Today I am very pleased to welcome Benjamin Myers to the blog. Benjamin’s most recent novel, Beastings, published by Bluemoose Books, won the Portico Prize 2015, won the 2013 Northern Writers’ Award and was also longlisted for the Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Award 2o15. His previous novel, Pig Iron, also published by Bluemoose won the inaugral Gordon Burn Prize in 2013 and was a runner up in the Guardian’s Not the Booker Prize. His best selling novel Richard, a fictionalised account of the disappearance of Manic Street Preachers member Richey Edwards was published by Picador and was chosen as a Sunday Times book of the year. His short story ‘The Folk Song Collector’ won the Tom-Gallon Prize in 2014 by the Society of Authors. With such impressive credentials I was excited to hear what Benjamin had to say and he kindly answered a few of my questions.
1. Tell us a little about Beastings.
Beastings is a novel about a young woman who has grown up in a workhouse run by nuns. Upon leaving at the age of sixteen she is employed as a nanny but abducts a baby who has been placed in her care. She is pursued through the mountains of a Cumbria of the past by a priest who has his own motives for bringing her to justice, and a poacher who is acting as a guide through the mountains. Broadly-speaking it is a novel about morality, corruption, motherhood, landscape, industry, the beastial behaviour of men, nature, rural communities, surrogacy, religious dogma, female strength, abuse of power, atheism, the human body, the elements, mountains, survival and northern England.
2. What inspired the book?
Around about Christmas 2010 I read a very small cutting in a local history book about old crimes in the north-east of England about a mute girl who went on the run with a baby, only to reappear three months later in a different town. It was a story that was full holes; it raised more questions than answers. So that was the starting point – the idea of a journey of survival, and the bonds that might develop between a woman and a child that is not hers. I took this basic premise and moved it to a different place and era. In fact, the era is non-specific and the unforgiving location hopefully broad enough to suggest that this story could just as easily have occurred in Australia or Alaska, the Amazon or the Arctic.
3. You recently won the Portico Prize for Beastings, which also won the Northern Writers award in 2013. What does this prize entail and what did it mean to you to win?
The Portico Prize is a biennial prizes for books written in – or set in – in Northern England. It has been dubbed the Northern Booker Prize. The prize itself was for £10,000. Though reviewers and readers seem to like it, people in publishing seemed baffled by the book or just couldn’t relate to something set in the past in a corner of England that they had little awareness of – the Cumbria you don’t see on Countryfile. I don’t know. Only Bluemoose understood it, so the win was a nice thing for all of us involved. It was a especially a pleasant surprise as I was up against many significant writers, not just on the shortlist but in the hundreds of books that were entered in the first place. Competitions are of course entirely arbitrary, so I don’t for a minute think my novel was ‘better’ than anyone else’s. It just reached the right people at the right time. Writers need a little luck now and again. Something like this prize win provides fuel for a full year’s writing – not just in financial terms, but via a boost in confidence and energy.
4. Both Beastings and Pig Iron are set in the North of England and future novels will also feature a different Northern county in each of them. How important is the geographical location to you. What makes the North so inspiring?
Location is usually the starting point for everything I write. I find landscape endlessly inspiring, especially man’s position in it or on it – or moving through it. I like to try and explore the impact we have on our surroundings and vice-versa; how we in turn are shaped by terrain, elements, geography. I don’t just mean over the course of our lives, but over thousands of years. Every obscure path tells its own story – every worn Yorkshire flagstone or Cumbrian mountain pass has been carved by the footfall of people in transit and I am attempting to tell some of those stories, whether they are set in the past or the present day.
The North of England isn’t necessarily any more inspiring than anywhere else really, I just happen to live here, though I do think Yorkshire in particular has a greatly varied terrain in a relatively small space. I’m also interested in changing regional dialects too, and vocabulary seems particularly rich or obscure round certain areas of the north.
One thing I’ve noticed is, the older I get and the more I write, the greater my awareness of man’s impermanence. I’m beginning to feel like we’re just passing through and actually we don’t control nature at all. Or maybe I always suspected that. Successive government act like it have everything under control – and perhaps we as a 21st century society do too – but even just the recent floods in Calderdale, in which I saw hundreds of home and businesses wrecked within the space of an hour, and ended up chest-deep in icy river water, trying to save people and their possessions, reminded me that nature is a mighty force and we are but mere specks of dust in comparison. It’s arrogant and presumptuous to think otherwise. Nature is awesome, beautiful, spectacular, and it is stronger than all of us. It continually teaches us lessons, from which we rarely seem to glean much in the way of progressive insight. So, yes, landscape and nature, are at the centre of everything. We must pay attention to it. Hopefully stories are a good way of making people consider their surroundings at a deeper level, and, of course, how we interact with one another too.
5. Are you a plan, plan, plan writer or do you sit down and see where the words take you? How long does the process take you from first line to completed novel?
It usually begins with a kernel. A nugget. A tiny idea. One scene perhaps, or a story that is one sentence long, for example: “Mute girl abducts child and flees through a visceral Cumbria, era unknown.” That was Beastings.
Often I’ll write one key scene and then that scene ends up being somewhere in the middle of the book, and I then construct the plot and characters around it. The landscape is there too. Or I might make a soundtrack of songs and music that reflect the mood or tone of a book I intend to write. But you can’t plan too much because I think a narrative should be liquid or at the very least snake-like. It shifts and shimmers and goes off in unexpected directions. It is difficult to contain. Keeping it in line is tricky. You can’t entirely tame or train a snake.
Time-wise, it varies but a first draft might take about nine months – the same time of a baby’s gestation. But then I do several re-writes and edits. Sometimes six or seven. These might take two or three months each. It depends how broke I am, and how much other work I have to do. My next novel Turning Blue has taken over four years to write, but the book I hope to have out after that, has only taken a year or so. It took a lot more planning than usual though. I thoroughly researched it, in fact, so read a lot of material and made many, many notes before I started writing it. I even knew how it was going to end, which is a first for me, as I like to be surprised too.
Actually, the ending of Beastings was changed only a couple of days before the book went to print, not because the previous version wasn’t good enough, I just thought it could be better, harder, more of a jolt. I think it worked.
The hardest aspect of writing a novel is knowing when to stop. When to just get up and walk away. Because really a novel never feels like it is finished. In my mind, there is always much more is still going on beyond the final page.
6. What do you do when you aren’t writing? What do you do to relax and get away from it all?
I like films and food. I don’t mind washing up too. Swimming is nice. And music – always music. But my favourite thing is dragging logs out of the forest, then splitting, sawing and stacking them. I like the mindless repetition and the smell of sap. The curls of silver birch bark in your hands. The insects in your hair. Birds watching on.
7. If you could only read one book for the rest of your life which book would it be?
I think The Norton Anthology of Poetry would be a book that you could keep experiencing anew. I was also going to suggest À la Recherche du temps Perdu by Proust, but I’ve not yet got past the fourth page of Volume 1. He’s still in bed, staring at the curtains. Only 4211 pages to go.
8. I like to end my Q&A’s with the same question so here we go. During all the Q&As and interviews you’ve done what question have you not been asked that you wish had been asked – and what’s the answer?
The question I have always wanted to be asked, is actually the one you have just posed, which is: ‘What question have you not been asked that you wish had been asked – and what’s the answer?’
And the answer would, as demonstrated here, be: ‘What question have you not been asked that you wish had been asked – and what’s the answer?”
We would then be locked in an downward, tail-chasing cyclical spiral in which one question and its subsequent answer then re-asks the original question, which itself requires an answer. And on and on it goes until, soon enough, the universe collapses in on itself. Have a great day.
Thanks very much for answering my questions and for appearing on my blog.
It’s a massive pleasure. Thank you.
About the book
“A girl and a baby. A priest and a poacher. A savage pursuit through the landscape of a changing rural England. When a teenage girl leaves the workhouse and abducts a child placed in her care, the local priest is called upon to retrieve them. Chased through the Cumbrian mountains of a distant past, the girl fights starvation and the elements, encountering the hermits, farmers and hunters who occupy the remote hillside communities. Like an American Southern Gothic tale set against the violent beauty of Northern England, Beastings is a sparse and poetic novel about morality, motherhood, and corruption.”
You can find out more about Benjamin’s books and Bluemoose Books on their website.
You can find out more about Benjamin here.