The Desire to Write: Northern Soul talks to author Ben Myers
It’s not easy being an independent publisher. Just ask any anyone in the industry about the long hours devoted to promotion and the number of rejections.
Back in the late 1990s, independents were in danger of vanishing. Large publishing houses were swallowing up indies and medium-sized presses to create corporate publishing houses. The idea of being on an independent publisher’s books was scoffed at – that way lies penury and obscurity.
Last year four independent publishers made it onto the Man Booker Prize list. The independents aren’t just coming, they never went away. Today they are at the forefront of discovering new talent. Consider this: Norfolk-based Salt Publishing discovered Carys Bray and picked up Alison Moore’s spellbinding novel, The Lighthouse; Seren Books in Wales published the Costa and Booker-long-listed The Last Hundred Days by Patrick McGuinness. In Hebden Bridge, Bluemoose Books is championing new writing to a global audience. It published King Crow by Michael Stewart, winner of The Guardian’s ‘Not The Booker‘ in 2011 and a recommended read for World Book Day 2012. Adrian Barnes’s Nod was long-listed for The Commonwealth Writers’ Prize 2013 and short-listed for Europe’s biggest Science Fiction prize, The Arthur C. Clarke Award in 2013. Last year it was published in North America.
Bluemoose’s latest success story is Benjamin Myers, long-listed for The Jerwood Prize in 2015. Last November he scooped the £10,000 Portico Prize, the North’s leading literary award. Penury and obscurity are no longer on the cards for writers who embrace the independents.
I talked to Myers about his award-winning novel Beastings, why he walked away from a big publishing house, and the importance of the desire to write over the economics of being an author.
Andrew Oldham: The fells of Cumbria become a living, breathing character in Beastings akin to the moors in Wuthering Heights. However, as in the Brontë novel, nature is black, something that can cosset or destroy. Did the characters in the novel become an extension of this or did the characters come first and the landscape afterwards?
Benjamin Myers: The desire to write about the Cumbrian terrain came first, as it’s a place that’s close to me. I first climbed Helvellyn when I was five and have been walking there every year since. So Beastings began with the image of a solitary figure moving through the landscape, and the landscape moving through her too. It began with rain and rock and cloud and hunger and sweat and desperation. Flight.
I wanted to write something where humanity and landscape almost become interchangeable, so that the reader is left wondering which is crueller – the timeless elements and hewn mountains that conspire to kill or the people – a cruel priest, a poacher – who are in pursuit of the girl whose journey we follow. I’d describe it as a morality tale. I wanted it to be largely free of references to time, place and era – a story that could almost work just as well in the Tundra, the desert, the rainforest or the outback. I just happened to write about the places I know best, the darkening North lands.
AO: The idea of time is played with, it is clear that we are not in the present day due to an absence of technology and the Church actively taking in female waifs. This lack of time seems to be at the centre of the female protagonist who tries to piece together her early days on a hill farm, her possible imagined future and her desperate present. I wondered why you chose to use time as fluid form, juxtaposed with a pursuit by the priest who is obsessed with time running out.
BM: I think it can be viewed as fluid. I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of ‘time’ as something that has had a numerical structure imposed upon on it – seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks and so on. These are all human inventions, and relatively recent ones in the grand scheme of societal evolution. This makes me wonder how people viewed time before these systems were in place.
On a more practical level, whatever I write is concerned with brevity and pace. Beastings was edited down through seven different versions, each one chipping away at it in order to create some hewn and immoveable, like a big slab of Cumbrian rock. I took all the commas out so that the reader hopefully feels like they are being dragged along as the nameless child is dragged along, their breath held in their throat, their pulse quickening. That, ultimately, is the aim of my prose, to provoke a heightened heart rate or tears or nausea or overwhelming feelings of love. If the reader feels like they are there, battered by the elements, then I would judge the book a success. If they feel nothing, then I have failed.
AO: The characters of the priest, the poacher and the girl seem representative of the brutality and beauty of the landscape. They appear to be a metaphor for the Holy Trinity. How much did the idea of faith versus religion play in creating the three characters and the landscape they inhabit?
BM: I’d never considered the Holy Trinity metaphor but it’s a keen observation. I’ll take it. I’m a believer in things rising from the subconscious and onto the page, so perhaps this is an example of that. Faith and religion are, as most right minded people are probably aware, two very different things. I think there are grey areas between the two, crossover points, but I think that faith is always more powerful than religion. Faith is beyond corruption, whereas corruption is often the prevailing currency in religion.
Beastings wasn’t really written as anti-religious piece at all, but more of an attempt to show how it can intoxicate the individual to such an extent that they lose all moral sense. That is evident in the priest who is essentially ruled by appetite and power, whereas the girl is fuelled by faith in a better future. The landscape meanwhile is, hopefully, impartial. Mountains and rivers don’t care about religious doctrines, dogma or philosophical quibbles. They’ll outlast us all, I hope.
AO: We see this religious idea played out in the hostel, on the farm, with the campers and the hobo who inhabits the fells and caves. They become disciples in the landscape. Where you conscious during the editing that these characters became a mirror for lack of sympathy, love and care that the girl had been denied in the church?
BM: I’m not sure I ever really think anything that far through. I tend to see a journey from A to B, then I write it and take narrative diversions along the way. In the other characters I want to show a mix of emotions and represent lightness as well as darkness. I fundamentally believe that most humans are decent at the core, and needed to somehow express that. The book is dark and relentless but hopefully these small acts of kindness that are shown towards the girl are evident. I mean, a novel without hope can leave the reader feeling hopeless and that’s never really my intention. We have the daily newspapers to do that for us. We have the real world to crush our spirits. Literature can perhaps offer something more.
AO: Talking about the real world crushing your spirits. I believe Beastings was initially rejected by your agent and some mainstream publishers before finding a home with Bluemoose. Can you take us through that journey and how book ended up with an independent Northern publisher?
BM: Oh no, it wasn’t rejected by my (then) agent. They were really into it, supportive and optimistic. It actually came close to be signed to some publishers but it seemed to take months and months and Bluemoose were up for it from day one, and ready to put it out, so we went for it. We’d already had some success together with my previous novel Pig Iron, which had been signed as a standalone one book deal, so it made sense to carry on. Beastings itself went through, I think, seven re-writes over four years. That’s the part that goes unseen, the many, many months and years spent examining every paragraph, every sentence, every word. I would describe the editing process as forensic. I did most of that myself, then handed it over to be published. It was created in isolation, really. In a vacuum. No-one saw it until it was ready to be read, which is pretty much the finished novel.
AO: How did it feel when Beastings won the Portico Prize and you were £10,000 richer?
BM: I always assumed that people like me – socially-awkward writers on the margins, who you rarely see at literary festivals – rarely win such things so it was quite surprising I suppose. I thought Alan Garner might win it, for services to literature. I love his work, he’s probably the best British writer out there. I aspire to be that good. With my winnings I bought a spare pair of spectacles for £100. It seemed like a luxury, being able to own two pairs of glasses. The rest of the money is being used to live off while I work on several other projects.
AO: What do you think is going wrong with the large London-centric publishers in comparison to independents?
BM: I don’t necessarily think it’s a London thing, and I hate to think in terms of North versus South because that is a parochial route to go down. Literature should be international, universal.
When profit is the main motivation though, the art suffers. I think that sums up the difference between large and small publishers. It’s all about perspective really. Is selling 5,000 novels a success or failure? And how much money has been wasted on lunches, launches, marketing, not to mention really expensive overheads, before the book has even been published? Independents are usually run by individuals or small groups of people so the decision-making process is quicker, and greater risks can be taken. Passions can be pursued. Decision-making by committee or consensus is surely the death of art. I’ve actually heard that from big publishers,‘well, seven of us liked your novel, but the other nine were unsure’. Insanity. The arts need fearless dictators with good taste.
The thing is, I never think about money a great deal, because I’ve never really had any. It certainly has no bearing on the content of what I write. My annual income is sub-minimum wage and none of it comes from royalties, so that’s why prize wins matter to those of us literary troglodytes, hammering away in the dark. I’m striving for immortality here. I want to transcend death. That’s better than a moderate advance and being on the publishing carousel for six months, the hot new piece of meat. I feel I’m past all that. I’m out here, in the hills, doing my own thing and the mainstream publishing world is seven million light years away.
I’d write with a chisel in millstone grit if I had to – for love. It’s how I communicate. It’s the only thing that gives balance or makes sense of a world which, if I’m honest, I often find exhausting and incomprehensible.
AO: You have been vocal in your support of Bluemoose and your continued desire to stay with them. Why is staying with an independent more important to you as a writer than being lured in by one of those big publishers?
BM: I’ve been with a big publisher and it wasn’t much fun. Which isn’t to say I wouldn’t do it again, but the circumstances would have to be different. I feel loyalty towards Bluemoose because they have given me support and freedom and there’s something to be said for personal bonds, friendship, shared goals – doing it all for the merry hell of it. When a publisher has remortgaged his house to finance their business then you know he/she is committed. Bluemoose understand the simple formula that some bigger companies have possibly strayed away from – the writer writes, the publisher publishes, the reader reads.
AO: What advice do you have for writers who have been rejected?
BM: Just keep writing. Get ‘NEVER GIVE UP’ tattooed on your forehead. You, more than anyone else, know what feels right. And if you feel disheartened, angry, bitter but energised and a bit insane, then you’re definitely on the right track. And, most of all, never listen to advice from writers. They’re the very worst people.
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Love this spooky shot in York, by Zoe. pic.twitter.com/1SDqFldW3c