March 2011

Chris Killen

features

An Interview with Ben Myers

Ben Myers’s second novel, Richard, is a fictional account of the life and subsequent disappearance of Richey Edwards, ex-guitarist and lyricist for the band Manic Street Preachers. It was published in the UK by Picador in October, 2010. It’s carefully researched, darkly funny and intelligently written. It's not uncommon to hear someone say something to the effect of, “There’s no such thing as a good rock and roll novel” -- the next time you hear someone say this, point them towards this book.

A music journalist, essayist, and poet, Myers has written biographies of bands like Green Day, Muse, and The Clash, and is the author of a previous novel, The Book of Fuck. He lives in England.


Hi Ben, how's things? Are you happy with the way the publication of Richard has gone so far? Is it how you imagined it would be?

Hi Chris, things are good. Yes, I'm happy with how the book has been received. Reactions have ranged from one extreme to another -- from readers and reviewers -- and I am quite pleased there has been no middle ground. Publishing a book is a strange process. There are lots of conflicting emotions: pride, embarrassment, horror, joy, doubt, anxiety, blankness, etc.

Okay, can you describe:

a) A moment of joy re: Richard?

I've never told anyone this before, but many months before the book was even published, Brad Pitt's production company in Los Angeles got in touch to request a copy with a view to adapting it into a film. That wasn't a moment of joy though -- more one of mirth. Imagine a Hollywood version of a very Welsh story… well, it's unthinkable, isn't it?

b) A moment of horror re: Richard?

There were some typing errors which slipped beneath the radar and onto the page. That was frustrating.

c) The best thing you can imagine happening re: your writing career?

I get to write every day at the moment, and sometimes eat food, so as long as that continues I'll be happy. I just want to keep writing forever, basically.

d) The worst thing you can imagine happening re: your writing career?

That's easy: having to stop writing and get a full-time job, or my arms falling off.

Without giving too much away, the structure of Richard is interesting and -- in my opinion -- very satisfying. Was the structure of the novel something you knew you wanted to do from the start, or was it just something that came naturally as you were writing it?

I decided upon the structure right from the start, which was a bit of departure as I normally just start writing and see what happens (and that's exactly why I have a pile of unpublished novels -- see below). I knew I wanted a dual narrative running throughout but getting it mesh together coherently was a challenge.

How long did it take you to write?

The first draft took six months of researching, writing -- and sometimes talking to people -- all day, every day. And thinking too: I'd say that thinking about writing without typing a single word can be important too. Then over the course of another 6 to 9 months it went through a series of edits between my editor at Picador and myself.

Did you have any sort of daily rituals or constants or anything?

I took up running, actually. I used to drink strong coffee and write all day, then run round an abandoned, overgrown Victorian cemetery, sometimes in the snow, sometimes in the mud. I stopped running when I finished the book but I walk a lot -- a few miles a day -- and find that the repetitive motion is quite good for clearing the head. I listened to a lot of Krautrock -- Can, Neu!, etc. -- too while writing the book, which has much the same effect. I also listened to a lot of late '80s/early '90s indie music, as that is the world in which the book is set. And, yes, I listened to quite a lot of the Manic Street Preachers. Probably too much, in fact.

Did you find the factual basis restrictive or helpful?

It was always going to be a fact-based novel, so the factual aspects were easier to write as they actually happened and have been well documented in magazines, TV clips, and anecdotally, too. It was the more imaginative elements that were harder to write because I was forced to make some quite vast assumptions about the mindset of Richey Edwards.

What reaction have Manic Street Preachers fans had towards the book? Have you had any strange instances of fan mail/hate mail, or people coming up to you in person? I guess what I'm saying is, “Are they mental?”

Manic Street Preachers fans are certainly committed, loyal and passionate -- and that translates in various ways. I get sent some really lovely messages from people who found something they liked about the book -- and I have had quite a lot of people thanking me for writing about subjects such as male anorexia, depression, etc. I've also read some pretty negative things too.  All points are valid. The most damning reviews of the book appeared online while I was still writing it; they are slightly less valid. Are Manics fans mental?  No, I don't think so. Or if they are, they remain very articulate.

I understand you’re quite prolific. How many novels have you written in total? And can you say a little about each one?

Here is a brief breakdown of how and why I have nearly sent myself insane and/or bankrupt on a number of occasions:

Steady Diet Of Nothing (1999, unpublished)
"Student with messiah complex gathers followers, manipulates their emotions, embarks upon minor terrorism campaign."

Siren City Soundtrack (2000, unpublished)
Loosely-linked ultra-short stories written while drunk. Beyond that I don't remember what this was actually about.

The Book Of Fuck (written 2000, published UK 2004 / Italy 2005)
"Hapless music journalist travels through the London music underworld and to Los Angeles to interview a semi-mythical rock-star-in-hiding."

(Interlude: a number of non-fiction books and some poetry chapbooks written and published between 2003 and 2006. About four or five, I think)

The Missing Kidney (2005, unpublished)
"Recollections of an adolescent medical trauma trigger some modern day literary epiphanies." Essentially a diary of “where my head was at” in 2005.

I, Axl (An American Dream) (2007, published as a blog)
The story of Axl Rose, the LA music scene of the 1980s and his extended exile, told exclusively through poetry.

Dreams of Luminous Lines (2008, unpublished)
"Two friends turn 30 and try to cope with life by hanging around riverbanks, ponds, canals, and waterways of Britain, not catching fish and ruminating on life. Arrests and injuries occur, but so do love affairs and 'insight.'”

Richard (published 2010)
"The life and disappearance of Richey Edwards."

---  /---- (2009, work in progress)
"Violence, etc."

--- / --- / -- / --- / --- / ---- / --- /------ (2010-2011, work in progress)
"Sex. Etc."

Can you think of any other good rock and roll novels?

Kill Your Friends by John Niven is a good rock 'n' roll novel. Absolute Beginners by Colin MacInnes, also. The best rock 'n' roll novels probably don't actually feature bands though, but are more about the spirit of it, so in a way some of Knut Hamsun's characters are rock 'n' roll, or Henry Miller's explicit sexual shenanigans, or the ancient Chinese poet Li Po, who used to get drunk on hillsides and try and catch the moon in his hands. He was rock 'n' roll. I think the thing about "rock 'n' roll” is I just can't take it seriously. You can guarantee that any band or person who considers themselves that these days is anything but. It seems to just mean wearing a bullet belt and getting really drunk, when really it should about freedom, non-conformity, anti-establishment attitudes, acts of sedition, the breaking down of racial/sexual boundaries, the constant risk of ridicule and -- perhaps most importantly -- individuality. As a shrieking gay black man, Little Richard was definitely rock 'n' roll, though it seems that the genre was quickly co-opted by America to sell the dream of itself abroad, alongside Levis, burgers, cars, etc. A useful sales too, basically. Nowadays it seems as meaningless a term as "punk" or "alternative" or "R&B.” I hope I don't sound bitter or nostalgic saying this, as I'm really not. It's just the way things go, isn't it? Whatever happens next will probably be more exciting. I appear to have digressed somewhat. Sorry about that.

No worries, Ben. Okay, one final question: What is something that no one has asked you in an email interview that you would like most to be asked in an email interview like this?

I always wanted to be asked “What is something that no one has asked you in an email interview that you would like most to be asked in an email interview like this?” So I suppose a dream has just been fulfilled. Or maybe, “Do you believe that when we die our physical form passes over into a spiritual realm, place or platform free of the constraints of 'matter', before then going through something of a re-birth of sorts, possibly leading to reincarnation as an alternative species, plant or gas?”, to which I would probably have to reply, “I wouldn't know about any of that.”