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mark blake


It was over 90 degrees, the ride was in a Cadillac heading southeast toward Vegas and my driver (or ride donor as I called them then) asked me to reach into the cooler and grab him a beer. On complying I found, packed in ice, 24 cans of Coors, which is almost enough American beer to get you tipsy. We sank several of them under the hot august sun, skimming radio stations until the driver happened on an advert for a second hand car costing a thousand dollars. He asked me to open the ashtray where I found, to my surprise, a roll of bills easily large enough to cover it. At this point I ought to mention that the guy's name was Duane Johnson III and that when he'd picked me up from the side of the road, the first thing he said to me was "Know why I picked y'up?" "No" "Because you're on my land." I put him down as either truly rich or a liar, but at least not barking, which would adequately describe most of the other drivers I'd encountered in my mammoth hitchhiking trek across the States (We won't even go into Hunter S. Thomson). Anyway, he certainly had my attention - especially when he veered off the road and bounced along in the brush with the fender chewing tumbleweed. Once he was sure I had safely stowed away his billfold, Duane next asked me to open up the glove compartment. I couldn't wait. Inside was a gleaming six shooter revolver, the first gun I had ever handled. Duane asked. "Know what I use that for?" "Rabbits?" I offered weakly. He burst out laughing. "Sheet, no. Shooting hitchhikers." This is not how I became a writer, nor is it a fictionalised travel story, but it is an illustration of the kind of people I seem to come across with alarming regularity. These assorted crazies, provided I survive them relatively unscathed, usually end up in my books. Call it catharsis or strip-mining of experience but where else do you get your characters from - the telly? I began as a comedian on the 'alternative' comedy circuit and, over the years, graduated from seedy, stale rooms above pubs to the dizzy heights of larger seedy rooms above pubs. The bowel-loosening terror of doing this was mitigated by an appallingly paid BBC radio series, a TV Special and several of those late night telly slots you watched drunk and cannot remember. If you met me in person, you might for an instant think that you recognise me, but the glow would soon pass as you realise I just happen to look a little bit like lots of people. Comedy is like heroin. The better-than-sex rush of performing is addictive and anaesthetises you to the concomitant days of misery and self-loathing as you search for the elusive next gig/hit. All of this formed the basis of my second novel - Bigtime (Flame. 1999) in which I pointed out the paradox that the people we seek to entertain us are not very nice or stable people. However, the comedy world isn't called a circuit for nothing: Round and round you go until your face finally fits or you act improves enough to garner interest from the agencies. I put in a decade and called it quits, realising that I had probably peaked with that joke about the lorry driver with the one brown arm. Alongside this, as a kind of ersatz day job, I was writing for Spitting Image, Weekending, Roy Hudd and Frankie Howerd, though you'll be hard put to find any comedy writer who hasn't. It's your National Service. Six weeks with Roy and it's off to the front, or the back, if its Frankie. My first novel, Sunstroke (Flame, 1998) came about as a result of unemployment. Having finally snagged a literary agent by standing by the pool with some fresh meat, he had managed to sell two of my sitcoms and a screenplay. This led me to the mistaken assumption that I had mutated into a genius combo of Simon Nye and William Goldman and yes, the word you will be looking for is hubris. My fall came in the form of industry rejection method #2, which is the one where the producer spends six months never quite letting the writer know that its not going to happen. In my despondency I took a holiday in Andalucia where, as my body tanned to a rich nut brown, a rich combination of criminal characters began to gather in my overheated mind. Utilising the boss of a cowboy-cleaning firm where I had once worked as the villain, I trawled the clubs and bars of Fuengirola for source material, because someone has to do it. What fascinated me then and still does about Southern Spain is the vast cultural bridge which spans the indigenous dirt farmers, the service industry workers, the tourists, the jet set rich of Marbella/Puerto Banus and the UK ex-pat & criminal community. Drenched in sunlight, the region offers the tawdry and the thrilling and yet lies beneath a penumbra of violence. In that respect I see it as a simulacrum of 1950's Los Angeles - a stew of volatile discordant nationals liable at any moment to explode. I was amazed that no one had seen fit to focus on this before. As the project grew and grew I poured into the pot a budding romance, a girl searching for her dead sister, a couple of Spanish rogues; the thinly disguised real life mayor of Marbella and a mongrel mutt called Zoltan. Sunstroke took a year of isolation and eleven re-writes to get right and was sold to Hodder Headline inside three weeks. I permitted myself a sigh of relief and a small sherry. OK. I was drunk as a skunk for a month. It was a best seller, but then frankly these days what book isn't if you believe all the blurb on the back? For my 'difficult' second novel I decided to keep the small-time criminals but this time relocate to England: Birmingham in fact, on Valentine's day. The majority of Bigtime takes place at high speed on our nations beloved motorway system. There is Doug, a wily Anglo-Irishman, Danny, an 18 stone steroid-fuelled Filipino and Jason, a twat. The trio holds up a cashpoint machine at Corley services, which was the most pathetic example of the traditional heist-gone-wrong scenario I could come up with. It's less Dog Day Afternoon, more Dog Day coffee-morning. I think I favour the activities of the small time criminal for two reasons; one, you rarely hear about successful criminals (as they're the ones getting away with it) and two, I'm English and therefore have a genetic predisposition toward failure. Their hijacking activities coincide with the return home of two diametrically opposed comedians, both gigging in Birmingham. Andy Crowe, is a gentler type of comic; Rob Gillen is a foul-mouthed venal, arrogant tosser and is based directly on four famous comics I briefly knew in those days. No, I'm not going to name them. Yes, I was a mixture of the two types. No, comedians don't get groupies. Stop it with the questions. In both books I also tackled the frustrations of love & relationships; In Sunstroke, Mike spent two weeks trying to get inside Sarah's pants, in Bigtime, Andy made the biiiiig mistake of choosing his career over his girlfriend Michelle on Valentine's night. Both were broadly comic with intricate plotting and were fast, easy reads. I'll confess that during the editing process I think I lost some characterisation, and it is this I have attempted to remedy in my third and latest novel 24-Karat Schmooze (Flame). Schmooze is the story of Rox Matheson, a northerner with a busted heart who comes to London in search of the scammer who ripped off her mate. There she meets Reece, taciturn minicab driver and love interest, and Davey Kayman, the silver-tongued schmoozer of the title bent on ripping off the BBC. There's also Charlie Ribbons, his junkie Trustafarian girlfriend and Archie and Steve, comedy car clampers and part-time arsonists: also, the Peterson's - a southeast London crime family - finally make an appearance hinted at in Sunstroke. Although these elements have, at first glance, the same ring as the previous books, this one favours character over event every time. My intention has been to deliver the same uproar, but with the jokes singing from the people rather than big comedy set pieces - although there is a dwarf-bowling session in Amsterdam. Meantime, I spent most of last year writing a two-part ITV drama called "The Swap" which will be on in November 2001, also a short story for this summer's charity offering 'Girls Night Out/Boy's night in. Sunstroke was optioned for two years by Company pictures, but if I may refer you to industry rejection method #2 again, you'll know it didn't happen. The next producer is lined up and hopefully this time I'll get to work on the script. I'm between publishers at present, but have plenty more tales of murder 'n' mayhem cooking up in my cranium: either that or its some kind of bi-polar disorder. Within this genre, it is my first desire to entertain, secondly to get under the skin of the characters and bring them to you to the best of my ability. I feel the work taking a darker turn at times and, as I notice the blood count diminishing, I note the menace keeps going up a few notches. I don't, and won't, write about Serial killers - How much fetishised mutilation and versions of the same sociopathic bogeyman can we take? Nor do I seek to belittle the serious effect crime has on people, but I have a lot to say and right now humour is the most effective vehicle to get my message across. I hope you enjoy the books and all unalloyed praise is welcome.
PS. By the way, Duane Johnson did not shoot me, but took me to Las Vegas with the money where…well, you'll hear about it sometime.
BUY Bigtime
BUY Sunstroke
BUY 24 Karat Schmooze