Mark Billingham and Laura Lippman on themselves and everything else

I’ve known Mark Billingham since 2002, but I feel as if we’re lifelong friends. When I heard he was going to move to Mulholland, I was sad for our mutual publisher but happy for Mark, if that makes sense. We share several enthusiasms, including the music of Elvis Costello and beer. I guess I should also mention that Mark is the author of the award-winning series of police procedurals about Tom Thorne, and a stand-alone, In the Dark. A stand-up comedian, he also is one of the funniest people I know. My new book came out in the United States on Tuesday, August 17, and Mark’s latest, From the Dead, is out in the United Kingdom on Thursday, August 19. When Mulholland asked if I wanted to inhabit its online real estate for a day, I suggested that Mark and I chat via Facebook. This is a lightly edited version of that chat.

MB: So, Laura, the new book is out in a couple of days. This is another stand-alone, right?

LL: Yes, another stand-alone. It’s called I’d Know You Anywhere, and it’s about a woman who’s contacted by the man who kidnapped and raped her when she was fifteen.

MB: Are you into any kind of pattern with the stand-alones and the series? A Tess Monaghan, then a stand-alone?

LL: There was a pattern, but it was broken because I wanted the book that was serialized in the New York Times magazine — The Girl in the Green Raincoat, the one with Tess’s pregnancy — to go out into the world before I resumed her story. That will finally happen next year.

MB: You’ve said that in some ways the new book is a companion piece to Life Sentences.

LL: After writing a book about a high-strung type who wrote the kind of book that book clubs discuss, I wanted to write a book about the kind of woman who belongs to a book club. Does that make sense?

MB: Absolutely. So would you say it’s less of straightforward mystery novel than you might write if it was a Tess book? Or should I say less of a crime novel?

LL: Less of a straightforward mystery, but very much a crime novel.

MB: So many writers, when they’re as many books in as you, start talking about feeling certain pressures to deliver the genre goods. Is that something that bothers you at all?

LL: Nick Hornby has a great line about how writing a good novel within a genre category is harder than writing a mainstream novel. I think it ups the ante in a very exciting way. It helps that I never did big twists. Weaknesses can become inadvertent strengths. I’ve never delivered huge twists (although some readers of What the Dead Know might disagree) so readers don’t expect me to take the tops of their heads off.

What do you think? Your Thorne books and your stand-alone seemed to me to be centered in real-world situations, where things are surprising, but never out-of-the-blue-didn’t-see-that-coming. I have to say, I think the dedicated reader, the one who wants to solve things, should be able to see things coming. You?

MB: Yes, I agree. I’ve actually started to grow tired of books where there is twist after twist. You can never actually invest in the story, because you know that so much of it is going to get pulled from under your feet. There’s a danger of it becoming nothing more than a technical exercise.

LL: I think at some point we have to choose between being clever and being — I’m stuck for the best word. Grounded? Credible? I’m not saying the latter is better than the former, just that it’s hard to do both in the same book. Presumed Innocent managed it. But it’s hard.

MB: If your book stands or falls on a reader being able to figure out a twist, or who the killer is, then it’s probably not much of a book. There has to be something more going on than that.

LL: I talk to young writers (or just new writers) about role-model books, the books that one aspires to write. Did you have such books? You know, “If only I could write a book like [Title] I would be so happy.”

MB: I can still remember being knocked on my backside by books like Jaws or The Godfather when I was about fifteen. That was the first time I became aware of how powerful popular fiction could be. . . . But there are so many great writers who continue to raise the bar. People like Daniel Woodrell…

LL: OMG, as the kids say.

MB: OMFG, I think you’ll find. But I think I have a decent grasp of my place in the scheme of things. I know there are certain writers I could never get near to. The same was true when I worked as a comic. I knew I was better than certain comics, while there were others whose bootstraps I was not fit to lick, you know?

LL: (Two asides: I am having a beer and think you should, too. Also my “Friends Online” says Lee Child is online, but I don’t think it’s really Lee. I think it’s someone who works for him.)

MB: But comedy is a hugely competitive business, and, thank God, writing — at least in our genre — doesn’t feel that way. I’ll go grab a beer. . . . Got one. A Purple Haze raspberry wheat brew.

LL: At the risk of sounding very self-satisfied, I’ve found that there is amazing camaraderie within the crime world largely because there is a nice-sized group of people whose common denominator is “I would like to write the best book I can.” I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings, but any novelist who regularly uses the term sell-through is not a kindred spirit.

I am having a Blue Moon. But our true commercial sponsor today is Mulholland, the new Little, Brown imprint that is publishing Daniel Woodrell, among other stellar writers. It’s a pretty cool place to be, no?

MB: Yes, it’s fantastic to be on the same list as Woodrell and Larry Block and the other great writers that make up this imprint.

LL: Do you know the story of my (drunken) conversation with Mulholland editor John Schoenfelder the night of the Edgars? Actually, I wasn’t that drunk because I MC’ed, which meant I had to stay sober throughout the event.

MB: Go ahead. I love a good drunken conversation . . .

LL: So, I saw John in the bar, and, you know, I am in the lovely position of being very happy where I am in publishing. Had the same editor for all my books, etc. So I felt I could advise him as to which writers I felt could be amazing additions to his list because I could be truly selfless. I mentioned you. And Duane Swierczynski. Possibly Woodrell. It was hilarious how many people I pimped who were already in his sights or signed. I also loved how whenever I’d say of a writer, such as Block, “Oh, you’ve stolen him!” John would say, very deadpan, “I wouldn’t call it stealing.” The bottom line is that Mulholland is just a great development in our business. A high tide raises all boats, etc.

MB: I’m grateful for your pimpage, as always. Mulholland is just hugely enthusiastic, which is all you can hope for, right?

LL: I’m a good pimp. I am the Huggy Bear of publishing. I think Mulholland has enthusiasm and — dare I say it — taste? Which is to say, they don’t seem to be trying to replicate the fads of the moment.

MB: It’s very focused, if you know what I mean. Let’s get back to your book — it’s not set in Baltimore! Explain yourself!!!

LL: OK, the location thing. I wanted a central character who has not felt at home in the world since the age of fifteen. And I can’t write about Baltimore on that level. I just can’t forgo all that local color, but my character wouldn’t be seeing that. It’s not that the DC suburbs are cold and soulless — it just feels that way to her.

MB: Your stories belong where they belong.

LL: Yes. And, in hindsight, I’m glad I tried something different. I never chafed at being a “Baltimore writer.” I am quite proud of it. But certain labels become simplistic. I’ve seen that as my husband moves from The Wire to Treme. It’s like, Where’s Omar?

MB: I know that you often take a real-life crime as a jumping-off point with the novels. Is that the case with I’d Know You Anywhere?

LL: Yes, but no one will recognize it. And because it involves a living victim of sexual abuse, for once I’m not talking about it. I pick real-life crimes — oh, pompous alert — not because they’re well known, but because they have thematic possibilities. What is it like to be a serial killer’s one surviving victim? That’s the book in a nutshell.

MB: That’s a fantastic hook. Does it always start from that? From one idea? Don’t worry I’m not going to ask where you get your ideas, or whether you use a Mac or PC. At one event, someone asked me what operating system I used . . .

LL: Pretty much. Every book starts with a central secret. I usually know the answer, or at least the universe of possible answers. But I don’t know much else. Where do your books start? Mine begin on a Mac. OS X 10.5.7.

MB: It’s always just an opening scene, like a pre–titles sequence in a movie. Something that leaves a whole bunch of unanswered questions. These are questions I don’t know the answers to either. And I’m on 10.5.8. Catch up, Lippman!!

LL: You always were an early adapter. You were the first person I knew to plug his iPod into his car stereo.

MB: It might seem like that, but I feel like a Luddite. My kids make me feel like I know nothing.

LL: My new car has a dedicated iPod line. I drive a Jetta station wagon now. As I said to George Pelecanos, “It’s hard, I know, but try not to be jealous.”

MB: I so want a Mustang. But I’d need to get it switched to right-hand drive for the UK, which feels wrong. We have a Dodge Charger in Sarasota, and I bloody love it!
Cruising around listening to a country station, I am so in hog heaven . . .

LL: I have to ask: What’s your overall impression of the US now that you’re a homeowner here?

MB: I’ve always been in love with the US — and that is not just blowing smoke up your ass, an expression that someone needs to explain by the way. (Why would that be a good thing??) I grew up on American film and TV and, later, American mystery writers.

LL: I don’t know what it means either. But then, to this day, I don’t understand “The world is his oyster.”

MB: Nor me. So it’s great to get over here and live the dream! I get so excited just going to the supermarket.

LL: Do people comment on your accent? And why would our supermarkets be exciting? Other Brits have told me they’re dirty and inferior.

MB: God no!! Peanut butter and jam in the same jar! That’s why you guys run the world. The size of your vegetables is something to behold. And Chicago bread . . .

LL: Well, in Florida, you can buy alcohol in the supermarket. We can’t do that in Maryland, alas. Wait — Chicago bread?

MB: The accent thing is interesting. For some reason, the way I say “butter” causes much hilarity. And I said that something was “smashing” in a shop the other day, and it appeared to make the sales assistant’s day.

LL: Chicago bread?

sliced breadMB: This great sliced white bread that makes the best toast ever.

LL: I just wait for the day you say something has gone pear-shaped. By the way, Dominic West found out the hard way that you cannot call an American woman a cow, no matter how affectionately it is done.

MB: OK, I wanted to ask you about dialogue. For me, you’ve always been one of those writers — the sort I really admire — who use it wonderfully. There’s no need for clumsy exposition or backstory when you can nail a character in a few lines of dialogue.
I’m not just blowing smoke up your ass, by the way!

LL: I am genuinely complimented because I’ve never thought that was my strength.

MB: I think it’s always the first thing I look for. It’s always about dialogue for me. A writer can describe a sunset in lush, sensuous, jaw-dropping prose, but if they have a tin ear for dialogue, I’m not interested.

LL: “Less is more” is a useful edict. My husband and I were watching L.A. Confidential the other day, and there’s this key moment when the rape victim lets the ambitious cop know that she lied in tying her rapists to the Night Owl murders because she wanted them killed/punished. Way too much exposition. It would have been far more effective if she hadn’t explained the lie, just let him catch her in it.

I hate — hate — citing my spouse, but he gives a talk on dialogue where he cites two lines written by our late friend David Mills, a screenwriter on NYPD Blue, The Corner, The Wire, and Treme. In The Corner, one dope fiend has set up her fiend boyfriend because they’ve had a spat, she swears out a warrant on him, and he’s picked up. He’s made bail, and they meet. Here’s the dialogue, in its entirety.

Ronnie: Hey.

Gary: Hey.

MB: You can go too far though. There’s this great moment in the movie Nicholas and Alexandra. The screenplay was written by Edward Bond, one of the UK’s greatest playwrights, and there’s a line that goes something like “Lenin, Stalin . . . this is Trotsky!” So, you know, I suppose there is a balance to be struck.

LL: This is a good segue to talk about Thorne coming to television. How’s it going? How do you feel about it?

MB: It’s going well, I think. I hope. The first episode goes out in mid-October, and I’m really pleased with what I’ve seen. I only hope that people judge it for what it is — a piece of television — and don’t start complaining that it’s not the same as the book. I read what Don Winslow said on this site a few days ago. I used to think it was better for a writer to stay out of these things, but now that I’ve been closely involved, I don’t think I could do it any other way.

LL: I think it depends on one’s temperament. It’s not for me, the world of television.

MB: I was closely involved in scripts, casting, everything, so I’ve got nowhere to hide if readers don’t like it, but it’s silly to say, “That’s supposed to be North London, not East London. And where’s Thorne’s cat???” So, what about Every Secret Thing? That’s still moving forward with Frances McDormand, right?

LL: They just announced that Diane Lane is attached. Financing to come. I hope. And, yes, Fran is producing. I am going to risk fatuousness by saying I have never met someone with more simpatico bookshelves than Fran McDormand.

MB: How do you feel about the casting? And does Fran like Elvis Costello?

LL: I’m fine with it. I think Diane Lane is wonderful and can do anything. Does Fran like Elvis Costello? I’ll have to check. You know, women don’t talk about their music collections so much. They just don’t.

MB: I don’t think I have ever been as jealous as when you sent me the picture of EC holding your book.

LL: One of the sweetest things my husband ever did for me. And I have to tell you, the day I spent on set watching him and Allen Toussaint was magical, although in some ways I found Toussaint even dreamier than Costello.

MB: Like most male crime writers I know, I would give up the writing business in a heartbeat for the chance to sing backing vocals at a Costello gig.

LL: Do you ever see his television show? He had Richard Thompson, Levon Helm, Nick Lowe, and, oh, someone else wonderful, play together, and I almost passed out just from watching it on television.

MB: That was fantastic. Though I did not enjoy the one where he had Sting on.
Sting! Playing the lute, for Christ’s sake!!

LL: I am (sotto voce) okay with Sting, although generally skeptical of people who are forever going on about their amazing sex lives.

MB: You draw the line at Phil Collins though, right?

LL: Mark, I feel I have to tell you — I have one Phil Collins song on my iPod. Only one! And it’s a duet.

MB: This conversation is over!

LL: But actually — I watched a lot of Phil Collins videos for the book. Seriously. I watched a lot of videos in general. Do you remember what huge productions they used to be? There’s one Collins video, for some moronic song, where he does like eleven pastiches of videos, films, etc.

MB: Do you think that blogging, Facebook, etc., may mean that there is a change in the way writers have to promote their work?

LL: Anyone who’s connected with me on FB knows I am total slut for it. I didn’t join it for promoting my work, sort of the opposite, but I like it. I like knowing what (most) people had for breakfast. I even like the crazy TMI people. It’s a novelist’s paradise.


LL: Too much information. There’s one woman who breaks up with her boyfriend. A lot.

MB: I notice you and Jeff Abbott are battling over the number of friends you have . . .

LL: If we’re battling, I’m losing. But you know what? Jeff is someone I’ve always liked and admired, but we are much closer because of Facebook. And there are several other people who fall into that category.

MB: To be serious though . . . well almost . . . there is a sense in which writers these days have to be whores. We have to sell ourselves as much as the books.

LL: There’s definitely that sense. Except — I think this might be another case where a persistent emotion is being funneled through new technologies. I started publishing in the early days of the Internet, 1997, and no one was saying you have to have a website at the time. But they were saying, You need to do bookmarks! And prop your book in front of you at panels! And go to conferences! I bet Hemingway was told to whore himself out in some way.

MB: A lot depends on if you’re cut out for it. I’m a big show-off, so it’s not a problem for me. Open the fridge door, and I’ll start dancing. But for some writers, the round of events and readings and festivals is pretty close to torture. It’s like, “I just want to write. I didn’t buy into all this other stuff.”

LL: I actually remember one writer who said, rather accusingly, “I’m not outgoing like you. This is hard for me.” Like I was cheating, by enjoying conferences. Perhaps she should drink more.

MB: The fact is, nobody has a gun to your head. Of course, publishers are happy if you’re willing to go out and do these things, but if you’re not good at it, don’t do it.

LL: Agreed. Thomas Harris managed nicely.

MB: There’s nothing worse than hearing an author read, when they’re quite clearly uncomfortable with it.

LL: Oh — bad author readings. And most are bad. I felt I learned a lot about how to do appearances from seeing you and Ian Rankin. The “book chat” is so much better than a reading. And touring is not what broke Dan Brown out, not to my knowledge. It was all about the galley, for which there was immense enthusiasm.

MB: So that was to blame, was it? You think we’ve talked enough about your book?

LL: Absolutely. In truth, “Chicago bread” is going to be what people remember.

MB: It’s been fab to catch up a bit, as always. I’m glad the technology held up and did not . . . go pear-shaped.

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

Mulholland Books will publish BLOODLINE in July 2011.

Laura Lippman was a reporter for twenty years, including twelve years at “The (Baltimore) Sun”. She began writing novels while working fulltime and published seven books about “accidental PI” Tess Monaghan before leaving daily journalism in 2001. Her work has been awarded the Edgar ®, the Anthony, the Agatha, the Shamus, the Nero Wolfe, Gumshoe and Barry awards. She also has been nominated for other prizes in the crime fiction field, including the Hammett and the Macavity. She was the first-ever recipient of the Mayor’s Prize for Literary Excellence and the first genre writer recognized as Author of the Year by the Maryland Library Association.

Ms. Lippman grew up in Baltimore and attended city schools through ninth grade. After graduating from Wilde Lake High School in Columbia, Md., Ms. Lippman attended Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. Her other newspaper jobs included the “Waco Tribune-Herald” and the “San Antonio Light”.

Ms. Lippman returned to Baltimore in 1989 and has lived there since. She is the daughter of Theo Lippman Jr., a “Sun” editorial writer who retired in 1995 but continues to freelance for several newspapers, and Madeline Mabry Lippman, a former Baltimore City school librarian. Her sister, Susan, is a local bookseller.