Author Q&A: Nathan O’Hagan

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Birkenhead-born Nathan O’Hagan paints a grimly familiar picture of his hometown in his debut novel. The World Is Not A Cold Dead Place (Armley Press, £8.99) follows protagonist and anti-hero Gary, whose antisocial behaviour is a symptom of mental ill health, as he is forced unwillingly back to reality.

Are many of Gary’s traits autobiographical?
Yes. Or at least they were when I was writing the novel, particularly the early drafts. I had OCD – still do, in fact – but it was much more pronounced back then. And I was certainly hurtling down the “angry loner” road. I’ve never been as hostile as Gary, and I’m considerate of other people’s feelings, unlike him. So, to be honest, there wasn’t a huge amount of research necessary. There was a lot of drawing on personal experience, which I then had to make work dramatically.

How damaging are the DWP’s fit-for-work assessments for people with mental health problems?
Funnily enough, I actually wrote the novel under the last Labour government, but then the change of government – first the so-called coalition, then the Tory majority government – happened. As the DWP changes came in, and the true horror of them was being revealed, it struck me how similar Gary’s situation is to what so many people with all kinds of disabilities are being put through. Of all disability groups, because mental illness is sort of unseen, it makes sufferers perhaps more of an easy target. That certainly seems to be the case with the new assessments. But, in his defence, Iain Duncan Smith does seem to be setting out to destroy ALL people with disabilities. He’s pretty indiscriminate in his inhumanity.

Why do you think Birkenhead has particularly bad social problems compared with other parts of Merseyside?
Birkenhead suffers from the same social problems as towns up and down the country, with all the usual causes. The north suffered greatly under Thatcher, and I think Birkenhead has struggled to recover from the heroin epidemic of the eighties.

Gary is scathing about his hometown but also protective – is that how you feel about Birkenhead?
Definitely. I don’t live on Merseyside anymore, but Birkenhead is my town. Most of my family live there. It’s got some great architecture, some great pubs, and some great people. But only an idiot would deny the huge social problems the town has.

To what extent do other mediums, like cinema and music, influence your writing?
Massively. Taxi Driver is as important to me as The Outsider, The Big Lebowski as important as A Confederacy Of Dunces. And music was my first love, and will probably always be the most important thing for me. There’s just something so direct and immediate about music that no other medium can quite match. I nicked the title of the novel from an Explosions In The Sky album, The Earth Is Not A Cold Dead Place. I just thought world fitted better for me than earth.

Music has traditionally been an outlet for rebellion, and a place for the disenfranchised to find a voice. Is literature less so?
I’ve always found as much solace in books as in music. In terms of the people creating the art, I think outsiders and rebels are represented as much in literature as they are in music, but in terms of the industries themselves, the book industry always seemed a much more conservative place, though that was probably a very naïve view. If anything, the music industry is even more risk-averse.

How hard was it to get mainstream publishers to look at your book?
It was incredibly hard. I received the standard rejections, and was pretty sure most never read past the synopsis, and some probably not even that far. One of the main London publishers did show some interest, eventually giving really generous feedback, but passing without much explanation as to why. That was incredibly frustrating, so I was very happy when I found Armley Press.

Antonia Charlesworth

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