An interview with one of our recent signings, Mark West, whose first two thrillers have quickly shot up the charts and whose latest release is also proving popular with crime fiction fans.
TBF: What encouraged you to start writing?
MW: Would you believe it was STAR WARS? I was eight when it first came out and me and my friends loved it and I started to make up stories about the continuing adventures of the characters. I found I really enjoyed the writing – and I enjoyed it when people read my stuff and liked it – and kept going.
I discovered Stephen King and Clive Barker in my early teens, found that I adored horror fiction and decided to start writing my own. My tastes have changed over the years but it was that childhood love of fiction (both reading and writing) that set me on a writing path I’ve never really stepped away from since.
TBF: You still work as an accountant… ahem, so, tell us something interesting about yourself!
MW: I love being creative. For most of the time that revolves around writing prose but I also like to mess about on the guitar – I’m an adequate rhythm guitarist and, since the lockdowns, I’ve been trying to improve my ability to play riffs – and I love doing little bits and pieces of graphic design work. I also write the occasional song.
TBF: No, seriously, what kind of skills and qualities does such a profession require, and do they lend themselves to writing fiction? Or is fiction more of an escape from the matrix for you?
MW: In the main, my job involves me analysing figures and putting together budgets and schedules and that appeals to me because I’m one of those people who likes to plan. I do like to be spontaneous, obviously (enjoying a great relationship with my seventeen-year-old son means that, often times, spontaneous is the only way to do things), but I like to know if something’s coming up or we have to be somewhere at a certain time. I don’t know how much of that comes from my work environment or how much my own sensibilities chose my profession for me. With my writing, that makes me very comfortable with the whole planning process. I do mind-mapping, have lots of Post-it notes and little scraps of paper and I use spreadsheets to keep track of where I am and where I need to be.In general though, writing fiction is an escape from work.
TBF: You’ve mentioned “Friday night walks” in some of your acknowledgements. What are they then? Does it involve staggering back from a pub with a kebab?
MW: Ha! I can see why you’d think that but there’s no staggering back from pubs for me – I’ve been teetotal since my late teens. The “Friday night walks” came about from a long-standing friendship – David Roberts and I have known one another for almost 30 years and we’d long been in the habit of meeting up to go for a walk and ‘put the world to rights’. He’s a key trainer in the NHS and a keen proponent of mind-mapping and, in the past, he and I have worked through plot ideas for various stories I’ve been working on. When I decided to write my first mainstream thriller (I started out in the horror genre), I asked him if he’d mind doing some workshopping with me. He agreed, so, with his dog Pippa (who makes a guest appearance in ONLY WATCHING YOU), we set off on a walk one Friday night.
I had the basic gist of a plot – some ideas for characters and set-pieces – and we worked our way through them, putting bits and pieces together and creating a through-line (even though the ending, at that point, was ‘there’s a confrontation on some boats’). From there, we mind-mapped on his whiteboard and I took a picture of it and used that as the spine for the writing. Some ideas fell off without ever being written down and other set pieces suggested themselves as I went on but essentially the story came from that guideline. Once the book was underway, we’d talk through a section then I’d write it and we’d move on. I found it a great way to work, the walking was good fun and so was the plotting process and we’ve done it for all the subsequent novels too.
TBF: The first thriller of yours we published, DON’T GO BACK, seemed to touch a nerve – and particularly, I think because of the setting. The slightly eerie and seedy seaside town seemed to be something readers could connect with. Tell us more about the choice of place. Deliberate?
MW: I was very pleasantly surprised at how well people seemed to connect with DON’T GO BACK and although I think some liked the coming-of-age aspect to it, the setting really does seem to have struck a chord with most.
I’ve always been fascinated by seaside towns, especially the fact that we generally only see them for a week (or two, if you’re really lucky) out of a year, when the town is kind of on its best behaviour, but you have no proper sense of the reality of the place. I mean, does an out-of-season seaside town properly exist if it isn’t full of tourists? That very notion seems a bit eerie to me, as well as the thought that just off the beaten track of the bright lights and amusement arcades is a whole other world you don’t know about. I think it’s also true that for most people, their childhood holidays were in places like this – it’s a setting they recognise, it’s a period of time they often have strong feelings and memories about and the book taps into that. Interestingly, I’m not sure this kind of summer holiday is usual in the USA but the book seems to be doing well there too, though it could perhaps be that it’s very British-ness is the draw.
TBF: Where did you grow up and where do you live now?
MW: I have lived in Northamptonshire – ‘the rose of the shires’! – all my life and now live back in Rothwell, the town where I spent most of my childhood. I like it there because it’s relatively small, people are friendly and we’re right on the edge of the countryside. During the pandemics, I would go for walks with my son across the fields and we’d barely see anyone for hours.
TBF: How did you work the sense of place in your other two books?
MW: Both ONLY WATCHING YOU and THE HUNTER’S QUARRY are set in my fictional town of Hadlington which, for all intents and purposes, is Kettering in Northamptonshire where my wife and I lived before we had our son. I also add in little elements of Rothwell and Leicester where they’re needed.
I spent a bit of time making sure this town was consistent in my head – where the streets and parks and shopping areas were – and the bulk of it is taken directly from reality. The main location in THE HUNTER’S QUARRY, for example, is a housing development on the edge of town. In real life, the road that leads to it actually goes to the town of Pytchley but the farmhouse and fields are in another part of Kettering altogether. As a writer (and a reader too), sense of place is very important to me – I need to understand where things are happening and where the characters are in relation to each other and landmarks – and my mix-and-match process works perfectly. I can choose a place and go and look and have a walk around and take pictures and then if I need something else, a little extra piece of geography, I can just add that in.
The ending for ONLY WATCHING YOU was originally going to take place on a boat I’d seen from a train once but it didn’t quite work and I had that nagging feeling at the back of my mind that I’d made the wrong choice. Then on one of our Friday night walks we were in Burton Latimer and passed this odd little boat-house/barn thing on a residential street and that was perfect. For the story I made it much bigger and put it into a different location but essentially that’s where it came from.I think this is partly the reason I use a fictional town – it’s a holdover from my horror-writing days when I was always worried I’d inadvertently have something horrific happen in a real person’s house or field!
TBF: What are you writing at the moment?
MW: I am currently close to finishing the first draft of my fourth thriller novel – which I’m hoping will be my next title from The Book Folks – that is set in Seagrave again. It takes place in 1985 (though readers might recognise a couple of landmarks from DON’T GO BACK) and concerns a local girl who goes missing and the efforts of friends to try and find her. However, when she turns up dead, the mystery gets deeper and much darker. It’s been a tough first draft to write because so much has happened since I started it – my father passed away, I revised the manuscripts for ONLY WATCHNG YOU and THE HUNTER’S QUARRY and had a bout of covid – but I’m enjoying it.
TBF: Sorry for your loss. What are you reading at the moment?
MW: I’m just about to finish GOD SAVE THE CHILD, by Robert B. Parker. I try to read across genres because I think it adds depth to my writing and tend to alternate between crime, thrillers, psychological fiction and horror. Plus the occasional Three Investigators book, which are always welcome re-reads.
Links to Mark’s three thriller titles can be found on his author page. Stay connected to be the first to hear about his next book.