Tuesday, September 9, 2008

On the Mark

Mark Billingham is a name in Crime fiction that is highly regarded in Britain and overseas, and just starting to gain momentum in New Zealand.

You can imagine my excitement when I first received an invitation to share a panel at the Christchurch Writer's Festival with him, and my relief that they had also included their local crime writer Paul Cleave (he's a lovely guy and its easy to relax around the locals). I was intrigued to read Mark was a stand-up comedian and on the day his humour set the tone for a laid back and interesting discussion. I have attended crime fiction panels at festivals that have been serious to the point of being maudlin, but ours certainly wasn't. Also, I thought Ursula Cheer did an excellent job as chair as she kept things on track and ensured all of the panelists had equal opportunity to have a say. It would have been easy to let Mark run with it, but she unobtrusively steered the conversation. I also think Mark would have been far too professional and kind to hog the limelight.

We agreed on many things - when asked the best advice to give budding crime writers, we all said, read, read and read some more. I said not to take yourself too seriously, but I think Mark thought I'd meant not to take writing too seriously. There's a big difference. I take writing very seriously, just not myself.

As the touch of oestrogen on the panel, and a mum with young children, I smiled when the men-folk said you must write every day. I said the reality of life for me (and for many women) is family comes first, and sick kiddies and life intervenes regularly, so all power to those who manage some writing everyday, I try, but it doesn't always work out as you plan.

An hour with Mark Billingham gave opportunity for more insight into the writer. It also brought the award for best comedic timing by a Chair person - Chris McVeigh was making a statement "The greatest, greatest" took one look over at Mark, who was doing a goofy grinny thing, then dropped in "disappointment" ...ba-da-bing!

Speaking of comedy, Mark made the interesting point that crime fiction was just like doing a comedy routine, where you build up and prime the audience for the punch line, only the punch lines in crime fiction are a bit more grim.

I was also pleased to hear Mark echo my sentiment that gratuitous and overt violence in crime fiction is unnecessary, that the reader can come up with far more graphic mental images provided with a few cues than anything he could put on a page. He also echoed Ian Rankin's assertion that women crime writers are the worst offenders in this regard. I have to agree with them, present company excluded, of course.

Crime writing has always been seen as literary fiction's trashy, black sheep in the family cousin, the one we don't talk about or admit to, and Mark made the comment that the inclusion of Child 44 in the Booker long list was encouraging. But he also pointed out the truth of the situation that literary fiction is judged by its very best examples, and genre fiction by its very worst and that seems to be an inequality we are stuck with.


Rachael King said...

I really enjoyed Marks' session too, but I was disappointed that the chair didn't leave enough time for questions (bad management!). I wanted to ask him whether, since he said he HATED The Sea by John Banville, he had read any of the crime novels Banville writes under the name Benjamin Black and what he thought.

Have you?

Vanda Symon said...

I haven't read any Benjamin Black and only recently discovered that he was in fact John Banville. I've added him to my list of must read sometime soon.

I haven't read The Sea either, so it would be an interesting exercise to read him in both guises.