A Conversation with Mark Billingham and Lee Child: Part II

This week we salute BLOODLINE by Mark Billingham as it hits bookstores. TheReviewBroads.com rave that “BLOODLINE by Mark Billingham provides the best serial killer punch since THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS. Here, we present Part II of Mark’s conversation with Lee Child, the #1 bestselling author of the Jack Reacher series. If you missed Part I, read it first.

MB: I think a lot of writers make a mistake – even if they do see a character that is going to have a decent shelf life – by laying it all out there in book one. By saying, this is who this person is. This is where he goes to school. This is what he has for dinner. This is who his family are.  I remember making the decision that I wouldn’t do any of that, that I was not going to have this dossier of facts and figures.  That I would simply try to peel away a different layer of the onion with each book and see what happened, so that the reader knew as much about Thorne, book on book, as I did. I’m not even sure that in the first book he was even the main character actually.  He had the most amount of ‘onstage’ time if you like, but the character I got all the reaction about in that first book was the victim, actually.

LC: Let’s mention what a great first book that was.  Your first book was just tremendous. A fantastic first book.

MB: I never actually got a chance to thank you because I know you picked it in your 40 Books of All Time list.  I don’t think I ever bought you the beers I owe you for that…

LC: I love accidental discoveries and I can’t remember how I got it or why.  In that first book, the “Wow” moment was very early on.  There was that fantastic line, “No, this was not a mistake.  This was what he wanted to do all along.” And I just thought, “Wow.” I knew straight away that this was a book that was going to be major and it was going to be a career that was going to be worth following.  I had luck with Killing Floor too.  I just think everything in the first book of mine worked very well, even the jacket.  The jacket in America especially was iconic.  We were both very lucky I think at the beginning.  Then the question becomes, “How do you deal with this?”

head with significant noseMB: Well, a character has got to stay interesting.

LC: We were talking about not including too much information at the beginning and that’s absolutely right.  The reader gets curious about the character, gets engaged with the character.  And I think it’s really gratifying for the reader to find new stuff out book by book over ten or even twenty books.  Twenty books on from the beginning, you can still be revealing new things.

MB: That’s what’s so fantastic about Reacher.  We talked about the whole Tom Cruise thing and people going mental about it online,  saying, “No, Reacher’s like this!” Actually, sixteen books in and you could write on half of page of A4 what you know about Reacher. It’s all hidden.  You’re really not giving it away.

LC: And that helps the reader.  Keep it as a blank canvas and the reader fills the specifics for himself.

MB: How much pressure does that put you under each time you sit down to write a new one?  The fact that there are these millions of readers who feel that Reacher is theirs not yours, that you’ve got to up the ante and keep them interested.  How much pressure is that every time?

LC: I once read a book by David Mamet about the whole movie business.  You know…what makes a good movie, what makes a good script, what makes a good actor and all of that.  He was talking about certain great actors.  I think he was talking about Gene Hackman in particular.  How does he approach a role?  When you boil it down, the entertainment transaction in any book or movie, what you basically have is the main character appearing and saying, “Hi!  I’m the main character.”  And the audience has this unspoken question, “Are we going to like you?”  And the worst possible answer is, “Yes, you really are and I’ll tell you why.”  An alternative answer is: “You might, you might not, and I really don’t care.”  It’s that kind of distance and that kind of self confidence that makes a character work.  And so, what I do with Reacher is that I try to like him less than the reader is going to like him.   I’m very critical of him.  I keep him at arm’s length.  I don’t invest love in Reacher.  He’s just a guy and I’m going to show him warts and all and I don’t care if people like him or not.  And the more I take that attitude of course, the more they do like him.

MB: Right, and anyway which of us is likeable all the time?  I don’t think your hero has to be heroic all the time.

LC: No, or knowable all the time.  When you meet a friend in real life, you don’t have this big info dump at the very first beer where he tells you everything, including where he went to school and what his grandfather did for a living.  That stuff comes out over years and that’s what makes human interaction interesting.

MB: You’re one of the few writers who is massive on both sides of the Atlantic, so you have a lot of people wanting your time.  Apart from having to write a book a year, there are the Bouchercons and International Thriller Writers commitments and all that kind of stuff.  You must have to run your life like a military operation.

LC: Well, I have an assistant, Maggie, who basically runs it for me.  Yeah, it is a huge amount of work and a huge amount of demands and requests and so on, but basically I love it.  This is such a great job.  And the people are great.  That was the single greatest thing for me coming out of the world of television where the people are…

MB: I know exactly what you mean.  This industry seems positively polite compared with TV, doesn’t it?

LC: Hunter Thompson has this fantastic quote.  He says, “Television is a blood filled money trench where good men go to die.”  And then he adds, “And there is a negative side.”  Coming out of that, I assumed book publishing was going to be more of the same basically and it was such a huge shock and relief and joy to find that practically everybody, from the humble bookseller up to all these publishing CEOs we deal with are all really nice people.  So, it doesn’t feel like a strain or a demand. I go to Bouchercon and these other conferences as a fan most of the time.  Some of my favorite writers are there and it’s fun to hang out with them.

MB: You also throw a very mean party.

LC: Yeah, we do that.  Last year’s was insane, but it may never get any bigger than that.

MB: When there were three different Jack Reachers walking about…

LC: Yeah, yeah, it was fun.

MB: So will I see you in St. Louis?

LC: Actually, I don’t know. My publication moved from the spring to the autumn, so last year I did two books, one in the spring, one in the autumn and I’m not really supposed to be doing two books a year.  It was a kind of shuffle step to get me into the autumn slot without a year and a half gap.

MB: That was something else I was going to mention.  You really see the power of the series, the way you can use that format to your benefit, in that amazing cliffhanger at the end of 61 Hours. There is no way on God’s Earth you’re going to be able to wait a year for Worth Dying For. It was the ultimate use of a series, the way it stoked up that hunger on the part of the readers.

LC: Yeah, it’s always hard for a publisher to decide what’s the best rhythm.  Personally, I think one a year is a great rhythm.  It means the reader is hungry and yet they haven’t forgotten you.  Do a thought experiment.  Suppose you brought out a book every day, most of them would be ignored by most people.  You’ve got to find the right interval and personally I think a year is the right interval.  This year, therefore, I didn’t have a book in the spring.  So, for the first year since I was a kid literally, I haven’t had to work in the spring.  I just thought, “You know what, I’m going to take the whole spring off and the whole summer off.  I’ll have a much quieter year.”  So I’m really cutting down what I’m doing this year, but next year I’ll be back to the same routine.

MB: We’re going to see you at Harrogate in July, though.

LC: Yeah, I’m doing Harrogate because the chair of the programming committee this year is a woman called Dreda Say Mitchell, who is a fantastic writer and a lovely person and she asked me to go. So I said, “Yeah, of course.”

MB: Right, well that is where I will buy you several beers, Lee.

LC: I’ll hold you to do that, yeah. And good luck with the new book.

MB: Cheers!

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.