When David Nolan wrote his debut novel Black Moss two years ago, it was almost as an experiment, an unpremeditated tangent to his successful career as a journalist, documentary maker and non-fiction author. Now a follow-up, The Mermaid’s Pool, is about to be published and, with his journalistic instincts fully intact, Nolan says: “Here’s your headline, it’s David Nolan’s difficult second novel.”
While Black Moss was a dark, locally-based thriller and, as Nolan himself would have it, ‘Manc noir’, set in 1990 at the time of the Strangeways riots, The Mermaid’s Pool takes place in 1988 with rave culture in full flow. It’s not a prequel but the two novels are certainly interconnected – not least because they come from the same impulse.
“I wrote Black Moss because I was really angry,” Nolan says. “I was really angry about child protection and the fact that, other than Madeleine McCann, no one can name any missing children in this country. So this time I thought, right, what am I angry about? I’m angry about the rise of the far right. I’m still angry about the murder of Jo Cox. I’m angry that last year, a neo-Nazi from Skelmersdale – Skelmersdale! – was jailed for plotting to behead the MP Rosie Cooper. In the 70s and 80s, things were written on walls as graffiti, things I’d thought had gone away, and that wall is now the internet.
“I was angry about moorland fires, too. From my house, which is in the south-east of South Manchester, I could see the moors above Oldham were on fire, through people’s stupidity or wickedness or whatever you want to call it. And I was angry that my wife had cancer, that I was sitting in The Christie with her, feeling like a spare part, wanting to say to the doctors, ‘look, take it out of her and give it to me’. I was angry about that. So I thought: ‘Well, there you go – neo-Nazis, moorland fires, cancer. I can work with that. I found out that’s the best way for me to write. Some people might need mood music and candles and things like that. I need to be really, really wound up about something.’”
Unsurprisingly given his journalism background, Nolan threw himself into the research for the book, talking to the Kinder Mountain Rescue Team, Greater Manchester Fire Service, former police detectives, erstwhile ravers and even a Conservative councillor from Stockport. The mountain rescue people were particularly useful in matters relating the nature spot of the book’s title.
“The Mermaid’s Pool is a real place,” Nolan says. “It’s a weird little pool of water near Kinder Scout. At the start of the book, a hand is found in Alexandra Park lake in Oldham and the rest of the body is found by the Mermaid’s Pool. The pool is actually salt water because it’s connected to the sea. The legend is that a mermaid lives there and if you go to see her on Easter Eve, she’ll give you eternal life. If she doesn’t like you, she’ll drag you down and kill you. It’s a strange, spooky place.”
Though the new novel links in with Nolan’s first book Black Moss, it’s not necessary to have read it. Nolan says: “I think The Mermaid’s Pool is unusual in that the lead character isn’t a person, it’s a family. The Smithdown family, the daughter is a journalism student. Dad is a detective, and Mum is in The Christie being treated. They were in Black Moss but were slightly peripheral to it. They’re now at the front. Some of the main characters from Black Moss are slightly at the back, and then, hopefully, with book number three, everyone will come together all nice and neat and then I’m going to retire. No, you laugh, I am.”
Nolan entered the world of fiction without a great deal of confidence. “I still have problems with the word ‘novelist’,” he admits, and the positive response to Black Moss genuinely took him aback. “Honest to God, it was just ridiculous. I remember being in the Trafford Centre and looking on Amazon just to see if anyone had reviewed it or anything. The first review came up and it was really good, really nice. I nearly burst into tears. I don’t tend to look at reviews and things like that because you’re just asking to be upset, really. But reading that one Amazon review, standing outside the toilets in the Trafford Centre… my wife was saying ‘what’s the matter?’. My bottom lip was trembling. ‘This bloke really likes it.’.”
He continues: “I was astonished, because people took it for what it was, that it wasn’t something that was in poor taste, rubbernecking about child abuse. It was a serious book with a serious point to be made, but a rip-roaring thriller at the same time. So I think that’s kind of what I do now. If you just want to think ‘this is an exciting novel about machete gangs in Oldham’, fantastic. If you take in the wider points about British nationalism and neo-Nazis, it’s up to you. Come for the machetes, stay for the political insights.”
Nolan also made a habit of rocking up at book club meetings if they happened to be discussing Black Moss. “Somebody told me they were doing Black Moss for their book club and I just thought, wouldn’t it be fun if I turned up? At these things they must wonder what the author was thinking about when he wrote the book. I said, ‘I’ll come along and I’ll tell you what was going through my mind. I’ll tell you what my motivation was.’ I would literally photobomb people’s book clubs. I’ve done it loads of times, I absolutely love it, it’s a hoot.”
One question that tends to come up from readers on such occasions is ‘why are you so obsessed with reservoirs?’.
“Black Moss, The Mermaid’s Pool and the [unwritten] third book are all named after bodies of water around Manchester and, yeah, I do absolutely adore reservoirs. From when I was a kid, we’ve got Super 8 film of me and my sisters going to Fernilee and those reservoirs all around the Goyt Valley. To go and walk round a reservoir on a Sunday, it was like a big day out when I was a kid. On that Super 8 footage, I look really happy, so reservoirs must be my happy place.
“I literally look at maps and think ‘ooh, I’ve not been to that reservoir’. I think they’re beautiful but I know that people look at that and go, ‘no, that’s just weird, mate’. But I get excited, I go and I collect them. At one stage I even had a MySpace page called ‘Reservoir King’ where I put my reservoir pictures and videos and things. You can go way up into the hills and they have these really, really remote reservoirs. There are no trees, no benches, no picnic tables, nothing. Just a grey slab of utilitarian water. Beautiful.”
Nolan’s DIY genre ‘Manc noir’ has another advantage to it, too, and that’s showing off the less celebrated aspects of his home county.
“You see a lot of Manchester on TV, but it tends to be the same Manchesters, doesn’t it? It’s Cold Feet, Didsbury Manchester, or it’s Shameless Manchester, but you don’t see the other stuff. There are a lot of places that aren’t represented, which I think is a shame. We’re very lucky, Greater Manchester’s an amazing place. It’s Bowden – sorry Bowden, but you are in Greater Manchester. It’s Burnage, and it’s Bolton. It’s the top end right up above Oldham, it’s the bottom end where rubs up against the Peak District.
“And the diversity as well, not just of landscape but of humanity. Jewish communities, Ukrainian communities, Chinese communities, Afro-Caribbean communities. I feel sorry for people who live in boring places, who’ve got nothing to write about. We’ve got Greater Manchester, we’ve got hills and we’ve got inner cities and we’ve got this diversity. You could never run out of material here, ever, ever.”
The Mermaid’s Pool is available now in paperback, hardback and eBook from Fahrenheit Press.