How Emmerdale writer's life was changed by falling in love with Hebden Bridge

Writer Mark Illis
Writer Mark Illis

What was meant to be a brief flirtation with Hebden Bridge turned into a life changer for professional writer Mark Illis and his wife Sally

They fell in love with the place, settled and now have a growing family. And Mark’s career has blossomed - 14 years working as an episode writer for Emmerdale, a screenplay for an award-winning film and now his first Young Adult novel has been published.

Here, in his own words, Mark describes the unusual but successful path his career has taken and how the move from Greater London to Calderdale was the best one he’s ever made...

I used to be a Londoner. I also used to write literary novels that got decent reviews but didn’t sell many copies.

I didn’t expect to ever live anywhere else, or to write anything else. I was pretty sure about both those things, and I was completely wrong.

I’ve been living in Yorkshire nearly half my life now, I was a writer on Emmerdale for about 14 years, I wrote a prize-winning screenplay for a zombie movie, (and had a cameo as a zombie in it!) and now I’ve written The Impossible, a Young Adult novel. So don’t ever ask me for career advice – basically, I know nothing.

The Impossible is set in a fictional town called Gilpin, which is actually Hebden Bridge where I live, and very strange things happen there.

It’s a bit like that Netflix show, Stranger Things, only stranger. But before I say any more about it, I should explain the zigzag path that led me to writing YA fiction.

In 1992, I moved up to Ted Hughes’s old house, Lumb Bank, just outside Heptonstall, with my wife Sally. The Arvon Foundation runs residential courses in creative writing there, and we had a three year contract to run the centre. Perfect, we thought.

We’ll leave London for a bit, then come back refreshed by all that country air, with a tin of parkin. After the job finished we thought hang on, we won’t go back just yet, we’ll stay in Hebden Bridge for a year.

And then we thought maybe another year. And here we are, in 2017 with a house here and two children and a proper, grown-up life.

Why didn’t we go back to London? We were living in Lewisham when we left. Hebden is regularly voted funkiest town in the universe. Lewisham, not so much.

So I wasn’t working at Lumb Bank any more, wasn’t going back to London, and wasn’t likely to make a living writing those novels that hardly anybody read. So what next?

Next, it turned out, was TV. I never thought I’d write for television. Wrong again. I wrote for The Bill, EastEnders and Peak Practice, and then Emmerdale came calling.

I thought I’d do a couple of years on the show. Yes, completely wrong, yet again. The thing is, I really enjoyed it. I liked the other writers on the team, I loved having millions of people watch what I wrote, and if I did think about returning to writing novels full-time, Emmerdale sort of sidled up to me and whispered in my ear – Stick with me and I’ll buy you a house. I stuck with Emmerdale.

And I did other stuff while I was there. I wrote two more novels I’m very proud of, Tender and The Last Word, I wrote three radio plays, I wrote that zombie screenplay, we had two children.

So why am I not still writing Emmerdale? It sounds perfect, doesn’t it? I thought it would probably just carry on like that for ages. Wrong again.

I got sacked. I’d just been to the BAFTA’s, because one of my episodes helped get the show nominated as Best Soap, so that was a nice way to finish, but a new producer came along and made a few changes, one of which was me, so it was time to think of something else to do.

Emmerdale was very good to me for many years, and I wish them well with the 45th anniversary.

I moved from writing soap opera to writing a Young Adult novel. How did that happen?

When my daughter was entering her teens, I started reading YA books for the first time, and I began to get excited. My inner teenager sat up and smiled.

I thought I could bring my experience of writing novels for adults and writing TV to the world of YA.

I sat down, and started writing The Impossible. In this book, fifteen year old Hector meets his fifty year old self. And they don’t get on. Young Hector is disappointed with his older self.

So the novel is partly about the hopes and dreams we have when we’re young, and how those don’t always turn out as we’d have liked. That’s not all though.

Hector realises that all the teens in his small town are having weird experiences and scary mutations. So Hector and his friends - Grace, Asha, and Josh - try to find out what on earth is going on in their town.

I wrote the book for, roughly, 12 – 15 year olds. I wanted to write a warm, lively, funny novel, with strong, engaging characters worrying about relationships and family, but I wanted to include aliens and mutants and some serious scares.

I like to think my 15 year old self would approve. There’s a sequel out next year and I’m intending to keep writing YA for quite a while. I hope I’ve got that right, at least.”