INTERVIEW: Benjamin Myers

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(Photo by Julian Germain with permission from Bloomsbury)

STORGY had the great privilege of interviewing Benjamin Myers about his forthcoming book The Offing (Bloomsbury) which is published on the 22nd August 2019.

In your own words could you tell us about The Offing?

It’s the story of a chance meeting between a naïve young man and an older bohemian women who is grieving, and the subsequent friendship that develops over the course of a summer following World War II. It is about poetry, food, the English countryside. It is about the pursuit of freedom and narrowing the gaps that separate us. It is a novel that is pro-Europe and anti-bigotry. It is a quiet protest against invisible borders and boundaries. It features fresh lobster, nettle tea, a dog called Butler and a Noel Coward song.

Was it daunting for you when deciding to write The Offing after the huge success and acclaim that The Gallows Pole received? Did you have to deal with any doubts about your writing or the story?

I actually started writing The Offing two years before The Gallows Pole came out, during a long period in which the latter was being rejected by every major publisher, and I was feeling rather hopeless. So I never imagined this would see the light of day either. I thought I would write 40,000 words of summer in order to lift my mood, and prevent me becoming too despondent. It turned into something longer. The Gallows Pole has sold steadily but I still view it very much as an underground word-of-mouth thing, so no, I wasn’t daunted by The Offing. Exhausted, maybe…

Could you describe to us your writing habits?

I wake up as late possible, often feeling a sense of anxiety or doom. I eat cereal, drink coffee, walk Lord Heathcliff of Haworth (my dog), and then spend the day chiselling metaphorical granite with a toothpick. Repeat until insane. Sometimes I go swimming. I live the ascetic life of a monk, really. I think writers’ work is usually more interesting than the writers themselves, which is why I am reluctant ‘public author’.

After writing The Gallows Pole was it a conscious effort on your part to revert to a more stripped back story in The Offing?

I wanted to write something that was a nice place to escape to, mainly for myself. In that sense The Offing became like a summer holiday of the imagination, enjoyed during the dark days of several Calderdale winters. Stripping it back made it achievable to write too; I think anything overly complicated and busy with characters might have made it an impossibility at the time.

There are only a few characters in The Offing – but I also feel that the landscape and sea are characters in their own right; how did you approach giving life to these elements of your story?

By visiting the places I write about. By spending time there, just sitting and looking and noticing the sounds, the shape of the land, the smell. By swimming in the sea too, and then making notes. The landscape is usually the starting point – the first character – in my fiction.

It’s clear to see that one of your many strengths is writing characters; they hold up your books like an internal scaffold. How much time do you spend on developing characters?

As long as it takes really. I suppose the characters are developing right until the very last sentence of the book, and even then still go on developing after the book is finished. They’re still out there now.

Plot or characters first? When we interviewed Patrick deWitt he said that he always starts with characters and the plot comes later, that he spends time with them before letting them loose in a story – does the same apply to you? Do your characters come to you before the plot or do they grow organically as you weave your story?

For me the place comes first – The Gallows Pole began with a moorland in West Yorkshire, Beastings with a sodden hill in Cumbria, The Offing with a meadow overlooking the North Sea. Then I see who wanders into view, and develop them as best I can. After that the plot hopefully begins to take shape. But I re-write a lot. I wrote the opening twenty or so pages perhaps ten or fifteen times, over three or four years. This stuff doesn’t come quickly or easily; the page is spotted with sweat.

Do you have any advice for writers in creating fully realised characters?

Ask yourself: is this person believable? I read so many characters who don’t act or speak like anyone I’ve ever encountered, and therefore are unlikely to be credible.

Dulcie is a fabulous character, was she based on anyone in particular – and was she as fun to write as she quite clearly comes across in the book?

Thank you. I suppose she has some of the attributes of many strong women I know or have known: my wife, my mother, my gran. But, no, she is not based on any one person. I’d say she more likely represents all women who choose creativity over conformity, and feminism over patriarchy. She is the woman who goes against societal pressures to breed in the pursuit of something else entirety. She is a lesbian in a time when lesbian couples were not socially accepted as they are today. Perhaps she didn’t want children anyway, which isn’t to say a person cannot be nurturing, because she clearly is. She’s a mentor to young Robert, an inspiration. I don’t even feel like I created Dulcie, she was just sort of there, almost fully-formed with a distinct voice, look, attitude. Even her back story. I could hear her, so then it just became act of transcription.

How did you conceive of the idea for The Offing? Where did the seed for the story come from?

The idea arrived in a moment while standing in a meadow near Robin Hood’s Bay….or perhaps while sitting in a library in Halifax…or in a somnambulist state in the pre-dawn hours of a spring day. I wanted to write about a hairy male tramp in an orchard in autumn, and ended up writing about a women in a meadow in summer. You just can’t predict these things.

How much research did you have to do with regards to location, history and themes of The Offing? And is this process something you enjoy?

I enjoy the research, yes. Most of it revolved around details of the era: post-War England, and certain other side subjects such as the Maiden’s garland, which I had seen, but didn’t know much about. Even things like Dulcie’s car had to be researched: the make, the model, the colour. All details have to be authentic to the time and place.

Could you give any advice on historical fictional writing for those attempting to write it?

Get the facts right, obviously, but don’t be weighed down by them. A lot of your research won’t make it to the page. Think about the emotions of the characters, and remember that people today are similar to people five hundred or a thousand years ago: many of our wants, desires, hopes and fears remain the same. So write from a human perspective, rather than a forensic researcher’s one.

The lyricism shown in The Offing is stunning, each word, each line, each sentence seems to sing from the page – how have you developed this lyricism to your writing and has your passion for poetry helped?

I enjoy reading poetry, so perhaps that has filtered in.

-Quick Fire Questions –

Is there a book that you have read that you wish you’d written and why?

Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin is short, beautiful and near perfect…but how could I have possibly written such a book?

Best advice you would give to an aspiring writer?

Read widely. Write often. Never give up. There’s really not much else to say beyond that.

Best advice you received as a writer?

I interviewed Hanif Kureishi when I was 22 and he told me I had to make the time to write. Whatever else was happening, I had to make the time. It’s an obvious point, but I think I needed to be told that.

Which of your books is your favourite?

Beastings. And now The Offing.

What is your biggest fear?

Almost everything.

Favourite historical period and why?

Northern England in the 7th century; the Romans had left and the kingdom of Northumbria was being formed. Christianity was beginning in earnest, the Vikings were invading and the borderlands were wild and bloody. A tumultuous time, evidence of which is still around us today.

Favourite piece of poetry?

When I first read ‘The Prelude’ by William Wordsworth I realised that I knew the exact place he was writing about when he steals a boat and goes rowing on Ullswater. It sort of unlocked a door in my imagination. More recently, Steve Ely wrote a poem called ‘Shitneck’, which makes me laugh every time I think about it.

Favourite short story?

Any of the ghost stories by M.R. James.

Favourite novel?

Robinson Crusoe is clearly problematic by today’s ethical standards, but it is probably the first ever English novel, so credit should be given for the inventiveness of the form. Also Hunger by Knut Hamsun, which birthed modernism, and is a unique work.

Favourite author?

It changes on a twice-daily basis. This morning: James Salter.

Are there any writers you’d recommend to our readership?

Cesare Pavese. John Rechy. Gordon Burn. Richard Brautigan. Ann Quin. Harry Crews. Ronan Hession. Laurent Binet. Heidi James. Virginie Despentes. HE Bates. Zaffar Kunial. Sjon. Ted Lewis. Wendy Erskine. Lee Rourke. Jenn Ashworth. Chris Power. Helen Mort. Horatio Clare. Darran Anderson. George Mackay Brown. Carys Davies. Melissa Harrison. Luke Turner. Annie Ernaux. Cynan Jones. Jeremy Cooper. Adam Scovell. Tom Cox. Sarah Hall. Paul Kingsnorth. Ron Rash. Rob Cowen. Niven Govinden. I could go on all day…

The Offing by Benjamin Myers is published by Bloomsbury on August 22nd 2019. His previous novels The Gallows Pole, Beastings and Pig Iron are also reissued by Bloomsbury.

Read Benjamin Myers exclusive essay ‘The Role of the Middle-Aged White Man’ here.

Read out review of The Offing here.

Interviewed by Ross Jeffery


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