Benjamin Myers, author of The Book of Fuck (2004) and Richard (2010), is an award-winning North-Eastern writer. Following the recent release of his new novella Snorri and Frosti, and his new-found place among the 2013 winners of the Northern Writers’ Awards, we interviewed Mr Myers to get an insight into the life and thoughts of a modern writer.
The Bubble: What, for you, is the appeal of the short story or novella as a form of writing?
Benjamin Myers: A novel is long and involved process – usually a year or two of work, plus edits, re-writes and so forth. And then maybe a year of talking about it to people. So it’s a big project to commit to but it does give a writer room and space in which to breath. The short story or novella however requires real discipline and economy. I actually find writing short stories much harder than novels. It’s like painting on a postcard instead of the side of a building. But more recently I have also wanted to experiment with new ways of getting work out there – in this case, as a download story – and a novella seemed like the best medium for that.
TB: Do you see Snorri and Frosti as standing apart from the rest of your work to date, and why?
BM: This novella is, I hope, about the warmth felt between two brothers. A lot of my work to date has explored themes of violence, landscape, corruption, alienation and this moves away from that somewhat – though landscape and alienation certainly still play a big part. I wanted to write a stand-alone work that could be read in one sitting and leave the reader with a quickened heart-rate. I wanted to test their tear ducts.
TB: What drew you to the northern setting of Snorri and Frosti, seemingly inspired by Northern Europe, rather than Northern England?
BM: I’m fascinated by geographical isolation and extreme conditions – and why people choose to live in them, when death seems so much closer at any given time. Then again maybe that’s the exact appeal for some people? Feeling alive while facing death. There is so much space and snow in northern Europe – a Nordic vastness that I associate with Viking civilisation – and it seemed like the perfect backdrop to what is essentially a very close-up, intimate portrait of two men. The setting almost dictates the characters – the idea that two men who have lived their entire lives up a mountain means they are going to act and behave in certain ways. Against all that snow they become two tiny black dots on the endless white landscape as the outside world gradually begins to encroach upon their existence. They are gentle souls troubled by the thought of change.
TB: You are known for your involvement with the literary movement Brutalism. Briefly, what are your thoughts on the literary world’s so-called ‘iPod moment’ that we’re currently witnessing?
BM: I’m not sure what this is. I’m of an interesting generation though: I was 21 when I first used the internet in 1997 during my final term at university, so I have come of age on the cusp of a technological revolution. None of my tawdry drunken adolescence was captured online thank God. The capacity for blackmail must be huge for some people. I have seen both worlds – before and after – and now watch with interest at the effect that it is all having upon culture and commerce and especially literature. The alt-lit scene is interesting because it has produced some young writers via a non-traditional route – writers like Tao Lin, Ben Brooks and Socrates Adams. I try not to get too distracted by technology though. Methods of delivery change but stories are timeless.
TB: Snorri and Frosti features two elderly brothers as its protagonists. How did you decide upon these characters as the basis for your novella, and do you feel that older people are underrepresented in literature today?
BM: I saw a photo of two old men living in a chalet in Northern European country. That triggered the idea for the story. I don’t think so much in terms of characters as young and old, male and female, but as voices. I like writing dialogue so decided to write the entire piece as a conversation that has been on-going between the two men all of their lives – seventy odd years. As readers we are just eavesdropping in on that. It is purely dialogue, a play without stage directions, a novella without straight prose.
TB: You are one of the winners of the Northern Writers’ Awards 2013. How important is public recognition to you as a writer, and is there any particular award or acclaim that you have always dreamed of achieving?
BM: I suppose public recognition is a hint that people are reading what I write because otherwise it feels like I exist in isolation. You write, it gets published, you get a little bit of feedback, and then that’s that. Onto the next thing. I’m sure other writers feel the same. I’m not out there on the literary circuit, being seen at the right book launches or on the festival bills – I’m just not part of that world – so to get recognised with awards is gratifying. The literary world is another planet to me but The Northern Writers Awards and New Writing North, who organise it, are hugely helpful in developing writers from the region and their support came at a time when I really needed that boost. Other than that thought, merely getting published and avoiding getting a real job is more than enough of a reward.
TB: Have you got any advice for aspiring novelists? What do you think is the most important thing to remember when starting a career as a writer?
BM: Just never give up. Read, write, and then read some more. Write five novels. Write ten novels. One of them might published. But never give up. And always make time to write if you can, even if it’s only an hour a day – or an hour a week. Words on the page are what matters – everything else is superfluous. I’d possibly also advise walking lots. Take to the riverbanks and go for a long wander; it’s a good way to work out any problems in writing. Get wet.
TB: Are there any writers who particularly inspired your own love for literature and writing? Do you think you are indebted to these writers or a particular genre/period for your inspiration, or do you find that your motivation ultimately comes from real life, not fiction?
BM: Seeing Roald Dahl sitting in his shed with his pencils and his chocolate and his blanket over his legs is what made me want to be a writer. Apart from a few wayward hedonistic years when I was caught up in the London music business, every second of every day since then has been an attempt to emulate that. I went through a huge phase of reading anything experimental and esoteric or possibly deemed anti-literature but have realised that really I like stories. There are certain writers who are very good at that and reading them at various points in my life has been influential, whether that’s Daniel Defoe or Charles Bukowksi, Gordon Burn or Jean Genet, DH Lawrence or John Fante. But, yes, real life too. The news is a big influence, especially regional news. Reading the local newspapers or the BBC’s regional coverage you often find that the darkest, oddest things are going on two streets away. There are no invented stories quite as odd as those which are happening around us all the time.
TB: You also write poetry and have published some best-selling biographies. Do you have a favourite writing form, and do you think variety is the key to a successful writing career?
BM: Fiction is my favourite form because it is like time travel – it’s like building a universe, ruling it for a while, and then discovering that it now rules you – but I also work as a freelance music journalist, which involves acting quickly. There are tight deadlines, strict word counts and remits and lots of last minute jobs – like suddenly having to take off somewhere to interview someone I know nothing about. It’s a good discipline to learn, that sort of seat-of-your-pants approach to writing. It is also endlessly entertaining, never boring, absurd, surreal and utterly ridiculous – though the pay has been steadily decreasingly for fifteen years. It’s the only profession I know of where this is happening. Ultimately I just like to write though. There’s a strange kind of alchemy happens when certain letters are arranged in certain orders. I can’t explain it, but the effect can be visceral, physical….
TB: We understand that you have a new novel due for publication in 2014. Can you give us any hints as to what it may be about, and what we should look out for when reading it?
BM: Look out for a sadistic priest and poacher with a wooden leg. It is a novel that concerns both, and their pursuit of a young girl who has run away. I’m also working on some crime stories at the moment. All my current work is set across the north of England – Yorkshire, Cumbria and Durham. All of taps into the dark undercurrents…the things unseen, the things unsaid, life beneath the top soil….
Interested in finding out more about Snorri and Frosti? Read The Bubble writer Thomas Rooney’s
You can download Snorri & Frosti for £1 via Galley Beggar Press here.
Or on Amazon.
It will be available in print form late in 2013.