As part of my feature on the Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses I invited publishers and authors whose books were selected for the longlist to answer a few questions or write a guest post for my blog. Today I am delighted to welcome Ben Myers, author of The Gallows Pole.
Unlike previous interviews where I submitted questions and received written answers, this one was carried out over the phone – a new experience for me and one I hope I have risen to. What follows is therefore a summary of an interesting conversation.
1. Can you tell my readers a little about yourself and your background?
I’m from the North-East of England. I grew up on a housing estate on the edge of Durham. I wanted to be a writer from around the age of ten. Before that I wanted to be a boxer but I’m small and quite soft so that wasn’t going to work out. I became a journalist partly as a way to make money through writing but also to buy me time to write books.
I did a degree in English Literature although I failed my A levels and had to ring over a hundred universities before Luton agreed to take me. I spent a lot of time in the library there reading books that weren’t on the syllabus and which ended up shaping my literary tastes.
By this time I was writing for music magazines in London. I would find a way to get into gigs, interview the bands, and sell the pieces I wrote to magazines such as Melody Maker. The week I was due to graduate I got offered a job as staff writer there so moved to London where I lived in a squat for four years. I was living a very odd dual life where one day I would be sent to Beverly Hills or Hollywood to interview some rock star and then the next I’d be flying back to a room with holes in the walls, mice, and a bathtub on a pile of bricks in the kitchen. All of this felt like good training for being a writer.
I had a few years of working all hours, travelling to Europe and America, interviewing bands mainly but also some writers, yet I knew I didn’t want to be solely a journalist. Literature and poetry have always been my first love. I’ve been self-employed since the age of twenty-four, working in journalism and writing novels. I still do some work with the music industry.
My first fiction was published in 2004 but it was a small, underground thing. My first novel, Richard – about the disappearance of the guitarist ‘Richey’ Edwards from the Manic Street Preachers – was published in 2010. By this time I had left London and moved north to Hebden Bridge, Calderdale. I now live there on the edge of a small town and spend all my time writing.
2. The Gallows Pole tells the story of the Calder Vale Coiners. Why did you decide to write about them?
It is all based on facts and I became aware of the story when I moved here eight years ago from looking in the local history sections of the libraries. It is very much rooted in place with the people here knowing all about it but a few miles in either direction and people are unaware. I thought it was as significant as, maybe, Robin Hood.
The coiners created the biggest forging operation ever at the time in Britain. What grabbed me was that the men responsible were poor, illiterate weavers and hill farmers who embarked on this enterprise that had repercussions right across the country. They capsized the local economy and word of them reached Westminster. It was a very big deal at the time yet it’s not part of national history. There was no police force at the time of course and the location enabled the men to evade the law such as it was.
Several of the houses in the story are still here today.
3. When you’re writing do you plan everything or do you start and see what happens?
Everything else I’ve published I just embark on it. I have maybe a plot that could be described in few sentences, maybe a location, and I just start writing.
This novel is based on facts so I constructed a timeline, did several months of research. I didn’t know for example what people wore or ate in the 1770s in a little corner of West Yorkshire and I wanted it to be credible. I did a lot of reading and spoke to a lot of people. I had to simplify it a bit to make it fit into the shape of a novel and I had to take quite a bit of artistic licence. A lot of the documented facts are in legal documents from the time but these include little on personality or emotion. It is the first novel I’ve written where I knew how it was going to end.
I wrote a list of maybe fifty key things that I knew had to be included and the order they happened. This list became the spine of the novel. I didn’t write the book in a linear way. I rarely do. I knew where I was going with it though, unlike with other books I’ve written. I do a lot of my writing and research by walking and wandering about. I would visit locations and take notes. The weather where I live is terrible.
4. What is your favourite part of being a writer?
Being able to be an architect of your own kingdom. In a really indulgent way you are able to play god, do what you want, kill people if you like. You can do what you want, at least until editors tell you you can’t say that.
5. And your least favourite?
The money I suppose. I don’t think anyone goes into writing to make money. It’s frustrating that literature doesn’t play more of a part in contemporary culture.
I’m also a reluctant public speaker so find readings aren’t the most pleasurable part although I’ve done a lot more of that this year. If you leave your comfort zone it’s not as comfortable as being in your comfort zone. People say you should leave your comfort zone and I think, why? I’m comfortable.
I love writing though, it doesn’t feel like a job.
6. Do you enjoy using social media?
I’m hopelessly addicted to it. It’s great for writers who are with independent publishers who do a lot of marketing for themselves. With Twitter I’ve come to realise that what you put out you get back. If you put out a lot of negativity it comes back twofold and that can be stressful. I try to avoid that.
I’ve made a lot of connections and then you go out in real life and talk to readers and bookshops who have seen the book being discussed on Twitter. I find Facebook a little bit irritating, people getting into arguments over nothing.
It helps, you just have to be a little bit careful. My wife was saying the other day that she has 4000 followers. Imagine walking into a theatre filled with 4000 people, would you say what you are about to say in front of that many people? You have to slightly moderate what you put out.
7. Has The Republic of Consciousness Prize longlisting had an impact?
It’s very pleasing. I didn’t expect it. Some writers say they don’t care about prizes. They’re not the be all and end all but it’s a nice validation, to know you are on people’s radars. It’s an interesting prize. I like the fact that it was set up in opposition to the mainstream prizes. It’s very hard for independent publishers and their writers to sit alongside those who have big marketing and publicity budgets. The book world needs prizes like this one.
I was in Waterstones in London and I went round buying some of the other books on the list so in that respect it must have an impact. If other readers are doing the same thing it is helping sales.
8. What books have you enjoyed reading recently?
- Golden Hill by Francis Spufford
- All the Devils are Here by David Seabrook
- The Valley at the Centre of the World by Malachy Tallack
- Attrib. by Eley Williams
- Getting Carter by Nick Triplow
- The Paper Cell by Louise Hutcheson
I’m also reading several from the publisher And Other Stories, and rereading quite a lot of Roald Dahl.
9. What do you do when you want to treat yourself?
I like to go swimming outdoors in reservoirs and rivers. You need to build up to it which I have been doing over the years. It’s good for waking you up.
I watch a lot of films and television.
I have a dog – I like spending time with any animals.
I like cake.
10. Any films you’ve seen recently and enjoyed?
The reason I was in London this week was because the option on The Gallows Pole has been sold so I’ve been watching quite a few films by the company that’s bought it.
I’ve enjoyed American Honey.
I’m quite into sixties and seventies British horror films. Also obscure seventies TV series that I’ve found on YouTube. The violence in some couldn’t be shown on TV today.
11. If you could sit down to dinner with anyone, real or fictional, who would you choose?
I’m a big fan of Iggy Pop. I was stood next to him at some event and I thought there’s nothing I can say to him that’s going to be of interest so I kept quiet. He’s a unique individual, a force of nature. If I could sit down with him, he’s a raconteur who’d be full of stories. He changed the course of music I think.
12. What has no one asked you that you wish they would?
Probably exactly that.
Thank you Ben for providing such interesting answers to my questions, and for being so amiable and supportive on my first telephone interview. You may follow Ben on Twitter: @BenMyers1
Click on the book cover above to find out more about The Gallows Pole.
The Gallows Pole is published by Bluemoose Books who I previously interviewed here.
Keep up with all the news on The Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses by following on Twitter: @PrizeRofc