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Sunday, January 16, 2011

Awesome Authors: Michael Knudsen

Michael Knudsen's first novel, The Rogue Shop, was released last month, and he's already up for a Whitney Award.  For the uninitiated, the Whitneys are a special award given to LDS writers.

Let's find out about this brand new author.

He's lean.  He's mean.  He's a tuxedo machine!

But more importantly, he's our latest awesome author!

Mike, your first book, The Rogue Shop, was just published in December, and you're already nominated for a Whitney Award. How did you find out you were nominated, and what went through your mind?

It’s very exciting. I was informed of having sufficient nominations by the PR Director at Cedar Fort, who had been notified of the Cedar Fort nominees by the Whitney Committee. Nine months ago, I attended the LDStorymakers Conference (Who sponsor the Whitney Awards) for the first time. At that time, the manuscript for The Rogue Shop had been rejected by several publishers, and a couple of the editors who still had it in their slush piles were at that conference.

I didn’t know anyone there, and I didn’t even have the guts to approach those editors and introduce myself. I remember all the excitement leading up to the Whitney Gala on the last night of the conference, and seeing the photos and results on the web the next morning. I distinctly remember something stirring in my gut, and the feeling, “I want to be there.” Of course, many books are nominated, and the finalists won’t be announced until February 1, but it’s a thrill just to see my title associated with the words “Whitney Award.”

Noted LDS author and editor Tristi Pinkston has called your book one of the best LDS fiction books ever. How do you feel about getting such high praise from the Utah writing community? Do you ever need to pinch yourself?

I’m black-and-blue from self-pinching. Tristi’s review is especially meaningful because she reads a lot of fiction and is honest with her opinion. I’m also thrilled with the positive review from Stephanie Black, a two-time Whitney winner and blogger who doesn’t often commit to reviews. Equally exciting, though, are the kind notes that are just now starting to come in from readers I don’t know from Adam. Several people have told me that my book has kept them up past midnight, and that’s a good thing for a storyteller to hear!

Tell us a little about The Rogue Shop.

The saga of Chris Kerry is a first-person narrative following the spiritual odyssey of one young man’s self-discovery. Having lost his parent in a car crash at the age of three, he is raised Baptist by his mother’s sister in suburban Houston. As a teen, he falls in with the wrong crowd and becomes involved in serious alcohol abuse. An accident he causes turns him around, and by age twenty he’s ready to spread his wings and start his own life. He lands a scholarship to the University of Utah, of all places, a destination his decidedly anti-Mormon aunt is not happy about.

She demands he take an oath on the Bible that he not get himself mixed up with Mormons. You can guess what happens, but I think you’ll be surprised with how it all unfolds. What might sound like a straight-forward conversion story for a young Texan somehow comes to involve ball gowns, a ballet performance, an Ivy-covered apartment building, intrigues among employees of a downtown Salt Lake City formalwear shop, an old German seamstress with a brilliant past long buried, and the consumption of raw spaghetti.

I was shooting for much more than the story of a young man’s connection with Mormonism in this book. I wanted something rich with the themes of personal heritage and legacy, something orphans often feel themselves lacking. I wanted a love story that focused on the spiritual side of romance and attraction, and the charisma generated by faith and virtue. I wanted to show the power that one person can have as a catalyst for positive change in the lives of others. Finally, I wanted to evoke both laughter and tears, with the kind of character-driven emotions I feel when I read my favorite books.

You worked at a tuxedo shop in real life. How much of the book is based on your own experiences?

In some ways, the real-life King’s Row Formalwear on South Temple Street IS Regal Formalwear. I worked there part-time while attending the University of Utah as a rental consultant. The store had been in business since the late 1940s and was an icon in downtown Salt Lake. For many years, it was THE place in town to get formal clothing and accessories.

I remember the first time I went down in the basement and saw a jumble of old mannequins and clothing from the 1950’s, covered with cobwebs. The sight transported me to another time and stirred in me the first inklings of a story. Yes, there was a little old lady with a German accent who worked as a seamstress in a room down there, though her background was nothing like Eva Gottlieb Chandler’s. Otherwise, the characters are entirely fictional, made who they are by the demands of a story sewn together from the cloth of my imagination. I don’t want anyone who worked with me back in 1988 to think any characters are based on them!

You started the book back in 1989 but didn't get serious about it until 2008. What made you get serious about it?

I like to tell myself that I just didn’t have the maturity and distance from my own employment at the formalwear shop to finish the book, but the decades-long delay also had much to do with procrastination and letting “life” intervene. About two years ago, I realized that I might very well be more than halfway through my life, and I had no published book. That jump-started things.

What were some challenges you faced while writing the book, and how did you overcome them?

At first I didn’t know what kind of book it would be. My first draft was aimed more toward a more neutral audience, only later becoming LDS-targeted. For the longest time I didn’t know exactly how it would end. Trying to do it all on my own without letting anyone see it for years was a bad move. Sharing it and opening it to criticism was a major step in putting together something coherent. I even hesitated to let my wife, who is not at all a writer, read a draft. Once I did, she surprised me with some terrific ideas that ended up as part of the plot and characterizations.

Can you describe your writing process?

It all starts with an idea or image like the mannequins in the basement. The feelings generated by the images start me thinking about people who become characters. To me plot is the most mechanical part of it, a chronological way to string together the events and epiphanies that make up a story. I start with an outline of less than two pages then charge ahead. Inevitably the story takes off well beyond the bounds of the outline, requiring another, more detailed outline.

This process continues until the ending is so clear that the middle becomes academic. I haven’t been able to form the habit of taking advantage of little pieces of spare time, which is another reason why it takes me years to write anything. It can take me as long as two hours to get “booted up” and have the words flowing freely.

How did you get connected with Cedar Fort?

Cedar Fort was one of six small, regional publishers I sent The Rogue Shop to on January 1, 2010. By the first of May I had five letters that were little more than form rejections, and one from Cedar Fort with a little more detail. The manuscript had made it beyond acquisitions to the selection committee. They “declined to publish” at that time, told me what they thought some good changes would be, and invited me to resubmit the revised manuscript. I didn’t need to hear it twice.

I went through my manuscript and made exactly the changes and improvements they asked for. They thought I referenced too much LDS doctrine for a book targeted to Mormons, so I cut pages of it out. They thought the climax was a bit too climactic, so I toned it down. I worked harder than at any other point on that revision, and had it back in the mail to them three weeks later.

My new cover letter showed in detail exactly where I had made the requested revisions and some others I had put in for good measure. The intention was to make it as easy as possible as soon as possible for them to reconsider a novel they had recently read. I had an acceptance letter a couple of weeks later.

What have you learned about the publishing industry that you didn't know before you were published?

I can only speak for my experience with the LDS market. The most surprising thing to me is how few Mormons actually read LDS fiction! Fourteen million people sounds like a fairly nice niche until you realize that only half of those speak English and only a third of those live within the distribution range of these little publishers. Oh, and maybe only a tenth of those have any interest in reading anything from those publishers. LDS fiction still suffers from a reputation developed in earlier eras when good writing was not as common in the market.

Many Mormons still have the attitude that fiction by Church members is bound to be cheesy, self-righteous, or just not good. That’s too bad, because there are some very, very good books out there now, and the LDS writer’s community is dedicated to producing great (in every way) stories. The advent of the LDStorymakers group and the Whitney Awards is working wonders to bring LDS fiction “out of obscurity”, but there are miles yet to go.

I saw you had a great launch party for the book. What do you think of when you remember that event?

I had no idea what to expect or if anyone would show up. I will never forget the warm feelings when my friends, family and co-workers lined up as soon as the doors opened, and I signed books as fast as I could for nearly 45 minutes before the first lull. Some of these people may never read my book, and some who do may not even like it, but they bought it anyway just because they know me, and most importantly, they showed up to support me. If only every signing appearance could be like that!

What are your future projects?

Going back to the ideas and images that become books, I’ve been haunted for decades by the picture of a simple stick of wood, a knotted tree branch about the size of a walking stick. It’s not just any stick, though. It’s indestructible and has unimaginable powers in the right hands.

This is the genesis of The Veilwood Trilogy, an epic fantasy for which I have notes dating back to my first year in high school. This is a much bigger and more ambitious project than The Rogue Shop, aimed at the national market. Whatever happens with it, I’m sure it will provide me with a completely new range of experiences. I have about 120 pages of draft at this point.

Anything you'd like to add?

To those still working to get published: Keep the act of writing and your dreams of publication success separate. It’s okay to dream big, envision your name across that cover or topping the bestseller list. Just don’t let the gap between that dream and where you are now stop you from moving. The daily act of writing is the single most important stride you can take toward that dream.

Don’t spend time waffling over whether you have any talent or if you’re just wasting your time. If you have a nagging desire to write (not just to have written something) that won’t go away no matter how you try to distract yourself, you are talented. It’s that simple. I don’t believe God plants a worthwhile desire in our hearts unless we are gifted with the wherewithal to fulfill it. Some seem more talented than others, but work is the great equalizer. Get in the habit of working hard toward what you want to accomplish. When I finally got that, I moved quickly toward the realization of my dream.

Congratulations on your book, Mike, and good luck at the Whitneys!  I'm nearly finished reading "The Rogue Shop" myself and will post a review soon.

Mike may not know it, but his blog, which you can read here, contains one of my favorite pictures ever!   Can you guess why?

That's right! It's a picture he took of new Cedar Fort releases.  Both our books are on the same book case, baby!  See, we're practically twins..except he's got hair and a fancy tuxedo.  Buy Mike's book here.


  1. Excellent interview! I just read the Rogue Shop this weekend.

    So glad to have found your blog Dan. My post of your book is going to be up today. (1-17-11) Yeah!

  2. Sheila, thank you so much for that wonderful review! I tried to post a comment on your blog, but I couldn't for some reason. I really appreciate what you said, and several people have mentioned the scene with the Salvation Army Captain as particularly insightful.

    In retrospect, I too, wish I had written a little more about the other churches I visited! There is so much we can all learn from each other.

  3. Great interview and review Dan. Thanks for sharing.


  4. Randall, thanks! I'm glad you liked the interview.