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 Marks 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 Georges 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 childrens
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 its 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
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 tomorrows headlines.
I sat with Mark Billingham one afternoon in a pub in Londons
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 Im 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
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
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
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
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
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 its
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
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
.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 dont
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 dont, 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
dont know about you? But I dont 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, dont 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
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
.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
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
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
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 didnt show them to us -
They didnt 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
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
A That's interesting, as I saw Val McDermid about two
months ago, and she said that the books doing well in the
I told her that it hadn't been released yet
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
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, thats 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
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 hadnt laughed so much for a long time.
How do you compartmentalise your life between writing and
A I dont 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
Q An ambush?
A Thats 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 killers doorbell, you think
that they are ringing on the killers doorbell while Clarice is
ringing her doorbell
..and the doorbell rings in both places
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
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
I couldnt 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 couldnt 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
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
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 shouldnt, 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 hes 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 dont like him
.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 Thornes
momentum and you don't know when he's going to collide. The
collision is not coming straight-on, you dont 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
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
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
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 Harveys last book 'In a True Light' was a
masterclass, it has to be the best novel I read last year. So many
Q So what about influences
do you feel you have
any? As I couldnt 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
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 wont 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, its
about how obsessions collide, how the obsession of the protagonist
comes toward the obsession of the antagonist and what happens
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 cant 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 dont want things
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 doesnt
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
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.Thanks
to the generosity of Time Warner Books we have 5 sets of autographed
copies of Scaredy Cat and Sleepyhead to give away. For a chance to
win, just send an email to email@example.com
Put "Billingham Book Offer" as the subject line. You have
until July 10th 2002