9:20am Saturday 23rd June 2012
Mark Billingham loves a criminal break in Harrogate, as he tells JULIAN COLE ahead of this year’s festival.
CRIME writer Mark Billingham used to be an actor and a stand-up comedian. Sometimes his old life helps him in his newer one.
He does love to perform, you see, whether he is sitting down to write or addressing a hall full of crime fiction fans – which is nowhere near as scary, he says, as doing a turn in front of 600 drunks at the Comedy Store.
“I think very much of my writing as a performance: you want to entertain the reader with the opening and keep them entertained throughout. I have always seen writing as a performance.
“Even when I was at school aged 12 and you had to write about what you did on your holidays and the teacher called you out to the front of the class to read what you had written, I loved it. It’s just the same now, only hopefully I have a few more readers.”
Mark has a long association with the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival, which runs at the Old Swan Hotel, Harrogate, from July 19 to 22.
“It’s followed my career and I have attended every year,” he says.
When he first went, he only had the one book out, Sleepyhead. Now the list of bestsellers is long as he produces a book a year, mixing his Tom Thorne novels with occasional standalone thrillers.
Mark is chairing this popular festival on its tenth anniversary, which he sees as an honour. Like many cheery spillers of dark blood, he finds it to be the nicest crime fiction do around.
“At lots of festivals the readers and writers are kept apart, and the writers come and do their bit and then go home. But at Harrogate they are all together in the bar and that’s why many writers make a weekend of Harrogate. It’s an event for the whole crime publishing industry, the writers, the readers and the publishers.”
This year’s choice of writers is down to Mark. “The programme reflects the tastes of the chair,” he says. “But as chair I’m very well aware that I have to programme events for readers who might not share my taste.”
This need is amplified by crime fiction being such a broad church.
“It runs across all genres and tastes, from cosy as crumpets crime fiction to dark as a blood stain, from historical crime to serial killers, and even sci-fi crime.”
So that is potentially a lot of strong-minded people with particular passions to please. Does he have a festival moment he is particularly looking forward to?
“It’s very hard to pick one event,” Mark says, playing the bloodied diplomat. “I know from experience that I will probably spend the whole time running about like an idiot making sure everyone is having a good time, and won’t get to see everything.
“But the Jo Nesbo event should be good. I’m looking forward to the new American writers. And the quiz is always fantastic entertainment and we have made it different this year.”
A television adaptation is the ultimate goal for many writers and it is not always a happy experience.
As it happens, Mark couldn’t have been more chuffed when his Tom Thorne novels were adapted for Sky. As the executive producer, he was more in control than some writers; he advised on the scripts and saw the rushes. “So I was very involved,” he says.
Mark also had a hand in the drama long before anyone had even thought of making it.
“Right from the beginning, whenever I was asked who I would like to play Thorne, I always said David Morrissey,” Mark says. He kept this up and the persistent mentions paid off, as Mark explains: “David was filming in New Zealand and he was bored so he went into a bookshop and picked up a pile of books, including one of mine. After he read the book, he saw that I was an actor and Googled my name: and the first thing that came up was his name.”
Mark had mentioned David Morrissey so often, there was already a connection. When the series came off, his dream casting fell into place. “All you want is a good actor who will do a good job.
I’d seen David in so many good dramas that I knew he would be good.”
As for whether or not Morrissey looks the part, Mark says: “I have never really described Tom Thorne, at least not facially. I’m interested in his brain. I know what his brain is like and I am looking at events through his eyes.”
His next novel, Rush Of Blood, out in August, is a standalone story.
“When you write a series, every now and then you need to take a break,” Mark says.
This one is something very different.
“It’s set in America partly for a start. It’s about three couples who meet around the pool on their Florida holiday. After something terrible happens, they make that very English mistake of agreeing to stay in touch. They meet at dinner parties and all sorts of dark secrets start coming out.”
He admits to nerves about what people will think as the novel doesn’t feature Thorne. “But in fact he does make a cameo appearance at the end, which gives some indication of what has happened to him since and what is going to happen.”
An earlier one-off novel, In The Dark, is being turned into a film by the BBC, and Mark is now busy with the next Thorne outing.
And his life as a stand-up still casts a shadow. Punchlines and plot twists are not so very different.
Telling a joke is, Mark says, “all about timing: the way you deliver a joke works as a microcosm of the way you reveal a plot twist in a crime novel”.
And, of course, comedians die in their line of work sometimes too.
• Festival highlights include Jo Nesbo, Harlan Coben, John Connolly, Kate Mosse, Luther creator Neil Cross and Peter James, with Ian Rankin and Peter Robinson in late-night conversation, reprising a turn from the first festival. For tickets and more information phone 01423 502116 or visit hgte.co.uk/crime/
• Julian Cole’s latest Rounder Brothers novel, The Baedeker Murders, is available on Amazon for Kindle, for £2.09. Two earlier novels in the series have been published in Britain by Quick Brown Fox and in the US by Minotaur Books.
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