INTERVIEW: Benjamin Myers | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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Ben Myers is undoubtedly one of the most impressive new voices in English fiction – both Pig Iron and Beastings were widely acclaimed and very powerful pieces of work. His new book, Turning Blue – the first of a pair of novels – is out this month and sees Myers turn his hand to what is being described as folk crime. Always disarmingly honest, Myers admits “That was the marketing man within me, I thought I’ve got to come up with some name for this.”

I wondered how much it had in common with the rest of the genre. “It’s being sold as a crime book but for me it’s a continuation of what I’ve done before really, there just happens to be a police character… I’m quite selective about what I read… There’s a couple of writers I do really like – one of whom is Derek Raymond. I discovered him through Gallon Drunk and I’ve only read some of his work but I read Dora Suarez a few years ago and it was really dark and violent. I had a powercut at home and I ended up reading the climax of the book by candlelight and it’s a really grim experience. “

“The other writer is Ted Lewis, who’s famous for Get Carter, although it’s actually called Jack’s Return Home, and it’s originally set in Scunthorpe… Those are the two crime writers that I’m into, but it’s a very specific 70s – early 80s period in a way, very different to the Ian Rankins and Val McDermids, the mainstream bestselling crime writers. I’m more into the cult, noir stuff, so I’m more attracted to that sort of element, time and place more than plot and police procedure. I mean, Turning Blue’s not a police procedure novel to me. It’s a landscape novel… Originally when I wrote Turning Blue it was about the pig farmer who kills a girl by mistake, and then sort of falls in love with her after she’s dead – that was it really, it was a novella about a guy who’s in love with a corpse. It was really stripped own and my agent at the time asked if I’d ever written a crime book, and I said I’m writing something now in which a crime happens. So the conversation developed. Even by my standards, it was a bit basic and a bit bleak. I don’t worry about if something is marketable or sellable, because people don’t really buy books anyway so it’s not a concern, but this was borderline unsellable – a necrophilia love story, basically. So I decided to turn it into something a bit more sellable, a bit of a twisted crime book, making it more plot based.

“But as I was doing that, the Jimmy Savile story broke and he’s got a lot of ties with round here, with West Yorkshire, and I got a bit obsessed reading about him. I was looking him up on YouTube and found some silent super-8 footage of him in the late sixties walking along the street, and he’s being followed by all these kids, like the Pied Piper, and I realised he was walking through Mytholmroyd [where Myers now lives] and this clip ends with him standing outside my house, stood outside my office window… so I was already a bit obsessed, he’s the new Peter Sutcliffe basically – but dead.  It ended up having a huge influence on Turning Blue, I wrote him into the book, and then I had to tone it down – tone him down, because it was too obviously Jimmy Savile, and my editor was like, ‘we’ve got to disguise him a little bit!’.”

“So I think the book is quite influenced by real cases – what if he wasn’t dead and was being pursued by the police. That shaped the book, imposed a bit more plot – well, there was no plot at all originally. Then I introduced the policeman, introduced the journalist. It went through seven different rewrites. I started writing it in 2011, it was a fucking nightmare actually, it was the hardest thing I’ve written… I can’t say it was enjoyable to write, it just got more complicated and more plot-driven. And I let some outside input come in, suggestions to maybe change this or change that.”

Myers’ writing is at its strongest when he’s conjuring the rural landscapes of the north, and whilst by his own admission he makes little money from his fiction (instead returning to journalism to get by), he has won several awards, including the Gordon Burn Prize in 2013, which enabled him to finish the book in a writer’s cottage in Berwickshire.

“I spent a month there rewriting the book, did a massive edit on it and nearly fucking lost my mind because it was too much. You don’t see anyone up there. A few weird things happened up there, like strange encounters with violent gamekeepers and weird villagers and stuff. Everyone seemed to know who I was and where I’d been. I’d be walking in the middle of nowhere and I’d meet someone and get talking, I’d say ‘Hi, I’m Ben’ and they’d say ‘I know, I got an email about you yesterday’. I tried to cover some of this stuff in Beastings and Pig Iron. People don’t seem to realise this goes on. When I was in Scotland there’s this gamekeeper who’s notorious for attacking strangers on his land, he’s got these cages on the moors He’ll catch a crow and blind it and keep it alive and put it in a cage to catch live birds of prey, which he then poisons. And there’s traps everywhere, and I was out wandering round these places and everyone was like, ‘watch out for the gamekeeper cos he’ll have you’. I was already writing a dark book and then there’s all this weird, dark rural shit going on at my doorstep.”

Myers’ writing is at its strongest when he’s conjuring the rural landscapes of the north

Whilst Myers use of language is stripped down and minimal, occasionally his imagery pulls you up short – perhaps more powerfully because it’s used sparingly. Such as when he compares the guts of a freshly killed deer to a drowned accordion.

“I remember reading, about 20 years ago, one of Henry Miller’s novels with a sex scene, and he describes an orgasm as ‘an accordion collapsing into a bathful of milk’ or something like that, I can’t quite remember it, (‘she came again, like an accordion collapsing in a bag of milk’) and for some reason it stuck with me so I appropriated it… although I’m not talking about an orgasm obviously… When I was a kid I was fascinated by dead animals, we’d be out walking in the Lake District or wherever and if I saw a dead rabbit I’d be poking it with a stick and having a look at the insides because it was so fascinating seeing inside something – the mechanics, the inner workings of something that was alive. I hope this doesn’t make me sound like a serial killer…“

The two central characters – obsessive, repressed detective Brindle and washed out local journalist Roddy Mace – are brilliantly conceived and their relationship will become even more significant in the next novel, due next year. Whilst it’s usually a mistake to assume too much autobiography in a writer’s work, the local journalist who strikes up an unlikely alliance with Brindle does seem to bear some resemblance to Myers, who I first met during his years as a journalist in London before he headed up to West Yorkshire.

“I’m getting deeper into their characters I guess, so I’ve been writing a lot more about Mace and his past, and I realised that a lot of it comes from my experiences of moving to London. I had a brief spell working at News Of The World when I was 20, before Melody Maker, I did an internship via a friend of mine who worked in the mailroom. So he’s a character who went to London to make it and I took my 3-week spell on News Of The World and turned it into a career for him. There was a chance I could have gone down that route at one point, but do I want to be a tabloid journalist? Fuck, no! I had some glimpses into the stuff that happens on that side of the media, what people on The Sun and News Of The World have to do for a living, and realised most of these people were just scumbags – it’s not really writing, it’s just dirt-digging, and it’s hypocrisy. I had a few years of working but just getting really wrecked to the point where I needed to rein it in or I’m not going to be able to carry on at this pace… you know what it’s like in music and the media. So I wrote an exaggerated version of all that, someone who has to escape London because his career and his excesses are killing him basically. So I wrote all that into the Mace character and I get into it more in the sequel, the sequel is still a crime book but it’s a bit more about the changing face of media, tabloids and local newspapers.”

This could be the making of him; this could be his ticket back out into the wilder world – back to London maybe back to national bylines and big features and travel and awards – back to – what exactly? Anxiety excess exhaustion emptiness alienation loveless fumbles in dark nightclubs to the banging pulse of bass drums and mournful mornings waking up sick and sticky in strange rooms in Zones 5 and 6 and the long journey home. The cold empty room. The noise of neighbours never seen heart muffled through damp walls. Abject emptiness.”

Myers also deals with Brindle’s OCD tics and habits better than anything I’ve read since Jonathan Letham’s Motherless Brooklyn, and this also has some basis in personal experience.

“I think I have low-level OCD too. It’s not so bad these days, but it was there since a young age. 6 or 7 perhaps. I relate it to anxiety that I’ve had for years, and I used to do a lot of counting, arithmetic and touching things. Light switches and the like. The anxiety is still there, the OCD less so….”

Myers has something of a bond with writers who are perceived as being part of a landscape scene – excellent British authors like Robert McFarlane, Paul Kingsnorth and Amy Liptrot and the community that’s grown up around the wonderful Caught By The River website. I wondered if this scene represented a reaction to austerity and urban life, or if it was simply a media invention.

“I have mixed feelings about it. Me and my oldest friend Davy spent years talking about going fishing but we never got round to it, then we suddenly got into it when we were about 30 but we were totally hapless and it was more about just taking drugs by the river. And every time we went fishing, something went wrong – someone would fall in the river or we got arrested for not having licences… So I wrote this book about fishing and about the landscape and about trying to find the perfect fishing spot, but really it was about landscape and countryside. This was about 10 years ago and no one would touch it at all, publishers just weren’t interested. But I mentioned it recently and everyone was like, ‘you’ve got to get it published, it’s perfect timing – that’s on trend at the moment!’ The publishing business is very trend based and they’ve latched on to landscape writing as a trend. I think it’s because of the digital world, we spend so much time internalising or living online that going out into the landscape is a novelty for a lot of people. I mean a lot of the landscape writers live in cities and are upper middle class or are academics or work in universities, you don’t read many books about how hard it is being a farmer… a lot of it is romanticising it, a theme park for urbanites. And I don’t  mean that in a snobbish way because I live in the countryside, I just think that’s the reality of it. A lot of those books are probably read by people who sit on the tube every day in London. Nonetheless, some of those landscape books are great, there’s some really good writers.”

Myers is a keen wild swimmer – his Instagram feed is often full of pictures of him emerging from perilously cold rivers – and that too relates to landscape writing. “The best landscape book is Waterlog by Roger Deakin, which came out in the late nineties, which is all about outdoor swimming. He died a few years ago. He’s a brilliant writer, it’s about this anti-establishment or anarchic streak that he had in him – in his book, he would get told off, like ‘what the fuck are you doing?’ – ‘well, I’m just doing what people have been doing for thousands of years’. So that got me into wild swimming and started a bit of a movement.”

 

“I think it’s good that they’re doing well – as someone who’s into nature and landscape, if it connects people to their surroundings in a new way, it can only be a good thing, but it is a bit of a passing thing, that’s the problem. But I’m more interested in the darker side, the fictional side, and a lot of publishers aren’t – it’s not very romantic and there’s no redemption and there’s no happy ending. (Apparently…) some of the publishers who turned down Beastings loved it but they couldn’t relate to what I was writing about at all, and therefore they couldn’t market it, which I think is interesting because a lot of the nature books are very marketable because it’s someone very articulate and academic, or a columnist in a newspaper spending a bit of time in the countryside. It’s easy to sell it as an idea…”

I can’t be the first person to assume that Myers would be more successful if he’d been born American. “I spent a few years trying to get published by the big publishers and it’s like the difference between Minor Threat and Mumford & Sons… and I’m not Mumford & Sons! Cormac McCarthy writing about the deep south of America is exotic and other-worldly, but if you try and write about Northumberland or the Lake District or North Yorkshire, they just don’t get it.”

But Myers is adamant that realising he’s never going to be Mumford & Sons is actually liberating. “I heard the other day about quite a famous British writer, known for being very wordy and who’s had lots of books out, and his latest novel struggled to sell a thousand copies, and this is someone who’s famous. There’s a few writers like that, you see how many books they sell and everyone’s struggling. But once I mentally divorced myself from trying to be accepted by the mainstream you realise you can say and do and write what you like and have a lot of input into how the book looks and stuff “

The harsh realities of being a fiction writer are in part why Myers still makes much of his living as a journalist, but where his past saw him downing JD with Marilyn Manson, these days he’s more likely to be celebrating Alan Garner in Caught By The River or considering the prejudices faced by Tyson Fury in a piece for the New Statesman.

“I don’t make money from book sales, basically – I make money from the occasional prize win or grant or arts council thing, or some wealthy benefactor. Well, not that really! I do have the odd bit of income from fiction – the advances are small – but yeah, I have to do the journalism as well, but I quite enjoy it. It’s still writing but it’s a different discipline, isn’t it? I’m writing about books a lot – book reviews. The stuff I’ve been doing down is stuff like festival programmes. I was asked to write the programme for (festival name redacted) which was just a fucking cultural Hiroshima. In the summer I usually do a lot of stuff for festivals – it’s fine, interviewing popstars and that – but I looked at the line up for that one and thought ‘I can’t face it. I can’t talk to any of these cunts, even if you’re paying me.’

Very recently Vice Magazine decided to celebrate the 10th anniversary of Brutalism, the ‘MySpace literary movement’ that Myers was part of.

“The journalist got in touch with us to say ‘it’s the 10th anniversary of Brutalism and I’m doing a big piece!’, and we were like, ‘Really?!’. But I don’t mind admitting it, it was entirely contrived by me, Adelle Stripe, who I’m now married to but hadn’t met at that point, and Tony O’Neill. She was running a poetry blog and I sent her some dirty poems, submitted them as a writer, and that led to us meeting. I sent her a poem called The Willy Watcher which is about the time I lost my virginity in some bushes in Durham, just after it happened some guy emerged from the bushes, the local pervert who’d watched the entire thing. So I wrote a poem about it and that’s one of them that Adelle read.”

“And we got to know Tony – we were all trying to get published and we were all from northern towns so we decided to give what we did a name, we called it Brutalism. And that was it! We put out a manifesto and one book of poetry. It was all done via MySpace, we had a page… And the day after we published the manifesto, on the Guardian blog, there were people saying ‘oh yeah, the Brutalists are wankers, I hate their work’ or ‘their earlier stuff was better’ and this was all within 24 hours. And we left it at that really…. But between us we decided that we wanted to write stuff that was direct and – not necessarily brutal, but unflinching – and we wanted to make a bit of a noise and get a bit of attention for ourselves. I dunno whether it worked at all!”

Before our long chat came to an end, talk turned to the Mancunian black metal band Winterfylleth, who wrote a song called The Green Cathedral based on Myers’ writing, and to his potential collaboration with Richard Dawson with whom Myers has something of a mutual appreciation society/bromance. The project is on hold at the moment because of other commitments but would involve Myers’ writing the lyrics for Dawson’s music, but it seems difficult to imagine that such a combination would be anything less than stunning.

In our chats since the interview, Myers has said that he needs to write ‘nice’ stuff now (“It’s no wonder I suffer from anxiety”) and indeed, his lovely, melancholy novella Snorri & Frosti revealed an entirely different side to his writing, but I think it’s unlikely that he’s going to stop poking dead rabbits with sticks any time soon.

Turning Blue is published by Moth this month.

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