Author Q&A: Benjamin Myers

The Offing (Bloomsbury, £16.99)

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After the war in a North East mining community, Robert’s life is set out before him but he’s determined to have an adventure first. Walking into North Yorkshire he meets Dulcie. Worldly, educated and eccentric, she shows him an alternative way to live and unlocks his passion for poetry. Benjamin Myers lives in the Upper Calder Valley and this is his first book with a mainstream publisher. His previous novels The Gallows Pole, Beastings and Pig Iron are also reissued by Bloomsbury. 

The Offing by Romy Landau is a highly personal, inward-looking poetic work within The Offing by you, which is an outward looking novel. Although set just after the Second World War your characters discuss current issues including nationalism and a fractured Europe. Is this a difference between poetry and prose?
Poetry and prose come so close sometimes that they are almost interchangeable. Superficially prose appears the easier way in which to tell a story but a lot of my novels begin life as scribbled lines or verse anyway, then morph into something else. Poetry is so economical though that it can be the best way to get a message across, and therefore can be perfect for exploring big political issues. One or two key lines of poetry have the potential to devastate, exhilarate… and assassinate.

Romy suffered from “writers deluge”. Have you experienced it and how do you effectively judge the standard of work when it comes pouring out?
I would describe “writers deluge” as an almost uncontrollable torrent of ideas that have to be exorcised from the mind by writing them down on the page, otherwise they’ll rattle around inside your head like coins in a washing machine, for infinity. I’ve definitely driven myself to the edges of mental and physical exhaustion due to my complete obsession with the written word, and my inability to step away from it. Deluge followed by deluge. The only ways to judge the standard of work are, firstly, by how it feels when it is being created – I have a lot of writing that I have never published as it just didn’t feel right – and secondly, whether it still works after the passing of time. Then again, I’m almost never entirely happy with any of my books, and exist in a state of uncertainty, so I’m the very worst judge.

Writers are often drawn to suicide and depression as a subject and a disproportionate number of them experience them in their lives too. Do you think creative and depressive temperaments are linked and do writers today have to guard against romanticising the subjects?
I’m very reluctant to make a direct link between creative people and depression as it does a disservice to anyone else who suffers from mental health problems. Depression is the great leveller, really; it doesn’t discriminate. So when, for example, Prince Harry said he had experienced terrible anxiety, I was sympathetic. I think when someone commits themselves to a huge endeavour that takes over their life – whether writing, music, art or any other creative pursuit – it can be euphoric, thrilling and very fulfilling. The profession of writing is still, I think, sometimes perceived as being somehow romantic – that idea of the poor, tortured soul in the garret. But having been broke, depressed and living in squalor, romance can only be applied with hindsight when mythologizing our own past. There is nothing at all romantic about feeling depressed. Writing – and life – can take its toll. We need to look out for the signs, and look out for each other.

Brewing nettle tea, being brought the catch of the day and keeping bees are all part of the food education Dulcie gives Robert. Are people in rural communities still more connected to living off the land?
I think the old ways of living close to or directly off the land are gone now. Farming still exists, but in England at least the rural idyll is over. It has been a slow process, but the sprawl of suburban conurbations, retail parks, ring roads and so forth have had their effect, for better and worse. Nothing stays the same and we can still brew nettle tea and keep bees of course, but those things are probably a lifestyle choice now; such old rural practices are more likely to be recreational pursuits for the middle classes rather than born of working-class necessity. A lot of the countryside is dedicated to large-scale agriculture or has become a sort of theme park for those who can afford to be there. The idea of buying a quaint cottage with a plot of land is beyond the realm of possibility for most young families today. So The Offing is a love letter to the last days of the old ways, a eulogy for what once was.

The inevitability of a lifetime career down the pit may have weighed on many like a “sack of the black stuff on their backs” but Robert points out it wasn’t all bad – there were good wages, a community, housing for miners. On balance, is the end of coal mining in this country a good or a bad thing?
A bit of both, really. No one should have to go back to the hardships and danger of working a coalface 200 feet underground, though the pits did generally support entire communities and provided an infrastructure. So as well as houses, they might have included educational classes, clubs, bath houses and saunas, allotments and so forth. With a home-grown supply of coal largely gone we are now involved in more complicated trade deals for our energy. Perhaps ask me about this in 12 months, if we’re still here…

One character says fame and notoriety are a curse that breed misery, especially for creative or artistic people. Another, a writer, reflects on his career. He was considered an “angry new voice” but says it wasn’t anger – “that’s just how we talked up north” – and that those in London who considered him strange and exotic “showed how far removed they were”. When his work was adapted for film the chasm only widened. Are you disillusioned with the mainstream publishing industry and the planned adaptation for The Gallows Pole?

No, not at all. I’d say the industry is slowly coming round to the fact that there so many other voices being under-represented, and many publishers are attempting to rectify that. Diversity should only ever be seen as an exciting progression. My publisher Bloomsbury has forged links with independent publishers here up north and I commend them for it. As for The Gallows Pole adaptation, I feel the book is in the very best of care with Element Pictures, which recently won Oscars for The Favourite. It’s a slow process and I am in no hurry whatsoever.

Dulcie says everyone needs a patron. Did you have a mentor as a young writer and are there any young writers you are now championing?
I had some good English teachers and my parents have always been supportive, and never once suggested I gave up, so that counts for a lot. It’s invaluable, in fact. New Writing North in Newcastle has been very encouraging of my work, as has the Gordon Burn Trust. I try and help any writer who approaches me, though I only really feel like I’m beginning to learn how to write myself. Without wishing to sound vulgar, the thing any writer needs most besides encouragement is time and money. With a little clear thinking time and just enough to live off for a short while, great things can be achieved.

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