This week we salute BLOODLINE by Mark Billingham as it hits bookstores in paperback. The New York TimesBook Review raved that BLOODLINE offers a “psychologically twisted and strikingly original plot” with a “relentlessly swift pace and high emotional pitch.” Here, we present Part I of a conversation with Lee Child, the #1 bestselling author of the Jack Reacher series. And don’t miss the newest Tom Thorne novel THE DEMANDS, now available in bookstore everywhere.
Mark Billingham: I was thinking a lot about series and the demands that writing a series makes on you and the benefits of it. Obviously in the last week or so there has been heaps of internet chat in response to the rumor that Tom Cruise might be about to play Jack Reacher. Whatever your thoughts are about that, it’s an incredible testament to the power of the series and the ownership readers feel they have of the character. Do you feel that Reacher is yours? Do you feel like you share him?
Lee Child: That’s a great point and it’s something I’ve been very aware of as the years have passed because it’s completely a progression, obviously. On Day 1, nobody in the world knows anything about Reacher apart from me because it’s the first book. It’s a work in progress, it’s not finished, and nobody has seen it. Then, the first book gets published and then the second and the third. And gradually the ownership of the character does migrate outwards into the public realm. I was very aware actually of the particular point which was after eight or nine books, maybe ten books. Previously to that people were kind of deferential. They thought Reacher was an independent entity, but they knew somehow he belonged to me. Then, after about the tenth book, he became totally publicly owned to the point where I now get abused just like any other fan with a different opinion. I count for nothing anymore. Reacher is completely independent and completely out there. And you’re right, the casting choice in Hollywood is being made right now. My attitude towards that was whoever is cast, whoever it was, 99% of the fans would be outraged because it would be a sheer coincidence if whoever it was matched their own personal image. I think it’s just proof actually of how tightly owned a series character becomes by the readers, which is great really because that is the advantage of a series. This is a tough trade. Launching one book every year is a new mountain to climb every time and if you can get any help at all carried over from previous years you need it. Of course, one of the great helps is, if it is a series, (to borrow the language of credit card companies) the new book is kind of “pre-approved.” The readership thinks, “Well, I liked the last six, so I’ll probably like this.” It’s a much lower hurdle to get over. I think with people who write standalone books, the author’s name obviously continues and counts for something, but you’ve got a slightly higher mountain to climb. Are they going to like it? Is it the same as what you’ve done before? You’ve mixed it, haven’t you? How have you felt about that?
She and her mother were sharing a room, so we went to mine. There was not a great deal of choice in the mini-bar, but she didn’t seem too picky, so I told her to help herself. She took a beer and a bag of chips and we sat together on the bed with our feet on the quilt and our backs against the headboard.
The window was open a few inches and the traffic from I-45 was just a hum, like an insect coming close to the glass every so often and retreating again.
“I don’t know how I’m going to feel,” she said.
I remembered her face when she’d been talking in the bar. The way she’d talked about wanting it to hurt. “Pretty good, by the sound of it,” I said.
“Yeah, I’ll feel good…and relieved. I mean how I’m going to feel when I’m watching it happen, though. It’s not something everyone gets to see, is it?”
“No, it isn’t.”
“Probably something you never forget, right?”
She made it sound like she was going whale-watching. She slid down the bed a little and kept on closing her eyes for a few seconds at a time.
“You think you might feel guilty after?” I asked.
Her eyes stayed closed as she shook her head. “Not a chance.”
“I hope you’re right.”
“Why the hell should I feel guilty when he never did?”
“You know that for sure?”
She opened her eyes. “Well it wasn’t like I was visiting him every week or nothing, but I don’t think a man like that has any normal human feelings.” She took a swig of beer, ignored the dribble that ran down her neck. “He wrote us a letter a month or so back and he said he was sorry, all that shit, but it’s easy to come out with that stuff when you know the needle’s just around the corner, right? Probably told to do it by his lawyer. So they’ve got something to show when they’re pushing for a stay, you know?” She tried to brush away the remains of the chips from her shirt. “Said he’d found God as well.”
“I think that happens a lot.”
“Yeah, well tomorrow he’ll get a lot closer to Him, right?”
“Sure,” she said.
“So this isn’t a problem for you?”
“Why should it be?”
“What happened to ‘thou shalt not kill’?”
“Shame he never thought about that.”
“He obviously didn’t believe in anything back then,” I said.
She shook her head again and screwed her face up like she was getting irritated. “Look, it isn’t me that’s going to be doing the killing, is it?” She raised the bottle, then thought of something. “Okay, smart-ass, what about, ‘as you reap, you shall sow’? It’s something like that, right?”
I nodded. “Something like that, yeah.”
“Right.” She turned on to her side suddenly and leaned up on one elbow. She slid a leg across the bed and lifted it over mine. “Anyway, what the hell are we talking about this stuff for?”
“You were the one started talking about God,” I said.
“Yeah well there’s other things I’d rather be talking about.” She blinked slowly which she probably thought was sexy, but which made her seem even drunker, you know? “Other things I’d rather be doing.”
“I’m not sure that’s a good idea.”
“Come on,” she said. “I know that’s what you want. I saw you looking in the restaurant.”
“Yeah, I was looking.”
“You’ve had too much to drink.”
“I’ve had just enough.”
I smiled. “You won’t feel good about yourself tomorrow.”
“I’ve got more important things to worry about tomorrow,” she said. She put a hand between my legs. “Now are you going to get about your business, or what?”
I did what she was asking. It didn’t take long and it was pretty clear that she needed it a damn sight more than I did. She cried a little afterwards, but I just let her and I’m not sure which of us got to sleep first.
I left early without making any noise, and when I turned at the door to look at her wrapped up in the thin hotel sheet, I was thinking that, aside from the fact that I am crazy about nachos and salsa, almost everything I’d told her about myself had been a lie.
God only knows why they call it “The Walls”. They’re thick enough and tall enough for sure, but the men behind them have got a damn sight more to worry about than what’s keeping them inside.
The Huntsville Unit in particular.
One of the deputy wardens led me across the compound from the Visitor’s Waiting Area and in through a grey, metal door. They try to keep the families separate until the last possible moment, which is understandable I suppose and even though there was only me and some crazy woman who’d been writing to Anthony for the last few years, we had our own escort. The prison chaplain would be a ‘witness’ too of course, but I guessed he had no choice but to be kind of neutral about what was happening, so he didn’t really count.
The deputy warden’s highly polished shoes squeaked on the linoleum floor as we walked towards the room next to the execution chamber. Then he opened the door and politely stood aside as I walked in.
The place was pretty crowded.
I knew there would be a few State officials as well as representatives from the media, but I hadn’t figured on there being that many people and it took me a few seconds before I spotted her. She was sitting on the front row of plastic chairs, her mother on one side of her, the other older woman and her psycho brother on the other side. Like everyone else, she’d turned to look when the door opened and I saw the color drain from her face when I nodded to her. Her mother leaned close to whisper something, but she just shook her head and turned round again.
I walked towards the front of the room and took a seat on the end of the second row. We sat in silence for a few minutes, save for some coughing and the scrape of metal as chairs got shifted, then one of the officers ran through the procedure and raised the blind at the window.
Tony was already strapped to the gurney.
There were three men inside the chamber with him and one of them, who I figured was the Warden, asked Tony if he wanted to say anything. Tony nodded and one of the other men lowered a microphone in front of his face.
Tony turned his head as far as he was able and said how sorry he was. For what he’d done, and for all the shit he’d laid at his own family’s door down the years. He finished up by saying that he wasn’t afraid and that everyone on the other side of the glass should take a good look at his life and try to learn something. I’m not quite sure what he meant by that and, things being how they were, it wasn’t like I had the chance to ask him.
He closed his eyes, then the Warden gave the signal and everything went quiet.
Three drugs, one after the other: the sedative, the paralytic and the poison.
It took five minutes or so and Tony didn’t really react a great deal. I saw his lips start to go blue and from then until it was finished, I paid as much attention to her face as his. She knew I was watching her, I could tell that. That I was thinking about all the things she’d said, and the things she’d asked me to do to her the night before at the Huntsville Palms Hotel.
Wanting to see just how good she felt about herself the next day.
I left the room before she did, but I waited around just long enough to get one last look at her. Her face was the color of oatmeal and I couldn’t tell if her mother was holding on to her or if it was the other way around. I guessed she was right about one thing; that it would not be something she would forget.
I had to shield my eyes against the glare when I stepped back out into the courtyard and walked towards my car. I drove out through the gates and past a small group of protesters with placards and candles. A few of them were singing some hymn I couldn’t place and others were holding up Tony’s picture. Later on, I would be coming back to collect my brother’s body and make the arrangements, but until I did, he wasn’t going anywhere.
Right then, all I wanted was to get away from “The Walls” and drive south-west on I-45.
To get another look at that big beautiful lake in the daylight.
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.
We are thrilled to present Part I of an original short story written by BLOODLINE author Mark Billingham titled “The Walls.” We will be running the printed version of the story in two parts, as well as an audio version, read by Brad Negbaur (see below). BLOODLINE is also available as a downloadable audiobook read by Paul Thornley.
It was probably not the nicest hotel in Huntsville, but I had a good idea that it wasn’t the worst either, so I didn’t have a lot to complain about. Truth was, I’d booked the Palms over the Internet, so I didn’t know too much about anything until I checked in. Besides which, I’d stayed in places that made this one seem like the damn Ritz, so I was happy enough with a bed I could sleep in and food that didn’t come back to haunt me.
That was when I first saw her – in the restaurant at the Huntsville Palms Hotel.
It was seven o’clock or somewhere around there and the place was pretty packed and she was sitting at a big table just across from my small one. She and everyone else at the table with her were talking in hushed voices, which made a nice change from the loudmouth pair behind me who talked about the cost of bedroom furniture for an hour or more, like they were saving the planet or some shit. I turned around to stare at one point. I was hoping they’d see that they were putting me right off my chicken-fried steak, but it didn’t do any good. I really don’t know how either of them had the time to eat anything with all that jabbering, but they clearly did because they both looked like Mack trucks with heads.
I’d seen a lot of people that size since I’d arrived in Texas.
From where I was sitting I didn’t have a great view of her, but what I could see looked pretty good, so I kept glancing over and eventually she turned to try and catch the eye of the waitress. There wasn’t really a moment between us, nothing like that. But there was maybe a half-smile or something before she got the waitress’s attention and turned away. I just kept on eating and flicking through the local paper, happy enough to make up the rest of it in my head, the way men do sometimes.
She presses something into my hand when I run into her on the way out of the men’s room. Her room number scrawled on a napkin.
She says, “Let’s not bother with names,” when we get together later on, while she’s looking me straight in the eye and taking off her shirt. “Let’s just enjoy each other”, she whispers. “Get out of our heads and go crazy for one night…”
MB: I think a lot of writers make a mistake – even if they do see a character that is going to have a decent shelf life – by laying it all out there in book one. By saying, this is who this person is. This is where he goes to school. This is what he has for dinner. This is who his family are. I remember making the decision that I wouldn’t do any of that, that I was not going to have this dossier of facts and figures. That I would simply try to peel away a different layer of the onion with each book and see what happened, so that the reader knew as much about Thorne, book on book, as I did. I’m not even sure that in the first book he was even the main character actually. He had the most amount of ‘onstage’ time if you like, but the character I got all the reaction about in that first book was the victim, actually.
LC: Let’s mention what a great first book that was. Your first book was just tremendous. A fantastic first book.
MB: I never actually got a chance to thank you because I know you picked it in your 40 Books of All Time list. I don’t think I ever bought you the beers I owe you for that…
LC: I love accidental discoveries and I can’t remember how I got it or why. In that first book, the “Wow” moment was very early on. There was that fantastic line, “No, this was not a mistake. This was what he wanted to do all along.” And I just thought, “Wow.” I knew straight away that this was a book that was going to be major and it was going to be a career that was going to be worth following. I had luck with Killing Floor too. I just think everything in the first book of mine worked very well, even the jacket. The jacket in America especially was iconic. We were both very lucky I think at the beginning. Then the question becomes, “How do you deal with this?”
This month we’ll be publishing BLOODLINE by Mark Billingham. Start reading the book that Gillian Flynn has called “chilling, moody, humane, and very, very smart,” and which George Pelecanos proclaimed “a boss performance, through and through.”
“Come on, pigeon! Let’s go blow at the trains.” Debbie Mitchell tugs at her son’s arm, but he pulls hard in the opposite direction, towards the chocolate Labrador the old woman is struggling to control. “Puff-puff,” Debbie says, blowing out her cheeks. “Come on, it’s your favorite…”
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.
In our ongoing celebration of the publication of THE WRECKAGE, we had Mark Billingham, author of BLOODLINE and Michael Robotham get together for a chat. In Part One of the conversation, they discuss ghostwriting, recurring characters and new challenges.
MB: So another great day in Sydney? How the hell do you write dark twisted mysteries sitting there in paradise?
MR: I must admit I do have trouble glancing out my window and imagining the mean streets. Instead I have sun, sand, surf and…kookaburras. That’s why I don’t write books set in Australia.
MB: Right, we don’t have too much trouble with sunshine in this country.
MR: I wrote a novel years ago – my great unpublished Australian masterpiece – set in a small fishing village. It was on the verge of being published in the UK, but missed out at the final publishing meeting. I was told that if I had set the story in Ireland, Scotland, Wales or England, it would have published it in a heartbeat. That was twenty years ago. Thankfully things have changed a lot since then. Readers are picking up books from all over the world.
MB: Were you attracted to writing stuff set here in the UK after all the years you spent working here as a journalist?
MR: I think I was more realistic having been a journalist and then a ghostwriter in the UK. I’d been making a living from writing for so long, I wasn’t prepared to live on oranges in some freezing garret. I knew that a UK setting would give me a bigger market. We writers aren’t supposed to talk about the commercial side of what we do. We’re supposed to do it for love. But let’s face it. We have bills to pay. Mortgages. School fees.
MB: Too right!. So let’s talk for a bit about the ghostwriter business. How hard is it to write in the persona of someone else? Someone real, I mean.
MR: I did 15 autobiographies for the great and the good…and less good. It was all about capturing the voice, which is not much different to fiction only I was dealing with real characters instead of fictitious ones. It meant living with them for weeks, taping their stories, having them cry on my shoulder. I became part therapist, part-confidante, and part best friend…
MB: And there are still some that you aren’t allowed to name, right?
MR: I can name about half of them. Otherwise I’d have to kill you.
MB: Well I won’t push it then! Were there some subjects that were just impossible to work with?
Sky1 is airing a series of shows based on Mark Billingham’s Detective Thorne books. Mulholland Books will publish a Detective Thorne novel by Mark Billingham, Bloodline, in July 2011.To learn more about the television series visit the mini-site or download the mobile app.
I don’t do appointment TV. I used to, when there were fewer channels, fewer commitments, fewer mouths to feed….Woe betide anybody who stood between me and Steve Austin when I was a kid in the 1970s. I was addicted to Crackerback in the late 1990s. Towards the end of that decade, became something of a TV addict by default while working as a reviewer for Time Out magazine. More recently I was glued to the screen for the excellent, underrated series The Cops, which lasted a mere two series, and the superb Red Riding adaptations, as well as Five Daughters, the draining, but brilliant, exploration of the destruction Ipswich serial killer Steve Wright wreaked on the families of the women he killed. But these days I’m filling up the hard disk with recordings I’ll never get around to watching. I’ve got stuff on there from before last Christmas….I’d rather read, or watch a film, or play football with the munchkins.
That changed with Thorne: Sleepyhead, adapted from Mark Billingham’s extraordinary debut thriller. It’s one of those packages in which pretty much everything comes off. There are a lot of police procedural dramas out there. Plain-clothed rogues battling against the clock or glacial, grizzling Scandinavian detectives. Serial killers. Phantoms from the past. Monsters in everyday clothing. But what makes Thornestand out is the pace, the acting and the classy directing from Stephen Hopkins, who kept Jack Bauer on his toes in 24.
David Morrissey plays DI Tom Thorne, and just a few minutes in, like Rathbone’s Holmes or Connery’s Bond, it’s difficult to imagine another face in the role. He’s the first person we see, huffing and puffing as he chases down a felon. His quarry runs into a house in a desperate bid to escape…and trips over a corpse lying on the kitchen floor. So begins this nightmare, which is at times exhilarating, unbearably tense, and truly frightening.