King for a Day – Benjamin Myers, Winner of the 2018 Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction (Credit: Walter Scott Prize)
In an in-depth interview, prize-winning author BENJAMIN MYERS talks to NEIL MUDD about writing, mortality and the myth of the North-South divide…
“We’re past the age of heroes and hero kings,” suggested author John Updike in an interview in 2009. “If we can’t make up stories about ordinary people, who can we make them up about?”
With The Gallows Pole, his dark retelling of the life and death of Coiner’s leader ‘King’ David Hartley who, for the briefest of months in the 18th century, reigned brightly over the Calder Valley, novelist Benjamin Myers contrives to have his cake and eat it – at least as far as Updike would be concerned.
But then, as the American literary heavyweight went on to observe, “It’s a rare life so dull that no crisis ever intrudes.”
When I interviewed Myers for theCV last year, The Gallows Pole was yet to clinch the prestigious 2018 Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction. With more than 12,000 print copies sold, and digital downloads accounting for half as much again, it has been a word of mouth sensation.
Just over a year later, the book’s publisher Bluemoose continues to shift about a thousand units every month. Not bad for a book that was turned down by many of the major publishing houses in the country.
“Pretty much everything I’ve written – apart from Under the Rock – has been written without a book deal, so you never know how it’s going to be received,” says Myers, when we chat about his contribution to These Northern Types, a new publication exploring different aspects of Northern identity.
“When I was writing The Gallows Pole, there were sections I was really pleased with. I knew the writing was probably the best I’d done. I knew it was a good story. As a reader it was something in which I was interested, so I knew other people would be as well.
“But when I handed it over to Jessica my agent and she sent it out, we just got back a series of rejections, a whole gamut of criticisms, and at that point you start having doubts.”
Myers has been here before, however, and has learned to keep the faith. When he was approached by Hebden Bridge independent Bluemoose, he “knew they’d make a good job of selling it,” he says. (Founders Kevin and Hetha Duffy had previously bankrolled Myers’ 2012 Gordon Burn prize-winning novel Pig Iron by remortgaging their home.)
“I don’t usually have memories tied to writing specific books, but I do remember being in Scotland (at Gordon Burn’s cottage in Berwickshire) writing The Gallows Pole. I was getting up and going for a walk, then writing by hand in the morning using pen and paper, and in the afternoon typing up what I’d done.”
He recalls accruing the list of the words which makes reading The Gallows Pole such a primal and vigorous experience. “I’ve got some good little flash-point memories of writing the book and knowing parts were working,” he says.
“There are certain days where things click. It’s often halfway through the book, something happens in the plot and you realise you can tie things together, but to get to that point you have to grind through weeks and months of getting it down.”
Myers recently signed a book deal with Bloomsbury, the independent publisher who famously took a punt in 1997 on a then unknown writer named J K Rowling.
“This is the thing,” he says. “You’re the only person who has mentioned it’s independent. People have been joking with me about being a sell-out – which is fine by me – but it is an independent publisher who just happens to have Harry Potter on (its) books.”
Alexa von Hirschberg, senior commissioning editor at Bloomsbury, has been following Myers’ career closely since twice being recommended his dark, oppressive Cumbrian-set chiller Beastings at a literary event she was attending (the sort Myers “tends to avoid.”)
Missing out on Under the Rock, his robustly poetic account of living and working in the shadow of Scout Rock in the heart of the Calder Valley, von Hirschberg brought forward a planned meeting with the author when it was announced The Gallows Pole had won the Walter Scott Prize.
The meeting between the two was quintessentially Myers: “She actually came to Hebden Bridge,” he says, “and we sat in the park during the heatwave and had a chat. It wasn’t like some publishing meeting in a boardroom.”
“After the Walter Scott prize there were plenty of publishers sniffing around,” he admits, relishing the irony that among them were those who had turned him down the previous year. “It’s been a long slow thing with Bloomsbury watching me, but it’s all come together rather quickly.”
Rather quickly sums up how things happen in Myers’ world. Within months of The Gallows Pole came These Darkening Days, a sequel of sorts to 2016’s Turning Blue, while the afore-mentioned Under the Rock was published earlier this year.
Few expressed surprise when news of the deal with Bloomsbury was coupled with an announcement that Myers had already written a novel for release in 2020, with a new collection of short stories to follow sometime after that.
“I love writing and I don’t do a great deal else,” he explains. “I’ve been doing it most days for twenty years now. I’m lucky in that I can scrape by through journalism and, more recently from book advances and selling the rights of The Gallows Pole to television.”
Myers has been writing The Offing, set in Robin Hood’s Bay and detailing the ‘unlikely friendship’ between a young man and an older woman, off and on for the past three years.
“Between books and projects I’d go to the library in Halifax or Hebden Bridge and just write a couple of pages by hand and then type it up,” he says. “But then a couple of weeks might go by… Some people think I’m just knocking books out, but each one takes a couple of years.”
“Part of the deal with Bloomsbury is that they want me to slow down and just work on one thing at a time,” he concedes. “I’m trying to have a bit of a rest at the moment actually [a few weeks ago a nasty fall while out walking in Coiners’ Country resulted in some torn ligaments], but when you get an idea and you pursue it and if after a few weeks the idea still seems like a good one, I can’t not write it.”
In 1997 Myers was a music journalist in London, living in a series of squats and low-rent houses with his wife, the poet and writer Adelle Stripe. Nine years ago the couple relocated to Mytholmroyd – birthplace of Ted Hughes – where Myers has been tramping the hills and writing on a daily basis ever since. I ask if this compulsion to write stems from a sense of making up for lost time.
“No because I’ve been doing it since I was young. When I was ten, I attempted a novel. All the time I was on the Melody Maker and freelance in London, I was working on short stories [2004’s The Book of Fuck].
Aged twelve, a skateboarding incident landed Myers in hospital where he had surgery to remove a kidney. He spent several months convalescing, laid up at home reading comics and books.
“I don’t think I was going to die, but it was a serious operation back then, so maybe I was made aware of mortality at a young age,” he says.
“Quite a lot of writers were ill in childhood. Alan Garner [who Myers once approached for an autograph at a literary festival, only to discover he was addressing a dentist from Prestwich] was really ill with various ailments in the late 1930s and he talks about lying in bed having these visions.
“I had a lot of sickness as a kid – a lot of fever – even though I was quite an active child otherwise, and maybe that had an impact: that you can suddenly just get ill and die. It sounds dramatic, the idea of death looming, but you never know do you?”
Myers is one of the writers (along with theCV’s Phil Kirby) asked to contribute to These Northern Types, a compendium of stories and essays exploring what it means to be Northern.
Myers has written a series of vignettes from a personal perspective. “I’ve never been a mad Beatles fan or anything,” he says, “but my parents both went to Liverpool University in the early sixties just as Beatlemania was hitting, so I thought I can write about that.”
“I did about ten or fifteen little sections about different aspects of music in the North just seen through my life: living in London, being into punk bands, going to hardcore gigs, playing in a band aged fourteen; my brother moved to Wigan for a while, so I was able to talk about Northern Soul and the Wigan scene, even though it was really just a loose connection via geography.”
When The Gallows Pole won the Walter Scott Prize, Myers was quickly appropriated as a Northern writer by sections of the online community who championed him as a poster boy for their benighted expressions of North-South animosity.
“I’m not into any of that stuff because it becomes parochial,” he says. “You can come across as having a chip on your shoulder. Years back I decided each book I wrote would be set in a different county, so I’ve done a book in Durham, Cumbria, West Yorkshire and my next book is set in North Yorkshire, so obviously I write about it.”
“There’s that line (I think it’s Bill Hicks) about patriotism [Asked if he was a proud American, Hicks responded. ‘I dunno. I didn’t have a lot to do with it. My parents fucked there. That’s all.’] and I just think pride can be a dangerous thing. National pride can often be seen at the expense of other nations and out of that comes xenophobia.
“I don’t like this North-South thing. There are things I write about like London and the south-east draining all the money, and the North being neglected financially and fucked politically, so I fight the North’s corner in that respect, but this whole ‘Fuck London’ thing..?
“I love London. I lived there twelve years and a lot of people I know in London don’t have it any easier. It’s harder actually to live. How do you survive financially? That’s one of the reasons we moved back up North.
“The most satisfying thing for me is when people read one of my books abroad and get in touch to say they’ve connected with it. I’d hate to think I was only writing about the North for Northerners.
“I’m into community and being part of where I live, but I find pride an odd thing. I’m from Durham anyway, I’m not from Yorkshire. I lived in Peckham for years and I’ve got an affinity with there too. It’s a funny business pride.”
Mention of his overseas audience leads to a conversation about musician Jack White’s Third Man Books who recently licensed The Gallows Pole for stateside publication next year. “It was totally unexpected,” says Myers who is the first British writer to be signed to the esoteric imprint. Hitherto releasing books of poetry and art, The Gallows Pole will be its first novel.
I wonder if all this renewed interest could be the spur needed to reignite the mooted television adaptation of The Gallows Pole? “TV is a different beast,” says Myers, “but there’s a couple of things being talked about, like maybe writing something original for television.”
Ben Myers in a Play for Today scenario is a fascinating prospect. “That would be amazing, and it’s something that’s come from the television company rather than me. I’ve had a couple of approaches, but I won’t even talk about them because it can take months and probably won’t even go anywhere.”
“A lot of people want to have a lot of meetings, I realise. ‘Can you just pop down to Soho?’ No, not really. Let’s talk on the phone. It sounds flippant, but I’m not interested if it involves schlepping halfway across the country for some introductory chat.”
Myers is finally attracting the serious attention he deserves. It feels long overdue. While he may not identify as a proud Northerner, there is dignity and compassion in the way he writes about the lives and struggles of ordinary people living in the North.
His refusal to compromise is not sheer bloody-mindedness, but rather his due.
The Hero King is dead. Long live the Hero King!
For more Ben Myers on theCV, click here.