August 2013

Ben Ashwell


An Interview with Benjamin Myers

Ben Myers is enjoying the warm reception that his latest work is getting. Snorri & Frosti is a novella that tells the story of two elderly brothers who live in a remote village in snowy Northern Europe. They are uncomplicated men who live uncomplicated lives. With the exception of the landscape and their memories, the brothers are alone. Snorri & Frosti's tender interactions and poignant observations of memory and companionship mark a slight departure for Myers, who is proving to be somewhat of a literary chameleon.

His first novel, The Book of Fuck, is a frantic semi-autobiographical novel about a music journalist. Myers once jokingly told an interviewer that he wrote the whole book in a week. But it was his second novel that truly garnered attention. Richard was a fictional account about the last hours of Richard Edwards, the enigmatic and ever-popular creative force behind the Manic Street Preachers. Diehard fans of the band, of which there are many, were quick to criticize the novel and Myers, but the book was also praised by many publications, including The Times, Time Out, and Mojo.

Between Richard and Myers's third novel, Pig Iron, he moved from London to Yorkshire. The move's influence on his writing started to be seen in Pig Iron, and the idea of the countryside as more than a setting is explored in the spaces between Snorri's interactions with Frosti. In a novella that is light on words and sparse on description, the snow-covered hills where Myers's characters live are still formed vividly in the reader's mind. Below Myers discusses his new work, the role of nature in his writing and the experience of publishing Richard with a major publisher.

Snorri & Frosti is quite a departure from your usual style and content. What was the initial motivation behind it?

About a year and a half ago, I found myself writing a play. I had been very busy with work and decided to have two weeks off over Christmas. I wasn't meant to be writing at all, but I saw a photo in a magazine about two brothers who lived up a mountain in Norway. They had a really basic, rural existence. I took that photo as a starting point because it triggered some thoughts about their life. Every writer has his own preferences, and I enjoy writing dialogue, so I wrote a play that was pure dialogue, without any stage directions.

At times Snorri & Frosti is reminiscent of Harold Pinter's play The Dumb Waiter, with two male characters interacting with each other in isolation. But in some of the exchanges between the two brothers there is an emotional core that is much closer to the writing of John Fante in Wait Until Spring, Bandini. What influences did you draw on?

I like the idea of writing about landscape and isolation and why people move to extreme places. The original photo was just a couple of guys, standing on their porch and looking out at the snow. The landscape set the tone for the characters. I read a lot of nature writing. I am a big fan of Walden and Robinson Crusoe, which are all about people in isolation. I wanted to write something that leaves a bit to the reader's imagination.

Other than that, I enjoyed Cormac McCarthy's play The Sunset Limited. McCarthy strips down the writing very well so that all is left is the bare bones. I have been working on a couple of new projects recently, and I have gotten to the point where I am not even putting in commas. You don't need to tell the readers everything. For example, you don't always need to write, "He said, she said," because the reader is intelligent enough to know who is talking.

For me, that means that editing is as important as the writing. When I first started writing the words just poured out. I used to think whatever I just written was perfect and that it would never need to be edited. I have now realized that I have to go back and cut and take thousands of words out and add thousands of words back in. When I finish writing a book, I know that I am only about halfway through the process.

Snorri & Frosti has a very remote setting, but one that is almost like a third character at times. It fills the gaps in conversation between the two brothers and affects their daily routine. You have been living in the countryside for a number of years now. How much do your own surroundings dictate what you write?

Without even realizing it my writing has totally changed. When I was living in London, I was quite tense because it is so busy all of the time. I was quite paranoid, and it was all very full-on.

But I have grown up loving nature and have always escaped to the countryside and gone to the Lake District and climbed up mountains. My family loves hiking. Even when I was in London working in the music business I knew I wanted to write about it. But if you're not in amongst it then the writing will only be on a superficial level. Looking out of my bedroom window now I can just about see the house where Ted Hughes was born. I go out into the countryside and get amongst it. After that, I write about it.

A lot of what I write now is a lot darker and more oppressive than what I was writing in London. The countryside can be dark and violent in its own way. I keep discovering little hamlets that are miles from anywhere. There are families who have lived there for generations and their lives haven't really changed in that time. Instantly that gets my imagination going and I start to question what their life is like. The darkness in the countryside inspires me. I have been reading a lot of writers who write about rural life in the Deep South of America. It is difficult for English writers to write in a similar style because America is so vast, but I want to write stories set in the backwoods of England where time hasn't changed things that much. I hope that my next couple of books will explore that, and my last novel (Pig Iron) was partially about that, too.

Snorri & Frosti has been released initially as an e-book. Is that a format that you are interested to explore, and how did it come about?

I was talking to Sam Jordison at Galley Beggar Press, who was telling me about their Singles Club, where every Friday they release a short story for 1. He suggested that I submit one. I have a lot of old short stories that I haven't used, but as I looked back on them I wasn't too happy with any of them. Then I remembered the play that I wrote in two days over Christmas. It felt new and exciting so I liked the idea of putting it out there. Fortunately Sam really liked it as well.

It should also be coming out in print at the end of the year, but I am really interested to see what it is like to put something out online and to see how many people buy it. Obviously your overhead is minimal, so it is an interesting route to explore. I thought this would be a good story to put out, because if you're charging 1 you want people to get their value for money -- they don't necessarily just want to have seven or eight pages to look at. It will be interesting to see how it goes. It is a strange piece because it can't really be classified as a short story, or a play, or poetry. It is a little bit of all of everything.

You have used the Internet to good effect in the past, particularly as a member of The Brutalists (a group formed of Myers, poet Adelle Stripe, and novelist Tony O'Neill). What was the idea behind the group?

The Brutalists was done as an experiment and was almost a joke. We all met via the Internet first and then eventually in person. It was when I was living in London. We were all writing stuff that was getting totally ignored and we were getting frustrated. This was back in the days of MySpace, so we made a page. For a while we couldn't think of what to name ourselves and then, as a joke, Adelle suggested we call ourselves The Brutalists. Within a week there were people in the comments section of The Guardian slagging us off, but at that point we hadn't actually done anything. Eventually we put out a couple of collections of poetry, but it was just very funny that we attracted criticism before we had even released anything.

Generally speaking, writing is such a solitary pursuit that I am wary about being grouped with any other writers or genres. I know a lot of writers, but that is often just through communication over the phone or email.

You might not like to be grouped in with other writers, but in June you were recognized with an award at the Northern Writers Awards. How important is it to support regional groups of writers?

That was a welcome piece of encouragement when I was floundering a little bit. I had entered a few competitions in the past and not got anywhere. I had actually vowed not to enter any competitions anymore, until this one came along. It is great to get that recognition, but I am cautious as well. Being a Northern writer might make me regional and limit my appeal to some people. I write about the North and live in the North, but I'm not overly proud to be from the North, in the same way that I'm not proud about being English. Everyone is from somewhere.

Your 2010 novel Richard attracted a lot of attention when it was released, due to its subject, Richie Edwards, a popular British cult figure who went missing in 1995. Many fans of the Richie's band, the Manic Street Preachers, and certain parts of the British media criticized you, but Picador's publishing the book also raised your profile. What did you learn from the experience?

I was asking for criticism by writing that book because it is a very sensitive subject that a lot of people feel very strongly about. It was a very strange time. A lot of negative reviews and coverage that I received was published before the book was released. I was sitting at home still editing and people were writing reviews. I knew that it would be a controversial book, but the fans of the band have a reputation for being intelligent and understanding. There was a big knee-jerk reaction from some people who didn't like the idea of the book. It was a very odd position to be in. I became very immersed in the publicity that the book was getting for a week or two, which was very stressful and traumatic. There was a lot of debate about the book. People were offended by the idea of the book, but some of them thought I quite tactfully handled the subject. Some people got in touch to let me know that I wasn't a total asshole. That was quite nice. It wasn't long after the release that we moved out of London and up to Yorkshire. That helped me to detach myself from the situation. I was doing interviews or reading a review, and then opening my door and walking out into the countryside.

Getting a contract from a big publisher was educational in itself. Having been with both small and big publishers, communication with a small publisher is much easier. With a big publisher there are a lot more people involved and it can feel like the book is taken out of your own hands. The upside is that you get lots of publicity, but the downside is that you're only one book out of about 200 that they are releasing that year. People get behind you and then move on. At a small publisher, they have a lot invested. When a book publisher remortgages his house to release a book, he needs to make sure it is successful. But that isn't me trying to take a swipe at big publishers -- they clearly know what they are doing and do it very well. Otherwise they wouldn't be in business.

At the moment I am just focused on the writing and not worrying what people will think about it. All that matters in literature is the product itself -- no one cares about who publishes it. It is easy to get distracted by that, but I don't care about it anymore.