From the Comedy Club to crime writing to rocking Glastonbury, Mark Billingham talks to Shelley Carter about Brum, balti, the buzz of performing and why he’s hitting pause on Tom Thorne
Confession time: I only realised author Mark Billingham had a Brummie background and was therefore fair game for an interview when Googling previous cover star Mark ‘Billy’ Billingham of SAS: Who Dares Wins – see the May issue. Once I’d cottoned on to the author’s Moseley roots, I went full fangirl and contacted his agent. Rat up a drain-pipe springs to mind.
Back in the day, Mark’s novel Rush of Blood got me through a couple of jetlag induced sleepless nights in Australia. Totally absorbing, impossible to put down and mildly disturbing, so not exactly soporific, but it’s all I had. I’ve since read loads of Mark’s books although admittedly I can only manage two on the bounce before indulging in a bit of light reading to break up the darkness.
LUCK AND HARD GRAFT
Despite being a crowded genre, it was always crime for Mark. He says: “It’s what I read and loved. My maths teacher used to get bored of his own lessons and would read Sherlock Holmes to us. I was gripped.” Mark actually inserted the teacher, Len, in to one of his books, killing him off with a cricket bat! In such a crowded space Mark says that standing out takes hard work and luck. “There’s always an element of luck. With my first book, the right agent came along at the right time. The book was well published as in it had money spent on it in terms of marketing, design, and so on.”
A book a year is the deal with his publisher Little Brown who Mark’s stuck with throughout his career. He compares shifting publishers to a ‘footballer jumping around for a bit more money. It’s short-term thinking’ and he’s never been tempted. On producing a book every 12 months he says: “I write full time so there’s no excuse not to write a book a year. There are people writing in their spare time with proper jobs and that must be tough.” Having said that, Mark finds writing every book tougher than the last because his aim is to write something better.
Relaxing after a day in the head of a twisted killer often isn’t ideal. “I can’t really switch off. I’m always writing a book – even pushing a trolley in the supermarket I’m still working things out in my head. The smallest things can inspire. It might be a tiny story in the paper that triggers something.” He adds: “If I’ve spent three days writing in the head of a depraved killer, I am able to leave that behind. It’s like acting really – I’m in someone else’s shoes.”
COMEDY VERSUS CRIME
Tom Thorne, the main protagonist in many of Mark’s novels started off as a bit part in his first book, Sleepyhead in 2001 and wasn’t really meant to go anywhere else, but in a meeting or as he calls it a ‘beauty contest’ with some big wigs from a publisher trying to woo him, he was asked if it was a series, so he just said yes and there began Thorne’s development. Nineteen books later and Thorne’s heading to the back burner for a bit although the latest in the series, The Murder Book is out now.
Mark doesn’t give much away except readers can expect the ‘return of an old friend and the return of an old enemy.’ He says: “It feels like a good time to hit pause on Thorne. I’m writing a new series that’s funny. It’s more daunting in a way. When writing crime, we’re shocked by the same things, where as comedy is subjective. If you tell 10 people the same joke, nine might just stare at you.” The first in the new series is due out in 2023 and Mark reassures us it still features ‘a copper’. Over a decade since Sleepyhead, Mark can still feel unsure about his place in the writing world. He says: “I still get imposter syndrome. I’ve got this creative doubt and always think I’ll get found out.”
Stand alone novel, Rabbit Hole was nominated for the Theakston Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year. The book, which Mark wrote in lockdown is a claustrophobic novel following Alice, a police officer trying to solve a murder in the psychiatric ward where she’s a patient. Billingham was the inaugural winner of the prize in 2005 and won it again in 2009. He reckons any author that says awards don’t matter is probably lying. “Awards are always lovely. It’s like reviews – if a writer says they don’t care about reviews they’re probably lying too. If a book gets 10 reviews – nine good and one slagging it off, it’ll be that one I focus on.”
SHAMELESS SHOW OFF
When Mark was doing stand-up in the Eighties, he felt the same. “The audience might have been laughing apart from one guy that wasn’t and it’s that guy I would focus on. It’s human nature.” Performing is something Mark gets a buzz from initially triggered by drama at school in Moseley. He says the applause he enjoyed after a successful performance as the Artful Dodger spurred him on: “I largely loved school, but it was easy to get lost if you weren’t excelling academically or at sport. I was always average at those things. I did okay academically especially English, but I was firmly second team rugby. However, I’m a shameless show off, so drama gave me an outlet. When the audience applauded, I just thought, ‘this is fantastic’.”
Mark stayed in Brum studying drama at the University of Birmingham where he launched a theatre group called Bread and Circuses touring the Midlands. Post-graduation he got himself an Equity card and took himself off to London. “I played coppers weirdly. I did a stint in Juliet Bravo, the Bill and Dempsey and Makepeace. My finest hour was Crossroads. I played a doctor who gave Benny an ECG!”
When acting jobs slowed down Mark began stand-up travelling the world until he had a young family which made globetrotting tricky hence the writing. While Mark misses the buzz of stand-up, he’s found a new route to the stage via his band, Fun Lovin’ Crime Writers in which he sings and plays guitar. Playing covers about crime of which there are a lot apparently, Mark happily gets his performing fix. “There are six of us, all crime writers and mates. There are three proper musicians – I’m not one. We’ve done lots of shows and played Glastonbury where we just looked at one another thinking, ‘how did this happen?’”
On Brum, Mark suspects he wrecked his taste buds as a student eating curry every day in Balsall Heath and practically lived in Cannon Hill Park in the summer. Now, when he’s back in the city for events and brings other people he makes clear that this is his town before immediately getting everyone lost as it’s changed so much ‘for the better probably.’