Pig Iron by Benjamin Myers (Bluemoose Books) is about a traveller called John-John who is released from prison, and in an attempt to escape his past, gets a job as an ice cream man. (His father was Mac Wisdom, a bare knuckle fighter and King of the Gypsies.) During his rounds in Durham, he meets a young girl called Maria, who he falls for. What he doesn’t realise is that she is about to lead him into a world much darker than the one he is trying to escape.
I savoured every word of this novel. I loved the character of John-John and his voice. I loved the earthy poetry of the language. I found the plot compelling and the use of alternating first person narrative very well handled. It is that rare book: compelling, beautifully written, full of warmth and vitality, with a lingering tang of urgent pertinence.
I interviewed Ben recently. Here it is.
Tell me three things about you I don’t know already.
1. I lived in London for many years, the first four of which were spent illegally squatting a building dubbed “the most prodigious squat in London”. I never paid any rent. Artists, drug dealers, teachers and the like lived there too. One night my upstairs neighbour invited me into his flat. It was open plan and completely empty except for a hammock, some burning candles, a full length-cricket wicket, some heroin and a gun. He had no kitchen or bath or carpet, or anything functional like that. He liked to play cricket up there, at night, in his clogs. He was very well spoken and had never had a job in his life. We played cricket.
2. After a while he offered me his heroin, but I declined. I was only eighteen. So he took it instead and then he taught me how to shoot the gun, inside the flat. We put some bullet holes in his back wall that night. Some of them ricocheted around the room. The trick was to fire the gun and then duck down and hope you didn’t get hit.
3. A few years later, on a warm late August evening, my clog-wearing neighbour climbed up onto the roof of the building, drank a bottle of champagne and then elegantly did a hand-spring over the edge. He fell four stories and died a few hours later. His ashes are now buried in the middle of the Oval cricket pitch. Later I got evicted and then moved into a one-room flat for 6 years where I lived, worked, wrote, ate and went slowly insane. Tragic death aside, I look back on that time with fond memories – being young and drunk and living a lean life, working as a journalist, dreaming of being a writer.
I enjoy writing more than I enjoy doing most other things. My head rattles with stories – if I don’t get them out now and again it could be detrimental to my health. Writing is all I have ever done really. All I have ever known. It is a way of life.
Which writers, living or dead, do you most admire? Why?
I go through phases of ‘getting into’ certain writers in a big way, and reading everything by them in a short space of time but there are a few who I always return to or have influenced me at different times in my life, and for various reasons. Often it is one or two books by an author, rather than their entire output. Some of those writer would include Knut Hamsun, Ted Lewis, Henry Miller, Henry David Thoreau, Richard Brautigan, Jack London, David Peace, Roald Dahl, Cormac McCarthy, Mikhail Bulgakov, William Wordsworth, Pat Barker, Bret Easton Ellis, Willy Vlautin, John Fante, Jean Genet, Gordon Burn, Brendan Behan, Barry Hines, Charles Bukowski, George Mackay Brown. There are certain books I can always re-read – Robinson Crusoe, Hamsun’s Hunger, A Month In The Country by JL Carr. I like a book called The Shining Levels by John Wyatt a lot.
What’s wrong with English Literature?
Nothing major as far as I am aware of. I studied English in the mid 90s and was lucky to be on a pretty progressive course. So alongside Shakespeare and the usual canonical writers I read a lot of interesting theory, feminist writers, contemporary American writers. Quite a wide array of work. I think the problem is academia can get stuck in self-serving cycles – you are taught what is right and wrong, when really there is no such thing in literature. And as with a lot of the mainstream poetry scene, I fear too many academics are just researching/writing work for other academics. So academia become ‘Academia’, a fortress that is only open to the select few and completely shut off to outsiders who want to learn. Even the language and lexicon of English Literature can be off-putting. Government cuts are not helping matters. But that aside, Britain has such a rich history of literature it’s hard not to be blown away when you think of all the great books that have been produced here….
Is there a place for John-John in contemporary Britain?
There’s a place for everyone – so long as they not spreading hatred. And if they are an oppressed minority, then we should stand and defend them. There should be a place for anyone in Britain because – again, despite the government’s best efforts with their stupid citizenship tests – there is no such thing as a cohesive British identity. That is its strength but they’re too scared and out of touch to realise this. Here, anything goes culturally. If you want to move to Britain and speak your own language, practise your own religion, eat your own food, then that’s fine by me – as far as I’m concerned you’re enhancing contemporary life. And as a young ex-convict traveller victim of an abusive background, John-John is as much a part of society as anyone else.
What would you say to the reader who accused you of demonising the working class in the novel?
The hero of the book – the only truly moral person, in fact – is working class but I probably wouldn’t say anything. My previous novel Richard evoked a wide range of responses, reactions, questions and accusations and taught me that it’s generally best just to let readers have their say.
Why did you decide to go with Bluemoose Books, an independent publisher, rather than one of the big boys?
Independent publishers can do just as good a job as bigger publishers – better even, because they have more at stake. Each book matters. My first novel was also on an indie publisher.
The simple answer is the big boys never read Pig Iron. It got sent out to a number of publishers by then-agent. No-one bothered to respond even though my second novel, which had just come out, was doing well in things like WH Smiths charts and qualified as a best-seller.
I’m too impatient to wait to be ‘discovered’ and my ultimate goal as a writer is always to get published in print so I took matters into my own hand.
I approached one company myself – Bluemoose – because I was impressed by the fact that I saw their books wherever I went, and when I got to know owner Kevin Duffy I was very impressed by his ideas and attitude and energy. The entire editing, production and promotion of Pig Iron with Bluemoose, a small company, has been really enjoyable and they have done a better job than a bigger publisher would have done. I say this not as opinion, but as fact: the book has less mistakes in it, has a cover image I chose, and is more widely available than anything else I have previously published.
These details are probably boring to readers but I suppose my point is a writer rarely gets discovered or gets that big break. You just have to keep writing. One book after another. A book is a book regardless of who has published it.
What are you working on at the moment?
I am working on two novels, which are at quite developed stages. One is set in Cumbria and concerns the abduction of a baby. The other is a murderous tale set in the Yorkshire Dales; so far it in unrelentingly dark. I hope to have them published, though for every published novel I write there is usually one that never makes the grade. However I feel good about both. I feel like I am just starting to hit my stride after fifteen years of warming up….
You can buy the book at all the usual places, though if you buy directly from Bluemoose Books, you support independent publishers: www.bluemoosebooks.com
For more information about Ben Myers: www.benmyers.com