A Conversation with Mark Billingham: Part II

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MB: Have you always had a strong visual sense of Bosch?

MC: Yeah, I have, but I don’t put it in the books.  I don’t have a lot of descriptions of him.  I like it when the reader can build their own character or attach it to someone they know, or a movie star or TV star or something like that.

MB: But you could pick him out of a line up?  You know what he looks like…

MC: Yeah.  I had this weird experience. This goes way back to the O.J. Simpson case.  The prosecution in the trial brought in an expert from another county.  He was the leading DNA prosecutor in California, from up near Oakland in Alameda County.  Because he was so good they brought him in to handle the DNA evidence in the trial.  It was on TV all the time here and I’m watching the trial and he starts questioning someone on the stand…I say to myself, “Oh my god!  That’s Harry Bosch.”  He was a doppelganger for the guy I had built in my head.

MB: Do you still see that guy?

MC: No, he’s retired.  That trial was ’96 or something, so I guess he’s aged just like Harry has aged. I know he has a current picture of himself on his website and he doesn’t look the way I picture Harry Bosch now, but back then it was like a doppelganger.

MB: What about when you’re writing Mickey?  Do you see Matthew McConaughey?

MC: No.  He’s one I’ve actually done more description of.  His mother is Mexican, so he’s got a dark complexion and dark hair.  And no Texas drawl.  But I think McConaughey did a really good job on that part. I haven’t written a Haller book since that movie, but he’ll probably be involved in some way in my next book.  So it will be interesting to see whether I’m picturing the guy I’ve pictured for the other four books, or if Matthew has invaded.

Thinking about that, THE DEMANDS is dedicated to David Morrissey, the guy who plays Thorne on television, so I guess that means you really like his portrayal?

MB: I think he did a terrific job, but I can honestly say he’s not in my head when I write.  Nor are the other actors who played the other regular characters in the series.  I know that they’re now in readers’ heads though. That’s something you just have to deal with when your characters have had an onscreen incarnation. I know that readers are now seeing David Morrissey.

MC: How do you know that?

MB: They tell me in emails.  And they can’t quite believe that I don’t see him.  But I genuinely don’t because, as with you and Bosch, I’ve never really described him. I suppose that’s because most of the time, I’m looking out through his eyes. I know what his mind is like. I can kind of catch him out of the corner of my eye, but he’s not someone I could sit down and draw you a picture of.  Maybe that’s why, when David Morrissey played him onscreen, it wasn’t like a flashbulb going off and me thinking, “that’s who the guy is!”  I just thought he gave a great performance, which is the only thing you can ask for.  It will be interesting to see what American readers make of it. The series premieres in the US on the twelfth of June on ENCORE.

MC: I don’t think that McConaughey has invaded my creative thoughts about Haller. But a long time ago, Clint Eastwood played my character McCaleb in a movie and he was about 32 years older than the guy in the book.  And it was such a shocking departure that it kind of tore that character loose from me.  Then next time I could write about him, I killed him.  Because I knew I just couldn’t continue with this contradiction between who I had written about earlier and who had played him on camera.

MB: I remember seeing that movie.  There’s that scene really early on when he’s chasing somebody and I was watching it and thinking, “You’re not going to catch anybody.”

MC: He was running in place!  It’s with CGI!

MB: But I guess the movie got made because Clint Eastwood was playing the part.  You make that deal with the Devil.  What about Bosch on film?  I know there have been a great many discussions about it over the years and so many actors attached.

MC: Well, this goes back to that “back deck” thing.  I am actually in New York talking about it right now. Yesterday, I spent time with a couple of producers who want to make a television show out of Bosch.  And one of my first questions was “how often would he be on the back deck?”  “Do you want to make a show where you can watch Harry Bosch in silence for 30 seconds or a minute?  Are you going to have that kind of air?”  In other words, is it going to be character driven or will he have to solve a murder every week? I’m happily in a position where I can move cautiously and make the right choice.  So, when these things come up, I have a real affinity for the people who want to put that kind of air into a show and really have the camera just hold on this guy so his thought processes are hopefully visible on his face.

MB: That’s the key difference between book and screen, right?  When Thorne was shown over here, some people didn’t like some of the changes that were made.  That’s always the way though. I mean, they don’t like the way the plot is messed around with or the locations are shifted or whatever it might be.  And they are always saying, “Well, how did you feel about that?”  And the simple point is that you can’t compare the two things.  They’re different animals. You might spend five pages describing what Harry’s thinking about, and on screen that has got to be there in 15 seconds on an actor’s face. It’s kind of weird comparing the two.  You can get inside Harry’s head in a way the TV show can’t.  They’ve got to show those things in a different way, which is why a 400 page novel into 60 minutes of screen time doesn’t go.  You have to find some other way of solving the problems.  It doesn’t matter as long as it’s good, as long as it’s something you’re proud to be associated with. So, is this something you’re going to be involved with on an ongoing basis in terms of scripts and so on?

MC: Yeah, but I don’t think I would do any writing.  I would be involved in the scripts, kind of like being the Harry Bosch police, making sure it stays true to the character.

MB: Talking of TV, how is the acting career going?  Are you still cropping up on Castle?

MC: No, I think my career has been ended.

MB: Oh no!

MC: I haven’t been on this season.  Just when I thought I was getting good at it.

MB: Did you start demanding that your part get built up or what?

MC: I think my agent did it.  I think my agent demanded a private trailer or something.

MB: Oh, they don’t like that.

MC:  Getting back to The Demands before we go…I have a second question about the process of this thing. I’m making a documentary film on a jazz musician who spent about 30 years in San Quentin.  It’s taken the producers of the film almost a year to get approval to go into San Quentin and film. I’m reading your book, and one of the big ripples from the pebble that is cast into the lake is an investigation into what happened in a prison.  So, because I’ve just been going through this on this documentary, I was thinking, Is this a work of imagination?  Did you have any cooperation?  Did you get to go into prison? Did you have an experience as a prisoner maybe or something that allowed you to write about this?”

Gaol interiorMB: Yeah, I went in to two different prisons, or actually Young Offenders Institutions. Most of the action you are talking about takes place in a YOI.  Yes, they are prisons, but they are very different kinds of prisons.  They are essentially prisons that have children in them.  It took some…shenanigans.  Without going into too much detail, I kind of got snuck into the first one.

MC: Were you posing as a young boy or something?

MB: Yeah, it was an incredibly expensive prosthetic job.  Actually, I was smuggled in posing as a solicitor, but that turned out to be a waste of time. I was there with the bona fide solicitor who was supposed to be talking to one of his clients in there; this kid who was Polish. We got as far as the visiting area and the kid came out to talk and he didn’t speak a word of English.  Nobody had thought to tell the solicitor, so no translator had been requested.  We just sat there with this poor Polish kid, desperate and unhappy and trying to tell his solicitor what he wanted and the solicitor didn’t understand a word.  We sat for about a half hour and then we had to leave again.  So then I had to do a lot more work to get in properly and eventually I got to spend a day in a different Young Offender’s Institution.  It was an incredibly eye-opening experience.  As I say in the acknowledgements at the back of this book, in order to describe a prison that is very dysfunctional (as the one in the book is) I had to spend some time in one that is run wonderfully well.  The governors and staff that look after these kids really care about them and they look after them while they are with them in these institutions.  I’m not as crazy about research as I used to be.  I would go to a set of traffic lights to check if you could turn left. But now it’s just about those few things that you need to do for each book.  You still get the letters, of course you do, telling you that there isn’t a coffee shop where you said there’s a coffee shop.  But you just have to politely remind those people that it’s a novel and you can make a coffee shop up.  But if I am going to write about something that effects people’s lives in some way, I want to get that right. If I’m writing about an illness, for example. In the early books, Thorne’s father was suffering from Alzheimer’s, so I took a great deal of time and effort to get that stuff right.  Because you’re taking liberties with something that is going to upset people.  And similarly with this, I thought I genuinely cannot sit in my office and make up what life is genuinely like in these sorts of places without taking the trouble to find out.  So yeah, that was really important.  You discover things on those visits that you could never have made up.  I think it’s in the book somewhere, but having had this experience where I had gone in and it was a complete waste of time because there was no translator for this kid, the first thing you see outside the prison is a big sign saying, “Welcome” in a hundred different languages. It’s there for all the kids from all different the nationalities, but still they didn’t think to lay on a translator.  Jokes like that just write themselves.

MC: You just said you have to ‘politely’ remind people that it’s a novel. Are you really polite about it?

MB: Yes, pretty much. I had an email only yesterday. There’s a joke where Thorne is reading the football reports in a well-known right-wing newspaper over here. I said something in the book like, “The match report was uninformative and unhelpful, probably because there wasn’t any scope to talk about dole-scroungers and asylum-seekers.”  It’s just a cheap joke, but the Head of Sport at that paper read the book last week and emailed me saying, “We don’t talk about immigration or anything like that in our football reports.”  And I’m semi-politely saying, “Well duh!  It was a joke, of course you don’t.”  But that’s the way jokes work.  They’re built around exaggeration and nonsense. There’s no point just telling people where to get off when they write these things, telling you that you’ve got stuff wrong because a building isn’t actually where you said it is.  It’s really odd because murder investigations don’t tend to get solved in the way we solve them in the books, but people are willing to suspend their disbelief about that.  Am I gathering that you’re not always so polite?

MC: I have what I call my “get a life” emails with people that just latch onto one little thing.  As you say, there’s so many shortcuts and so much collapsing of investigations and so much need for suspension of disbelief in these books to suddenly say, “You have the safety on the wrong side of the gun.”

MB: Thankfully I don’t get those because Thorne doesn’t carry a gun.  Our police officers don’t carry guns; they carry whistles.  And people don’t tend to write saying, “You’ve got that whistle wrong.  That was the 1973 issue whistle and it wasn’t designed like that.”  You must get stuff about firearms all the time, though.  That must be the thing that really bugs you, the stuff about getting details about firearms wrong.

MC: Yeah, you do.  So for the most part, I learned my lesson and now I just refer to every firearm as a gun.  I never say what it is. Although in the book I’m just finishing this week in fact, the tracing of a gun over twenty years is part of it, so I have to be quite specific about it.  So I’m getting ready to have to answer in ‘semi-polite’ terms a lot of emails when that comes out.

MB: You just need general response, like a template.  “Mr. Connelly semi-politely apologizes for his firearm-related error.”

MC: And then “P.S. Get a life!”

MB: It’s interesting the way policing works in different parts of the world. I don’t know if Scandinavian crime fiction has been the massive hit in the US that it has been here, but I think it’s because it’s a completely alien landscape; this place where there is snow and 18 hours of darkness. I think the strangeness of that landscape is one of the things that has made those books so popular.  Plus, blood looks pretty neat against snow, let’s be honest.

MC: I think I’m reading more books set outside the United States for simply these reasons.  In some ways cops are cops are cops and investigations are investigations, but there are cultural differences.  I find I am more able to escape into a book set in a foreign country to me.

MB: What’s the book you’ve got coming out next?

MC: It’s another Harry Bosch book called Black Box.

MB: When’s that coming?

MC: In November.

MB: Okay and what are you finishing up now?

MC: That’s it.  I’m running way behind.  It’s due.

MB: I hope your editor is not listening to this conversation.

MC: No, I’m going to make my deadline.  I got an extended deadline and it was a drop dead deadline.  And I will make that.  It’s in two weeks.

MB: You’d better get back to it…but it’s been really good to talk to you, Mike.

MC: Thanks.  And I’ll see you over here in September and October, I guess…

MB: Looking forward to it.

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.