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A Conversation with Mark Billingham and Lee Child: Part I

This week we salute BLOODLINE by Mark Billingham as it hits bookstores in paperback. The New York Times Book 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?

Continue reading “A Conversation with Mark Billingham and Lee Child: Part I”

Blow It Up Better: Thomas Mullen interviews Paul Malmont on Pulp Fiction, Imagination, History, and Comics

Paul Malmont is the author of three novels re-imaging the lives of early 20th century pulp writers to thrilling effect: his first, The Chinatown Death Cloud Peril, placed ‘30s authors Walter Gibson (The Shadow) and Lester Dent (Doc Savage) in their own pulp adventure, complete with zombies and phantom freighters, and his second, Jack London in Paradise, took a look at that author’s mysterious later years in Hawaii. Malmont’s new novel, The Astounding, the Amazing, and the Unknown, takes us into the mad laboratory of the early sci-fi writers who were enlisted by the U.S. Navy during World War II to use their imaginative brawn and scientific know-how to create military super-weapons. (Loosely based on fact, amazingly. Or astoundingly).

I met Paul at a book conference a few years back, and we’ll both be at Comic Con next month. And because I’ve been increasingly interested in the interconnections between what his characters call “what’s real and what’s pulp,” I tossed him a few questions.

Thomas Mullen:  While I was reading your book I happened to see X-Men: First Class and I couldn’t help but think of some odd similarities. The movie is a sort of prequel, showing the origins of mutant superheroes that we’ve come to know and love, with the occasional cameo from someone like Wolverine at a bar, and placing the story in a historical context (the Cold War). Your book traces the early lives of writing legends (like Isaac Asimov and L. Ron Hubbard), explaining their motivations and dreams, again with some cool cameos (like Ray Bradbury and even Einstein), and placing it in a historical context (World War II).

Paul Malmont: I love the literary mash-up form.  I love when something you’re familiar with collides with something you aren’t. That’s my favorite kind of illusion. I’m a big fan of pop-culture shout-outs, and references and allusions. I think they work in things like X-Men and our books because they validate our love of these geeky things. If you look Alan Moore’s work, especially League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, it’s just one huge geek-out. But at the same time, he’s trying to get down to the essence of why we still love these characters and these stories.

Philip Jose Farmer was a master of this, too, and he had such a huge influence on me.  He created a family tree that linked all sorts of great fictional characters from Sherlock Holmes and Tarzan to James Bond and Nero Wolfe—the Wold-Newton Family. Win Scott Eckert and other fans had Farmer’s blessing to build onto the tree, so now its branches extend to Steve Austen, Buckaroo Banzai, Peter Venkman, and Buffy Summers.  But Farmer was the first one to do the mash-up.

TM: Your book plays with the idea of imagination and how it can influence the real world. In this very unique writers’ workshop, sci-fi authors are conducting research for the Navy; on a chalkboard someone has written the following inspirational bullet points:

CAN WE MAKE IT FLY HIGHER OR FASTER OR BY ITSELF?

CAN WE MAKE IT VANISH?

CAN WE BLOW IT UP BETTER?

CAN WE CONFUSE OUR ENEMIES?”

One character even explains that sci-fi writers, by imagining a future, actually do bring that world into being, by putting their visions on paper to catalyze their readers (mechanics and inventors and engineers), who will take that imaginary baton and run with it. I loved that motif.

PM: My first book was really about the redemptive power of the imagination–how the writers could always use theirs to pull them back from whatever brink they stood upon. My second was about the destructive power of the imagination–how it could turn to obsession and despair. So the theme of this one is what are the limits to imagination? How far can you take an idea before it breaks? Or breaks you? All these guys are so in love with different visions of the future and they really want to bring it about. But reality intrudes in the form of bureaucracy, relationships, an entire planet at war.

Something from Nikos Kazantzakis’ The Last Temptation of Christ that made a big impression on me was the sense he created that the coming of the Messiah was so imminent, it could happen at any moment.  It seemed to be in the air and it was what everyone was talking about. I tried to capture some of that sense for these writers. I think they felt that they were part of something so huge that they got swept up in it–creating the future.

By writing it out on that board, I’m trying to show what the stakes are. Can these guys, who put such faith in their imaginations, bend reality to their will. Writers try to convince you that what the world you’re reading about is, in some sense, real, and I’m using the Philadelphia Lab as the analogy for the creative process of a writer. That part introduces the brainstorming process when every idea seems glittering and golden. Then, throughout the book, we kind of track the progress of those ideas as they are written out, so to speak.

Continue reading “Blow It Up Better: Thomas Mullen interviews Paul Malmont on Pulp Fiction, Imagination, History, and Comics”

Ten Books, Plus a Few More

I’m dreadful at lists. I know it’s something that boys are supposed to be good at — semi-autistically drawn toward, even — but I’m hopeless at remembering what I ought to put in and always too aware of what I’m leaving out. It’s like colors. Does anyone have a favorite color after the age of about twelve? I don’t. There are *types* of colors I like, and a revolving cast of hues that most often please my eye, but I can’t just say “Blue. Oh, and purple”. Similarly I keep making playlists in iTunes, and then spend half my time skipping over songs or wishing I’d included others. It’s the same with books and films. I recall one deeply embarrassing occasion in Hollywood about fifteen years ago, after my agent secured me a sit-down with someone really very senior in a studio. I should have turned up with a list of projects I wanted to pitch. I didn’t. I should have come across as a go-getting man of action. I probably instead came across as sleepy, or hungover. I should at least have been able to respond perkily to the woman’s inquiry as to my favorite movies, but I suspect I left her office having given the impression that I’d never actually seen any films at all. It was a waste of a meeting, and I apologize to all those writers who would have made a far better job of it.

Oh well. Here’s a list of ten books which I’ve loved and still loved, and which have made a significant difference to my life and work… Continue reading “Ten Books, Plus a Few More”

Any questions?

This past spring the filmed version of Alan Glynn’s novel Limitless took theaters by storm.  Last week, Picador’s paperback edition of Glynn’s novel Winterland hit the shelves, a book George Pelecanos called  “A terrific read”, and John Connolly characterized as “timely, topical and thrilling.”  Here, Alan discusses the genesis of Winterland, architecture as metaphor, and the real life heart of darkness that informs his next novel, Bloodland.

“Where did you get the idea for your book?”

Whenever I’m asked this question I try hard to give an honest answer but I generally end up feeling like a bit of a fraud, as though I’ve come up with something on the spot just to keep the conversation moving. Because the thing is, by the time I arrive at the end of a book I usually find I’ve forgotten how it got started, its origins obscured somewhere in memory and almost inaccessible now through thickets of notes, outlines, obsessive but often unnecessary research and a seemingly endless process of re-writing.

Thinking back on answers I’ve given in the past, though, I do see a pattern emerging. The account I offer will either be fine-sounding and rational, or slightly random and intuitive – left brain, right brain stuff. Both do the job, and neither, I suspect, is actually untrue. It’s just that I can never be sure which came first . . .

For example, when asked about my first novel, The Dark Fields (now republished as Limitless) I would say either one of two things. I would say that it arose from an interest in the scandals of the late 90s regarding performance-enhancing drugs in sport, and that it was a sort of ‘what if . . .’ story – what if there existed a performance-enhancing drug for lawyers or businessmen or politicians? Out of which came questions about that very American theme of the perfectability of man and the notion of a latter-day Gatsby whose impulse for self-improvement has been reduced to a pharmaceutical commodity.

Or I would say that it arose from . . . not much at all, from a desperate scrambling around inside my own brain for SOMETHING TO WRITE ABOUT. So . . . a situation. Maybe two guys who bump into each other on the street. One is a bit desperate (like I am at the time) and he meets . . . who? His ex-brother-in-law? Someone he hasn’t seen in nearly ten years? Yeah, that’s the ticket. But now that I have them together what are they going to talk about? “What have you been up to? Still dealing?” “Not exactly. How about you? Still a loser?” One thing leads to another and before you know it they’re having a conversation, and possibilities are opening up.

Continue reading “Any questions?”

A Conversation with Duane Swierczynski and Josh Bazell: Part II

In our ongoing celebration of the publication of Fun & Games we matched Duane Swierczynski up with Josh Bazell, author of the acclaimed novel Beat the Reaper. When we last saw our heroes (see Part I), Duane had asked Josh how far he had gotten with his plan to become a comic book artist.

JB: Not far. When I was about ten I realized I didn’t have the talent.  All I had was How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way, which in retrospect was useless.  But until them my goal in life was to go to the Joe Kubert School, because it ran advertisements in comic books. It may be the saddest story ever told that’s not about a Boston terrier. What was your first idea of yourself as a writer?

DS: As a kid, I was inspired by comic books. I’d try to draw comic strips, but I realized at a young age that I wasn’t good at drawing. So instead, I remember cutting up an old Iron Man comic and using the art to make my own story. New captions, new dialogue. I knew I couldn’t draw for shit, but I could use someone else’s art to make my own story. I guess I was that kind of kid, who grew that interest in writing. Since I couldn’t draw, I decided that maybe a short story would be fun. I’m very inspired by comics, but also by movies, I caught the storytelling bug early. I’m not even sure I was aware of it, but it’s what I was doing.

JB: Was this your first job?

DS: Well, my VERY first job was, I was a keyboard player in a bar band when I was ten. My dad’s bar band, a wedding band. So my first paying job was playing Doors cover songs in dive bars in Philadelphia.

JB: Can you play the keyboard intro to “Light my Fire?”

DS: I can still do that! It took hours to learn, but it was worth it. It impresses the chicks.

JB: That’s badass!

DS: My dad actually made me spend a whole afternoon learning the organ solo for “In-A-GaddaDa-Vida”. Playing it over and over again. So, actually, I’m a frustrated musician too. You talk about wanting to do one art and sliding back into something else. I wanted to be a famous musician or a rockstar and I don’t have a good singing voice and I’m not very good at playing. So, I knew I couldn’t do it professionally. So, I fell back on writing.

JB: Do you still do it for fun?

Continue reading “A Conversation with Duane Swierczynski and Josh Bazell: Part II”

A Conversation with Michael Robotham and Mark Billingham: Part II

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.

Continue reading “A Conversation with Michael Robotham and Mark Billingham: Part II”

First Lines

Typewriter 5We’re all about page turning here at Mulholland Books and one of the things that really gets you reading is a fabulous first line. We’ve compiled a few that we like, but this is just a starting point. Really, we want to know YOUR favorite first lines. Please contribute your pick in the comments! We might even have Mulholland tote bags for those who particularly surprise us.

“Death is my beat.” –The Poet by Michael Connelly

“Clouds like gusted shadows of the dead moved past the Lenten moon, drifting west toward Jersey. Louie saw them.” –Cut Numbers by Nick Tosches

“I never knew her in life.” –The Black Dahlia by James Ellroy

“The first time I laid eyes on Terry Lennox he was drunk in a Roll-Royce Silver Wraith outside the terrace of The Dancers.” –The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler

“Jack Reacher ordered espresso, double, no peel, no cube, foam cup, no china, and before it arrived he saw a man’s life change forever.” –The Hard Way by Lee Child

“Fuck you.” –Savages by Don Winslow

“Garfield Potter sat low behind the wheel of an idling Caprice, his thumb stroking the rubber grip of the Colt revolver loosely fitted between his legs.” –Hell to Pay by George Pelecanos

“Her stomach clutched at the sight of the water tower hovering above the still, bare trees, a spaceship come to earth.” –What the Dead Know by Laura Lippman

“You’re no angel, you know how this stuff comes to happen: Friday is payday and it’s been a grand day sogged by a slow ugly rain and you seek company in your gloom, and since you’re fresh to West Table, Mo., with a new hand at the dog-food factory, your choices for company are narrow but you find some finally in a trailer court on East Main, and the coed circle of bums gathered there spot you a beer, then a jug of Tequila starts to rotate and the rain keeps comin’ down with a miserable bluesy beat and there’s two girls millin’ about that probably can be had but they seem to like certain things and crank is one of those certain things, and a fistful of party straws tumble from a woven handbag somebody brung, the crank gets cut into lines, and the next time you notice the time it’s three or four Sunday mornin’ and you ain’t slept since Thursday night and one of the girl voices, the one you want most and ain’t had yet though her teeth are the size of shoe-peg corn and look like maybe they’d taste sort of sour, suggests something to do, ‘cause with crank you just want something, anything, to do, and this cajoling voice suggests we all rob this certain house on this certain street in that rich area where folks can afford to wallow in their vices and likely have a bunch of recreational dope stashed around the mansion and goin’ to waste since an article in The Scroll said the rich people whisked off to France or some such on a noteworthy vacation.” –Tomato Red by Daniel Woodrell

“When a fresh-faced guy in a Chevy offered him a lift, Parker told him to go to hell.” –The Hunter by Richard Stark

Keep the list going! Contribute in the comments.

What Happens When A Spy Loses Control of His Mind?

20080723 112I was once dating a young woman—let’s call her Jennifer—and had the misfortune of learning about her prior boyfriends: a Big Ten All-Conference quarterback, one of the youngest Fortune 500 CEOs in history, and a comparably successful venture capitalist whose long list of abilities included fluency in six languages. As it happens, the venture capitalist and I had attended the same college, beginning and graduating the same years, but we never met, probably because I only hung out with mortals.

I went on to suffer from comparisons to this pantheon of great boyfriends until Jennifer told me about the time the venture capitalist took her home to Virginia for Thanksgiving.

Tragically, Alzheimer’s disease had forced the venture capitalist’s father into retirement in his early sixties. The man had been an office equipment plant manager for—let’s say—IBM, in a slew of European countries. While he and his family lived abroad and his son was soaking up cultures and languages en route to becoming a worldly sophisticate, the father ranked as a xenophobe of the Archie Bunker school, going to great lengths to watch American football broadcasts and procure Budweiser. At all times, he adamantly stuck to speaking English.

Accordingly, on that Thanksgiving day in Virginia, the dozen friends and family members at the dining room table were surprised when he began speaking French.

Fluently.

Taking in all the mouths hanging open, he switched to German.

Evidently, xenophobic IBM plant manager and Bud Man had been cover.

Hearing Jennifer’s account, I wondered: What do our intelligence services do when their operatives lose the ability to retain important secrets?

Continue reading “What Happens When A Spy Loses Control of His Mind?”

Seven Things Novelists Should Know About Screenwriting

ScreenplayI was thinking about creating a Top Ten list of things novelists should know about screenwriting because everyone loves Top Ten lists. However, since I’m contrarian by nature, I decided to come up with seven. Also, less work. So here they are… the seven things you should know as you make the switch.

1. You Give Up the Copyright. This is the number one thing you should realize if you want to be a screenwriter. As soon as you sell your screenplay to a studio, you give up the copyright on that screenplay. They can change anything and everything they want. Remember how your main character had a wife? Well, they changed it to a plucky teen-age sister to bring in the younger audience. Remember that pivotal scene when the main character hanged himself? Now, he has a change of heart and swears off alcohol and rides off into the sunset. And you have zero control over it.

2. You Can Be Fired From Your Own Project. This goes hand-in-hand with number one, but once you sell a script, you can be fired at any time. Understand, there are many reasons you can be fired from your own script that have nothing to do with your merits as a writer. The lead actor might have a screenwriting buddy who has helped polish all of his scripts. The studio might want to go in a different direction you resisted. The director might want to write it himself. You might simply be too expensive. Screenwriting is a far greater collaborative experience than novel writing and if you resist collaboration, they’ll replace you with someone who is more agreeable. If you think the subsequent writer will come in and tell them, “this is great! Don’t touch it! Don’t do these ridiculous notes!” you are wrong.

Continue reading “Seven Things Novelists Should Know About Screenwriting”

An Excerpt from Limitless: Part III

In 2002, Alan Glynn wrote the celebrated suspense novel The Dark Fields. On March 18, The Dark Fields will come to theaters as the film Limitless, starring Bradley Cooper, Robert DeNiro and Abbie Cornish.  Below is the final installment in our three-part series excerpting the book (generously provided by Picador from their Limitless movie tie-in edition), accompanied by stills from the film. Limitless, the author’s cut.

Missed Part 1? Part 2? Read them first.

3

Outside on the street it was noticeably cooler than it had been. It was also noticeably darker, though that sparkling third dimension, the city at night, was just beginning to shimmer into focus all around me. It was noticeably busier, too—a typical late afternoon on Sixth Ave, with its heavy flow uptown out of the West Village of cars and yellow cabs and buses. The evacuation of offices was underway as well, everybody tired, irritable, in a hurry, darting up and down out of subway stations. Continue reading “An Excerpt from Limitless: Part III”

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