Mark Mills: interview

Mark Mills: interview

On the surface it seems as if Mark Mills has made a clean break with his past, and writing about the past.

After four historical novels set during the 1930s and ’40s in various places around the
globe—Tuscany, Malta, the French Riviera and Long Island, New York—his newest, The Long Shadow, is his first with a modern British setting. It’s also Mills’ first with Headline, after he parted company with HarperCollins, which published his previous books including The Savage Garden, a 2007 Richard & Judy pick which has shifted over £2m through BookScan.

But Mills has not quite taken the historical completely out of his contemporary novel. At the centre of The Long Shadow is struggling, recently divorced screenwriter Ben Makepeace.

Out of the blue, Ben gets an offer for financing his next project from hedge-fund billionaire
Victor Sheldon, and he jumps at it. Yet when Ben first meets Victor, he is shocked to discover that Victor is a long-lost friend: someone he went to school with 25 years ago, a boy he knew as “Daniel”. Ben gets sucked into Victor/Daniel’s world, before he realises that a vicious endgame is afoot—one whose deep-seated problems go back to the characters’ shared history.

The Long Shadow

Mills says The Long Shadow’s story “was just lurking about”. He adds: “There is no sort of
pattern to the ideas that I choose. It just sort of hung around for a while. It was a more personal story than my other books.” Mills based the story around a “very complicated, very important” relationship with a boarding school classmate of his who spent his holiday at the Mills’ because his family were based in Africa and did not bring him home.

Mills says: “I wasn’t really close to him at school, my mother just agreed to host him. So we had this strange, enforced friendship. I grew up on a farm, and he had this amazing way with animals; in a way was the more natural heir to the farm than me, which created some jealousy. Yet he was a very disturbed boy, but had a very winning, charming way.”

There has been no resolution of those feelings in adulthood as the boy was murdered when he was a young man. “I don’t want to piggyback on his tragedy, but I took the kernel of our relationship, and built a ‘what if’ story around that. I think echoes about past events
reverberate through the decades. As I get older the more it strikes me is the people are always as they were when they were children. Men are boys. I have friends who have risen to the very top of their professions, but they are as they were. The trappings may change, the uniform may change, but they remain essentially the same.”

The Reckoning

Mills has written contemporary stories before in his career as a screenwriter. Aside from “The Reckoning”, a 2003 adaptation of Barry Unsworth’s medieval-set Morality Play, his film work is modern, including the Daniel Auteuil-starring “The Lost Son” (1999) and “Rock My World” (2002) a fish-out-of-water comedy of manners with Peter O’Toole and Alicia Silverstone.

“God that was awful,” Mills chortles, shaking his head. “I was so proud of it. I thought it
was hilarious.”

He got into screenwriting after spending a few years in Italy after university with his wife, film producer turned Felicity Bryan agent Caroline Wood. When the couple returned to Britain, he landed a job as a script reader for Paramount. After reading through the slush pile, he shelved his thoughts of becoming a journalist and tried his hand at scripts. A spec script was picked up soon after, and he has made his living as a writer ever since.

Richard and Judy

He switched to books when his idea for what would turn out to be his first novel, The Whaleboat House, was rejected as a film script. He was encouraged to turn it into a novel by his friend, Hamish Hamilton publishing director Simon Prosser, and now-Penguin boss Tom Weldon.

But Penguin did not buy it in the end? “Well, quite,” Mills laughs. “I guess it just wasn’t
for them.”

Perhaps because of his film experience, where “as a screenwriter you are really the bottom of the pile”, he speaks more easily about his separation with HC and brutal commercial realities than many other novelists might. The break was due, in part he acknowledges, to not following up The Savage Garden’s R&J-boosted success with his next book. “What everyone knows is that after R&J, I should have written essentially the same book as quickly as possible. But I just wrote what I wanted to—The Information Officer, a Boy’s Own-style book that alienated a lot of the readership I had gained.”

Though praising his former HC editor Julia Wisdom, he is happy to be at Headline. “Harper is a very impressive machine and great people work there. But there is a lot of turnover and it’s hard to get attached because there’s new people all the time. They have these very impressive departments that you brush with when your book is out—but at Headline it is very targeted, very personalised, a bit more focused.”

He has a few film projects simmering on back-burners, but is mainly concentrating on books. “Publishing is a much more positive business,” he says. “Most films fail and there is a climate which people spend most of their time allocating blame for the projects they have been in. As a writer I will blame the director; the director will slag off actors’ performances or producers for not giving enough money. It is so downbeat.

“In publishing everyone is well-intentioned, people actually care about books. Film is full of a lot of producers looking to make a fast buck, rub shoulders with film stars or walk down the red carpet at Cannes.”

After “letting me out of the box” for his current book, his next one with Headline will return to familiar territory: it is a “pan-European” thriller set in the 1930s. “I rather missed the research [when writing The Long Shadow]. It’s the part of writing I like best, when you’re putting the scaffolding up, moving it around and rearranging it. You have that time to think about your characters, and suddenly they start growing.”

Book data

Pub date 18/07/13
Format HB/EB
ISBN 9780755392315/tbc
Rights 10 territories sold to date
Editor Imogen Taylor
Agent Stephanie Cabot, William Morris

Mark Mills' top four

The Savage Garden
HC, 9780007161935
A R&J pick which tells of murder, love and innocence lost in post-Second World
War Tuscany.

Books sold: 369,000 since 2007

The Information Officer
HC, 9780007276882
A British officer investigates murder in war-torn Malta.

Books sold: 66,000 since 2009

The Whaleboat House
HC, 9780007161928

A New York socialite’s body washes ashore in the Hamptons (first released as

Books sold: 31,000 since 2004

House of the Hanged
HC, 9780007276899
The past catches up with former intelligence operative Tom.

Books sold: 26,000 since 2011