In this version of twenty questions, I send a list of questions to a willing
victim author and they choose their own interview by choosing the which questions, and how many questions, they want to answer! Mark Billingham, author of the novel Bloodline, played along and answered fifteen questions. Here is what Mark had to sat about reading, writing and being a show-off.
Would you give us a bit of introduction and let my readers know who you are, how you got started writing, and what kind of books you like to write?
I’ve always been a show-off. I wrote stories at school and lived in hope that the teacher might ask mt to come to the front of the class and read the story to the other kids. I can vividly recall the buzz when that happened and I think that deep down, that impulse still lies behind my desire to write. After training to be an actor (see, show–off) I did theatre and TV for a few years before embarking on a second career as a comedian. Did I mention the showing-off thing? Through ALL these attempts at avoiding a proper job, my passion was mystery fiction and when I sat down to write a mystery novel of my own, I got lucky first time. Considering that the “day” job was trying to make people laugh, I have often been asked why the books themselves are so dark, but to me they are just two sides of the same coin. I need both things. I want my readers to be hooked within the first few pages and then be unable to put the book down. I firmly believe that telling a story is in itself a performance and I am always trying to put on the best/scariest/most compelling show that I can.
I am often struck by the different ways writers respond to the process of writing a book. Linus’s Blanket refers to my use of reading and other activities as a means of escape and comfort, can you share with us any routines, food or recipes, or favorite books or rituals that help you thorough the writing process?
Coffee, definitely and smoking (in those dark days before I quit). So now just coffee and far too many snacks.
Write the question you would most like to answer in an interview, and then answer it.
Q. What’s in your fridge right now?
A. Some fancy cheese, Diet Coke, a severed head.
People live in stories, we are surrounded by them. What was it about this the story that made it the one you had to tell at this time? What impact did telling this story have on your life? Did you find that it had changed you?
I read an article in a newspaper about a woman who had thrown herself in front of a train together with her child who was badly disabled. I was fascinated with the idea of what could drive a person to do something like that and so the opening of the novel began to take shape. It’s actually the first AND last scene of the book, with the story developing to the point where the reader will finally know why those characters are standing on this railway bridge and what has brought them to this terrible point in their lives. It’s a scene I enjoy reading out at events. See, I’ve never lost that desire to show off!
What are you reading now? What are some of your favorite books and authors? Has writing your own book changed the way that you read?
The world of mystery fiction is quite small, so many of the writers I read are friends or colleagues. Knowing someone certainly changes the way you read one of their books…especially if there is any sex! I look at that person very differently the next time I run into them. I have a great many authors whose work I will always read: George Pelecanos, John Connolly, Daniel Woodrell, Laura Lippman.
Are you able to read when you’re writing and if so what books inspire you when you’re working on a novel?
When I’m writing I find it quite hard to read the type of book I write myself. That can really mess with your head. Aside from mystery fiction I’m a huge fan of biographies and of comic writing, which seems to have fallen out of favour. This is a very great shame. So, when I’m deep into a book of my own and unable to read any other mystery fiction, I’ll settle down with David Sedaris.
What types of books would some of your characters have if they were readers? Given their issues what book(s) would you suggest for them to read?
Tom Thorne, who is my series protagonist, could DEFINITELY do with a laugh and with relaxing a little. So I would recommend Sedaris for him. Many of the killers in my books clearly have MAJOR issues, but are probably beyond a self-help book.
In the past I have visited a blog called Daily Routines and it’s all about the schedules of writers and creative people. What does a typical day look like for you and how do you manage a busy schedule?
I don’t really have a typical day. I work around my family so there are no set times when I’m at the computer. Actually, to be honest the book really takes shape when I’m pushing a trolley around a supermarket or walking my dogs or picking the kids up from school. It’s always in my head and I’m trying to solve problems all the time. This does mean I tend to “zone out” of conversations. I probably work best at night, when the house is quiet because the kids are in bed and I’m not distracted by anything that’s happening outside my window. It’s hard to write dark, scary stuff when you’re watching birds and squirrels in the garden.
If you could make everyone read five books, which ones would they be?
To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee. The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris. The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett. The Deptford Trilogy by Robertson Davies. The Death of Sweet Mister by Daniel Woodrell.
Do you ever look back at your early work? How do you feel your writing style or approach to writing has evolved since you first began?
I certainly don’t go back and read early work, but I was forced to confront it last year when my first two novels were adapted for television here in the UK. I got a clear sense of how my writing has changed. I think I have learned that it’s often about what you DON’T say and, crucially, what you DON’T show. Certainly, when it comes to dark mystery fiction, it’s very easy to put in way too much graphic description and I think I‘ve learned that the trick is to nudge the reader’s imagination into the shadows rather than laying it all out for them. There is less graphic violence in my books than there was, though to my mind the books have become darker and more powerful for it. I think when writers start out they are all a little bit like somebody else. It takes a couple of books before you find your voice.
What were your experiences with reading when you were growing up? Was there a pivotal moment in discovering literature when you knew that you wanted to be a writer?
The book that first turned me on to detective fiction was “The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes”. It was read to me at school by an eccentric maths teacher who would read us stories in the middle of his own maths lessons. This is why I love mysteries but can’t add up. After that I went out and devoured American hardboiled stuff – Hammett, Chandler and Cain. I can vividly remember my first brush with popular fiction which was the summer I read “The Godfather” and “Jaws” back to back. Those books knocked me for six, and of course both had a smattering of sex in them, which was quite important for a fourteen year old boy.
How many works in progress do you have going at any one time? How do you know when one has potential and when one just needs to be scrapped?
Some people have more than one??
Who was your favorite character to write, and why did you have an affinity for that character in particular?
Well, it has to be Thorne who is my central character. If I did not enjoy writing about him I would have stopped a long time ago. We share a birthday and the same taste in music (country!) but we have little else in common. As my own life has become far happier (I’m a professional writer, for Pete’s sake) his has gone in the other direction. I’ve put him through the mill over the last decade and he carries a few scars, bless him. But he will always try to do the right thing and there’s nobody else I’d rather have on my side in a tight corner. I very much wanted him to grown and develop throughout the series, but the reader will always know as much about him at any one time, as I do. That way, he stays unpredictable and if he can continue to surprise both me and the reader, I will carry on writing about him.
Anything else your readers and potential readers might like to know?
I have a somewhat bizarre selection of “celebrity” fans. These include two memebers of the Spice Girls, the present Prime Minister AND his predecessor and Nelson Mandela!
The next Tom Thorne novel will be published in the UK this summer and I am currently working on a standalone thriller for next year. I’m also involved in adapting three more of the earlier books for television. When all that is done, I’ve scheduled in a long lie down in a darkened room.
About: Mark Billingham was born and brought up in Birmingham. Having worked for some years as an actor and more recently as a TV writer and stand-up comedian his first crime novel was published in 2001. Sleepyhead was an instant bestseller in the UK. The series of crime novels featuring London-based detective Tom Thorne continued with Scaredy Cat and was followed by Lazybones, The Burning Girl, Lifeless, Buried, Death Message and Bloodline. Mark is also the author of the standalone novel In The Dark as well as a series of children’s thrillers –Triskellion – written under the pseudonym Will Peterson. Mark is currently writing the next Tom Thorne thriller. He lives in London with his wife and two children.