How Mark Billingham went from actor to stand-up comedian to bestselling crime novelist

Mark Billingham. PIC: Charlie Hopkinson
Mark Billingham. PIC: Charlie Hopkinson
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Mark Billingham started out as an actor and then a stand-up comedian before becoming a bestselling crime novelist. He talks to Chris Bond as he returns to Yorkshire.

Such is the pace of life these days that for many people their summer holiday is one of the few times they get to sit back and read a few books.

But in Mark Billingham’s case, rather than read them he took the opportunity to write one instead.

“I was on holiday with the family in Corfu in 1999 and I started scribbling down things in a notebook and by the time we went home I had about 30,000 words,” he says.

Back home he finished the story and found a literary agent who took him on. The subsequent novel, Sleepyhead, was published in 2001 and became an overnight bestseller, spawning a TV adaptation starring David Morrissey. “I got incredibly lucky,” says Billingham. “I know many writers who wrote a dozen novels before they got one published.”

Since his stellar debut the 57 year-old has averaged a book a year and established himself as one of the country’s most popular crime writers, particularly his series featuring London-based detective Tom Thorne.

The latest in this long-running series, The Killing Habit, came out last month, and next week he’s a guest at the Hull and East Yorkshire Literary Lunch where he’ll be joined by fellow scribe Milly Johnson.

Billingham, like many modern crime fiction writers, is nothing if not prolific, though he says coming up with ideas isn’t the difficult bit. “You do worry that you’ll run out of ideas but there’s always some story you read in the newspapers, or something someone tells you about,” he says.

“But writing the books does get harder for the simple reason you’re always trying to write a better book. You might not always succeed but you have that ambition to write something that is more engaging than the last book.”

He says it’s particularly challenging when you’re writing a series. “Fans like to see certain things. It’s like when you go to see your favourite band, the last thing you want to hear is them saying ‘here’s some songs from our new album.’ You want to hear the hits. So if you don’t include certain recurring characters in a story then readers will let you know, and sometimes they don’t like what you do with a character. But that’s flattering in a way because it shows they’ve taken them to heart. I still get sent CDs of music they think Tom [Thorne] would like to listen to.”

Billingham enjoys this kind of interaction with readers. “A book only really exists once it’s read, and the reader owns the book every bit as much as you do. Without their experience it’s nothing it’s just words on a page. It’s the reader who brings it alive and that’s especially true with a series.”

Though he’s best known for creating Tom Thorne, he wasn’t actually the main character when he first started out. “I wanted to write about a victim of crime. I got tired of reading books where you had a cop and a killer and the victims never really mattered, they were just plot devices and that’s not how I see the world. At the same time I needed a cop and I came up with Tom Thorne without knowing very much about him, and the simple fact is I still don’t know any more about him than the readers do.”

This might seem like a strange admission given the level of details some writers go to when it comes to the back stories of their characters. “I don’t have a plan for him or a dossier of facts about him, which sometimes gets me into trouble because I’ll forget stuff and get emails from readers. But I prefer it that way because he stays surprising and unpredictable. The day your character starts to become predictable and unsurprising is the day you should probably stop writing about them.”

If Billingham’s approach is slightly unusual then so, too, is his route to becoming a crime writer. Born and raised in Birmingham, he started his working career as an actor appearing in such eclectic TV series as Dempsey and Makepeace, Birds of a Feather and Juliet Bravo. He made a sideways move into comedy, becoming a stand-up, though in his spare time he always had his nose in a book. “We had a teacher at school who would get bored with his own maths lessons and read us Sherlock Holmes stories instead. That’s why I love fiction and can’t add up,” he jokes. “I’ve been reading crime novels since I was about 12 years old and the missing piece of the jigsaw was to sit down and write one.”

Once he took the plunge, he found his experience as a stand-up comedian helped. “For the first ten years I was writing these dark stories by day and trying to get cheap laughs at night. But there are a lot of similarities. Stand-up taught me an awful lot about writing, timing, and the importance of engaging an audience quickly and also when to reveal key pieces of information, which is hugely important in crime fiction. They’re full of punch lines too, they’re just very dark punch lines.”

In 2012, Billingham was guest programmer for the Theakston’s Old Peculier Harrogate Crime Writing Festival. The annual literary event has attracted some of the biggest names in the business including JK Rowling, Ian Rankin, Jo Nesbo and this year welcomes James Patterson for the first time. “A lot of literature festivals can be a bit them and us, where you have a velvet rope dividing the writers and readers. Whereas at Harrogate it’s just thousands of readers and writers mingling together. There’s a lot of serious discussions but there’s also a lot of fun, there’s quizzes and concerts and it’s a weekend you need to set aside some time afterwards to recover from.”

He says there’s little point trying to predict who, or what, will be the next big thing. “Scandi noir was largely a result of one author – Stieg Larsson, and the huge growth in so-called Grip lit was mostly down to two books – Gone Girl and Girl On the Train, and those juggernauts came from nowhere. You’re onto a hiding to nothing if you try and predict which direction crime fiction is going and jump on the bandwagon, you just have to write the books you want to write.”

He also believes the allure of crime fiction is fairly straightforward. “Some people look for pure escapism, others read crime fiction because they think it tells them about the world we live in. But the bottom line is are you telling a good story? If you’re not doing that, you’re not doing your job properly.”

The Hull and East Yorkshire Literary Lunch, Willerby Manor Hotel, Willerby, April 10, 12pm. For more information call 01482 325 413.