head’ and Mark’s own writing career.
Mark spoke to me afterwards, and told me how much of a thrill it was talking to one of the leading lights in the crime fiction genre. He was visibly embarrassed at how difficult it had been to stop Pelecanos from talking about ‘Sleepy Head’ but we all know how much of a gentleman the softly spoken man from Washington really is. The most important fact behind this show of generosity stems from George’s own taste, and his insight, for he knew then, what an important find Mark Billingham is to the crime fiction genre. If ‘Sleepy Head’ was a great debut, then his follow-up ‘Scaredy Cat’ cements his foundation in the genre he loves.
Mark Billingham is a drama graduate and has always been an avid reader, taking long drinks at the crime genre oasis, though he acknowledges that he really looks for ‘the story’ when selecting his reading. He is also a passionate collector of crime novels, as well highly educated in the nuances of the genre. He now finds himself rubbing shoulders with the writers that line his own shelves at home.
The crime writer side of his life is only one facet of his character, for Billingham is a much sought after writer for TV and theatre, which followed a successful career in acting. He had supporting and guest starring roles in many British TV programmes including appearing in the challenging world of children’s TV. Today he is a very talented and high-profile stand-up comic, headlining at ‘The Comedy Store’ and other national venues where he appears regularly as the M.C.
Multi-talented and versatile, Mark Billingham has now established himself in the mysterious neon glow of the crime novel. His work is backed by the might of Time Warner Publishing and America is just about to be introduced to his unique strain of thriller – as ‘Sleepy Head’ debuts in July on those shores. The novel though set in London, is written in such a style that it’s appeal to a discerning US audience is assured. The story follows the hunt for a sinister criminal who is drugging and murdering young women in an apparently random spree in the grey rainfilled streets of modern London. No tea and biscuits at the vicarage for Detective Tom Thorne as he leads the chase, with one victim held in an unconscious ‘locked-in’ state at a guarded London hospital. She may hold the key to the identity of the madman, but only if she can tell Thorne and his team the secrets locked within her drugged mind. Hovering between a life and death state, she is helpless, as the madman continues his reign of fear taunting Thorne to uncover his identity, and put a halt to his campaign of terror.
The thriller challenges the reader to try and stop reading, but the book will always win, for it is in cliché terms - a story that refuses to let go, such is the adhesive nature of its structure.
Back in the UK, Mark Billingham like his character D I Tom Thorne faced his own challenge in trying to follow the scorch of his debut. I was fortunate to have one of the proof copies of ‘Scaredy Cat’ sent for me to comment upon. And my verdict?
Well the review is at Shots Magazine, and yes I was knocked for six – using a British cricket term. Billingham rose to the challenge of the second book hurdle with all the force of a West Indian batsman, knocking the story well over the edges of the field. The book, despite the London setting, is firmly set in US crime conventions, taking a story that seems as if it were peeled from tomorrow’s headlines.
I sat with Mark Billingham one afternoon in a pub in London’s Covent Garden, and we talked at length about his work, his life and, of course, crime novels. I hope you enjoying reading as much as I did that afternoon and I hope you enjoy the insights he gives into writing crime thrillers on the mean streets of London.
Q Hi Mark, we really appreciate you taking time out to talk to SHOTS Magazine
A The pleasure's all mine.
Q Can you tell us a little about your early life and what makes Mark Billingham tick?
A Well I went to grammar school in Birmingham and I was one of the last years to take the eleven-plus exams, and I enjoyed that time: showing off in school plays, showing off as a performer. And I guess that line has gone right through, even today I’m showing off as a writer,
I stuck around Birmingham for quiet a while. I even went to University in Birmingham, as I was a drama student and then when I finished I stayed on and formed a community theatre company and toured schools and colleges, performing various shows. The touring company was a very hard line socialist group back in the early '80's. I then moved to London as a jobbing actor, doing TV slots like Dempsey and Makepiece, Juliet Bravo, and The Bill. A lot of my roles were in cop shows, and it's funny as I would play either villains or coppers. I also played many bad guy roles such as a soccer hooligan, drug addict, a nasty copper, a racist copper, or a bent copper. Then I got pissed off with acting because it doesn't matter if you're good, bad or indifferent as an actor, it all boils down to what you look like. That is one great advantage of stand-up comedy - nobody gives a stuff on what you look like - as long as you're funny, and if you can do it, and people laugh, then you'll get bookings, as much work as you want, so stand-up became the direction of my career.
Q That neatly leads into my next question. How did you get involved in stand-up comedy?
A Well it's very different in stand-up now. Back in 1987 it was actually not that hard to get into. You'd go to a couple of clubs and do what are called 'Try-outs' which are unpaid spots. You got five minutes, and if you did well that progressed into 10 minutes, and then 20 to 30 minute paid slots, and so within a year you could be playing The Comedy Store. But now it is really big business, and there are big chains of Comedy Clubs. I feel sorry for young comics of 18 or 19 today, as it is so tough now; so hard to get into. You could do your first gig today, but not be playing the big venues like The Comedy Store for 4 to 5 years. There are three or four circuits, but at the top of league is 'The Comedy Store' and at the bottom are the Vauxhall Conference venues where you are playing to ten people for £20, and you can play lots of gigs, but earn very little. It's a lot tougher now than it used to be.
Q One of things that we've talked about is that you have always been an avid reader, would you care to talk about your reading?
A I recall last time we talked, that I had a spooky coincidence with you. You were discussing how you picked up Thomas Harris's 'The Silence of the Lambs' at an airport (in an advance edition), and exactly the same the thing happened to me.
Q No way!
A I swear! I picked up 'The Silence of the Lambs' just like you, in an early edition at an Airport, and I remember reading the book and going 'Wow!' as it was just so brilliantly written. I had the same experience with Peter Benchley's 'Jaws', which I read one summer holiday while I was at school. You see, I've always been a fan of, I guess, what you would call ‘crowd-pleasing fiction’. Not necessarily genre fiction, but fiction that delivers a great story. My favourite writers have always been great story-tellers. I would suggest that perhaps Michael Connelly is the best 'story-teller' pound-for-pound currently working in the crime-genre. I have always thought that as a writer, you always have a duty to deliver.
Q It's interesting how many crime-writers interview other crime-writers. Case in point is John Connolly who, as a journalist, interviewed crime-writers, and even though he's an established writer, he still does. In fact he recently interviewed Michael Connelly and I know you have interviewed many crime-writers including Michael Connelly at Deansgate a few years ago. Would you care to talk about this?
A I actually got into it because I wanted to get free books….laughing….
Q Laughing…me too…..
A It's that simple. I was, and still am a massive fan of crime fiction, as well as a really serious collector. I collected say, 'The true first edition American', etc and it was costing me a small fortune. If for instance, you want to put together a decent first edition James Lee Burke collection or Ian Rankin - well it costs a lot of money, so I got to thinking …. And I 'blagged' (US Translation for this London term - 'Conned') my way into reviewing books for a local newspaper, and suddenly I was doing reviews and that became interviews, including stuff for SHOTS, which became articles progressing to 'Time-Out' and the like, until suddenly I'm finding myself in a hotel room with Mike Connelly. In exactly the same situation that we're in now. It was great, I am interviewing these people and writing about something that I really enjoy - crime fiction, and that makes reading so much more pleasurable when you've met the writer(s). You know exactly what I'm talking about.
Q You can see these people and view their personality and learn how they write. It is a whole different process. It's like listening to an album by someone you know.
Q Did you find it spooky meeting these crime writers? Because when I write my own crime fiction, I rely on my observations of people, and have absorbed situations - that somehow find themselves in my own work. It feels a little spooky?
A Yes, I was having this conversation with someone earlier. I am right at a very crucial point on my current book, in fact I'm finishing it ('Lazybones' due out in the UK in 2003 and in the US early 2004), and I find that I just can't read anybody else, as it is so difficult not to absorb things that may effect my own writing at some level. I recall when I used to write for purely my own amusement - if I was reading Dashiell Hammett then suddenly I found my sentences were becoming clipped and very hard boiled and it's very difficult not to subconsciously be influenced by writers you admire, but saying that you can also get some great ideas, and I find you must take care and remove yourself from those influences, especially when you are in a 'heavy' stage of a book or period. During these times it is perhaps better to read a biography, a comedy or some non-fiction.
Q Did you write fiction when you were younger - short stories or?
A Yes I did and they were always 'funny' or I tried to make them 'funny' - I can vividly remember that during my 11-Plus (which is this big exam you took at age 11 and this determined which secondary or grammar school you would go to). The English part of that paper, I tried to write a funny essay. In fact I used to write these 'funny stories' throughout my schooling, hoping that the Teacher would like it, and get me to read it out at the front of the class, and I'd try and get a laugh. When I first started to write crime fiction, the very first thing I wrote was the start of a comic-crime novel (and perhaps one of these days, it is something that I may well go back to). I thought at the time, well I'm a reasonably successful comic, a professional writer on TV and massive crime fiction fan.
So it made sense for me to try and write this comic-crime novel. I am of course a big fan of Carl Hiaason, so I wrote this novel, which I termed 'West Midlands - Noir' because it was set in Birmingham, so I was trying to be a Birmingham version of Carl Hiaason, and I thought I'd made a good job of it but the publishers looked at it and went…yeah…but…comic-crime does not sell…..nobody wants it……I also went to Deansgate that year and attended a seminar entitled 'Does comedy hurt your sales figures?' and I can remember thinking then that comedy-crime is something I shouldn't be doing, and to be honest - it's not my personal choice as a reader either. But certainly when I was younger, my first instinct was to try and get a laugh. I always want humour to be a part of what I write, even when it's as dark as the stuff I'm writing now, as even in the darkest moments, people will crack jokes.
Q I have quite a few questions about your debut 'Sleepy Head' It came out in the UK in hardcover last year, and I've been advised by your publishers Little Brown that it sold well over 30,000 copies, which is remarkable for a first novel. Can you tell us when it's coming out in the States?
A It's coming out in July in America, in fact it’s coming out in the same week that the second book 'Scaredy Cat' comes out in the UK. The US is exactly a year behind.
Q For the US readers can you tell us a little about 'Sleepy Head'?
A 'Sleepy Head' evolved from two ideas that floated in my head, one was that there's a line in a lot of sub-standard crime fiction, cliched crime fiction, where somebody says about a serial killer 'He's made his first mistake Guv'nor' - spoken by some Detective Constable. Then I thought it would be an interesting idea to turn that on it's head - so what if the first one he left alive was not a mistake? but was the first one he got right. It was just that idea that was going around my head, and I was thinking how can I make that happen? Then that jelled with another idea that had been in my head for a few years following my reading of 'The diving bell and the butterfly' which was written by a photo journalist that had suffered a stroke, and had been left in this terrible state called 'locked-in' syndrome. He could hear, see, feel and was completely aware of what was going on around him, but could not move, no motor functions, in fact he could easily have been dead. Those two images fused in my head as I thought 'What if you could do that to somebody on purpose? At the time, my wife who is a Television Director was directing 'Causality' for the BBC , and she suggested that I talk to this guy Phil - who was a Doctor and acted as a Medical Advisor for the show, so he was a 'media-savvy' Doctor. When I talked to him about this idea, he said 'Wow, put someone into a locked-in state purposely….what a terrifically sick Idea!' and he went away and did a bit of reading and came back and told me that it was possible, but difficult as if you got it wrong, you would kill the victim. I went 'Bing' and that was the lightbulb moment that formed 'Sleepy Head'. I suddenly realised that I had the plot and the book followed shortly after that.
Q A puzzling thing is that I thoroughly enjoyed 'Sleepy Head' but whenever I have spoken to others about it, they seem to feel it that it was terribly gruesome. Now for the life of me, I can't recall any real gore or …..
A I know and it's absolutely the most phenomenal thing, it amazes me that people think that. In fact I get a lot of comparisons with Mo Hayder. 'Sleepy Head' doesn't come anywhere near the gore and visceral stuff that you find in Mo's work. I think the comparison comes from the fact that it's one of those books that all the visceral stuff is implied, it's all in the mind so perhaps the adage 'less is more' is correct. A British writer who has been very supportive about the book - John Harvey, told me that the lack of explicit viscera, was one of reasons why he liked the book so much.
Q Yes, but you feel that there is a lot of gore?
A I know, and if I've managed to thrill or chill readers without doing that then I feel comforted, as I don’t particularly want to write a slasher-type of novel, as that's not my cup of tea.
Q Could we talk a little about your central character D I Tom Thorne as he is intriguing. How will you develop him?
A It's interesting, there is a point when you develop a character that you hope has legs as a kind of protagonist, you need and want to make him different from all the other series characters in the books that you've read; - the books that you love, and you try and make him different from say Scudder, Robicheaux, Bosch and Rebus, all those characters that you read about. This causes you to worry that you will be entering that world of the strange cliche-ed cop, but you soon realise that you have to get comfortable in that world. You think 'Hang on, some of the clichés are part of that territory' It would like writing a Western and going 'Oh no I've given him a horse! What a terrible cliché!' It's not a cliché - It's part and parcel of the genre - cowboys have six-guns, horses and stetsons and detectives have past's, problems and they have flaws, because if they don’t, then there is nothing to read about. I'm sure that there are plenty of detectives in the real world that go home to their wives and kids, to their families and have their tea, and don't take the work home with them, but I don’t know about you? But I don’t want to read about those guys, so why the hell would I want to write about them.
So I stopped worrying about the fact that Tom Thorne had a past, he's not an alcoholic, but he likes a drink, he likes music, and music is interesting, I remember discussing at Deansgate when I was interviewing George Pelecanos talking about the whole music thing. You think hang on, Rebus likes 'Prog-rock', Resnick likes jazz, Kenzie likes Springsteen, so I was thinking perhaps I'll drop the music angle, and then I thought hang on, don’t be so bloody stupid everyone likes music, relax. So you have to kind of roll with those ideas and not worry that they are just hidden clichés.
Q In fact, Thorne leans toward country music, and in some respects this compliments the vulnerability in his character, and there were scenes in 'Scaredy Cat' like when he collides against the table that were quite comic, not farce, but they illustrated his vulnerable side. He has flaws but no major chasms…
A No, he does need to be a character that is human, but he is not weak, and there is a thin line that you have to walk between vulnerability and weakness. Because these are characters that are going up against antagonists that would wipe the floor with them unless they had a reserve of inner strength. It's strange…laughing….I'm starting to develop Thorne's musical taste, and although I've always been a fan of country music, it would have been terribly easy to give Thorne my music taste, but then, there would have been no challenge in writing about him.
Q Some readers may not be aware that you and Peter Cocks (your writing partner) were kidnapped in a hotel in Manchester. Would you care to talk about that horrific episode?
A Yes sure, it was very important in two ways in so far as it was the direct impetus for the plot of 'Scaredy Cat' in many ways. The general theme of 'Scaredy Cat' is really the power of fear, and that fear is a very powerful weapon, and if you are prepared to instil it, you have a very powerful weapon that is every bit as dangerous as a gun or a knife. Also what happened to me in that hotel room feed directly as a sub-plot in 'Scaredy Cat' as the very nasty crimes that are carried out in hotel-rooms.
I was basically held up in a hotel room by three masked men, with my friend Peter Cocks, in 1997 in Manchester. We had ordered room service, and there was a knock on the door and when I opened it, I was greeted by these three guys masked in balaclava's and I can remember thinking….that's not room service…..and then getting punched. I thought that they would just knock us around a bit and steal some stuff…..and they did knock us about a bit and steal some stuff…But the really frightening thing was they they held us there bound and gagged for about an hour and a half on the floor, while they ran around with my credit cards.
Q What about your friend Peter Cocks?
A Yes they hooded and bound him at the other side of the room. There were three of them, two remained with us while the third ran around with our Cash Point (ATM) cards. They were very clever, drawing out cash either side of midnight, getting two days worth of cash from my bank account. But what they had was the willingness to do it - The balls to instil this fear, and they did it. I can remember lying on that carpet and bouncing off that floor because my heart was beating so hard.
Q How long were you tied up like that?
A An hour and a half, something like that. It was all about how scared we were. I recall the police asking us if they had guns? I think they did, but they didn’t show them to us - They didn’t need to, as they had us so scared, they had the power to terrify us, so the Genesis of 'Scaredy Cat' came into being. 'Scaredy Cat' has the theme that if one person is able to scare someone so much, they can make them do anything.
Q Going back to the US Launch of 'Sleepy Head' when is due out?
A It's coming out in July, and I am planning to be in New York in September and I'll be at Bourchercon after that. It is interesting as the US is such a difficult market for British Writers and what tends to happen over there is that people tend to get behind you when there is a bit of a impetus, and that's the catch 22, you need to get that impetus and you have to work to get that, and I'm happy to do what I can at Bouchercon, and signings. I have a good feeling about a buzz, so far the…..
Q Yes the preliminary US reviews have been very favourable and my US contacts tell me that the book is heavily anticipated.
A That's interesting, as I saw Val McDermid about two months ago, and she said that the book’s doing well in the States……I told her that it hadn't been released yet….Well she told me that there was a buzz…so stuff like that makes you think that perhaps my good feeling about it may materialise, and a number of people have been supportive. For instance George Pelecanos has been talking the book up to everyone who'll listen, and it's fantastic to have that kind of support from someone like George. It's opening a few doors.
Q Going back to the comedy, I noticed in both 'Sleepy Head' and 'Scaredy Cat' that you put some deft touch's of humour in the books, no belly laughs, just smatterings of humour. Would you care to comment on the role of humour in crime novels, especially being a professional comedian it must be hard to temper the humour?
A There are times I just want to go for the gag. I can see the gag begging to be delivered but you have to reign yourself in. I'm not on stage at The Comedy Store, that’s my other life, but having said that, going back to my characters, people who work in very dark environments like the police, they have to use humour otherwise they'd go mental. These are people who fish bodies out of rivers and attend post-mortems and tell people that their relatives have died. This is not pleasant stuff and these people have a dark, dark humour, which is kind of fun to explore. In 'Sleepy Head' the humour came from a woman trapped in the most hideous coma, but you were in her head (in first person) and it was great that she could laugh about what happened to her, otherwise it would have been terribly easy to make her buffeted by rage and anger, obviously there is some of that as she's very fucked-up, but I also wanted to make her spunky and funny and same is true in 'Scaredy Cat' where you have characters who are not afraid to crack jokes in the darkest of times. It's the way the world is.
Q Can we talk a little about your stand up comedy? A couple of weeks ago I saw you as the compere (MC) at the Comedy Store in London. I hadn’t laughed so much for a long time. How do you compartmentalise your life between writing and performing?
A I don’t really compartmentalise - in fact I just do both. They are not as dissimilar as you would think. This is something I have spoken about before, they both come from the same place - they use the same 'Tricks' in that you need a strong opening. When you do stand-up, you walk out on stage and you have a minute - 60 seconds to hook them or they'll start booing. A late show at the Comedy Store is not easy, ditto with a book. As a writer you again have the duty to deliver - a reader has not got time to say, I'll give him 50 pages as its not very good yet, but I hope it'll get better. They will put that book down and pick up the next one, and if they paid £12-99 or £6-99 or whatever - you have to hook them, so you need a big opening, and you need a big ending, and in the middle you use a lot of the same tricks. In comic terms - this is referred to as the 'pullback and reveal'. This is where you lead the audience along a particular path, and they think they know where the punchline is going to come from, but boom! it hits them from over there.
Q An ambush?
A That’s right. The best example of the 'pullback and reveal' in crime fiction is in 'The Silence of the Lambs' where Clarice Starling is ringing on a doorbell at the same moment that the SWAT team are ringing on a doorbell. The SWAT team think that they are ringing on the killer’s doorbell, you think that they are ringing on the killers doorbell while Clarice is ringing her doorbell…..and the doorbell rings in both places ……and you turn the page and I can remember going THACK! WOW! and you've been suckered into this and Harris just hits you - It's the same in Comedy, except there you're revealing a punchline, but in crime you're revealing something a whole lot darker. Essentially it's a similar kind of technique. It's misdirection, and as a crime reader, as all crime writers started as crime readers, I hopefully know the way readers think and as I am writing, half of me remains as a reader, I'm imagining the words I'm writing being read and the effect they are having on the reader and what there going to make the reader think. There are times that I want the reader to think a certain thing, and hopefully selling them 'a red herring'.
Q We've talked about stand-up, what about working in TV?
A Yes, I've worked as a writer in television for a number of years now. What amazes me is that the main difference between writing novels and writing television is autonomy. It's such a powerful drug, I can write a six part TV series or whatever, and put my heart and soul in crafting it, and when it's done, it's jumped upon by a dozen people and torn to pieces and rewritten and messed about. Of those dozen people, perhaps two are qualified to do that. The rest are…..just…..(use imagination)…so it was such a surprise to me with 'Sleepy Head' on how much 'say' I had in the project. The amount of money was fairly substantial and I was working with people who knew what they were doing, editors, copy editors and the like, but at the end of the day they would say …'But it's your book…' and I couldn’t believe it the first time it happened to me. It was like - Wow ! they were willing for me to have what I call final say or final cut, and that is such a great feeling, that once you've had that, you just don't want to go back.
I'm still doing a number of strange jobs as well, I'm in the middle of writing a screenplay for an Andrew Lloyd Webber Musical and about to write a screenplay for a cult children's show. It's fine as I like a bit of variety and it balances the dark stuff that I write about in my fiction, as well as one night a week I'm on stage at The Comedy Store.
Q That is an amazing contrast and a hectic life. Can we now move and talk a little about 'Scaredy Cat' ? as it is due for release in July in the UK, but not for another year in the US.
A Like I said earlier, the main thematic for the story was how fear can manipulate and how people can be made to do things by the power of fear. There were I suppose two real life events or infamous criminal stories that were the genesis of that book. Firstly was the Jamie Bulger Murder (when a young child was abducted by two older boys and brutally murdered on a railway track). It was the idea that two children had done this hideous act, I couldn’t believe it, it just tore into me, and for me not to believe that the world is mad or warped, I had to kind of believe that perhaps one of them was the instigator or controlled the other. The notion that one person was a follower and the other the instigator clung in my mind. The case touched the national consciousness and there was a more recent case about two years ago of two guys who met at school (and that being central to the novel), and became a team of Rapist/Murderers who cruise around London on a killing spree.
It was just about the theme of two people acting together on a terrible crime, in the same vein as in Peter Robinson's 'Aftermath' - what makes two people come together and commit such awful acts? What would have happened if they had never met? What if Brady had never met Hindley? What if Fred West had never met Rose? So there was that idea in the centre of it. This is not a spoiler, as it's in the cover blurb, D I Thorne is investigating a series of killings that seem to come in pairs. He starts to think that these murders are related and that they are actually on the hunt for two killers - two very different killers. I can't really say any more without revealing too much, except that there are a number of sub-plots that weave in-out of the main body of the story. One of these I mentioned earlier - the series of crimes that occur in hotel rooms.
Q Were you at all concerned in entering the world of the serial killer both psychologically as well as professionally as a writer?
A I was speaking to someone else on exactly the same point earlier. I actually find it difficult to write about anything else. The majority of people kill for mundane reasons, the majority of people are murdered because of anger, lust, jealousy, money and greed. They are all motivations that you and I can identify with, on some level. I as a reader am fascinated by killings that take place for reasons that we can not possibly fathom. They are never motiveless, there is always a motive somewhere. It's not greed, or lust or money or whatever, it's something far more bizarre, and I find that far more interesting. I think we need to redefine the term serial-killer, which I assiduously avoid in any of my books, it's not about serial killers, it's about killing people that you don't know, its about killing people that you're not related to, its about killing strangers.
The Jamie Bulger killers are serial killers, or rather they may well have been had they not been caught. It's killing that takes place where there seems no obvious explanation, it's about dysfunction, it's about people left out of society, it's not about people who kill because they've been left out of a will, or have been shagging around. It's not a modern phenomenon, and serial killers are not entertaining. Writers have to make them entertaining. Fred West was not entertaining, by all accounts he was borderline 'sub-normal' he was certainly not Hannibal Lecter. Hannibal Lecter is the ultimate as an entertaining literary serial killer. Fred West could barely read or write, but he had enough native cunning to do what he did, and get away with it for many, many years. It's not about being able to read and write in an articulate manner and like fine wines and food, that's not reality. Serial Killers are boring, but we as writers have a duty to make them into something more interesting.
Q Can you tell us a little about three supporting characters which I've grown to find very interesting in your two books. Kodak from your debut, Dave Holland - Thorne's side-kick, and Sarah McEvoy?
A I think you need a cast of characters that come in and out of focus in each book, as things happen to the characters that change them and develop them. Its all about peeling away the layers of the onion. You can't concentrate solely on one character, otherwise you begin to tire as a writer, as you feel 'how much misery can you heap on one character' it starts to become tiring, plus you need an array of different characters that can give you the varying shades of grey, or some humour or through who you can explore an interesting sub-plot.
Holland is younger than Thorne, lower in rank than Thorne as Detective Constable. He knows that his boss, Thorne is a role model that he should not turn into, but he can't but help want to be him. Holland is the son of a 'jobbing-copper' who did all the right things, but dropped dead at 60, having achieved in Holland's eyes, nothing. Thorne is the type of copper who takes risks and does things that occasionally that he shouldn’t, but he's a very hard man not to admire. But career-wise, it's suicide to follow his route, so there's a kind of father-son dynamic between Thorne and Holland in the books.
McEvoy is a copper who has problems, and its amazing that we often forget the people in professions such as the Police or Medicine are human. I remember when I was researching 'Sleepy Head' - I was surprised to find that there where re-hab clinics just for Doctors, to treat them for Alcohol, Drugs and Stress issues. So many people in these front-line professions have such problems, and McEvoy is no different to many coppers working out on the edge.
Q I was interested in learning more about Holland in 'Scaredy Cat' as he has a more prominent role, and we learn more about his backstory.
A Yes, I have to say that in the third book 'Lazybones' which I have nearly finished, you kind of start to dislike him. Yes he’s a likeable character, but its never black and white, and things come out that make you think that perhaps he's not the clean cut apprentice I thought….maybe I don’t like him so much.
A Laughs….I like him a lot. He's a bizarre pumped-up, steroid-enhanced pornographer who has the physique of a body builder, but the voice of a cartoon mouse. He's absent in 'Scaredy Cat' but makes a grand return in 'Lazybones'
Q I would like to talk a little about the schematics of your writing process. Firstly, how do you write?
A I write when I can, as I have two young kids. I read about these guys who say 'I sit at my computer at 9 am and write until three and then I have a chicken and garlic sandwich on Arabic rye bread'. I'm just not that organised, but I am fast when I'm on a roll - when I know where I'm going, be it TV, novels or whatever. The writing to me is two-thirds cogitation and one-third actually typing it in, so I could go two or three days without writing a single word, but it's all going on up in my head.
Q So do you plot the novel first or…
A No, I have a beginning and an end, I have an 'A' and a 'Z', but between start to finish I have no idea what is going to happen, and I might get as far as 'C' and think 'Oh! I have a problem!' so it's a process of solving problems and tying knots, so until you solve one problem, you can't move onto the next one. The other analogy is that crime writing tends to be about an antagonist and a protagonist and follows those two forces about to collide. The one force who is Thorne is one that in my books gathers momentum and as the book progress's the faster is Thorne’s momentum and you don't know when he's going to collide. The collision is not coming straight-on, you don’t know where it is coming from, and the car is going faster and faster, but then the another car comes out of a side-street and 'blam'. That's the kind of image I tend to have in my head as I'm writing.
Q We talked about George Pelecanos earlier, and I was amused at Deansgate last year, when you interviewed him, that he kept pushing 'Sleepy Head', can you tell us about that day?
A Yes he's always been one of my favourite writers. I was just amazed at being asked to interview him, because he was guest of honour, and I recall having lunch with him just before the session. He handed me this piece of paper about the questions he wanted to ask me about 'Sleepy Head' - and then I had to remind him that he was guest of honour and that actually it would be me asking him the questions as we were going to talk about his work. But all the way through the interview (and I know you were there) he kept bringing up questions about 'Sleepy Head' and I kept having to go back to his books, and there developed this kind of joke between the two of us, and at the end of the interview, he said he'd return the favour, which he has done tenfold. He's done so much for me, I think he is a brilliant guy.
Q I think it is superb that he has finally broken into the UK.
A Well I've just read 'Soul Circus' the book that's out next year (2003) and believe me, he's going to break out even more.
Q Who do you read in the genre, we know you like Lehane, Pelecanos, Connelly, Rankin….?
A Yes, the usual suspects, Woodrell and of course Rankin is the number one crime writer over here in the UK without a shadow of a doubt. Val McDermid, John Connolly I think are fantastic, John Harvey’s last book 'In a True Light' was a masterclass, it has to be the best novel I read last year. So many writers…..
Q So what about influences…do you feel you have any? As I couldn’t really nail one. So who do you think are influences - good and bad?
A They are probably all American.
Q I consider your work (especially 'Scaredy Cat') to have a very American 'feel' even thorough they are set in London.
A I guess what I was always trying to write was a novel that was very much based and set in London, and Thorne as a character has a growing interest in the city. He might be sitting in a pub about to interview somebody when he realises that he's in the pub where Ruth Ellis (the last woman to have been hung in this country) shot her boyfriend. This is a preoccupation I suppose.
Q It's quite an education on the grim side of London pubs….
A Well a criminal history on the city. But I wanted to write a novel set in London, but written in an American style.
Q Now a difficult question, some people state that all the variations on plot in the crime novel have been done, so the differentiators are now style and language. Do you agree or disagree with that statement?
A Exactly the same thing is said about comedy and that there are only 5 generic jokes, and they've all been told a hundred times or more, so Character is more important nowadays My books are not who-dunnits, if the reader doesn't guess who did it, well that's an added bonus. If you work out who the killer is on page 180, in 'Sleepy Head' or 'Scaredy Cat' - it won’t spoil the book. I would like to fool the reader, but it's not what the book is about, it's not a series of red herrings, or false clues, it about character, and it all comes from character. So yes 'every' generic plot has been covered - but new characters, and how they engage with the plot is what is important, there will always be murder at the end of the day. So you have a detective, and you have a corpse, but it's how that corpse impacts on that detective that matters. Increasingly in my fiction, it’s about how obsessions collide, how the obsession of the protagonist comes toward the obsession of the antagonist and what happens next.
Q In 'Scaredy Cat' you made very few references to the back story in 'Sleepy Head' - why did you make that decision?
AWell when I was checking the proofs of 'Scaredy Cat' I realised on a couple pages I had given away the ending of 'Sleepy Head' and you just can’t do that. Although you are writing a series, you have to assume that the person who has picked up the book may well have not read 'Sleepy Head' and they may go back and read it. So when a person is reading 'Resurrection Men' by Rankin, they may not have read the 12 Rebus novels that came before that. You want them to, but you can't. It's a fine line that you have to walk. You have to make the book work on it's own right, without denying your characters growth. So Thorne has a past as has Holland and they are part of their current lives. Crime readers are very picky about detail in series. They don’t want things given away.
Q In 'Scaredy Cat' if I recall correctly, there is only one reference to Calvert (an evil character from Thornes past), and only two reference's to Alison Willetts (the girl in the 'Locked-in' state). This was quite brave, as it must have been a comforting option to go back and 'bask' in the success of 'Sleepy Head' and play safe by peppering references.
A Yes, actually I did put more references to the back-story initially, but then I had to pull back and cut them out. You can't give away the previous story, and if you did mention the back-story and not give anything away - it doesn’t mean anything to the current reader, and as a reader myself I would get annoyed and wonder 'what's that all about?' vis-à-vis references to a book I haven't read.
Q What are your future plans?
A Not sure, maybe I'll write a non-series novel and I'm not sure what will come after 'Lazy Bones' as they form a neat trilogy, though 'Lazy Bones' is a different novel to the other two. In 'Scaredy Cat' I started a theme, where you just start to feel a minute degree of sympathy for a murderer. It something that Thorne starts to approach, and something that the reader has to try and grapple with. So what I am asking is what happens to the protagonist and the reader, when the victims are people who you can't care about.
Q Anyway it was a delight to have a few beers and talk crime, so thank you for your time, and thank you for your insight.
ANo thank you.
Q And we wish you great success on the US Launch of 'Sleepy Head' and the UK launch of 'Scaredy Cat.' And although I like your stand-up comedy, but do the crime fans a favour - do more writing!
SHOTS wish to thank Mark Billingham and Alison Lindsay of Time Warner (UK) for organising this interview.
‘Scaredy Cat’ is available in Hardcover in the UK in July from Little Brown
‘Sleepy Head’ is Available in Hardcover in the US in July from Little Brown and in Paperback currently in the UK.