A Conversation with Mark Billingham

I’m in rainy New York and I’m speaking with Mark Billingham in sunny London.  And that should be an indication that something is backwards or that something is awry here.  We’re going to talk about Mark’s new book THE DEMANDS  for a few minutes.  I think it’s interesting Mulholland Books gets one writer to interview another–probably because they think they will avoid the cliché questions like “where do you get your ideas?” and get into something more intellectually profound.

But it kind of backfires because as I writer I’m all about not giving stuff away and letting the reader discover the work, and I don’t say what’s going to happen or ask too much about it.  So this could be the first interview that is entirely rhetorical.  But I guess we have to do a little bit of on-the-point-questioning, so let’s go ahead with my thoughts and my questions on THE DEMANDS.

First of all, I’m familiar with your work and I know I’ve mentioned this to you before, but you hit with it right away in this book, and I mean this in a very good and respectful way and in a jealous way, that you take the minutiae of daily life and build drama from it.  Just in the first few pages of this book, you have a character and you’re in her thoughts and it’s about her day-to-day travel to work (we discover later she’s a cop), but you just bring out the humanity in it and then we move into a situation where she becomes a victim.  That’s what I’ve seen over and over in your work, this empathy with the victim, and you don’t often see that in other people’s work. I write about a detective as well, but I almost never write about the victim other than through the eyes of the detective–which means that the victim is usually dead.  But you are with your victims, with the people outside of the world of the cops (in this case, Thorne), and I’m just wondering where that comes from as a writer.  What draws you to really getting inside these characters?

Mark Billingham: I think more and more as I get older, I’m a lot less scared of serial killers and terrorists than I am of just being in the wrong place at the wrong time.  Of something happening as I am going about my day.  Of taking the wrong turn or going into the wrong postal code.  And for me there is drama in everyday life and I think the best way of getting to know your characters is to see them going about that daily life and see what happens to them when that goes off-kilter and or some event pushes them out of that routine.

HostageThe victim thing has always been important to me. I’d read a lot of books where you had a cop and you had a killer and the victim was just a plot device, just a catalyst for a story to happen.  You mentioned the sort of clichéd questions that mystery writers get asked and one of the ones we are constantly asked is “how do you create suspense?” Although there are all these tricks which we use (cliffhangers and timing and reveals and all that kind of stuff), for me it is just about creating characters that the reader cares about. Because then I think you’ve got suspense from page one. Because the reader knows the type of book their reading. They know there’s some bad stuff coming, and if they’re engaging with these characters right from the kickoff, then I think you’ve got genuine suspense.

The major character in my first book, in Sleepyhead, was the victim. I mean, Thorne had the most stage time, but certainly most of the feedback I got about that book and the reviews concentrated on the victim, because I was in her head for a great deal of the book.  I think that was because I’d seen all these books where you didn’t get to know the victim and I wanted to, but also because not long before I started that first book I’d been a victim myself.  I was held up in a hotel and taken hostage and stuff. So when I sat down to write the book, I thought, “I can write about being afraid, this is something I think I know about right now.”  Not “being on a rollercoaster” afraid or “watching a scary movie” afraid, but “am I going to see my wife and kids again?” afraid.  So the book came out of that really and it’s a furrow I’ve continued to plow.

MC: You say, “I was held hostage and that sort of stuff,” like that happens to us all on occasion.  Obviously you’re writing books, you’re telling stories, and you want to share these stories, but is there an element of therapy going on here in what you’re doing?

MB: I don’t think there is anymore.  I think there was for the first few books, there’s no question about that.  I was having a lot of nightmares about what had happened and yes, I was getting a lot of that stuff out on the page. I don’t think there is any doubt about that.  And I found myself writing more and more about what it was like to be afraid.

watching the detectivesI was talking to Val McDermid about this the other day, who was saying that she feels that women tend to generally write better about this stuff because they are brought up to be afraid.  They’re constantly told, “don’t go down that dark alley,” “watch out for danger,”  “there are people around who want to attack you.”  They grow up in a culture of fear and wariness.  She was being nice and saying something complimentary about my books and she said that I write well about that because I’ve been a victim myself.  Until you have actually genuinely been on the receiving end of violent crime, maybe it’s something that is hard to imagine. Which is why men, when they write about violence, tend to write about how it looks rather than how it feels. I’ve always tried to write about how it feels, which I think is actually more powerful.  We all know how it looks.  We can all picture blood up the walls or whatever it might be, but being on the receiving end gives you a different perspective.  But I’m over it now, Mike.

MC: It’s funny…I’ve known you for awhile, I’ve done stuff on the stage with you, read your books, and so forth.  And I know you were, and still are, a stand-up comedian.  And even though these books – and THE DEMANDS is one of them – are dark stories, the subtle humor that comes out of that minutiae that I started talking about, just observations on life and so forth, are rife in the book.  And that’s so good. I don’t even know if this leads to a question…this is more like an observation, but I guess that must come out of your study and practice of comedy.  In some of your books, the subject matter is extremely dark, but I’m always kind of smiling as I go through the book and laughing; especially with Thorne, and the way his social commentary tends towards the humorous side.

MB: Well, that doesn’t just reflect my background as a comic, but also my taste as a reader.  I can’t read any book where there isn’t humor, because that’s not an accurate reflection of real life.  Real life is about constantly changing moods and often the funniest things happen at the darkest moments.  They really do.  You know better than anyone that if you want to hear jokes flying around, you go to a murder scene.  Cops have got the blackest senses of humor. It’s their defense mechanism. It’s their way of coping with some of the stuff they deal with.  Any book that doesn’t reflect that is just not true to life and is an incredibly depressing read.  I think it’s quite fun to mess around with the mood in that way.  To end a chapter with something unbearably dark and start the next chapter with a joke.  I would certainly say the same thing is true about the Bosch books.  There is plenty of humor in the Bosch books.  It’s the throwaway jokes, the little remarks.  It’s the banter between the cops.  But it’s not something you force into the books. It’s something that just finds its way into the stories, I think.

MC: I guess so, yeah.  With you, it’s very clever because you’ve worked it and polished it.  With me, I work like a journalist. I’ve heard a joke and I’ll find a place for it in my book.  It doesn’t seem to really come from me.  Yes, there’s humor in the Bosch books, but it’s not at the realistic level I encounter in your books.

MB: Well, sometimes you have to resist the joke.  Sometimes the comic impulse in me thinks, “Oh, there is a joke to be made out of that.”  But it’s just not the right moment.  And of course people, whether they’re cops or whatever, don’t often think of the joke at the time.  They’ll think of it on the train home. So yes, it’s fine to hone and polish a piece of comic dialogue, but if it doesn’t seem realistic, it just jumps off the page as being wrong.  Quite often there are jokes in early drafts that don’t make it past the first draft.

MC: And you’re the one who knows that?  Or does your wife read your books and say, “Nah, not that funny there, Mark!”?

MB: Yes, she certainly does, and if it makes it past her, it may not make it past the editor, but that’s like anything else. Do you write fairly weighty first drafts that you then cut and cut and cut?

MC: Yeah.

MB: How many drafts do you go through?

MC: Well, it depends on how close I am to deadline.  But a perfect one will be to go through it three times and each time it gets shorter and tighter and leaner and that creates a certain momentum.  Speaking of your wife and family, there is a sub-theme, a trail through this book about fathers and sons, and is that something you’re mining from your own heart and soul to put into this book?

MB: It’s really interesting you should say that Michael, because that’s something my wife Claire, who you know, picked up on four or five books ago.  She said, “Why do you always write about fathers and sons?”  I genuinely wasn’t aware that I did, but I suppose I have to accept that I am.

MC: Does that come from you being a father or more from you being a son?

MB: Maybe it’s a bit of both.  My father wasn’t around a great deal.  My mother and father split up when I was young.  I’ve been a father all the time I’ve been writing.  I’m trying to be a good father.  It’s weird that it takes somebody else to see your flow of six or seven books and then  go, “Oh, you know what, you write a lot about this.” Or “You’re kind of obsessed with that.” Sometimes you’re just too close to it to be able to identify those things for yourself.

MC: I’ve got a couple of practical questions about the construction of the book.  Go back to the beginning, when you’re putting this together.  A lot of the action takes place in a very small setting, a little store by the subway (the Underground, I guess you call it).  A couple of people are held hostage in this very small space.  Did you know from the beginning you wanted this claustrophobic setting that would help compress the action?  Or were you thinking. ‘I wish I had something bigger, because I could use this’ or there could be an escape attempt and all that kind of stuff?

MB: No, it was absolutely a conscious decision. I wanted to really contrast these two scenarios.  You have these characters, for most of the book, trapped not just in a store, but in a tiny backroom of a store.  And at the same time, Thorne is on the outside, chasing all over London trying to get the answers he needs to resolve this situation. I really liked the growing sense of panic and claustrophobia and tension that there was in this tiny room.

Alongside doing that, I also wanted to do something I had never done before, which is to write a very fast-paced book.  It happens over three days and I have never written anything where the action is so compressed before.  I suppose it’s a race-against-time thriller, which I’d never really written. So yeah, I did deliberately go for something that happened over a very small period of time.

Dead windowIt did give me one problem though. More and more in recent books, I’ve been enjoying what our mutual friend John Harvey calls the “looking out of the window” moments.  And it’s odd because these are the moments I remember in Bosch books as well.  Those moments when Harry has got a drink and he’s listening to a record and he’s looking out over the canyon. Increasingly, as a reader, I find that they’re the moments that stay with you.  More so than the action sequences or the minutiae of the plot, you remember the stuff that is going through the protagonist’s head at those moments.  THE DEMANDS was a book that didn’t really give me much scope for those moments.  Or they had to happen when Thorne was in the car, tearing from one location to the next.  There wasn’t a lot of time for relaxed contemplation of what was happening.

MC: Yeah, I call them the “back deck” moments.

MB: The “back deck” moments!  Right!  When I spoke to John Harvey about this he said that, as he has got older as a writer, those are the moments that he is much more interested in.  He’s much less interested in I guess what you’d call ‘action’.  Do you identify with that at all?  Does that ring any bells with you?

MC: Yeah, the ruminating . Well, I know in the writing process that those are my favorite things to write rather than putting together the watch piece of a plot or something.  Obviously that’s really important too, but when Harry can get to the back deck or just have a conversation with his daughter…those are the special moments-

MB: You don’t have to spend all that time choreographing.  If there are sequences with six people in a room and action of some kind going on, you don’t have to sit and work all that stuff out.  You just put some people together and let them talk.  And often that throws up the stuff that really resonates with readers, I think.  After the first run of Bosch books, you’ve created a whole number of protagonists: Jack McEvoy and Mickey Haller and so on.  Now, when you’re sitting down to write a book, are you in thinking in advance, “this is going to be a Bosch,” or “now I’m going to write a Haller,”? Or does it completely depend on the story that comes into your head?

MC: I’s usually the character first and who I feel like writing about.  It’s hard to not write about Bosch.  He ages in real time, so I know I have limited time with him, so I’m more predisposed – at the moment at least – to write about him.

MB: You’re not under any pressure to turn out more Haller books because of the movie?

MC: No, I’m very lucky that no one has from the publisher has ever said, “Can we have a Mickey Haller?”  or “Can we have a Harry Bosch?”  I do remember the first time I was going to bring both of them together.  I was in my editor’s office and I told him that’s what my next book was going to be, both of them together.  And he stood up and said, “Come with me.”  And then he took me down the hall to the publisher and said, “His next book is going to have Bosch and Haller in it.”  And they almost did a little dance, because they were very happy about that.  But there have never been any requests or pressure, so I’m very lucky.

MB: There was a book before that, where you had Bosch and McEvoy and the guy from Blood Work.  Weren’t they all in it?  Was that A Darkness More than Night?

MC: Yeah.

MB: Right, I think I did the same little dance when I heard that book was coming.  What I’ve always thought was fantastic about your stuff is the way you create this world that all these characters inhabit and they move in and out of focus.  So in one book, McEvoy can just move through the narrative in a very small way or have one small scene.  Or maybe Bosch is a minor character.  But all these characters are existing in the same world and they come into one and another’s orbit so as to serve the story. I love the way you do that. I’ll be completely honest and admit that I’ve shamelessly copied that!

MC: I’m not the originator of it, but yeah, you do it too.  Helen Weeks, one of the characters in the book, comes from an earlier book, doesn’t she?

MB: Yes, she first appeared in In the Dark. Now, I’ve I put her in a book with Thorne.  That was quite a conscious decision, because people had said, “Are you going to write anything about her again?”  So I got the idea for this hostage story and I knew there was going to be a cop somewhere doing the investigating, so I thought, “Why not Thorne?”  So it ends up being a book about both of them, although they don’t appear in the same room at the same time at any point.

MC: I thought that was kind of neat. I have this visual sense of things and this book to me is like a pebble being thrown into a very still lake and where it hits is the convenience store the ripples go out through London and Thorne is riding those little waves and taking the story far out from the claustrophobic center point of the story.  That was really apparent.

MB: That’s something I think we both write about.  That we’re both well aware of.  And certainly your days as a journalist would have taught you this stuff.  The idea that any crime ripples out and affects a hundred people, a thousand people.  That it ripples through communities and down through generations often.  It’s funny you were talking how you don’t perceive Bosch as having that same kind of empathy, because Bosch himself is a victim, isn’t he?  There’s always been that sense of Bosch as a victim because of what has happened to his mother.  Actually, I’ve always felt that Bosch has that empathy with victims.

MC: The key to Bosch is that you try to be realistic in these books, and you can’t know every murder victim.  I have to admit that in my very first Bosch book he knew the victim by coincidence. I haven’t done that as much, or as obviously, but you’ve got to have your guy get emotional and get attached.  He’s got to set the fire in the trash can that he warms himself by.  And I think it is because even though Bosch has his victimhood…obviously that is a ripple through his life…the crime that is at the center of his life happened almost fifty years ago now.  But he can still call on it to build that fire that makes every case personal.

Mark Billingham’s THE DEMANDS is now available in bookstores everywhere.

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.

Michael Connelly is the author of the recent #1 New York Times bestsellers The Reversal, The Fifth Witness, The Reversal, The Scarecrow, The Brass Verdict, and The Lincoln Lawyer, as well as the bestselling Harry Bosch series of novels. He is a former newspaper reporter who has won numerous awards for his journalism and his novels. He spends his time in California and Florida.

The conversation continues tomorrow…