Where the Wild Things Are: Ben Myers interviewed by Darran Anderson
Darran Anderson: ‘Only thoughts that are won by walking have value,’ claimed Nietzsche. How has walking, and landscape, influenced your writing generally and more specifically with Beastings?
Ben Myers: That’s definitely one of Nietzsche’s better observations. I think that walking has had a massive impact. I’d say I only really started improving as a writer – or finally shook off some of my earlier influences – when I stepped away from my desk and realised that the act of physically moving through the landscape was a big help in the process of moving through a narrative, through a story. It sounds like simple, obvious stuff to point out but walking can really alter the thought process. Each of my novels takes the form of a journey from one place to another place that is determined only by the lead characters, and most of the creative decisions are made while out wandering, usually up hills, through woods, across moors. Landscape is everything; we do not exist in a vortex.
I do sometimes think that in the city – especially places like London, New York, Paris, Berlin – the individual is consumed by the chaos of it all and the city only exists because of the compliance of its components – its people. Without that compliance it would be a non-functioning squall of fist-fights, traffic jams and pile-ups. That urban kinetic energy can be inspiring but is often destructive too; because compliance to such a wide system can restrictive. Ultimately in London you can’t walk where you want to walk and you can’t lose yourself entirely in thought because the constant stimulus and close proximity of people always impedes. Out in the countryside the visceral thrill of the elements and the vastness of space means that I sometimes find that time often peels away and I feel stripped down my core elements: thought, skin and bones. And shoes. Of course – the countryside is full of boundaries and borders too but I’m a big fan of trespassing.
DA: We have an unfortunate tendency to want to categorise writing that’s best avoided but it’s hard to resist seeing Beastings as a fine example of Northern Gothic. I know you’ve been inspired by a range of writers, one of the foremost being the late great Gordon Burn. Are you conscious of influences when you’re writing or is the aim to escape and create a new space?
BM: I actually feel fine about categorising writing and don’t mind admitting influences. I’ve been using the description ‘rural noir’ for this novel. Often I am influenced by specific books rather than writers though – or sometimes it is the existence of writers and what they stand for. I came to David Peace quite late and have only read one or two of his books in their entirety but feel that he is someone working on a higher level that most other British writers. There are hidden rhythms and messages and codes in his work; he is a true occultist. So knowing that he is out there doing work that is extremely challenging to the reader yet is still capable of selling books is something that gives me hope. He said some very nice things about my last novel. It’s fantastic to see bold books like Eimear McBride’s A Girl Is Half-Formed Thing and Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake doing so well on their own terms too. These are books that were turned down by all the big publishers, as have mine. As a reader, I’m always drawn to the outsiders and the underdogs.
Likewise I was possibly more inspired by the idea or existence of Gordon Burn than his work. For several years I was aware that there was a very interesting and experimental writer who had been brought up not far from me in the north-east of England. The notion that he had gone to London and become a successful journalist was inspiring, but that he had managed to challenge or reinvent the idea of the novel within the mainstream and through accessible and popular subjects such as sport, celebrity and crime was what really drew me to him. When I read his book on Fred and Rose West I was thrilled and disturbed – disturbed, perhaps irrevocably, by the contents but completely thrilled by the level of writing on display.
There are various novels I read which helped shaped Beastings; a lot of rural American fiction from writers such as Ron Rash, Cormac McCarthy, Donald Ray Pollock and especially Harry Crews. And I read a lot of non-fiction about nature, landscape and animals. Roger Deakin’s poetic books Waterlog, about wild swimming, was a real eye-opener in terms of reappraising the landscape that’s around us. I think ultimately I wanted to create a tone and pace that is unique to the book – one that somehow combines tension, speed, hopelessness, beauty and violence. Whether I achieved it however, I don’t know…
DA: When you were writing Beastings, did you have a plan for where it was going, especially given the journey and pursuit element to the story, or was that a surprise in any sense? Do you have a method for writing?
BM: I had the beginning and the end. Five or ten pages on each and the rest was mystery. I see a book as a jigsaw: you have to get out a magnifying glass and make each piece the correct shape and size, but always remember to pull back and remember what the bigger picture is. My method is to try and write from 9am until 6pm everyday – though a lot of that is distraction, procrastination and walking. I’m fairly disciplined though. When I’m on a roll, if I can do 1000 words per day I’m happy. I try and do a first draft in six to nine months, and then the harder, more challenging work starts. Beastings went through eight versions and took over three years. It was a long process of stripping it down to the bare essentials. Less is more. I rewrote the last page the day before it went to print, which, I suspect, is unheard of in publishing.
DA: How has the experience of writing and publishing Beastings differed from your previous books?
BM: Despite the intensity of the story the writing of the novel was largely a pleasurable one; I am so insignificant in the literary world – or so far removed from it – that there was no expectation from anyone. At that point I had moved to the countryside and my previous novel Pig Iron had not only been turned down by publishers, it had been resolutely returned unread. So I wrote Beastings for myself and anyone who might one day read it. It was created in a happy vacuum of sorts, in an attic room in a rented cottage in a small, ice-cold Yorkshire hamlet, built in 1641. It was sub-zero for the first month that I spent working on it. I’m not romanticising by saying that it was written in a state of urgency due to financial concerns. A lot of my spare time was spent in the local woods, where I would find trees that had blown over and would saw limbs off them, drag them home at night under the cover of darkness, and then chop them up with my axe and splitters. This was to ensure that there was enough wood to heat our house in winter as I had made a rule for myself: no heating during the day-time. It was a challenge to myself: you can get warm when you’ve earned it. In autumn there was also a lot of collecting of apples too. I’m still doing it now actually.
It’s always satisfying to have the finished book in your hand and see how people respond, but publication time is always stressful for me. I love the writing part – the creative process. Everything else is nowhere near as exciting or interesting as people might believe though. I think that if a writer spends too much time talking about themselves at festivals, doing readings and instore signings they are in danger of losing something. I imagine it chips away at their soul. And then when there is no-one there the situation becomes desperate, an exercise in humiliation in which the writer is forced to becomes salesperson. I think it’s probably OK to say no to these things; I avoid it wherever possible.
DA: There’s an intriguing fluctuation in Beastings between the idea of humans as animals, and then evil being a kind of sadism that no animal could really be capable of. The line, “Sometimes you talk like you don’t have a mind of your own,” seems to sum up a great deal of the evil in the world at the moment and how humans are able to abandon conscience and deny responsibility. At the same time, there’s some innate capacity for good that’s wrapped up in our animalistic tendencies, which is suggested by the title. Were the paradoxes of the human animal something you were keen on exploring and, if so, where did the interest come from, for you?
BM: The older I get the more I enjoy the company of animals. I’m extremely sentimental about them and can’t think of any animals that I don’t like: I spent several minutes the other day deliberating as to whether I should kill a spider that was high up on a wall that I was painting. Animal cruelty often disturbs me more than human cruelty, though not to misanthropic Morrissey levels yet.
Foxes will often wantonly kill chickens but more often than not animals attack or kill for one of two reasons – defence or necessity. Yesterday a neighbour told me that he had set a fox-trap in his garden to protect his chickens so last night I went to the woods with a cooked chicken for the foxes and badger so that they don’t have to come down the hill and risk getting caught. There are not many species that are total bastards for the hell of it other than humans. And that is a theme in both Beastings and Pig Iron: who is more animalistic – wild animals or humans? And, given our behaviour, should humans be viewed as separate entities to animals? A lot of inspiration for this comes from reading the local news stories on the BBC website. Everyday one can read about some intolerable tale of cruelty, abuse of power, violence or corruption. Pack mentality stories are the very worst: when groups of people turn on someone who is weaker than them. Everything I have ever written has happened in real life, and fifty times worse.
That said, I believe in people and their potential for goodness and power for change, so there always has to be glimmers of hope otherwise you just become a nihilist, and to live without hope must be an exhausting ordeal.
DA: In a similar sense, there’s a balance between the poetry of place in Beastings (with the names of areas like The Hundreds and Seldom Seen) and the wildness and desolation of the land that can seem primeval. There’s a sense of a landscape that’s been tamed only recently and only superficially, and one that hides many secrets. At the same time, the story appears almost timeless, with mythic or archetypal unnamed characters. Does the long view of a place’s history interest you, the things that happened that we’ve forgotten but the landscape hasn’t?
BM: I think you’ve nailed it there, Darran. Our lives are lived in small segments on a continuous time line and one of the things that keeps that chain unbroken is stories. Stories of time and place. I sometimes worry that perhaps increased urbanisation and suburbanisation is creating a barrier between people and the stories and secrets in the soil around them.
I try and collect place names. I’m fascinated by the mix of Norman, Roman, Anglo-Saxon, Nordic and local dialects in Britain. It is an island of jumbled reference points – layers of history stacked up, one on top of the other. These things are difficult to ignore. I have had a list of all these hamlets and villages in the Lake District that was written down in a notebook years ago, knowing I night one day use them. There’s a poetry there, in a place name such as Seldom Seen. Automatically I want to go there. I view place names as being like message from the pasts, that carry meaning forward into the present day – and beyond that into the future. Where I live is a perfect example: Mytholmroyd – “the meeting of the two waters”.
I tried to make Beastings a story adrift in time – and almost place too. Hopefully the backdrop could just as easily have been the Arctic Tundra or the Australian outback or rural Russia, or anywhere where the landscape presents challenges, and where human existence is shrunk down to ant-like proportions. There is the odd image in there that loosely ties it to a specific era but hopefully the themes and tone place the overall story anywhere in the last two or three thousand years.
DA: The mix of poetic description and minimalism gives the book a sense of being cinematic. Did you visualise the story unfolding in that way yourself and is film, or cinematic techniques, something that interests you as a writer?
BM: Yes, certainly. I think authors are reluctant to say that they write novels with adaptation in mind, but I see no shame in that. I think there are definite elements of folk-horror in Beastings; I’m a big fan of Blood On Satan’s Claw, Mark Of The Devil and The Witchfinder General – films that are defined by their mood as much as their contact. Some of the old Play For Today pieces too. There was a fantastic one called Murrain that I really like. More recently Ben Wheatley’s Kill List and A Field In England have that same malevolent tension. I like a lot of kitchen sink films, especially Billy Liar. A film I really loved recently was Two Years At Sea by the artist Ben Rivers. I saw it after I had finished writing Beastings and though it is very different I felt an instant affinity with its appreciation of landscape and eyes for visuals. Also, as with my novel, it’s dialogue is minimal. The wind and rain gets more lines that film than the sole character and that’s something I hope to one day do: write a novel without any humans – or animate characters – in it. I wonder if such a thing is possible?
I suppose music plays its part too. I try and compile a soundtrack for an imaginary to any book I’m writing, just to gain a sort of consistency to the headspace in which it is being created. For Beastings I listened to lots of old English folk music, drones, doom, black metal – that sort of thing. Bleak, expansive, oppressive music.
DA: If you could choose one book to take to a refuge in the wilds of Cumbria, what would it be?
BM: I’m just about to – finally – read Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu for the first time. Volume I of 7. Perhaps if I enjoy it I will take the rest. A mere 3200 pages and 2000 characters. That would keep me going and make me feel less bad about being a recluse. If it’s tedious then I’m fucked.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Darran Anderson is the author of Histoire de Melody Nelson (Bloomsbury), Tesla’s Ghost (Blackheath Books) and the forthcoming Imaginary Cities (Influx Press) and Jack Kerouac: Critical Lives (Reaktion Books). His essay, The Magnet Has a Soul & Everything is Water, How Modernism is Ancient, was published in gorse no. 1.