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Introducing Crime Author Michael Knaggs

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…

michael knaggs picture

 

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!

catalyst

My copy of Catalyst – as illustrated by Michael Knagg’s wife Carol

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.

Catalyst by Michael Knaggs

 

 catalyst

Today’s book review focuses on Catalyst by Michael Knaggs, a book which I was compelled to buy after Michael, very proactively, approached me in the Waterstones branch in Hull. I liked that it didn’t feel as though I was on the receiving end of a ‘hard sell’, he just really wanted to discuss his book with customers, regardless of whether or not they would be likely to buy it. For this reason, I decided to go with something different to what I would normally read. And it paid off.

When three brothers, the leaders of a brutal gang, are lured to an isolated street 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, an MP for the Opposition Party, whose constituency includes the estate, seizes the opportunity to exploit the story. Having built a reputation as a champion of law and order, he leads the crusade to implement a New Justice Regime with several supporters in tow, including local campaigner George Holland who embarks on a tour of the country to rally support for radical change.

When the killer is eventually caught and sentenced to life imprisonment, the gang sets out for revenge, targeting George for his outspoken condemnation of their activities and uncompromising proposals for their demise. They descend in large numbers on the quiet village where he lives, armed and ready to kill.

Meanwhile, Party Leader Andrew Donald is pursuing his own agenda…

 This intriguing novel, the first of the Hotel St Kilda books, contains themes of politics, crime and the military with family drama at its heart, creating a wide appeal for readers both young and old.

What’s great about Catalyst is that it strikes you from the very first paragraph. Kicking off immediately with tense and fast-paced action, the first scene sets the tone for the rest of the book. There certainly are no slow parts in the novel.

The second chapter, in which an incredibly shocking and controversial incident occurs, really is the catalyst for all that follows throughout the rest of the book. The whole narrative is a response to that first scene, and the action, intrigue and controversy never lets up. What particularly struck me about the book is how authentic it felt, even with quite an extreme and controversial subject matter.

As stated in the blurb, the book starts off with the ruthless gunning down of three notorious gang members who have been terrorising the village and local town for years. When you read this passage, a moral debate rages within your head: am I shocked and appalled at this seemingly cold-blooded murder, or on some level do I feel slightly satisfied that they got what was coming to them?

That is what the whole book really centres around: the question of taking justice into your own hands when the policing system seems powerless to intervene. And off the back of that, the Opposition party runs its own election campaign – to deal with gang members and violent offenders far, far more harshly and strictly than ever before…

Each character within this book felt really real. So much so, that I felt genuinely sad for the residents of Cullen Field. It’s a horrible thought that the kind of trauma and fear and intimidation that the residents of this book go through actually happens in real life. The subject matter of this book is incredibly topical.

Tom Brown, an MP within the Opposition Party, is smart, intelligent, good-looking and a radical thinker. That is one side of him that we are exposed to. The other side is an exposure of his insecurities, his marital problems, and his familial worries and joys. He often struggles to balance his work and his private life and they bleed into one another: something that I bet a lot of people can relate to. Tom Brown is likeable, but depending on your personal viewpoint, he is also lost in his own idealism and wishful thinking. It’s really interesting to try to make up your mind about him as reader, as you go through the book. His wife has many opposing views to his, and that heightens the tension and intrigue surrounding their family life.

Another fascinating character within the book is George Holland, a resident of Cullen Field, who helps support Tom’s vision and campaigns for radical change. I couldn’t help but love this character: he is slightly naive, a little out of his depth, but so convinced by the movement which promises to fight back against gang youths that he takes on the task of convincing the general public with growing enthusiasm. Even if you disagree fundamentally with the process that he is fighting for, you can’t help but love and sympathise with George.

The most intriguing, though, is Jad, the gunman who shoots the three gang members at the beginning of the book. As you go through the novel, his history and back story are revealed, and it’s so gripping. Equally as thought-provoking are his reasons behind his actions (why did he gun the gang down, when he hasn’t lived in Cullen Field in years? Why did he give a false name and identity even after being charged with murder?) and his relationship with Tom Brown and his family. There’s more than meets the eye there.

The writing style, for some reason, reminded me a little bit of John Grisham’s; not so much in style, although there are similarities, but more the effect of the narrative. Though fairly straight forward and devoid of unnecessary adjectives or poetic devices, it just sucks you in and compels you to keep on reading. It doesn’t beat about the bush: the author knows what his going on in his world and he tells you in no uncertain terms. But the style is engaging, and keeps the reader hooked throughout. I always found myself wanting to know more; wanting to know what was going to happen next.

A quite surprising outcome of reading this book was that it allowed me to understand the workings and mindsets of local politicians and their job roles. OK, so perhaps some aspects within the book might have been exaggerated or changed with artistic license, but being taken through the story from both private and political angles really helped me understand how events can shape political manifestos and campaigns. It also shows how gang violence affects every aspect of modern society. And the reaction to it in this book really is extreme. (But that’s what makes it all the more exciting to read.)

This book will most definitely appeal to all crime novels and thriller fans, which I think goes without saying. But I would urge people who would not normally read these genres (like myself) to give it a try, because it really is a great read.

I will be posting an interview with the author in a few days, but in the meantime, find out more about him here.

You can buy the book here on Amazon and on the Matador Books website.

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