Having started out as a music journo Benjamin Myers has in recent years established himself as the North’s brightest literary star with a string of searing novels which pick at our wounded edge-lands. Pig Iron explored the mind-scape of a North-East Traveller; Beastings pitted Victorian priest against mute child-abductress in a Gothic chase across Cumbrian wilds; more recent output such as coming-of-age tale The Offing and the short story collection Male Tears have set the writer’s stall more definitively in the literary fiction camp.
Poetry, short story collections, non-fiction, crime capers, even rock biographies…the work is pouring out of him. Latest novel Cuddy appeared in March to the kind of reviews accorded bona fide heavyweights, while this month sees the paperback edition of crop hoax yarn The Perfect Golden Circle. With Shane Meadows’ TV adaptation of The Gallows Pole due to hit BBC screens very soon – the based-on-a-true-story of David Hartley and the Cragg Vale Coiners whose counterfeiting gang almost bankrupted the Exchequer in the 1760s – Myers’s work is finally set to reach big mainstream audiences. He lives in Mytholmroyd with wife and fellow writer Adelle Stripe.
You seem to be out on your own in publishing a book a year…how the hell do you write so fast?
I think the key to productivity in the creative arts is – and this rarely gets mentioned – lots of sleep. As much of it as you can get. Lots of sleep and good food. I’ve often had people say to me ‘When do you sleep?’ and I tend to reply ‘At night – for as long as possible.’ Eight hours is good if you can get it, nine hours even better. Ten is the dream.
Also I don’t drink alcohol so that keeps the head clear and means you can write in those hours when you would otherwise be hungover, sobbing on your sofa while watching Salvage Hunters. And the fact of the matter is, I love writing, and when you really love something you want to spend as much time with it as possible.
How do you feel about the term ‘Northern Gothic’?
It makes me think of the post-punk goth pre-cursors Joy Division and, a bit later on, The Sisters Of Mercy and The Mission. It takes me back to the mid-1980s, when at the age of ten I would steal glasses of Pernod-and-black from my big sister and her goth-leaning pals as they gathered in her bedroom beneath a miasmic fug of hairspray and patchouli oil, and then get thoroughly hammered in my room as the sound of Siouxsie and The Cure span on a turntable next door.
In terms of literature though, I don’t really give it much thought beyond Heathcliff and Cathy romping on the moors, where the bones of the fallen lie buried in peat bogs.
Along with your wife Adelle Stripe and the writer Tony O’Neill you are associated with the literary ‘Brutalist’ movement. What is its legacy as you look back on it now?
I’d say the whole point about the Brutalist movement – which mainly consisted of a lap-top and few early works – was simply about the here and the now…or at least it was back then. It was never really about leaving a legacy or creating a new excuse for nostalgia. It was more about crafting an alibi for various literary misbehaviours, a clarion call for dafties everywhere. An urgent new vocabulary for the emerging online age.
Your latest novel, Cuddy, features five stories over a thousand years relating to the remains of St Cuthbert and the cathedral in Durham where he is interred. As someone who grew up in the town, what in particular inspired it?
The cathedral itself was really where the story began. Seeing that great looming citadel of stone on the horizon, not far – as you say – from the suburb where I grew up, unlocked all sorts of thoughts and feelings in my imagination at a young age. The notion of such human potential manifested in a physical entity conceived of over a thousand years earlier was very powerful. We tend to think of life as being primitive back then, but in fact people in Durham were at the forefront of architecture, engineering, masonry – they had to be. And all this was running alongside religion, and the stronghold that it held over of the population. It’s amazing really. Human achievement is an awe-inspiring spectacle, but then so is it potential for destruction. I think we still need to get that balance right, so the interwoven stories that comprise Cuddy bring things down to a personal level. It is a novel about relationships and all that they entail – desire, deceit, love, loss, lust, revenge, hope.
Does the North of England suffer for not having a deep-rooted, insular culture to the extent that Catalan Spain or Southern Italy do? Would it be better able to stand up for itself if it did?
Oh, I think it probably already does have its own culture, though I’m wary of anything that might appear insular or expresses some sort of superiority complex. For example, I generally despise that old parochial Yorkshireman attitude of the four Yorkshire counties being the places on earth – “God’s own country” and so on. That’s short-sighted and silly.
A thousand years the upper regions of England were turned upside down during the harrying of the north, and psychologically-speaking I’m not sure we’ve ever fully recovered. But the culture is rich. Then again, it’s rich everywhere if you dig deep enough. The main reason that the north suffers economically is that the UK’s power base is in London and the south-east. That’s all there is to it. Until that changes, we northerners will continue to get the shitty end of the stick. But why complain about it? It’s best to just crack on and create your own work, make your own scene, define and document the culture as you see it.
How are you evolving as a writer?
It’s really hard to tell if I am. It’s just a case of putting one word in front of another and seeing what happens. Each book is like starting anew.
Your non-fiction book about the Calder valley, Under The Rock, is among your most critically acclaimed. Hebden Bridge though…has it not reached some kind of critical mass? Where can it go from here?
Oh, it definitely has. I think it should be cut out and cast-off to sea, policed only by the hen parties in their Happy Valley cosplay. I don’t think anyone else should be allowed to live in Hebden Bridge, because I am a massive hypocrite and complete and utter bastard.
Do you take a view on Manchester and its literary scene?
Culturally-speaking Manchester is very good at selling itself – a flash of Hacienda branding here, a Stone Roses mural there. I like to spend time there though, often. I think the city’s greatest poet is probably Frank Sidebottom; he’s the Morrissey for people who don’t hate themselves or foreigners.
What can we expect from Shane Meadows’ take on the Gallows Pole – soon to hit our TV screens with Michael Socha in the lead?
Expect, as they say, the unexpected.
What music are you listening to currently?
I’m very much enjoying songs and albums by the following: Lankum, Wayne Newton, Goat, Lil Yachty, Working Men’s Club, Noel Coward, Bauhaus, The Kinks, Chrome, The Dubliners, Cobalt Chapel, Shocking Blue, Saul Adamczewski, Doom Regulator, Frank Ocean, The Groundhogs, Trevor Beales, The Slits, King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard, Ginger Baker’s Airforce, Shelagh Mcdonald, The Shining Levels, Dead Kennedys, Peter Perrett, Lil Peep and The Sweet.
Cuddy and The Perfect Golden Circle are out now with the latter available in paperback from 18 May. Both published by Bloomsbury.