As explained in this book review, I met Michael Knaggs at Waterstones in Hull, where he impressed me with his willingness to engage with the general reading public without ‘hard-selling’ his book. I have since got to know him more and he is an enthusiastic and charming author. His third book in the Hotel St Kilda trilogy is about to be published and I seriously enjoyed Catalyst, the first book in the series. Find out more about this Hull-born author in the interview below, in which he demonstrates that there is more than just one way to become a successful author…
Please introduce yourself and give us a bit of background to your life and career.
I was born in Hull in 1944 and lived there until just after my 22nd birthday. During that time I attended Hull Grammar School where I wrote a short story for a school magazine which, 55 years later, turned up again as the opening scene in my first book!
After attaining a Higher National Diploma in Chemistry at Hull Technical College, I moved to Thurso, Caithness, in 1967 to work as an Experimental Officer at Dounreay Atomic Power Station, and relocated to Salford to complete a degree in Chemistry two years later. There at the University, in addition to getting my degree, I got a wife as well – Carol, who worked in the laboratory there.
From there up to my retirement in 2005, I worked for Kellogg Company – the global breakfast cereal manufacturers – latterly as HR Director with responsibility for Pay and Benefit policy across the Company’s European area operation.
I live in Prestwich, Manchester, with Carol, my bride of 45 years! Our great passion is hill-walking and we do at least one long distance walk each year. This year we are undertaking the West Highland Way for the second time and later in the year will be tackling the Wolds Way in East Yorkshire – close to my home. We have two children and two grand-children, all of whom live close to us.
How long have you been writing, and why did you decide to publish a novel?
I began writing after I retired at the end of 2005. But long before then I had the story very clearly formed in my mind and the first thing I did before starting on the manuscript was to set it out in full in abbreviated form. And although I had never written a book before I must have produced the equivalent in length of about ten or fifteen over the years in the form of reports, employee policy documents and communications, presentations, talks, speeches, training courses, etc. So at least the process of stringing words together was a natural one for me.
It was never my intension to write a trilogy. I simply had a story I wanted to tell which was too long for a single book, so I ended up with an accidental trilogy!
Tell us a little bit about Catalyst- ‘sell’ your book to our readers!
Catalyst is a crime/political thriller dealing with street crime and, more specifically, how to tackle it in the context of the wider issue of law and justice.
When three brothers, leaders of a brutal street gang, are lured to an isolated cul-de-sac and shot dead by a mysterious stranger, the subsequent euphoria on the estate where they lived is picked up by the national press. Tom Brown, a Member of Parliament for the Opposition Party, whose constituency includes the estate, seizes the opportunity to exploit the story by leading a crusade to implement a New Justice Regime which would include uncompromising methods for tackling street gangs.
The book follows Tom’s efforts to win support – assisted by a local campaigner, George Holland, and a freelance reporter, Tony Dobson – along with the parallel story of the hunt for the killer. When the killer is eventually caught and sentenced, the two storylines come together in dramatic fashion. At the same time the gang sets out for revenge, targeting George and descending in large numbers on the quiet village where he lives, armed and ready to kill.
Meanwhile, Tom’s Party leader, Andrew Donald, is pursuing his own agenda….
I believe the book will appeal to a wide variety of readers of all ages. It features heroic characters of all types and vintages who I hope people will readily identify with.
What research did you undertake for the book? How did you manage the capture the voice and tone of the various environments within the story – the gang culture, the political and policing environments, the court room?
Researching the book was one of the most fulfilling parts of the whole experience – and in some ways, it was very easy. Through Wikipedia and Google you can find out every bit of information that has ever been discovered, recorded, collected, hypothesised or anything. This created a temptation for me to include a mass of technical, factual data which added nothing to the story, but made me sound very smart and knowledgeable. I’ve learned my lesson, though, and only the essential bits go in to the stories now!
I also met with a number of people – political representatives, lawyers and members of the police – who helped me a great deal and to whom I shall be ever grateful for their time and interest, as well as the great incites into their areas of work – and without the attendant extraneous information I’d got from other sources.
I see that your wife is also the book’s illustrator – it captures the book perfectly. What was your experience working together creatively? Was there much trial and error?
Carol is a water-colour artist whose preferred subject matter is pastoral landscapes and pet portraits, so the cover images were well outside her normal comfort zone. Working together on the cover designs was really great and all credit to Carol for producing exactly what I had envisaged for both books. It must be difficult enough for an artist getting onto paper or canvas what is in their own mind. It’s a step beyond that producing what is in someone else’s mind. Yes, there was a lot of trial and error – though perhaps ‘error’ isn’t the right word. And with the second book – Heaven’s Door – after we had seemingly wrapped up the artwork, I realised the image was the wrong way round to how I had described it in the book – so Carol re-drafted it, with – I have to admit – amazing patience and calm!
You clearly love crime writing – so, why this genre?
Up to when I retired I didn’t read much at all, but what I did enjoy mostly was crime fiction. But the main reason is the nature of the story itself which had been growing in my mind for a couple of decades, stemming from the short story I wrote at grammar school and expanding into this substantial saga. That story was about street crime so that’s the genre where it fitted. I didn’t choose to become a crime writer, as such; it just happened that’s where the story fitted.
I met you at a book signing in Waterstones – why do you think it’s important to engage with readers face-to-face, and what do you enjoy about marketing your work? Is there anything you feel that authors need to do more of?
Because of my virtual anonymity in a genre which is saturated with books, authors, and manuscripts waiting to become books, I have to get to people as best I can to persuade them to try my work. Meeting them in book shops is the best opportunity to do that. In fact, I sell the majority of my books at the sort of event where we met in Hull. If I had an agent and full PR behind me out in the market place, then I would not need to reach out to potential readers in this way. And whereas it would be nice to have someone out there promoting my work – I’d certainly relish that situation – I would miss out on one of the things I like most. That is the opportunity to share with people the journey that has brought me face to face with them in Waterstones or WH Smiths, or wherever. (Incidentally, I am exceptionally grateful to the store managers at all the branches of those stores where I have been given the opportunity to raise the profile of my books)
In so far as what authors should do more of, I’m not sure I can answer that for the whole spectrum of practitioners, but I would certainly encourage new authors to try what I do. It’s amazing how interested the reading public are in hearing about the process that turns an idea for a tale in someone’s head into a finished book or e-document. And also how prepared they are to try someone new.
Anything you feel that you’d like to learn more about?
I guess the simple answer is anything that will help me reach a wider readership. And I’m finding out more about that all the time through meeting people like you who are kind enough to take an interest and help me move forward.
Why did you choose to self-publish your work, and why did you choose to go through a self-publishing imprint of a traditional publisher? How did you come across them, and what have been the benefits of taking this route? How have they supported you?
In this genre and increasingly in others, publishers will not accept manuscripts directly from authors, only from literary agents. So to get ‘traditionally’ published an author needs to persuade an agent to represent them, and the agent must be engaged enough to feel they can persuade a publisher to take it forward.
The decision is based on risk – ‘will the book sell?’ – and not on quality, although obviously there is a quality threshold. I was advised from the beginning that I would have very little chance of getting an agent – who is someone looking for a career writer with whom to establish a long-term relationship which would need a lot of work at the start to raise the author’s profile. An old guy writing recreationally in retirement is not a good bet.
So self publishing was the only way forward if I wanted to fulfil my ambition. I chose Matador because they are the self-publishing arm of Troubador who are mainstream publishers, and also because they are recommended regularly by independent sources on self-publishing, e.g. the Writers’ and Artists’ Year Book. I have never regretted the decision and they have provided excellent support and advice throughout the production of the three books.
Why did you decide to tackle a controversial political subject in your book?
I’m afraid there’s a lot of me in the New Justice Regime and its provisions for dealing with people who set out to make other people’s lives a misery for no other reason than the fact that they are easy targets. I guess I’m into my Grumpy Old Man stage, but it goes further than that. I firmly believe that more should be more done to protect the victims and potential victims of street crime and less to understand and embrace the motives of the perpetrators. (This is where I could go on for several pages) Suffice to say, it could have been me making the speeches at the Old Bailey and the 3AF meeting.
Which characters do you particularly love in your books, and why?
That’s easy – my favourite characters are the two police colleagues, DCI David Gerrard and DS Jo Cottrell. They are close colleagues oozing respect for each other but also share a deep mutual affection. They are great vehicles for me to include all the light quips and comments that true friends will share and they serve to provide a lighter side to the darkness of the overall plot. I enjoy writing dialogue – which my editor thinks is my main strength – and have always thoroughly enjoyed putting together their exchanges.
What’s next for you and your books?
I promised both myself and Carol that I would retire again after completing the third book, which takes my original story to its conclusion. However, during the course of my writing I have had an idea for a fourth book – a sequel to the trilogy – which includes what I believe is a great twist and would provide a very satisfying conclusion to the whole saga. Whether I do this or not will depend on the reaction to my third book – which I, and my editor, believe is, by some margin, the best of all – and how I settle back to life without writing.
In so far as the three completed books are concerned, then I expect much of the same – introducing and promoting my work through book signings and through the numerous talks I have been invited to give to reading groups, creative writing groups and other organisations. Something else I enjoy very much.
We’ll see. But whatever happens, I have enjoyed the whole experience immensely and am quite proud of what I have achieved at a time in my life when I could have been excused for taking things easy!
Find out more about Michael Knaggs here.