The way I work: Benjamin Myers

His words no longer stand thirty feet tall on London’s Oxford Road but they have a much bigger value to him now they’re in his novels

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When I was 10 years old I wanted to be either a boxer or long distance runner. I had stamina but I was short and weighed about six stone dripping wet, and had neither the constitution, talent or dedication to do either. I was sensitive too – I loved reading and writing. Poetry made more sense than the world. Like thousands of others, the image of Roald Dahl in his writing shed, a bar of chocolate to hand, his mind alive with possibility, was inspiring, and I attempted to write my first novel shortly afterwards.

Throughout my teenage years a love of music and literature became inextricably intertwined, and a burgeoning anxiety about the restrictiveness of the adult world made it clear there was only one career option I should pursue: journalism. I spent my entire A-level studies practically researching the effects of alcohol, drugs and the performing of hardcore punk rock on stages across the north of England, and acquired the grades that reflected this: a D in English literature, a D in classical studies and a N in economics. In a panic I simultaneously applied to every university in Britain, and wrote to every music, arts or lifestyle magazine in existence. Two replied: Luton University (now the University of Bedfordshire) gave me a place to study English literature and Melody Maker offered me work experience. I remain immensely grateful to both.

The more inane and banal my inspirational slogans, the more they seemed to go for them

So by the end of my teens I was both a student and music journalist, contributing weekly reviews to a publication that had shaped my world outlook. I was up and running, and at the age of 21 moved to London, where I lived in a squat for several years. One day I would sit in front of the oven to warm up and watch mice steal cheese from my traps, the next I would fly to Hollywood to interview pop stars.

Fiction remained my obsession though, and as I became more deeply embedded in the music business it was apparent that it is actually quite an artless place. New ideas are rare and cyclical patterns become recognisable. I have a strong memory of being at T In The Park festival – the tenth that I had worked at that summer – and hiding under a table backstage so that I could read my Henry Miller novel in peace. I was 23 and already feeling jaded. Though still writing for several magazines I increased my effort to write novels.

I think it is a combination of luck, tenacity and a continuous fear of having to enter the conventional workplace that has enabled me to have a career since then. I’m 40 now and as of this month have been a freelance journalist and latterly a novelist for exactly 20 years, so in many ways I feel institutionalised. Or whatever the opposite of institutionalised is. It’s 10 years since I worked, very briefly, in an office, and that was doing copywriting for a hip London design agency.

My role there was to come up with tag-lines for advertising campaigns for a major international sportswear company. I treated it as poetry and got a certain fleeting perverse pleasure in dipping my toes into the strange world of accelerated capitalism and corporate branding. The more inane and banal my inspirational quotes and slogans, the more they seemed to go for them. Soon my words were appearing 30 feet tall in Oxford Street windows, on billboards, at major sporting events. It seemed ironic, because the only sport I like to watch was boxing, which is high on drama but largely free of pretence, and stripped down to bone and blood and guts.

When you dip your toes into this world you soon get burned. Copywriting paid well but I felt my innards shrivelling and so it was back to journalism for me: interviewing bands, reviewing novels, writing copy for music festivals and record labels, selling short stories, publishing poems. I’m not proud of this, but I was once asked to review pornographic films. I treated them as high art and wrote the column accordingly. It was sent back to me: “Readers don’t want to know about Hitchcock-esque camera angles. Please re-write it.”

Writing is a hustle that I love. Not knowing what money I will earn next week is a challenge; I live by my wits, imagination and anxieties, and when times are tight I sell my possessions.

In the past four years, my fiction career has taken a turn for the better. I was awarded a grant by the Society of Authors, which bought me time to finish my novel Pig Iron, which won the Gordon Prize, which then led to me staying in a remote house in Scotland for several months in order to finish my next novel, Beastings, which in turn led to me receiving some Arts Council funding, and then winning the Portico Prize for Literature, dubbed “the Booker Prize of the north”. A chain of events was set in motion that has kept the wolf from the door. Writers rarely make money from book sales, and the wolf is always there, scratching and growling, his maul bloody, his nose twitching for fresh flesh. Everything I have done has been to buy me time to write novels – and freedom. I’m obsessed. I throw the wolf scraps from time to time, but he can wait a while longer.

Turning Blue by Benjamin Myers is out this month on Moth/Mayfly

Photo: Julian Germain Dunelm

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