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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.”
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Childhood Obsession Turned Bestselling Novel

When I was about five years old, I became obsessed with Captain Kidd’s buried treasure. I didn’t know who Captain Kidd was, but I somehow knew he buried his treasure on Long Island, where I lived then and still live.

I also didn’t know then how big Long Island was (it’s long), so I figured that the treasure was buried on Jones Beach, the only beach I knew, where my parents took me most summer weekends. I excavated piles of sand over the years, and I don’t need to report that I never found the treasure chest.

Goonies Treasure MapAs I got older and wiser, and got a car, I realized there were lots more beaches on Long Island. Also, I did some research and discovered that the likely location of the treasure, if it existed at all, was Gardiners Island, a privately owned island that lies between the North and South forks of Long Island. Not even close to the thousand cubic yards of sand I’d already dug up. Also, it occurred to me that even a stupid pirate wouldn’t bury his treasure right on the beach. Erosion and all that. The treasure — Captain Kidd’s or anyone else’s ill-gotten booty — would be inland, maybe under a big oak tree or near a prominent rock. Obviously, I needed a treasure map. They sell them at gift shops out on the North Fork. Complete with dotted lines, drawings of rocks, trees, and a big X. About five bucks.

broken lockCaptain Kidd’s treasure is a local legend here on Long Island, but buried treasure, in general, is a universal topic of myth, books, and movies. The idea that there is a fortune buried under the ground, waiting to be found, captures our imaginations and appeals to us (little boys) on several levels. There is, first of all, the history of how it got there — pirates, buccaneers, action, adventure, and probably murder. Also, I think we’re all hardwired to unravel ancient mysteries, to journey out on a quest that will bring us honor and fame, not to mention some loot. On a somewhat higher level, we’re looking for the truth.

Ben Franklin, in his Poor Richard’s Almanack, admonished his fellow citizens to stop wasting their time and energies digging up the countryside to find buried treasure. He pointed out that if these treasure hunters stuck to their trades, they’d be better off financially and so would their families and communities.

Good advice. But like most good advice, it went — and continues to go — unheeded. Everyone wants to turn a quick buck, and digging holes in the ground is not that much work if the reward is a treasure chest brimming with gold and jewels. As long as it doesn’t become an obsession or your day job.

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The Workplace, Wet or Dry

When I first began to write as a kid, what I had in the way of an office was a notepad and a ballpoint pen and any place that was flat where I could work. This was when I was writing entirely for fun, without any knowledge of how something was marketed or sold, or that I was in need of a study or an office.
One problem I had with that method was that my handwriting was akin to dipping an arthritic chicken’s feet in ink and turning it loose on the page. In high school, I took typing. When I’m asked what I think was the most important part of my education, my answer is simple. Typing class in high school and dropping out of college.
After learning to type, my life was never quite the same. Now I could write a story more speedily, more clearly, and have it look like it would look in a book or magazine. Keep in mind, now, I’m talking about actual typewriters, where you rolled the paper into it, typed, and corrected with Wite-Out, and had to have carbons and an extra sheet of paper behind the carbon to make an impression, and therefore a copy, of your deathless prose.
The Wite-Out was messy, and the carbon pages slipped, so that you could finish an entire page, only to discover that you didn’t have an exact copy at all, that a sentence was typed over another, or that the paper had slipped in such a way that it appeared to have been typed at an angle.
Frustrating.
Also, each day I ended up with a complete trash can full of discards. steam cloud . Ah, the good old days. Who’s kidding who?

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Hey, Sinner Man, Where’d You Go?

You’ve probably heard the song. It’s a spiritual, and it starts out something like this:

Hey sinner man, where you gonna run to?
Hey sinner man, where you gonna run to?
Hey sinner man, where you gonna run to?
All on that day . . .

In the verses that follow, we learn that ol’ Sinner Man has run to the north, the east, the south, and the west, to the rock and to the hill and to any number of other sites, and nowhere can he find a place to hide from divine judgment. Then he runs to the Lord, and that turns out to be the answer.

When you look at it like that, it sounds pretty lame, doesn’t it? I’m reminded of the truly awful actor in the truly dreadful showcase production of Hamlet. When some audience members walk out during the famous soliloquy, he breaks character and cries out, “Hey, don’t blame me — I’m not the one who wrote this shit!”

What I did write, however, was a crime novel I called Sinner Man. It was my first crime novel, though it was a long way from being my first published novel. (And it was also a long way from being my first published crime novel, as you’ll see.)

If memory serves (and I might point out that, if memory truly served, there’d be no need for me to write this piece or for you to read it), I wrote Sinner Man sometime in the winter of 1959–60. In the summer of 1957, after two years at Antioch College, I’d dropped out to take a job as an editor at Scott Meredith Literary Agency. I was there for a year and wrote and sold a dozen or so stories of my own during that time. Then I dropped in again, or tried to; I went back to Antioch, but by then I was writing books for Harry Shorten at Midwood and had sold a lesbian novel to Fawcett Crest, and I had more books and stories to write, and what the hell did I care about Paradise Lost or Humphry Clinker, let alone The Development of Physical Ideas? So at the end of the year, I went to New York and took a room at the Hotel Rio, where I wrote another book for Midwood and, as my first for Bill Hamling’s Nightstand Books, one I called Campus Tramp.

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Batman Is My Mr. Miyagi

I write mysteries. I love writing mysteries. And I also write comic books. So when I was recently at Comi-Con, someone at one of the panels asked me how comics have influenced and/or seeped into my mystery and novel writing. Indeed, one of the editors at Mulholland Books asked if the action-packed nature of comics helped develop the action and pacing I use in the novels.

So let me tell you the answer.

Yes.

Duh.

And the best part? I had no idea I was doing it.

You see, when you do your first novel, it goes out, and you hope people read it. Same with your second. But by the time you hit your third, people start looking at all the books together. It was then that the smart readers stepped forward. One e-mailed me through my website and said, “I’ve now read three of your novels. What are your issues with your father?” And later, someone else wrote about how reading my novels was like seeing the underbelly of the pacing in a comic book: short chapters and a cliff-hanger, short chapters and a cliff-hanger.

To be honest, I was surprised. But the moment I heard it, I knew it was true.
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Making Sense of Nothing and Making Nothing of Sense: A Maundering on the Taxonomy of Writing and I Forget What Else

“Fair is where you go to see the pigs race.”
— James Luther Dickinson

Nick ToschesWe are uncomfortable with works that can not be placed comfortably into a category. The English-speaking literary establishment has embraced the French word genre since the eighteenth century. We would do well to remind ourselves that the term, via the Latin genus, is a cognate of another French word, générique, whence the English generic. And, for example, noir, given generic catch-all meaning by American critics in the 1940s, is but another blanditude that consigns to the supermarket-aisle school of literary values many books whose unique qualities are thus obscured.

As George Eliot said in her 1856 essay on Heine: “In every genre of writing it preserves a man from sinking into the genre ennuyeux.” The “it” refers to wit, and the French phrase displays her own subtle wit: “the boring genre.” And it is true that most books consigned to one genre or another belong to the far-encompassing genre of boredom, even if there are no Boring sections designated as such in bookstores.

Most best-selling books belong to one genre or another—espionage, crime, horror, suspense, romance, mystery, self-help, ghost-written political memoirs that take the genre of boredom to a ghastlier realm. Best-sellers that perfume themselves with a contrived literary air fall short of what good genre writing offers. What, after all, was The Name of the Rose but a bad mystery whose plot-workings could not be believed at any turn? I actually read that one. We speak of putting the wounded out of their misery. I have now long felt the same about semiologists. As for something like The Unbearable Lightness of Being, which was said to far transcend the romance genre, I would never read a book with such a pretentious title so like the whine of a moon-calf. Semiologists and moon-calves aside, even straightforward attempts at genre by real writers of true greatness often fail dismally: William Faulkner’s 1949 volume of mystery stories, Knight’s Gambit, is one of the worst books he did.

I am not saying that any genre writers, be they scriptomanic pulp hacks or masters of their corner of the marketplace, could ever beat out, except maybe financially, the few writers of our time who have doomed themselves, or been doomed, to the lower-paying racket of greatness.

But what of the latter, the great, or of those who walked the edge of greatness, who have been relegated to the ranks of the former? That’s what I want to talk about here.

Specifically I want to talk about Patricia Highsmith and George V. Higgins. Why these two? As I’m not auditioning for a creative-writing teaching job—I’m too old to look up girls’ skirts and fill them with the unbearable lightness of being—I’ll tell you the truth.

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