David Nolan is a Manchester native and author of the fantastic Black Moss, a book I am highlighting this weekend for #Fahrenbruary. My review will be posted later today.
Alongside providing a great guest post showing some of the real-life locations that inspired Black Moss (you can find that here), David has also kindly agreed to take the time to answer some questions for us. So without any further delay, lets get to it…
I found Black Moss to be a compelling and very fast read, exciting from the start. How does that compare with the experience of writing it?
It certainly started that way. It was initially written in a fury. I’d done a book called Tell The Truth and Shame the Devil. It’s a true-life crime book about the biggest historic abuse case Greater Manchester Police has ever mounted. A teacher from my old school was arrested and charged with abusing boys – including me. I withdrew my evidence so I could follow the investigation and the subsequent trial. An astonishing experience. I made a TV and a radio documentary about it too. I was completely fired up about the subject – especially after I went to the funeral of one of the ‘boys’ involved in the trail. His sister stood up at the service and said: ‘That school killed my brother.’ Wow. It made me realise that this was too important a subject to put aside and just carry on writing music books. So, I got a deal to write a BIG BOOK about historic abuse – three months in and the publisher pulled the plug. They’d lost their bottle and paid me off. It’s called a ‘kill payment’. I was furious and the first chapter of Black Moss came out in one go as a result. In fact, Kill Payment was the original title. After that initial rush it was a slow grind and I must have given up about six times. I never thought I’d finish. I certainly didn’t think it would be published.
You are known for non-fiction books rather than fiction, with Black Moss being your debut novel, were there any differences in how you approached writing the book?
I didn’t know any better, so I approached it the same way: do your research, talk to experts, scout your locations, keep it simple and stick to your core theme. I took photos and paced things out to try to make it feel real. There are two timelines in the book – 1990 and 2016 – so all the research had to be done twice as Manchester has changed a lot since 1990. I’d take my daughter with me sometimes and she say: ‘Dad, you’re mad. Just make it up.’ But I just couldn’t.
Saddleworth, home for most of my life, is vividly described and beautifully captured in Black Moss, do you have a personal connection with the area?
No I’m a south Manchester boy, but I was a radio and TV news reporter for many years, so I know those old cotton towns pretty well. Bad stuff always seemed to be happening up in the hills. There never seemed to be a murder in Wilmslow! (That’s a posh place south of Manchester, for anyone outside the area). I’m a keen walker and I was doing the Pennine Way – a 268- mile path which runs from Derbyshire to Scotland – and I came across this really bleak place. No trees just moors and sky plus a reservoir. Bleakorama. I thought, if you ever wanted to do something bad, this would be the place to do it. I looked at the map. It was called ‘Black Moss’. I must have stored it away because a few years later, out it popped. It’s a magical pace – as you well know – and as evocative as anything the Scandinavians have got.
You write in a very visual style, or that’s how I perceive it at least, reading Black Moss I could almost see it as TV series or a movie in its structure and style. Was that a conscious decision? Or just a reflection of your influences do you think?
I’m a TV person by trade so that makes sense. These days, when I’m not writing books, I train journalists to be better journalists. I suppose I tried to practice what I preach. I’d never written fiction before – I wasn’t sure what was right or wrong, but I knew what I didn’t like: flowery language, huge long elaborate set-ups and descriptions, people using words that normal people don’t use. Nearly everything in the book is based on reality. If there’s something that you think is far-fetched you can guarantee it really happened. All the characters are based on real people too. In some cases, I used their real names and changed them at the last minute. You’re not supposed to admit to that apparently. But I did.
We can’t talk about this story, without talking about the infamous Strangeways riots, one of the few times that the national press really turned its attention up north. Can you tell us a little about your experiences and memories of that time?
I was there for the whole carnival and it was life-changing. I slept in a car outside the jail and it was the biggest show in town – and a very Manchester sort of riot. Comic, surreal, frightening all at the same time. People were selling beer, weed and T-shirts to the crowds that gathered to watch outside. I was about 25 years old – journalistically, I went in a boy and came out a man. Ten years later I made a TV documentary about the riot and interviewed all the main protagonists – from the governor to the riot ringleader – and also went inside the jail after it had been refurbished. So, the riot is a big deal for me. At the time I don’t remember doing any other stories. Not a one. So that must have lodged in my head too: what were the bad guys up to while we are all staring at this jail? That formed the basis of Black Moss.
I mentioned the national press turning their attention up north, that sense that you have to be rich, white and southern to get the attention of the media in this country and the anger that can instil comes through vividly in Black Moss, is that a theme close to your heart?
It’s a disgrace that your perceived place in the pecking order of society dictates how much effort goes into telling your story – or finding your children if they go missing. If you’re ‘poor’ it’s almost assumed that it’s somehow your fault if bad things happen to you. Disgusting. ‘Oop North’ is a ludicrous notion anyway. My wife is from Inverness – to her I’m a southerner.
Basing the case in your story on an unidentified child was an unusual choice, what inspired that?
I was heavily involved with a similar case in the 90s – a boy had gone missing from a poor area of Manchester and he’d been missing for fifty days – FIFTY FUCKING DAYS – and it hadn’t even been mentioned once on the national news. Why? Because he was a poor kid from a poor area and his family weren’t articulate and telegenic. Scandalous. I became obsessed with the case at the time – so much so I nearly lost my job over it. His body was later found, and the killer got life. I’m very proud of sticking to my guns over the story. The boy’s mum contacted me the other day after seeing a piece about Black Moss in the Manchester Evening News. Tragic and totally wrong. There is a character in the book called Little Paul and he represents all those lost, ignored kids. It’s shameful. I’m largely driven by anger, if I’m honest. Anger is an energy – as a great man (John Lydon) once said.
How much help did you have with the specifics of police procedures around missing children from that era? And looking back did anyone express shock at how lax things seemed to be, we aren’t going back too far really in the story, less than 30 years.
One of the officers involved in the Tell the Truth and Shame the Devil case helped me with it. Former Detective Constable Nicola Graham – she works in child protection now. She was a touch perturbed to find out that one of the characters in Black Moss is a cop-turned-child protection officer! It might seem like a different planet now, but has that much changed? I think not, otherwise we wouldn’t have had the child grooming scandal in Rochdale just a few years ago. Bad things happen when people look the other way.
I think I can say without too much risk of spoilers that Black Moss feels like a self-contained story in many ways, there isn’t a cliff hanger or unresolved issues. That being said, I’d love to hear more from Danny, do you have any plans for further books? Is there an ongoing series in the characters you’ve built do you think?
I want to do a trilogy of books that are all named after bodies of water in and around Manchester, with some characters seeping through from one book to another. Like a Manc Noir universe! The main feature in Black Moss is the landscape, though – that would be the main continuing character in a way. The moors are the star.
Finally, as a Manchester music fan myself there is zero chance I was going to let this opportunity pass me by, following his death there were a number of books published about Tony Wilson, yours was the only authorised biography though, can you tell us how that came about and if you had chance to get to know the man himself?
Mine was the first. I remember panicking at the time that Paul Morley (ex NME writer) was going to beat me to it. Eleven years after Tony’s death, Paul still hasn’t finished his! I worked with Tony at Granada TV. I didn’t like him. He was the ‘old guard’. When you’re young it’s your job to dislike the old guard, but I completely understood his importance as a cultural figure. When he died, I asked his partner if it was okay for me to write a book. If she’d said no, I wouldn’t have done it. I talked to everyone from family members, musicians, TV colleagues and even the oncologist who treated him before his death. After I’d finished writing the book – called You’re Entitled to an Opinion – I didn’t dislike Tony Wilson any more. I loved him.