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A Conversation with Michael Robotham and Mark Billingham: Part II

In our ongoing celebration of the publication of THE WRECKAGE, we had Mark Billingham, author of BLOODLINE and Michael Robotham discuss the passage of time for series characters, the origins of THE WRECKAGE, the joys of being an international author and more. Missed Part I? Read it first.

MB: What you say about your characters as friends is interesting. We did a few events together when you were over here recently, and I was struck by the way you talked about your characters – Joe, especially. You mentioned that you regretted giving him Parkinson’s disease for instance. It felt as though you were talking about a friend.

MR: It’s true. We’ve had this chat before – about how ‘real’ characters become. I know you feel that you’re always in charge of Thorne and your characters, but I find that mine lead me around at times…not doing as they’re told. Joe O’Loughlin is probably the closest to me in age and personality. He has two daughters. I have three. I really really love the guy and If I had my time over again, I would never have given him early onset Parkinson’s Disease.

MB: But you can control the rate of his decline, right?

MR: What I have to do is stop aging him in real time. It’s hard to get my head around the fact that he can age slower than I can.

MB: I took that decision with Thorne a few years ago. It’s pretty liberating. As long as you don’t get stupid about it and keep your characters at the same age for way too long…

MR: What do I do about the children? Can Joe stay the same age, but his daughters grow older? I like the idea that they are growing up. I get so much material from my own teenage daughters. In a perfect world, I’d stop them growing…or meeting boys.

MB: Playing God can get tricky, right? Now, as usual there’s clearly a lot of research behind the new book. Your journo years must have stood you in good stead when it comes to this kind of thing.

MR: Most of my books are triggered by stories that I covered as journalist or read about in newspapers. THE WRECKAGE is no different. I came across a piece in the UK Observer a few years ago. The Executive Director of the United Nation´s Office on Drugs and Crime – a man called Antonio Maria Costa – was quoted as saying that drug money was the only thing that had kept many major western banks afloat during the height of the Global Financial Crisis. He estimated that US$352 billion of drug and mafia money was laundered by banks on the brink of collapse and suggested there some of these institutions were actually rescued by these illegal funds.

Then I came across another story – a brilliant piece of investigative journalism by James Steele and Donald Bartlett that was published in Vanity Fair. These Pulitzer prize-winning reporters exposed details of the largest airlift of US currency in the history of the Federal Reserve – 21 shipments over fourteen months – flown into Iraq in the aftermath of the invasion. Stacks of $100 bills were packed into bricks, assembled into large pallets and loaded onto cargo planes bound for Baghdad. It amounted to 281 million individual banknotes or 363 tons of money. Twelve billion US dollars in total – of which nine billion has never been accounted for. Missing. Gone. These were the seeds of THE WRECKAGE. I took the two stories and molded them together, putting my own spin on what happened to the missing and laundered money. That’s why I needed a journalist like Luca Terracini. And there’s no truth in the rumor that the Pulitzer prize is wish fulfillment.

MB: Strange that you hadn’t written as a journalist before. Mind you, I was never that keen to write from the POV of a stand-up comedian. I’m struck by the way that you have a cast of characters who move in and out of the foreground in the books. So Alisha is a minor character in one book and a major character in another. Ruiz pops up in the O’Loughlin books. I’ve always enjoyed that…

MR: For me it’s about keeping things fresh and doing something different. I thought you did that brilliantly when you broke away and did your standalone IN THE DARK. I’m sure that freshened you up and recharged you creatively.

MB: You’re right, but it’s tricky sometimes when readers seem to want something that’s ALMOST the same as what you gave them last time. You’re certainly someone who writes a very different book each time out.

MR: Not all readers appreciate this. Sometimes they want their crime novels to be like a comfy pair of slippers they put on after a hard day’s work. I personally think that we should never give readers EXACTLY what they want. Challenge them. Make them think. Show them something different. As a comedian I’m sure that’s also true. You mentioned stand-up. When you’re on stage doing a routine, you get instant feedback. As a writer you have to wait for a year or sometimes more.

MB: That’s the BIG difference. That wait can be a killer. So it’s all about slipping something unexpected into those comfy slippers. A scorpion, maybe…

MR: Exactly! Make them spill their cocoa

MB: Now I KNOW you’re an Aussie – I’ve been out drinking with you often enough – but you still get described as a British writer. Is that strange?

MR: I don’t think my UK publishers mind…or readers. My Aussie readers go apoplectic. It took a long while for my countrymen and women to realize that I was a local boy, but now they are very protective. You know what the rivalry is like between Australia and the old country.

MB: Right. The truth is that you don’t moan or talk about the weather NEARLY enough to be British.

MR: And I shower far too often.

MB: Steady!

MR: Sorry!

MB: So, a chilling psychological thriller, now a global conspiracy thriller. What’s next?

MR: I’m working on another Joe O’Loughlin book. Vincent Ruiz, my former Scotland Yard detective, will also tag alone. He’s the only character to have appeared in all my novels so far.

After that, I think I might bring back Luca Terracini and have him working on another story. I have an idea for another big conspiracy thriller set around a nuclear accident. My wife wouldn’t let me go to Baghdad to research “The Wreckage”. I wonder what she’ll think about Chernobyl?

MB: Wow, you’re thinking a long way ahead. I haven’t decided what I’m doing for lunch yet.

MR: Normally I have absolutely no spare ideas in my drawer. Now I have two. Maybe I’m getting ahead of myself. I should think about lunch first.

MB: And when are you coming across to the UK and US next? Are you coming to Bouchercon in September?

MR: I would love to be in Bouchercon in September, but still haven’t decided. I’ve done a lot of touring in Europe this year and have a trip to Africa coming up. I have visions of getting home one day and having my daughters ask, ‘Have you had a nice year, Dad?’

MB: Well if you come, I’ll see you in the bar. I’ll be the stinky Brit moaning about the weather…

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.