Fresh new literary voices get into print

SJ (Sarah) Bradley, author of Brick Mother
SJ (Sarah) Bradley, author of Brick Mother
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Thanks to publishers like Dead Ink, new writers are getting an audience. Yvette Huddleston spoke to two Leeds-based debut novelists.

Book publishing has undergone a bit of a revolution over the past few years and the emergence of smaller, independent publishers has meant that slowly the opportunities for new writers to get their work in front of an audience are growing.

Three years ago, Dead Ink, a new company with its origins in Leeds, was set up by Wes Brown and Nathan Connolly with the aim of bringing new authors to new audiences. “We started as a digital-only imprint and we are now publishing our first print titles,” says Brown.

“We wanted to take risks on what might be considered commercially unviable writers and try and engage with new ideas. Some of it is about being able to provide an opportunity to writers – particularly those with more difficult or challenging work.”

Last year Dead Ink worked with the Big Bookend Festival in Leeds on LS13, a competition to find twenty of the best local writers under 40. The winning stories were then published in an anthology.

Two of the writers particularly stood out for Brown and his team and the company decided to publish their debut novels. “Richard Smyth was the winner of the competition and we also liked SJ Bradley’s work,” says Brown. “We really wanted to get these two strong new voices out into the public domain.” They obviously chose well because both books were longlisted for the Guardian’s Not the Booker Prize earlier this summer.

SJ Bradley’s Brick Mother is set in a secure psychiatric unit and follows the lives of two members of staff there – art therapist Neriste and nursing assistant Donna and their encounters with patient Nathan Rivers who committed a terrible crime some years previously. Both women begin to wonder whether Nathan may be ready to leave the hospital.

The book combines thriller elements with an examination of the alienating effect that institutions can have on people’s lives. Bradley, 35, has been writing short stories for many years but says she was always interested in writing something longer and had first-hand experience to draw on in writing her first novel.

“A few years ago I was working as a ward assistant in a hospital like the one in Brick Mother. It was such an interesting place to work and I found I was thinking about it a lot,” she says. “I had friends working in the same hospital and through conversations with them I started to think it would be a good subject for a novel.” Her style is refreshingly direct and pared-down, while her empathy for the characters comes across strongly. “Sometimes you read books where the author almost has contempt for the characters and I didn’t want to do that.”

Smyth’s novel Wild Ink is a darkly humorous tale about a series of strange events in the life of middle-aged protagonist Albert Chaliapin who is lying in a London hospital bed. The book’s themes include love, death, memory, friendship and envy.

Now aged 35, Smyth actually wrote the novel when he was in his early twenties. “Looking at it now, it feels as though it was written by a different version of me,” he says. “But it stands up quite well, I suppose because it deals with pretty fundamental concerns. I wrote it in about a year, sent it off and didn’t get anywhere with it so I went on to write other, unpublished, novels. ”

When he won the LS13 competition, Brown asked to see some of those works and this was the one they chose to publish. “I was interested to hear it being described as a comic novel – it is quite serious really although it does have some humour in it.

“I think there is a difference between being serious and being solemn. I read a quote recently that I really liked – ‘Serious is not the opposite of funny. Not funny is the opposite of funny.’”

Both books are available at