Mark Billingham: My new novel is my angriest

Crime writer Mark Billingham on writing "terrible love songs", why his new novel made him angrier than ever – and why it's sometimes necessary to be a show-off

At 16 I was obsessed with two things. Music and being an actor. I was at an all-boys school where you excelled if you were good at sport or very academic and I was neither. But the one thing I could do was act. I was always the star of the school play. That was always the highlight of my year. I had grand ideas of going on to work for the Royal Shakespeare Company. And when I left and did drama at university it worked out for a few years, until I realised long periods of unemployment beckoned and I’d better broaden my horizons. So I got into stand-up comedy and within six months I was playing The Comedy Store. And that became my career for the next 20-odd years.

I wanted to write about real things which are happening out there and not being properly reported

I’d tell my teenage self he doesn’t have to leap to join one crowd. I wasn’t tough mentally. I think I was quite mixed up due to my love of music. When I was 16 in the late 1970s – a time of great change. It was ‘What am I?’ Punk was happening and there was a great fight to get to the record player in the sixth-form common room every lunchtime. Some people wanted to put on The Clash and the Pistols. Other people wanted to hear Pink Floyd and Genesis. I loved all that proggy stuff, stories of elves and magicians. But suddenly I felt if I was going to fit in I’d need to start wearing straight jeans and put a razor blade round my neck. So I was a bit of a weekend punk. Like many others. There’s this myth that when punk came along everyone threw away all their Genesis albums. It’s not true.

MyAnna Burning in In The Dark
MyAnna Burning in In The Dark, the forthcoming TV adaptation of Mark Billingham's novel

If I met the 16-year-old Mark now I’d probably think, what a horrendous gobshite. I was a big show-off. I was constantly told off for that at school – ‘Stop showing off Billingham’. But if I could go back I’d tell my younger self not to be ashamed of it. It wasn’t the terrible thing teachers said it was. I was best at showing off when the teacher asked me to come to the front and read out my story. I can still remember the buzz of that. I’ve managed to turn showing off into three different careers. I’ve made my way through the world showing off. I can understand how it can be annoying having kids dominating the class if you’re an introvert kid or a teacher trying to control a class. But there are times when it comes into its own and is, in fact, necessary.

Apart from finding out he had a recording of Peter Falk saying “just one more thing Mr Billingham” [Billingham met his childhood hero Falk while making a documentary about Columbo], I think my younger self would be most pleased to find out nothing in life is set in stone. You can start off firmly headed down one road, then 10 years later find yourself really happy doing something else. I didn’t write my first novel until I was almost 40. I now have about 18 books under my belt. And I really feel I’m home.

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I’m glad I didn’t write a successful novel until I was nearly 40. I needed a bit of a life before I began. That isn’t a requirement for everyone – lots of people write breathtaking novels in their 20s. But I absolutely couldn’t have done that. I had nothing to say when I was 21. What I have had for years is a political passion – not party political but caring about the world around me. Crime writers are always banging on about how they’re really writing social novels, through the lens of crime. In some cases, that’s true. But with others they can only say that for so long while they keep turning out novel after novel about serial killers. I wanted to write about real things which are happening out there and not being properly reported. I’ve never been angrier writing a book than I did writing my new one [his new book, Love Like Blood, tackles honour killings]. I powered through it, though some of the research was very hard going.

Maid Marian and her Merry Men
Mark Billingham (left) in Maid Marian and her Merry Men

Of all the things that would impress my 16-year-old self about his future… well, he’s just been to see Elvis Costello, the biggest musical passion of his life. If I told him that 40 years later he’d be interviewing Costello onstage, that would be it for him. This happened last October, when Costello’s book came out. I remember as I walked into the theatre in Liverpool to meet him, in my head I was actually saying, imagine what my 16-year-old self would think of this! It was a massive thing for me. They say never meet your heroes but this worked out very well. Thank goodness. I’d worshipped this guy for such a long time, I knew I’d be crushed if it went wrong. But he was a really lovely guy. I floated off in a big happy cloud. Then I was getting on a train the next morning and my mum called to tell me Elvis Costello was on breakfast TV saying what an honour it had been to be interviewed by me! [He howls with laughter].

I’m glad I didn’t write a successful novel until I was nearly 40

It would be nice to go back to tougher times and tell myself it’s okay, something is going to turn up. When I first moved to London, trying to be an actor, there were some pretty hard times. I was in a little flat in Brixton, didn’t know many people, and I was on the dole quite a lot. And I was also thinking, will I ever meet someone I really fall in love with and have kids with? Nah, it’s never going to happen. I remember sitting in that cold flat in Brixton, watching the rain going down the window, listening to The Smiths and writing terrible songs about how lost and lonely I was. Then a few years later I was presenting this TV music show for kids, What’s That Noise, and I met the director. And we’ve been happily married now for nearly 25 years.

If I could go back to any time in my past it would be the moment I found out I was going to be published. It was 2000 and I was shopping with my wife in the Brent Cross shopping centre and the phone rang. It was my agent telling me a publisher was going to publish my book. I just knew it was going to happen. I’ll never forget how exciting that was. I was waiting for my wife to come out of the shop and then I tried to play it quite cool, ‘Oh, Mike just called…’ But inside my guts were churning round. That was the dream coming true.

Mark Billingham’s new thriller Love Like Blood (Little Brown, £18.99) is out now