In an ideal world, in order to write this, I would have been walking around Pagham Harbour and Pagham Lagoon near Chichester in the UK, chatting to Graham Minett about his fourth novel The Syndicate. There are no boats, it’s a nature reserve, popular with birdwatchers, with some narrow pathways where you need to be careful to maintain social distancing. There would be tons of different birds . . . swans, terns, plovers, oystercatchers, moorhens – from his office Graham can hear magpies, seagulls and blackbirds, but down at the harbour (about 15 mins walk from his house) you hear the beating of the swans wings as they take off and the sound of geese flying in formation. It’s a pretty special place to live – and to write. But it’s been almost three years since his last book, so I (from my desk in Dublin) I wanted to know more about the process and inspiration for The Syndicate, and why the break.
Graham explains: “Anyone outside my immediate circle could be excused for thinking I had been taking a major break from it all, but the truth is I’ve been writing most days. Unfortunately it hasn’t always been as well directed as it needed to be and it’s largely thanks to my editor, Katherine Armstrong at Bonnier, and my agents, Lisa and Zoe from Coombs Moylett Maclean, that I’ve managed to find my way through it all.”
So where was it going wrong ?
Graham told me that the initial problem was that by the time Anything For Her (his third book) was published, he was already a good way through the first draft of another novel which he was expecting to be book 4: “Once I’d finished it however, my editor felt it needed to be put to one side. She had a very clear view of the direction in which my writing needed to go and felt that I needed book 4 to make more of an impact. I was asked to take a month or so and come up with a proposal that might be more compelling.”
Yikes! Not what any writer wants to hear – feeling his pain, I asked Graham how it felt to be asked to shelve a first draft he’d already completed?
“The writer always thinks he’s right, of course . . . which is why we need editors. I wasn’t too pleased at first, but Katherine is there to have an overview which I can’t possibly be expected to have. The writer is always too heavily invested in a project from an emotional point of view to see the bigger picture and it was a brave call from her, one for which I’m now more than grateful.”
I could imagine many writers could be paralysed by having this much work put to one side. I asked Graham how long it took him to come up with a proposal for a different book entirely?
Graham told me: “Not as long as you might imagine. I usually have a few ideas floating around at any given time and it’s not as if I was being asked to produce a detailed breakdown of what happens in each chapter so I came up with a proposal for Bonnier to consider.”
And that, presumably, was The Syndicate?
I can hear Graham smiling, “Well . . . sort of. To be honest I was quite taken by a couple of ideas and wondered about combining them in the same novel. Luckily Katherine recognised immediately that these two storylines were fighting each other for space rather than contributing to a coherent whole. She suggested a better idea would be to treat them as two separate novels, so I came back with two proposals, one of which was for The Syndicate. There wasn’t a lot of debate about which would get the nod.”
I loved The Syndicate, it has an absolutley gripping opening . I asked Graham to sum up the plot. As he explained: “Essentially it’s the story of a man named Jon Kavanagh and his search for redemption. He’s 63 and for twenty years he’s been leading an anonymous and uneventful life, running a bookshop in Wareham, Dorset. He’s something of an introvert, uncomfortable around others and self-conscious about an unsightly scar which covers half of his face, a legacy from a bomb blast when he served in the army as a young man. Over the years the locals have grown accustomed to him and respect his need for privacy.
What no one knows however is that before he came to Wareham he was an intimidating and, when necessary, ruthless enforcer for an organised crime syndicate in London. Seriously disillusioned with the life he was leading, he earned for himself the dubious distinction of being the only person ever to walk away from the syndicate. He was able to achieve this by brokering a non-aggression pact with Maurice Hayes, his boss whom he used to look upon as a father figure. He made it clear he had managed to compile more than enough evidence to cause immense damage to the syndicate if anyone even thought of coming after him.
The ‘nuclear deterrent’ has held ever since, but twenty years is a long time and things have changed in London. Maurice has died and decisions are now being taken by others who view Kavanagh’s defection all those years ago as a dangerous precedent which might tempt others to try the same. He’s a loose end that needs to be tidied up.
The syndicate has always known where Kavanagh is. Now they’re coming after him.”
And there are some wicked twists with a genius ending that I loved! One of the key things about Graham’s writing is his ability to communicate character so deftly – his writing is a joy to read. But what are Graham’s plans from here on in? Has he already started work on book 5?
“To be honest, most of the writing I’ve been doing recently has revolved around editing The Syndicate and creating opportunities to publicise it – that’s going to be crucial in the current climate. I have had a few thoughts about the next book though…One possibility cropped up in a conversation with an old friend I hadn’t seen since we were teenagers. I discovered about a secret life he had which was ridiculously dangerous and have his blessing to work it into a storyline, assuming I can come up with the right framework. I need to travel to Winchcombe though to spend an evening tying up the details so it’s on the back burner for now.
And in true blue sky thinking novelist fashion, I still haven’t given up entirely on that initial book 4, which I was asked to shelve for the time being. Lisa and Zoe, my agents, who only took me on as a client a few months ago, asked if they could have a look at it and are enthusiastic about the possibilities, as long as I shift the emphasis and address the glaring weaknesses which caused it to be put in a drawer in the first place. I’m looking forward to seeing what I can do with it.”
Writing is never wasted, so let’s hope the sun shines on Graham’s blue sky thoughts! In the meantime you can pick up The Syndicate and indulge in some brilliant characterisation and a twisty unexpected plot, links below 🙂
(c) Sam Blake & G.J. Minett (socially distanced by the Irish Sea…)
About The Syndicate:
Gangs of London meets Martina Cole in this gripping thriller of betrayal and survival in a world where one mistake could cost you everything.
YOU THINK YOU’RE FREE, BUT THEY’LL NEVER LET YOU LEAVE . . .
Twenty years ago, Jon Kavanagh worked for a crime syndicate.
Then one night he made a mistake.
He left a witness at a crime scene. Alive.
Now, he is haunted by the memories of that young girl. Her face a constant reminder of the life he chose to leave behind. Time has passed and now he wants answers: What ever happened to her?
Anna Hill is an aspiring singer, but the bars and clubs she works in are far from exciting. When she is given the opportunity to work in Portugal, she takes it. This is her chance to finally kick-start her career.
But the job offer comes at a price; one that will endanger the lives of those she knows, and those she doesn’t. Becoming involved with the Syndicate is risky, and Anna will need her instincts to work out who to trust – and who not to . . .
Published 9th July 2020. Pre-order your copy online here.