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The last signing of 2020 – diamond thievery or crime writing – what career would you choose?

It was in late August this year when we received the submission from the latest author to join our team, our last of 2020.

Mark Wightman’s email arrived in the Hobeck inbox on the day Adrian and I drove to Essex to meet up with Hobeck author, Wendy Turbin. (During slightly more relaxed Covid rules than we currently have.) Adrian was driving and I was passenger, as is often the way. The email arrived on my phone with a ping shortly after we joined the M6. Already bored with the beautiful countryside that surrounds the M6, I opened the email. I saw that it was a submission. Having nothing better to do I decided to read it straight away. I opened the attachment and started reading.

‘I like this one,’ I told Adrian after just a few sentences, adding, ‘I am there’. He seemed intrigued. He asked me to read aloud to him. I did. That’s all we needed. We knew.

‘Ask this person to send the full manuscript,’ came the response, after a considered pause. So, that is what I did.

Fast forward five months and here we are, surrounded by snow, New Year’s Eve, announcing Mark Wightman, the author of those first few pages I read on the M6 on that burning hot day. Mark is our last Hobeck author of the year (definitely – we have just a few hours left as I type and there is no way anyone else is coming along today).

Hobeck has gone from zero authors to ten in twelve months. That’s not a bad achievement. We often find ourselves pinching each other thinking about what we have achieved since January. And, yes, that much pinching does hurt. We feel blessed to have such a great team on board. This last signing is no exception.

By way of introducing Mark to the reading world, we asked him to answer a few questions. Here they are.

You’ve chosen to set your novel in Singapore. What’s your connection?

I was raised in the Far East, first in Hong Kong and then in Singapore. I loved my time there – it’s a fascinating part of the world – and the idea of writing a novel set there lay sown but ungerminated for years and now it has burst into bloom!

Tell us more about your main character, Inspector Betancourt.

Betancourt is a Eurasian detective who was a rising star in the CID. We meet him following an incident that cost him both his family and his career and he now works the relative backwaters of the Marine Branch, where he spends his time catching petty smugglers and unscrupulous importers. When the body of a young Japanese woman is found dead near a ship owned by a mercantile baron, he seizes the opportunity to find justice for the woman in the face of colonial indifference and to find out what really happened to his missing wife, Anna.

The novel is set at the start of World War II. How difficult is it to research the period and get the details right?

It was of paramount importance to me that the novel was as authentic as it could be and I spent a lot of time on the research. There was a fair bit of factual history available, and there was also memoir-type material written by colonial expats, but I found there was very little in the way of written social history that described what life was like for the Asian population living under colonial rule – the hundreds of thousands of Malays, Chinese, and Indians who had come to Singapore looking for work. Some of the best resources were photographs depicting the lives of the local people, and my imagination took it from there.

When did you first decide to become a writer?

There’s a long version of this and a shorter version. I’ll spare you the long version! When I was about fifteen or sixteen doctors confined me to complete bed rest for about six weeks. My mother’s way of dealing with a bored teenager was to bring home armfuls of books from the library, a large number of which were crime novels, and I devoured them. One novel in particular (I forget the name, I’m afraid) described how a gang performed a most daring, audacious, and ultimately successful diamond robbery, and I knew then I had found my calling: I wanted to be a diamond thief. That didn’t work out so I chose writing about crime instead.

What is your favourite book from your childhood?

I have always loved quests and adventures, so I’d have to say Treasure Island.

Who is your biggest inspiration as a writer?

That’s a really tricky one. I’d like to think that the more I’ve read, the more I’ve learnt about writing and, like everyone, I have writers I greatly admire. Currently, two of my favourites are Mick Herron, with his superb Slough House series, and a scandalously underappreciated Australian writer named Peter Temple, who is sadly no longer with us. But if there was one writer who actually inspired me to take up pen and paper and try to write when I was young it would be Dick Francis, whose books I read and re-read until they were falling apart.

What advice would you give to an aspiring writer?

Read, read, read. It may be a cliché, but if you really want to learn how to write then learn to read not just for entertainment but read between the lines as well. Find writers you admire, put on a pair of x-ray specs, and work out they do what they do.

What are you reading at the moment?

I usually have about half-a-dozen books on the go at any one time but I've not long started We Were the Salt of the Sea by and I'm loving it.

What has been your favourite book of 2020?

I probably won’t catch up on 2020 until about 2023, but I was pleased to see John Banville finally dropping the Benjamin Black disguise and writing a crime book in his own name.

If you could meet any writer, living or dead, who would you like to meet?

That’s another hard one but I’ll go with Carl Hiaasen, the American satirist. If he’s even half as funny in person as he is on paper, that will do me.

What's your writing routine like?

It usually involves me grabbing myself by the collar and saying ‘Sit down and write!’ in a stern voice.

What attracted you to joining Hobeck Books?

I really wanted a publisher who shared my enthusiasm for the novel and when I spoke with Adrian and Rebecca, I found their energy and enthusiasm infectious and I knew I’d found the right home for Betancourt.

Welcome, Mark, you are the last but by no means least, addition to the 2020 team. We can’t wait for 2021 to start.

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