The Mermaid’s Pool – A Q&A with author David Nolan

David Nolan’s second Manc Noir book, The Mermaid’s Pool, is released tomorrow by Fahrenheit Press. I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to read an advance copy and can tell you the follow up to Black Moss has been worth the wait. Its an exciting and tense read with an underlying anger and social conscience that makes it all the more compelling. My full review will be up tomorrow.

The book is available to order now directly from Fahrenheit Press here.

Ahead of the release, David has kindly agreed to a Q&A. As ever he has been generous with his answers and his support, so lets get to it…

We couldn’t do a Q&A in 2020 without talking about COVID. How have you and your family been getting on in Lockdown?

I taught myself Ukranian and built a hot rod from scratch. Nah, I just tried to make the best of it like everyone else. I was really ill at the start of the year and spent quite a lot of time in hospital, so my lockdown actually started earlier than everyone else. I missed all the queuing and crazy stuff though because I was housebound. No bad thing.      

The Altrincham Word Fest online talk was excellent and I know you like to do a lot of events, how has COVID changed the way you promote your work? What are your plans for Mermaid’s Pool?

I just love going out and telling people… ‘this is the story behind the story’. So last time with Black Moss I did libraries, spoken word gigs, book festivals you name it. I even turned up at book clubs in people’s homes, stood up in their front rooms and did my ‘act’  as they ate cheese and glugged wine. I’m seeing it positively with the restrictions – with Zoom I can talk to anyone anywhere, not just the North West of England. So, get in touch and I’ll shout at you via the internet.

That difficult second album, doesn’t feel too difficult as a reader! It feels to this reader like a roaring success. How did it feel writing the book? Did you feel more pressure on this one?

I did it to see if I could do it again – to find out if Black Moss was a fluke. I never planned to be a novelist; I was happy writing factual books. Black Moss was an accident because a book I was doing about historic abuse got pulled – I wrote a novel out of frustration to start with. Then I realised I could say a lot of the things I wanted to say in the factual book but wrap them in the context of crime fiction. So I took the same view that I did with Black Moss: just see if you can finish it, then see if it’s any good, then decide if you want to send it to the publisher. I didn’t tell anyone I was writing it, I never do. Like DI Smithdown says in The Mermaid’s Pool – eyes open, gob shut.

Mermaid’s Pool is your second in a planned trilogy of novels. What drove you to focus on the character of Smithdown this time out, rather than picking up immediately with Danny? Its an unusual choice in a series to leave a major player out of the middle novel.

The lead character in Mermaid’s Pool is actually a family: mum, dad and daughter. The daughter is a journalism student, dad is a police detective and mum’s ill with cancer. I’m not an expert in these things so I am blissfully unaware of the right and wrong ways to do fiction ‘correctly’. When Black Moss was published, I looked back at it and thought… there so much stuff that’s mentioned in passing but is never really explored. Jean Smithdown is in hospital, but we never see or hear her. She’s offstage the whole time. I thought that was bad form. So, Mermaid’s Pool levels the playing field. You know as much about the Smithdown’s as you do about Danny by the end of Mermaid’s Pool. That means everyone can get equal billing for book three. Anyway, Danny kind of is in Mermaid’s Pool as are lots of characters from Black Moss.

Mermaid’s Pool covers themes of racism and community division, sadly still pertinent today almost 20 years after the real-life Oldham riots of 2001, the passion and anger about these things comes through in the writing, was that a conscious decision? To focus on subjects that make you angry to anchor a novel?

I have no idea how I wrote Black Moss, so I had to reverse engineer it for The Mermaid’s Pool. I realised I had written about things I was angry about. So I literally made a  list of things that were making me steam: the murder of MP Jo Cox, the rise of the Far-Right, cancer ripping through my family, even moorland fires that I could see from my house. Then I thought… okay, I can work with that. It’s got to come from a real place – people can smell a fake a mile off.

Smithdown is an interesting character, a good man willing to go to some lengths to get the right outcome. A man who makes lots of mistakes but wants to do better. How important is having a lead grounded in that kind of humanity to the directions you can take a story?

In Black Moss he was the moral compass – not necessarily what you’d expect from a police detective in a crime fiction piece. They’re supposed to be a mess, aren’t they? He is a good dad, a good husband and essentially a good person. He does his best – he’s a 70s guy in a late 80s world. He makes very big gestures to get what he wants, but he doesn’t care how it hurts him. It’s very hard to control someone who doesn’t care about themselves, only about the right result. I love that, I totally get it.  

Black Moss had its gruesome moments, but a lot was implied and left to your imagination. In Mermaid’s Pool there is more graphic violence (NB: This is not a violent story in the Quentin Tarantino sense, but some scenes are quite graphic), you give the reader less space to hide from the reality of violent racism. I guess what I’m trying to ask is where that increased intensity came from do you think?

I loved writing the ‘action’ stuff in Black Moss. I’d never done it before and I got a massive kick out of it. So, I thought… let’s make this one really action-based, really smashmouth. There’s a certain quietness to Black Moss because there was no way I was going to describe the crimes that take place in it: child murder. No way. But in Mermaid’s Pool the racist attacks had to be onstage right in front of you. But as ever, it’s based on fact and just to bring it home I demonstrate how it’s based in reality  by… well read it and see.

We can’t talk about your novels without talking about place. Its right there in the titles and in both cases the sense of place almost becomes a character in and of itself. How important is it to you that the North West of England be represented in this way?

Manchester in particular tends to get shown in two ways, particularly on TV: a south Manchester, Cold Feet, trendy vibe or in a Shameless, ‘we’re all mad,’ way. Greater Manchester is incredibly diverse – lots of different communities as well  as inner cities, hills, canals, gleaming modernity next to some of Britain’s great historic buildings. Amazing. And then looking at the North West as a whole just amplifies it. I worked at Granada TV for many years, we defined the North West as Granadaland. You don’t get that anywhere else.

Sticking with the theme of place, quite simply: Why Mermaid’s Pool? What drew you to this unique place and what about that landscape inspired the novel?

The hills around Manchester are very important to me. I literally stumbled across Black Moss reservoir when I was out walking. I thought… what a great name, I’ll store that. I’m slightly obsessed by reservoirs and strange bodies of water. After I’d done the first book, I thought… let’s do another book named after a weird bit of water. The Mermaid’s Pool is near Kinder Scout, an iconic spot for the people of Manchester. It’s said that the pool is connected to the ocean and a killer Mermaid lives there. I’ll have some of that!

For those not from Manchester – it’s quite hard to describe the strength of feeling that there is in the region for The Christie NHS Trust specialist cancer hospital. To say it holds a special place for the region is an understatement, it is adored. There are some low-key family moments set at the hospital, important scenes of father daughter bonding and reconciliation. What does the Christie mean to you for you to feature it in such a way?

Yes, it’s hard to explain this notion of affection for a cancer hospital, isn’t it? My mum died of cancer in February. My sister died a few years ago of cancer too. My wife is recovering from breast cancer – the scenes of Smithdown sitting in The Christie feeling like a spare part is me sitting there with my wife. At one stage we were there every day. She’s clear now but I still think about it a lot. Cancer’s hard to get away from for me. My sister in law has had cancer too. I interviewed her for research for the book as well as using my own experiences. There’s a line in Mermaid’s Pool about being brave – that brave is when you do something you don’t have to do. My sister in law said that to me when we were talking. I nicked it.

You mention in your acknowledgements the importance of experts in getting the detail right, how important do you think your experience as a journalist and in writing non-fiction books is to the level of research you employ to bring realism to your stories?

I’m not clever enough to make everything up so I base it on real life. Simple as that. Plus, it used to really annoy me as a journalist when I’d see journalists represented in fiction and it was all wrong. You’ve got to put the work in. So, I literally rang up the Kinder Mountain Rescue Team and said… if someone were to dump a dead body up at Kinder Scout, how would you get it down? And bless them, they didn’t call the police they helped me. The scene at the start with Smithdown and the little girl in a police examination room is real too.

And finally, how is book three coming along? Is there anything you can tell us?

My eldest son rang me recently and said… Dad, I’ve found somewhere for your collection of weirdly-named bodies of water. He’d come across a reservoir called Hanging Lees. Great name! We went out to explore it. So, Part Three of the Manc Noir Trilogy is called The Ballad of Hanging Lees. Beyond that… eyes open, gob shut.

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