Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Ben Myers - some good words from the bloke up the road

IPSWICH is not really a small town. 120,000 people I'd guess... And I lived there for six years and guess how many writers I knew? Well done Sir, Madam...that's right. None. Not a single one. And I moved North to a small wet town in the Pennines and I suddenly couldn't move for writers. They were in the co-op, the grocers, the pubs (obviously). They were in the bun shops, the newsagents, the camping suppliers and the Spar. Hebden Bridge is the kind of place where, after you've chatted about rain and flooded cellars, conversation moves naturally onto the perfidy of publishers, the stupidity of TV producers, the strange tastes of readers.

It can get a bit claustrophobic. And living where all the writers live is expensive (I've blogged about this before, but I'll say it again - if you want house prices in your town to go up invite in the writers, the artists, the poets - they create the vibe that your lawyers and your TV bigwigs will pay big money for) so I moved again. Only a mile and a half down the road to Mytholmroyd.

Hebden Bridge is the town that passed the 11plus and went to grammar school, where it customised its uniform a bit (tie half-way down the shirt, nothing too outrageous) and got into whey-faced guitar music and got a shaggy indie-kid haircut. Mytholmroyd went to the comp and got into Sabbath and cider. Hebden Bridge reads The Guardian. Mytholmroyd reads The Mirror. And before anyone gets too irate on Royd's behalf, I prefer The Mirror.

Mytholmroyd is chippy and cross about the way Hebden slouches about  thinking the world owes it a living. Mythoymroyd is a grafter. Royd is not for hippies. No one makes knitted yoghurt gags about Mytholmroyd. Royd is cheaper.

And yet, still I can't escape the writers. Ben Myers for example. He lives up my road. He lives ten doors away. I walk past his house twice a day walking my boy, Herbie, to school. He walks past my house twice a day with his dog, Cliff.

(And I know what you're thinking. The boy has a dog's name. The dog has a bloke's name. I think it too).

And we're both on the short-list of this ludicrous award thing The Guardian's Not The Booker. You got short-listed by a public vote (though that makes it sound much more simple than it was - people had to write 100 word reviews of their chosen book and post them on the Guardian book blog in order for the vote to count. Imagine if grown-up elections were held this way. If you had to write a 100 words in praise of Ed Miliband in order to change the govt... it's no way to get a high turn out...) And Ben's book PIG IRON topped the poll.  

Despite his living ten doors away, I've only met Ben twice and both of those times were in the last couple of weeks. After the Not The Booker shortlist was announced we thought we should meet, so he came round for a brew... and we met again a few days ago when we found ourselves looking for a tearful kids lost toy plane in the park (fret not boys and girls - we found it).

He's good company. Serious and thoughtful about his work and committed. He writes, he walks, he thinks. Reads, listens to music, watches films. That's pretty much it. Doesn't drink or smoke, commits himself to refining his vision and expressing it. He's impressively dedicated and the work is muscular, powerful and original.

His first book - the provocative BOOK OF FUCK - was written at speed when he was 24. His second - RICHARD - caused something of a bruising fuss when it came out, being the imagined story of Richey Edwards of the Manic Street Preachers - a figure the hard-core fans think they own.

PIG IRON tells the story of a John-John Wisdom a bare-knuckle fighter from the North-East's traveller community, and is making waves far beyond The Guardian...

Anyway, in my relentless search for writers' stories, I walked the 50 yards to his house and asked him some questions. But maybe you should read this extract of the book first.

Or this review:

And now read this:

Hello Ben, can you write your autobiography for me in exactly 50 words (not 51, not 49 - EXACTLY 50)?

Just before I became a teenager I wanted to be boxer. Then my grandfather killed himself. Then I was seriously ill in hospital for a long time. Then I decided I wanted to be a writer and have been trying to become one ever since. I write every single day.

Why should we read Pig Iron?

Should seems like a strong word, but I think reading any book is better than doing lots of things. Like golf, for example. Or waddling around one of the newly sprouted edge-of-town malls. There’s a bit in the book that has made some people cry. Another bit has made someone regurgitate.

What research did you do?

I spent many years researching travelling culture through books, articles, documentaries, films, conversations. I actually researched the subject long before I decided to write a novel with a gypsy narrator. It was just anthropological interest, I suppose. I’m also a nature boy and spend a lot of time walking or running outdoors. I probably do a few miles every day so that informs the descriptions of landscape. On a more practically level I did a lot of research about boxing and illegal fighting techniques in order to accurately write about violence in a way that is hopefully convincing, sickening and repulsive. Because violence is.

How do you feel your writing has changed since The Book of Fuck came out in 2004?

It has changed a lot. I feel like my writing has got infinitely darker, more pared down, more economical. I think it has more meaning. Somewhere along the way – probably about five or six years ago – I finally stopped emulating my literary influences and began to really think about finding a voice I could call my own. I embarked upon a new regime. I don’t drink or smoke or take drugs (all of which I have some experience of); I don’t have a TV that works and I gave up on newspapers. Instead I sit down and I write. I’m only just starting to get there. Also I only write about life and death now.

You co-founded a movement - the New Brutalists - how serious was this? And how would you define New Brutalism?

Brutalism was a call-to-arms. It was – and is – a small group of like-minded people, all born in the mid/late 1970s, all from various towns in the north, banding together out of a shared sense of frustration  and anger at a mainstream literary world that had rejected our heroes and were now rejecting us. Our main output was first and foremost poetry. Many of our influences came from cinema, visual art and music – particularly the energy and minimalism of punk and post-punk. There was no bitterness there though – just energy and optimism.

Your last book - Richard - was a kind of imagined autobiography of Richey Edwards of the Manic Street Preachers. What attracted you to his story?

Richey Edwards came from a background – a world – comparable to my own.  Similar background, similar era, similar tastes. He came from ordinariness and became a rock star. I come from ordinariness and ended up writing about such rock stars at Melody Maker and other publications. I was less interested in the rock star aspect of the story though, and keener to explore the theme of the mental disintegration of a young man. I’ve seen a lot of mental disintegration in young men – and women.

I wanted to get behind the smokescreen of music press mythology – though may have ended up contributing to it instead. Many of the influences on the book were the very same writers Edwards cited as influences upon him in the first place: Camus, Sartre, Hamsun. Sylvia Plath. Bret Easton Ellis. Existentialist / nihilist fiction.

How did readers, Manic Street Preachers fans, his family and his bandmates respond to the novel?

It seemed to illicit all sorts of responses from all sorts of people. From the glowing to the hateful. The most damning appraisals came from those who had never read it. There was a lot of anger. The most positive feedback came from readers who had no interest in iconoclastic rock writing and instead read it as a contemporary novel grounded in reality.

You write for music magazines. When I was young this was THE dream job. What are the best/worst things about it?

The best: freedom and free things. Just being able to write. I’ve been able to see the world thanks to music magazine and met so many interesting people along the way. I went through a phase in my early twenties of simultaneously living in a squat in London and staying in hotels in Hollywood. That was good. The worst: the money. Music journalism pays less now than when I started 15 years ago. The irregularity of work. The lack of standard benefits (sick pay, pensions). But how cares about money. If you can live on a mid-four figure salary per annum and don’t mind receiving death threats from over-inflated, pompous ego-heads who spank planks for a living then this is the job for you!

Who, in life or writing - do you most admire?

I like Werner Herzog and Iggy Pop. I tend to admire people who commit to a singular vision. Original people. Francis Bacon, Crass, Sun Ra or the face that Gloria Swanson pulls at the end of Sunset Boulevard.

In writing it’s often particular books rather than people, though I keep coming back to Ted Lewis, Richard Brautigan, Cormac McCarthy, Italo Clavino, John Fante, Daniel Defoe, Derek Raymond, Mikhail Bulgakov, John Rechy, David Vann, Roger Deakin. Pat Barker’s early novels. Some Charles Bukowksi. I like some crime writing, nature writing, a lot of the kitchen sink / angry young man novels. I watch a lot of films. There’s a group of people in Newcastle called the Amber Film Collective; I like their output. At the moment I’m watching lots of obscure English films from the 70s too. I like the feel of them. The autumnal colours, the odd sound effects and the tension.

How come you ended up in the this little patch of West Yorkshire and how long will you stay do you think?

I think I wanted to experience ‘rain’ in all its many varieties. I’ve moved five times in five years so I intend on staying here for quite some time. Long enough to be covered in algae and harbour a disliking for people in Lancashire anyway.

What's next?

I’ve been working on two novels since Pig Iron and they’re nearly finished. Together they form a loose trilogy of sorts – thematically-speaking anyway. Though each novel is a stand-alone work, they are each set in a different rural corner of Northern England. The rural England you rarely see on television or read about in your Sunday supplements. Each concern characters who exist on the fringes of society. Alongside  Pig Iron they explore ideas such as identity, landscape, moral corruption, violence, crime, familial legacy, deviance, farming, survival – but also beauty and escape too.

 Pig Iron is published by Bluemoose and available everywhere...

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