Why would anyone want to publish a squalid little story from a dirty Northern town? The question came from a London-based publisher about Leeds author Ray Brown’s novel Whoosh! But it aptly characterises Nathan O’Hagan’s breakout book The World is (Not) a Cold Dead Place and the precise reason why we chose to publish it.
It’s no secret Armley Press’s ‘punk publishing’ ethos is anti-Southern favouritism, taking a punt on books that big houses, with their commercial slant towards celebrity/photogenic authors, won’t touch, however well-written or not.
The wind of change came in the mid-90s, when award-winning author Timothy Mo dumped Chatto & Windus to form his own Paddleless Press. All seemed to go tits up when critics mauled Brownout on Breadfruit Boulevard for its opening sex scene in which shit meets chest, but Mo bounced back, albeit a decade later, with two stonking novels full of language, characters and attitudes all the ‘safe’ houses normally cry shy of.
Nathan O’Hagan spent ten years honing his Birkenhead-set tale and banging his head against the mainstream publishing wall. All they did was encourage him to bang harder. When I received it a year ago, one bit stood out as a challenge to Mo’s copraphilia act, and made me immediately want to publish the shit out of it (snare roll, cymbal crash). It was also the best new novel I’d read since We Need to Talk about Kevin.
O’Hagan wears his influences on his sleeve, crediting Taxi Driver and Fight Club with inspiration. Like Travis Bickle, Gary Lennon, the first-person anti-hero of The World…, is an uneasy loner, and whose problems, like those of Fight Club’s ‘Narrator’, exist largely in his own head. In the book as much as in those two movies, externalising the inner demons, releasing them into the real world, provides great drama, with added insight along the way.
The first thing I asked Nathan when we met was if Gary – with all his heartfelt anti-social compulsions – was him. In the past, to some extent, he admitted. I wondered how he’d deal with success, I was that sure that his book was that good. I needn’t have worried. Since its publication a couple of months ago it’s garnered praise and sales and its author has campaigned publicly and tirelessly. Film rights are being sniffed at and a cult is growing.
The World is (Not) a Cold Dead Place taps into suppressed frustrations we all feel in our daily lives, but only through Gary, through fiction, can we get our fix of catharsis. Gary is an übermensch, an outsider with a singular morality we covet but are too scared, or sensible, to share the burden of.
And he’s a Northern bad boy, one of our own. So up yours, London media mafia. Sabotage Times proprietor James Brown, a Northern lad himself, described it as ‘dark, funny, shitty, violent and moving’. As I stare out the window at rain pissing on the grey streets of Leeds on Bonfire Night, that’s good enough for me.
John Lake’s novel Amy and the Fox is out soon.