A series of interviews with small press publishers from across the North begins with OBLITERATI’s NATHAN O’HAGAN. He talks to NEIL MUDD about punk publishing, regional writing and why Obliterati’s next book is the Great American Novel written by a Mancunian…
Modern small press publishing has its origins in William Morris‘ Arts and Crafts movement, with its organic grassroots sensibilities and emphasis on the object.
If that sounds too rarefied, think of Morris as trailblazing a late Victorian version of punk rock’s DIY ethic.
It is not such a fatuous notion as all that. Writer Nathan O’Hagan credits punky mavericks Armley Press with inspiring his Obliterati imprint, which he set up with fellow author Wayne Leeming in 2017.
“With Mick (McCann) and John (Lake) – and I mean this in the nicest possible way – if they can do it, anyone can do it. That’s their way of thinking. That’s why they call it punk rather than independent publishing.
“Print on demand has been the great equaliser. You don’t have to have huge financial backing. Yes, you’ve got to put your own money into it, but the overheads are pretty low.”
Growing up in Liverpool, Nathan and his father bonded over music, even before football. His father played tenor sax in a series of backing groups and cut a couple of singles with local heroes Bernie & The Buzz Band.
Nathan’s youthful dreams of setting up a record label soon turned to novels, however, when writing became his main focus : “It’s one of those things you fantasise about, but I just had no idea about the mechanism of doing that, where you’d even start.”
“When I met Wayne in Leeds, he suggested we do something. I sort of laughed it off, but we got on very well, stayed in touch and it got to the point where I couldn’t think of a reason why not to. Wayne’s really good on the technical stuff, and I knew a couple of unpublished writers to get us going.”
From the start Obliterati has been a publisher for writers set up by writers, he says. “We wanted (it) to be as collaborative as possible. We wanted to go for writers who wouldn’t normally get published.”
“The second novel we put out – The Baggage Carousel by David Olner – is a brilliant novel, but you just know that any major publisher would look at that and think it too dark, too sort of twisted.
“As writers ourselves, we’ve had the same struggles. I had a good few years before Armley Press published me [2015’s The World is (Not) a Cold Dead Place] getting positive feedback from publishers who’d say, We love this, but it’s too dark or too sweary or too Northern. You know, the soft punch after all the praise.”
None of these arguments should prevent something which merits it from being published, Nathan argues. “There’s a market out there – Irvine Welsh has shown us that – for gritty, regional fiction.”
Consider Ben Myers. Rejected by all the major publishers, he delivered The Gallows Pole to Kevin Duffy‘s Bluemoose Books instead, generating word-of-mouth sales and winning last year’s Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction.
Tellingly Nathan says James Ellroy when I ask about his inspirations; Ellroy whose historically rooted meta-fictional crime writing functions as a Gothic palimpsest for America’s recent past.
“Chuck Palahniuk is a big influence as well – Fight Club and Choke in particular. Some of his stuff is very hit and miss, but he does take risks and I admire that sensibility.
“Brett Easton Ellis: I read Amercian Psycho when I was thirteen – so I was probably too young really – but it absolutely fascinated me that he was willing to get inside the head of this twisted, warped character. I’d never read anything from an unlikable first-person narrative perspective before.”
Everything Falls Apart, Nathan’s new collection of short stories shares its title, (and probably some of its spikey DNA) with an early Hüsker Dü album. His disparate rattlebag of muck ups and screw ups generally hail from the darker recesses of the human imagination. It has to be acknowledged, they are a grim bunch.
“I have this argument with people all the time,” Nathan tells me. “You don’t have to empathise, you just have to engage and want to keep reading.”
Speaking on Radio 3‘s Free Thinking strand last year, novelist Howard Jacobson said the problem lay with readers: “To say that reading more closely resembles study is not to be a killjoy: concentration and enjoyment are not opposites.”
Jacobson told an admirer: “When someone tells me they couldn’t put my novel down, I feel they haven’t read what I’ve done. If you read me, you’re going to want to put me down…”
“He’s basically right,” says Nathan. “We don’t empathise with (Mersault) in The Outsider do we? So many great characters in literature have been difficult. People are difficult and literature is probably the best vehicle through which to explore the complexity of the human psyche.”
Obliterati finds and commissions new writing through a submission window, rather than operating an open door policy. Nathan and Wayne both have to agree on a work’s merit, or one has to convince the other.
“It’s not a nice feeling to have to reject someone, but we’ve all been there as writers. I try to give as much feedback as I can, but we do get the odd crank… We had one woman email us who spent the first three paragraphs of her submission talking about her dogs and how she hoped to get a Highland terrier very soon.”
There has been some grumbling about major publishers poaching authors from smaller independents, similar to the whiny blinkered missives about big record labels signing indie bands which used to clog up the NME‘s Gasbag in the 80s.
“If that ever happened to us, we’d be fine with it,” says Nathan. “All our writers are under contract, so we’d be able to negotiate something, send them on their way and hopefully pocket a big cheque as well.”
“Ben Myers has just been picked up by Bloomsbury and everyone involved seems quite pleased with that. It’s great for Ben Myers that he’s going to be able to make a decent living from writing – which he certainly deserves to – and hopefully it will be good for Bluemoose because it will give them some more attention.”
Nathan works four days a week for the NHS in Northampton, where he lives with his wife and two small children. He spends Friday writing or attending to Obliterati, “once I’ve got my chores out of the way.”
He works in bursts, busy at the moment with a new book planned for March: “It’s called The Weighing of the Heart by Paul Tudor Owen who is a Guardian journalist. He submitted it to us during that one submission window we had, and we knew right away this was going to be the one.”
“Paul’s from Manchester and he lives in London now, but he used to live in New York. It’s very much in that Great American novel vein – Paul Auster or Joseph O’Neill – set in New York. I’ve never actually been to New York, but it’s just one of those places that sits in the imagination.”
Obliterati also has a bona fide American novelist on its books, Elephant Stone‘s Ben Vendetta who recently completed his rock n roll trilogy with the elegiac Sunset Trip.
“With Obliterati, we didn’t want to be just Northern-centric. In fact, we explicitly didn’t want that. We wanted to be as broad as possible. Putting out Ben’s book allowed us to become international, and then when Paul submitted his book, we thought, This is great!”
Nathan’s can-do attitude is positively affirming. Why not check out Obliterati’s growing band of outsiders and explore post-punk publishing at its best?
Read Thumbs Up from Nathan’s new collection of short stories Everything Falls Apart (self-published).
Interview with Obliterati author, Russ Litten.