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A Conversation with Mark Billingham and Lee Child: Part I

Jun 19, 2012 in Books, Guest Posts, Mulholland Authors, Writing

This week we salute BLOODLINE by Mark Billingham as it hits bookstores in paperback. The New York Times Book Review raved that BLOODLINE offers a “psychologically twisted and strikingly original plot” with a “relentlessly swift pace and high emotional pitch.” Here, we present Part I of a conversation with Lee Child, the #1 bestselling author of the Jack Reacher series. And don’t miss the newest Tom Thorne novel THE DEMANDS, now available in bookstore everywhere.

Mark Billingham: I was thinking a lot about series and the demands that writing a series makes on you and the benefits of it.  Obviously in the last week or so there has been heaps of internet chat in response to the rumor that Tom Cruise might be about to play Jack Reacher. Whatever your thoughts are about that, it’s an incredible testament to the power of the series and the ownership readers feel they have of the character.  Do you feel that Reacher is yours?  Do you feel like you share him?

Lee Child: That’s a great point and it’s something I’ve been very aware of as the years have passed because it’s completely a progression, obviously.  On Day 1, nobody in the world knows anything about Reacher apart from me because it’s the first book. It’s a work in progress, it’s not finished, and nobody has seen it. Then, the first book gets published and then the second and the third.  And gradually the ownership of the character does migrate outwards into the public realm.  I was very aware actually of the particular point which was after eight or nine books, maybe ten books.  Previously to that people were kind of deferential.  They thought Reacher was an independent entity, but they knew somehow he belonged to me. Then, after about the tenth book, he became totally publicly owned to the point where I now get abused just like any other fan with a different opinion.  I count for nothing anymore.  Reacher is completely independent and completely out there.  And you’re right, the casting choice in Hollywood is being made right now.  My attitude towards that was whoever is cast, whoever it was, 99% of the fans would be outraged because it would be a sheer coincidence if whoever it was matched their own personal image.  I think it’s just proof actually of how tightly owned a series character becomes by the readers, which is great really because that is the advantage of a series.  This is a tough trade.  Launching one book every year is a new mountain to climb every time and if you can get any help at all carried over from previous years you need it.  Of course, one of the great helps is, if it is a series, (to borrow the language of credit card companies) the new book is kind of “pre-approved.”  The readership thinks, “Well, I liked the last six, so I’ll probably like this.”  It’s a much lower hurdle to get over.  I think with people who write standalone books, the author’s name obviously continues and counts for something, but you’ve got a slightly higher mountain to climb.  Are they going to like it?  Is it the same as what you’ve done before? You’ve mixed it, haven’t you?  How have you felt about that?

MB: It’s funny; I think maybe things have changed.  I remember before I wrote my standalone novel In the Dark, I had a chat with Michael Connelly about this and he said, “Well, you best be prepared for a drop in sales.” I think this is something that he’d experienced.  The idea that readers might pick it up and go, “Oh no, it’s not a Bosch or it’s not a Thorne and put it back.”  I think maybe that’s changed now because of the huge success of some writers through standalones.  People like Harlan Coben with Tell No One and Dennis Lehane with Mystic River and so on.  I think suddenly the successful series wasn’t quite the Holy Grail that it had been. I think maybe now people are willing to give a book a chance, even if it isn’t necessarily a book in a series.  We all live with that specter of trying to keep a series fresh.  I heard a writer talk the other day who said, “Everybody writes one book too many.” How do we know when that’s going to be?  I know you’ve written about the fact that you know how the series is going to end- Do you have that written by the way?  Is it written and locked away in a safe somewhere?

LC: No, I wish it was.

MB: You’ve said what’s going to happen though.  You’ve even said what the book is going to be called.  How do you think you’ll know when the time is come to write that book?

LC: That’s a great question, isn’t it?  I well remember in the early days after two or three books, being on tour, and people asking about series.  And I would say, “Yeah, but you know, how many series can you remember which have endured with the same quality after seven or eight books?”  At that time, I thought, “Yeah, six or eight books would be great.”  Now, book 16 of mine is coming out later this year, but I’m in an unusual position with my series.  Yeah, the strong central character repeats, but the environment in which he operates is always radically different.

MB: That was such a smart thing you did.

LC: Yeah, it’s the only smart thing I did.

MB: The fact that in one book he’s in the middle of the desert, then in the next he is New York, that you can change the landscape.  The readers want their guy, but you give them a different thing each time.  That’s the trick of a series, isn’t it?  To tick those boxes the reader wants ticking, but to change it sufficiently so that you don’t do that thing which some writers – and we all know who they are – have been guilty of over the years and write the same book over and over.

LC: I think it’s a razor edge frankly.  I try to learn a lot from random observations.  I remember, when my daughter was very little, she would literally want the same book every night for weeks.  There was something very comforting and very familiar about that.  I honestly believe deep down people are like that.  They don’t literally want the same book, but fundamentally, they want comfort and familiarity. Like my Irish father says, “Once the same and different.”  I think that’s the razor edge of the series, giving them enough familiarity and yet enough novelty each time.  The Thorne series is one that is more constricted because he has a specific job in a specific location.  Therefore, geographically and in terms of what he’s likely to deal with, you are relatively focused.  On the plus side, the British police detective or procedural is such a strong and enduring form.  Do you feel in a way that this is an advantage and a disadvantage?

MB: I think you’re absolutely right, there are pros and cons.  I can’t radically change the landscape.  I don’t think I’d want to.  It’s in the DNA of the Reacher books that that has to happen; he’s a shark, he keeps moving.  Whereas, with Thorne, I have to resist it because it wouldn’t work.  You take him out of his landscape and it would be an interesting fish-out-of-water experiment for one book maybe, but then I think it would die quite quickly.

LC: I think so.  It would be a real problem.  It would become too twee and too silly and too cozy in a way.

MB: Of course it would.  The books are all about the relationship between the character and the landscape.  For me, my attitude towards London has always been a kind of love/hate thing.  It’s the only sensible reaction to a city like this.  On the one hand, it’s dirty and expensive and crime-ridden and rude and difficult.  But on the other hand, you stand on Waterloo Bridge at night and you look up and down the river and you think it’s the best fucking city in the world. I kind of like playing with that conflicting reaction to a place.  And I couldn’t do it anywhere else.

LC: There’s a tangential question I want to ask you about that, because what people maybe don’t realize is that you and I grew up in the same city in England, which was not London, but Birmingham.

MB: I don’t know how much people in the US know about Birmingham, but it’s very much the second city…the cradle of the Industrial Revolution.  People used to say, “Birmingham makes the money that London spends.”  It’s very much the second city, but it has a really bad press in this country, doesn’t it?

LC: Yeah, that was going to be my question.  America is so vast that there are probably a dozen major cities that are perfectly self-contained and self-confident.  They don’t feel that they owe anybody anything.  Nobody is looking down on them.  But England is very much either ‘London’ or ‘not London’ and even though the second city was huge and extremely powerful and had industry, like Detroit in its heyday, there was this total stigma about it.  It was very much a second class citizen. People make jokes about Polish people in America, or about New Jersey. It was always Birmingham in the English context.  Now you, for instance, went on to have a spectacular career in several different fields.  You were an actor.  You were a TV writer.  You were a stand-up comic.  Now, you’re an acclaimed novelist.  You are a driven guy.  To what extent do you think you were trying to prove yourself coming out of Birmingham and making it in London?

MB: I think you hit the nail on the head.  The truth was, you had to get out Birmingham if you wanted to have any kind of career in the creative arts.  Certainly acting, which was the thing I was doing when I left university. Everything happened in London.  It was the place you had to go.  To a degree, it still is, which is why London is full of people who aren’t from London, which means that you don’t have that sense of community.  I’m sure there are little pockets of it, but I don’t feel it in the way I feel it when I go back to Birmingham.  When, I’m sure like you, my Brummie accent comes back and my vowels flatten out.  I’ve noticed with just the two of us talking at conventions and stuff, suddenly the accent comes out, doesn’t it?

LC: Yeah, it’s like that sort of radar thing when you recognize someone who came from the same place and you slip back into it.

MB: It’s a good thing, especially when you’re in that slightly otherworldly environment of a convention. It’s nice to hear a little bit of home somewhere.  Before, you talked about that first book not fully-formed and being a ‘work in progress’.  Did you have a plan for Reacher at all?  Did you have any idea where he was going when you started Killing Floor?

LC: The only plan I had was a negative one.  You know I wasn’t new to the media.  I had worked in television for almost 20 years.  I had a pretty good handle on how things worked and what the audience wanted.  I also had a pretty good handle on trends.  You know somebody once said, “If you see a bandwagon, it’s too late to get on.”  At the time I was starting, there were plenty of good series in progress and plenty of good series just starting out, including Michael Connelly’s for instance, which we just talked about.  So I looked at all of those things and thought, “Essentially these are soap operas (and I’m using this word very neutrally).  They are employment-based and location-based soap operas with repertory casts and the main character has friends and colleagues and partners and neighbors and all this kind of stuff.  And he’s got a neighborhood and he lives somewhere and maybe he’s got housing issues or he talks about his car.”  And I thought, “I’m going to do none of that.”  My plan was really about rejection rather than jumping aboard something.  I thought, “Reacher will have no home, no job, no nothing.  Let’s see if one character is enough to sustain a series.”  So that was the general plan, but because I knew the media, I knew it was insane to make a plan.  You’re very lucky to get one book published and then every book after that.  If you were to sit there and say, “Okay, I’ve got a 12-book plan ahead of me,” then that would be delusional.

Keep reading.

Mark Billingham worked as an actor, a TV writer and a stand-up comedian before becoming one of the most critically acclaimed crime novelists in the world. He lives in North London with his wife and two children. Learn more at http://www.markbillingham.com.

Lee Child is the author of sixteen Jack Reacher thrillers, all of which have been optioned for major motion pictures. Child, a native of England and a former television director, lives in New York City, where he is at work on his next thriller. Mulholland Books will publish MYSTERY WRITERS OF AMERICA PRESENTS VENGEANCE edited by Lee Child in April 2012. Visit http://www.leechild.com for more information.

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