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A Conversation with Michael Robotham and Mark Billingham: Part I

"lost in time" - infrared photograph, AustraliaIn our ongoing celebration of the publication of THE WRECKAGE, we had Mark Billingham, author of BLOODLINE and Michael Robotham get together for a chat. In Part One of the conversation, they discuss ghostwriting, recurring characters and new challenges.

MB: So another great day in Sydney? How the hell do you write dark twisted mysteries sitting there in paradise?

MR: I must admit I do have trouble glancing out my window and imagining the mean streets. Instead I have sun, sand, surf and…kookaburras. That’s why I don’t write books set in Australia.

MB: Right, we don’t have too much trouble with sunshine in this country.

MR: I wrote a novel years ago – my great unpublished Australian masterpiece – set in a small fishing village. It was on the verge of being published in the UK, but missed out at the final publishing meeting. I was told that if I had set the story in Ireland, Scotland, Wales or England, it would have published it in a heartbeat. That was twenty years ago. Thankfully things have changed a lot since then. Readers are picking up books from all over the world.

MB: Were you attracted to writing stuff set here in the UK after all the years you spent working here as a journalist?

MR: I think I was more realistic having been a journalist and then a ghostwriter in the UK. I’d been making a living from writing for so long, I wasn’t prepared to live on oranges in some freezing garret. I knew that a UK setting would give me a bigger market. We writers aren’t supposed to talk about the commercial side of what we do. We’re supposed to do it for love. But let’s face it. We have bills to pay. Mortgages. School fees.

MB: Too right!. So let’s talk for a bit about the ghostwriter business. How hard is it to write in the persona of someone else? Someone real, I mean.

MR: I did 15 autobiographies for the great and the good…and less good. It was all about capturing the voice, which is not much different to fiction only I was dealing with real characters instead of fictitious ones. It meant living with them for weeks, taping their stories, having them cry on my shoulder. I became part therapist, part-confidante, and part best friend…

MB:  And there are still some that you aren’t allowed to name, right?

MR: I can name about half of them. Otherwise I’d have to kill you.

MB: Well I won’t push it then! Were there some subjects that were just impossible to work with?

MR: Thankfully, it was normally OK, but famous people tend to come with big egos. I wouldn’t take a project if I didn’t think I could work with someone. Geri Halliwell was an interesting case. When I first met her she was this little girl lost – having fled the Spice Girls, on the run from the world’s paparazzi. She was a Watford hairdresser made good, who was adorable. The other side of Geri I saw later, when her first solo album came out and she was surrounded by ‘yes’ men and sycophants. Less adorable, but still fascinating.

MB: And while you were ghostwriting, were you working on your own stuff? Did you want to write fiction?

NotebookMR: I always wanted to write fiction. Journalism was when I dipped my toe in the water. (Do you think I should call journalism ‘fiction’? Some of it was). Ghostwriting showed me that I had the discipline to sit down and write a single story -spending months at a time on a project. As a journalist you do something new every day, often traveling the world, which is very exciting. I was also surrounded by drunks and talented people. Now I’m the only drunk I see every day.

We should talk about our new books. We have a new American publisher – you and I. A new imprint, Mulholland Books. How exciting is that

MB: Hugely exciting. It’s an amazing list…

MR: I know. Everybody says what a difficult time it is in publishing, but Mulholland is trying to do something a big different. For me it’s the first time my books will be published in the US on the same timetable as the UK.

MB: So, they’re bringing out THE WRECKAGE which is predominantly a Vincent Ruiz novel, but he’s only one of your characters. You tend to alternate between Ruiz and Joe O’Loughlin as your protagonists. How do you decide which one it’s going to be?

MR: I try not to write two books in a row with the same protagonist. I liken working in the first person with a character to living in a two-man tent with your best friend for a year. It doesn’t matter how good a friend they are – eventually you want them to go away for a while.

With each new book, I look at the idea and decide who should tell the story. In THE WRECKAGE I introduce a journalist for the first time, a Pulitzer prize-winning foreign correspondent Luca Terracini, who is based in Baghdad. I’m really hoping Luca may become a regular character.

THE WRECKAGE is a little different to my usual fare. Instead of being a dark psychological mystery – it is closer in style of a global spy thriller set in the aftermath of the Iraq War and the Global Meltdown.

Stay tuned for Part II.

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.

Mulholland Books will publish BLOODLINE in July 2011.

Michael Robotham was an investigative journalist in Britain, Australia, and the U.S before his career as a novelist. He lives in Sydney with his wife and 3 daughters. Learn more at http://www.michaelrobotham.com. His new novel, THE WRECKAGE is available wherever books or eBooks are sold.