Author Interview: Mark Beales

Tell us something about your book.

Did You Know? is a collection of trivia from around the world. It’s packed with the answers to life’s most nagging questions, such as ‘what’s the difference between a ship and a boat?’ and ‘who put the “s” in island?’

It also poses some killer questions linked to language and general knowledge. For example, can you name 6 countries that start and end with A?

There’s room for a chapter on the origin of idioms (such as the wonderful connection between stealing one’s thunder and an 18th century storm-making machine) and another on the often-dark histories behind our most famous nursery rhymes.

Who is the ideal reader for your book?

It’s for anyone who is fascinated by the world around us. I love discovering trivia and suspect most people do too. So it’s for those who want to celebrate all the pointless, but fascinating, pieces of knowledge that they store, and can’t ever let go of.

Share the best critique/review of your book.

“I really enjoyed this and found it a fun book to flip through while waiting in line and so on. It can be read start to finish or just opened to a random page and enjoyed. If you’re looking for a fun, quirky, educational diversion from the hum drum you won’t be disappointed.”

What inspired you to write it?

I’d been collecting trivia for years, I guess like everyone. There were little bits of information that refused to fade away and would occasionally pop up and remind me of their presence. For example, I know Pele’s real name is ‘Edson Arantes do Nascimento’. Now, I’ve no idea why that has stuck with me, but it has. It’s never once come in useful – you’d think it would pop up now and then in a pub quiz, but no.

I find it fascinating that we all have these little nuggets of knowledge locked away with us for no apparent reason, and wanted to collect as many of them as I could.

I’ve worked as a literature teacher at international schools in Thailand and Vietnam, and trivia came in very useful there. For some lessons, I would start with a question to get students thinking and engaged, such as ‘name 6 countries that only have 4 letters’. It went down well, so this got me thinking about compiling all these examples of trivia and language and sharing it.

What message would you like readers to take away from your book?

Life is wonderful and weird. I hope the readers enjoy diving in to this world of trivia and learn something new about the world around them.

Share an excerpt from your book.

What Rhymes With Orange?

It’s a cliché that nothing rhymes with orange. But there’s a reason for this. It’s because the word ‘orange’ is a mistake.

In most languages, the fruit is known as narang or narange. When the British started importing them in the 15th century, they followed along and called it a ‘narange’.

It seems that when people nipped down to the local market and asked for ‘a narange’, others thought they meant ‘an arange’, and confusion was born. Eventually the latter gained favour and the fruit became ‘an orange’. And as for the colour? The name for that didn’t come about until the early 16th century.

A Coffee Habit

‘Cappuccino’ gets its name from the 16th century Capucin monks. The connection? The colour of espresso and milk is similar to the monks’ brown robes. Not exactly. They wore a white cowl over the brown robe. Cappuccino, because the foamed milk is not mixed with the coffee, is brown below but white above. And while we’re here, espresso comes from the Italian for pressing, latte means ‘milk’ (so if you order a latte in Italy, you tend to just get milk) and, our favourite, affogato means ‘to drown’ (as the espresso is poured all over a gelato).

Where does ‘OK’ come from?

The word ‘OK’ itself is one of the most common in the world. Yet for years nobody knew where it came from.

As a word, it’s linguistically brilliant. Nearly every language has the sound ‘o’ and ‘k’ and the nice rolling rhythm of the two syllables make it sound attractive and balanced.

But despite its ubiquitous nature, there’s some debate about who came up with it. Whoever it was, it happened around 150 years ago, because there are no earlier records of it in print.

Among the more dubious theories are that US President Martin Van Buren used the term ‘Vote for OK’ in an 1840 campaign; a reference to his nickname ‘Old Kinderhook’. Others reckoned it came from an army biscuit, Orrin Kendall.

The debate rumbled on until the 1960s, when etymologist Allen Read stepped in.

The Boston Morning Post was the unlikely place to find the answer. In 1839, in a small column using even smaller font, there was a story about grammar. At the end, there was note saying everything was O.K., standing, phonetically, for ‘all correct. Apparently, there was a thing at the time for crazy abbreviations; Bostonians duly thought this hilarious. It was used again a few editions later, and then other newspapers picked up on the phrase. Before long, US presidential hopefuls were using it in their campaigns, and the word was born.

Did you dare to believe that your book will be published when you started writing?

Yes. I read some good advice once, it may have been from Stephen King, who said you have to think of yourself as a writer. Someone who says they write as a hobby or just for fun doesn’t have the right mindset. So I tell myself I’m a writer and, as simple as that sounds, it helps give you belief that your work will find an audience.

How many times were you rejected?

At least a dozen. But there were also some very helpful responses with practical advice, and I really appreciated that. It’s a tough time for everyone and this book’s in quite a niche market, so I knew it would be a tough sell.

Was the process of looking for an agent/publisher discouraging?

Not especially. I think if you believe in what you’ve written, that’s the most you can hope for. You want others to come along for the ride and share your enthusiasm, but I’m pragmatic enough to know that not everyone’s going to. There are myriad reasons why that may be, and only some of them could be to do with your actual book.

How long did you write the first draft? And how long did the editing and re-editing take?

The first draft took about 3 months to put together – I already had numerous notes and examples that I’d collected from over the years. I needed to put them into shape and add a structure and theme to the novel, that’s where most of the work took place. I did various edits to polish everything, which took me an extra couple of months.

Can you share your writing rituals/habits/process?

I write in the evenings, after my two children have gone to bed. That gives me 3-4 hours, if I’m lucky. I can’t have any distractions when I’m writing, so the phone and TV have to be off and it needs to be pretty quiet. Quite often the first few lines are a struggle and I can play with them for a long time but, when they click into place, usually the rest follows and I build up a rhythm. I try not to edit too much as I go along, but often can’t help myself.

Who was your first literary crush?

I remember reading Thomas Hardy when I was at school. His descriptive passages and dense

syntax really made me aware of how powerful literature could be. Tess of the d’Urbervilles really stood out for me for both the story and the beautiful way that Hardy would invite you in to these little parts of rural England. After reading that, I remember having the first inkling that writing was something I wanted to do as a career.

Did you imagine yourself as an author in your teens?

Originally I was going to be Liverpool’s next goalkeeper, but that never quite worked out. I always loved reading, not just for the pleasure of it, but because I often had a feeling that I could also produce something that others would want to read. When I was 18, I got a scholarship to study journalism and I went off to college. A year or so later I was getting news stories published and the buzz of having the daily papers arrive and seeing your byline on the front page was immense.

What was the first book that made you fall in love with reading?

The first book I remember reading was ‘The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe’ by C.S. Lewis. My parents took me on a caravan holiday on the Isle of Wight in the south of England when I was about seven. Being an English summer holiday, it rained almost every day, which gave me ample time to read the novel several times. I loved the wonderful illustrations by Pauline Baynes and the ethereal feel of Narnia. At the time, I didn’t get any of Lewis’ religous allusions, but I didn’t need to. It was just the surreal sense of being a part of the magical forest that was enough to get me hooked.

Did a book ever make you cry? (Which one?)

There have been several. The one I remember most was A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving. It’s such a beautiful, poignant story with such a fragile character. I remember thinking as I got to the last few pages how I really didn’t want the story to end.

Which literary character did you want to take to bed as an 18-year-old?

Great question. I would imagine it was probably Shakespeare’s Juliet, especially after having watched the 1968 film version with Olivia Hussey.

Do you sing under the shower? Or to your plants?

I do sing in the shower – the acoustics are wonderful.

Do you like to cook? What is your specialty?

I do like cooking but rarely have the time. My wife does spectacular Thai food once in a while, but I’ll tend to go for Italian dishes. I wouldn’t say there’s too much special about my specialities – when it comes to cooking, I know what I like rather than like what I know.

Do you have a pet?

We currently live in a condo in Saigon so pets would be tricky. My son Daniel is very keen for us to get a puppy.

What is the most romantic thing you ever did?

When I was first dating my wife, I used to write her acrostic poems each time we met. I’m not sure if she thought they were cheesey or cute, but she pretended to like them.

What is the most romantic thing someone did for you?

For me, the most romantic things tend to be the little, thoughtful touches rather than the big anniversary dinners. So I’m not one for huge gestures, I find romance is much more sincere when it’s spontaneous.

Do you believe in love?

Every time I get a hug from either of my children, yes.


Twitter: @markbeales1



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: