A second career as a travel writer—an interview with Keith Hockton

By David Hammond

Keith Hockton is a
 Penang-based author,
writer, and publisher
Keith Hockton was always a good storyteller.

At age 12, he wrote an English essay about an old man eating dinner that included a line he still remembers:

  …and his spoon splashed into his bowl of lukewarm watery soup causing it to spill on his already dirty trousers.

“The essay itself wasn’t so great,” recalls Keith. “But that one sentence—it was visual.”

It raised the idea his storytelling ability might cross over into writing.

Decades later, after university and a career in banking, Keith gave writing a try.

Living in Australia and Keith’s first published work 

Keith, an Australian, retired from his Hong Kong bank position in 1998. With no more work strings, he and his wife traveled in India for six months before retiring in Australia.

“When I retired I really didn’t know what to do. So, I became a scuba diver, and then a dive instructor,” says Keith.

“However, I was frustrated there weren’t any books that told me where the best dive sites were. So, I did my own research and wrote a book that was picked up by Harper Collins.

"That book, Atlas of Australian Dive Sites-Travelers Edition, became a bestseller in Australia.

"What that told me was that I could write."

A move to Malaysia and a second career as a writer 

In 2010, Keith and his wife moved from Australia to Malaysia's island state of Penang. There, they enjoy a comfortable life that includes a wide range of social, cultural, and outdoor opportunities—at a cost much lower than Australia.

Penang’s colonial architecture captured Keith’s attention.

It inspired him to research and write another book. This time a history, titled: PENANG- An inside guide to its historic homes, buildings, monuments, and parks. 

He partnered with a local photographer, Howard Tan, who provided images for the book, published in 2012. (A revised edition was published in 2017.)

Keith continued to research and deepen his understanding of Penang’s history.

In 2013, he wrote the script and co-directed a film about the Japanese invasion and occupation of Penang after the British left. The film, 1941 -The Fall of Penang, was purchased by The History Channel.

In 2015, Keith published another book: Festivals of Malaysia.

Keith explains, many of Malaysia’s festivals have Chinese, Malay, or Indian roots.

As a neutral party, he was in a good position to research and write about the festivals of all the cultures.

During his research, he learned many of Malaysia’s festivals, deemed not Islamic enough, have been phased out.

Speaking of this book, Keith says, “I think I was driven by its historical importance for locals. Because 20 to 30 years from now, these festivals might not be here.”

A second writing niche

While Keith built his writing reputation in Penang as a local historian; he, at the same time, developed a second writing niche: living abroad in Southeast Asia.

In 2012, Keith started writing articles about expat life in Malaysia for International Living Magazine.

Through travel and research, he expanded his knowledge to also cover expat opportunities in Thailand and Cambodia.

A publisher as well as a writer 

As an author, Keith developed ideas on how local publishing and book distribution practices could be improved.

So, in 2015, he co-founded Entrepot Publishing with fellow writer and historian, Marcus Langdon. With a local office and warehouse, the duo publish and distribute books in Malaysia and Singapore.

Keith dedicates a lot of hands-on time to the business, which already distributes more than 40 titles.

“It’s a passion,” says Keith, who is finding fulfillment in fostering new writers. "Last year we produced four books. This year we are looking at 10.”

Keith’s lifestyle as a writer 

Keith likes the writing process. “It gives me an expressive ‘Out.’ But it’s also a lonely profession,” says Keith.

While the writing itself is a solo activity, other aspects of Keith’s career involve more interaction, such as first-hand research and interviews. “I meet some very interesting people through it,” says Keith.

Besides writing, Keith devotes time to spin-off activities related to his writing niches.

In Penang, related activities include speaking at events, providing historical tours by appointment, and helping to organize exhibitions.

As an example, the 2015 Gurney Plaza Exhibition (part of Penang's George Town Festival) included 24 images from Keith’s book, Festivals of Malaysia, blown up to 30 feet in length.

Besides speaking in Malaysia, Keith has spoken in the US on numerous occasions. He has also presented in Hong Kong, Singapore, Sri Lanka, and Mexico.

Becoming a writer 

When asked what helped him prepare for a second career as a writer, he responded, “Reading a lot. I’m a voracious reader.”

Keith’s advice for others considering a second career as a writer: “Give it a go! You never know what you will produce and where it will take you.

“Pick a topic you are passionate about. That’s all-important because a reader will know if you are not passionate about your work.”