WRITING / Word dealers: Leo Burley reports on how new novels are keeping young black writers on the streets

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The Independent Culture
' pounds 50,000? They're gonna have to give me a bit more than pounds 50,000. They gotta get real]' Q, 24, and one of London's leading independent street authors, is discussing a possible advance from a major publishing house for his 'autorapographic' thriller, Deadmeat. If his expectations seem a little high for a first- time novelist, one should bear in mind that Flamingo, a division of Harper Collins, have recently paid pounds 26,000 for the UK rights to Diary of a Crack Addict, another first-time street novel by 36-year-old Ray Shell, outbidding Penguin in the process.

Unlike Shell, Q has opted to publish first and negotiate later. Last year he wrote Deadmeat in serialised form on an AppleMac provided by the Business Resource Centre in West Kensington, persuaded friends to illustrate and typeset the first two pocket-sized volumes for free, repainted his Escort as a mobile billboard and sold several thousand copies around London's club scene.

Similarly, Victor Headley's thriller Yardie was printed and distributed this year by independent publisher X-Press, using marketing techniques more associated with indie record labels than publishing houses. Between them, Q and Headley have enjoyed sales of over 20,000 to a previously untapped market in the middle of a recession. It is this that has attracted the attention of the recession-hit publishing world, though neither author intends to become just another name on a list.

'Publishers are out of touch. Just like a while ago the major record companies were out of touch,' explains Q, for once unaccompanied by his trade-mark wooden 'shades'. 'I didn't have the structures that some people have, the Groucho Clubs, the friends of friends, the university system, so I had to go out and create my own. Now they want a piece of that cake, all right, but they're gonna have to pay.'

It is this unswerving self-belief, coupled to Q's skill in marketing himself alongside his book, that persuaded the literary agents Blake Friedman to take him on as a client. 'He has all the usual qualities which attract us to an author - a distinctive, powerful style and very brave use of language,' says Carole Blake, who has repackaged Deadmeat in a one-volume format, 'but what sets him apart is his phenomenal ability as a self-publicist. We hope to see Deadmeat out in hardback within a year.'

Q, who refers to the one-volume version as a re-mix, is doubtful as to whether clubbers can be tempted into the hardback market. He has already produced the third volume of Deadmeat in cassette form and the final instalment has been shot on video by a black director, Don Letts: 'Ideally I'd like to set up an independent label,' says Q, who is now working on a new book, Supermodel, and has resprayed his Escort accordingly. 'That way I could take on other young writers, black or white, and bosh it out the way we want to bosh it out, for club culture.'

X-Press has beaten him to it. Co- founders Steve Pope, 32, and Duton Adebayo, 33, both ex-journalists who met at The Voice, have built on the initial success of Yardie by commissioning a number of previously unknown authors who draw their influences more from street culture and contemporary music, than from any literary tradition.

'The publicity which surrounded Yardie tended to ignore Victor's writing and concentrate on the crack scene and his involvement in it,' Adebayo says, recalling one tabloid's 'special report', which called upon the reviewing skills of Det Supt John Jones to testify to the authenticity of Headley's work. 'That approach has obscured the real significance of the book. We've now received 22 manuscripts from young, working-class blacks and whites who would never have given literature a second thought without Yardie.'

Pope and Adebayo are currently touring inner-city areas outside London in an attempt to distribute the X-Press print run before next May, when Picador, who have bought the UK rights to Yardie, will reprint it as one of their own titles. X-Press hope to use the income from that deal and the sale of Yardie's film rights to develop new work, including the forthcoming OPP, the company's first novel by a woman.

Naomi King, a 29-year-old probation officer and single mother, named her book after Naughty-by- Nature's rap of the same acronym (which stands for 'Other People's Property'). 'Most black British authors tend to be male, and women have certainly not had their say yet,' says Adebayo, who persuaded an unwilling King to submit her manuscript. 'Both Victor and the company came in for a lot of criticism for the portrayal of the female characters in Yardie, but I think OPP is going to make up for that - big time.'

Meanwhile Headley is working on Yardie 2 in Jamaica, following threats from readers in this country who recognised themselves in some of the first book's gun-toting, crack- dealing gangsters. He has also had to deal with press insinuations that his involvement in the drug trade was more than literary and that his disappearance from public life was merely part of the hype surrounding the book. His publishers dismiss both accusations out of hand. 'There are two kinds of people in London,' Adebayo says, 'Those who realise how many guns there are on the street and those who don't'

While not denying that he knew 'the runnings', the author himself pointed out at a lively press conference in south London earlier this year that 'if a white, middle-class man straight from university wrote Yardie, they (the press) would say it was excellently researched, but because a black man wrote it, he must be a criminal.'

In truth, street literature is largely defined by its interest in drugs, music and crime, the three paths which seem to offer the fastest and most dynamic escape routes from British inner cities. The only other identifiable feature of these new urban novelists is their prose style, a mixture of patois, rap and London slang, wielded with little concession to the uninitiated, although Q did provide a glossary in Deadmeat.

'I got criticised for that by some people in the black community, but I thought, what the hell, I had to learn an English dictionary, now they can learn mine,' says the author, who included such linguistic pearls as Skism (a plan or idea) and Lampin (to be engaged in a state of extreme cool). 'There's lots of spelling and typographical errors there, but that's 'cos I had to do it all by myself. My readers understand that - it's cool.'

While Q and Headley are hardly the first writers to have played fast and loose with the English language, the likes of Anthony Burgess and Martin Amis have never had to knock-out their first editions from the back of a Ford Escort, or lie low after a sale. Whatever the literary merits of these new absolute beginners, the direct nature of their approach has forced the publishing houses to take an interest in street and club culture; if nothing else, that interest may provide one more path out of deprivation.

OPP by Naomi King will be published in the New Year by X-Press (Tel: 081-985 0797). Copies of Deadmeat and Supermodel can be bought from Q (Tel: 081-450 32401).

(Photograph omitted)