Below is a conversation I had with writer Benjamin Myers on Friday 23rd of September 2016, while walking up Scout Rock in Mytholmroyd.
Me: Your new book is called Turning Blue. From what you’ve said, it’s changed a lot in the writing.
Benjamin: The first version was about a pig farmer who kills a girl while out poaching. He’s so lonely, he falls in love with her. He realises that he doesn’t have to spend Christmas alone. It gets vile. I shocked myself with what I wrote. It was mainly him and the corpse. There was a scene where he tied the corpse to himself and danced around the room. It was about 40,000 words and really basic. There wasn’t much of a plot and it was too sick. There’s a limit to what people can take.
Me: You’ve gone from Richard, Pig Iron, Beastings, which are literary novels. Pursuing a path, getting sparser, getting bleaker. Then you write Turning Blue which has taken you into a different genre. All your books are crime books in the sense that they feature crime but that distinction between crime as a subject and the crime novel as a genre. The tropes, a dead body, an investigation, good prevails, some sort of redemption, the tropes that have accreted around the genre, that go back to the 19th century, to Poe and Arthur Conan Doyle. How do you feel about that, writing what you want to write, to writing using a set of conventions?
Benjamin: It started out about loneliness and landscape. Each re-write, I added another character. Then the Jimmy Savile thing happened, Yewtree, and all that. He died and it all came out. I got a bit obsessed. I added different layers of plot, to the point where it became categorically a crime novel. It became a crime novel but I don’t know much about procedure or how police detectives work. From the outset you know who has done what. I don’t think there are any surprises in the book.
Me: It’s not a whodunnit, it’s a why-dunnit, but that’s still a recognised form within the genre.
Benjamin: There’s stuff like David Peace, Gordon Burn, James Ellroy – that’s the sort of crime novel that I’m interested in.
Me: The character of Larry Lister is a bit of a mash-up, he’s a bit Stuart Hall and a lot Jimmy Savile. I’m assuming you’ve read the Dan Davis book?
Benjamin: Yes, I’ve read that.
Me: I’m interested in when real people crop up in fiction. To what extent that upsets the fictional world. Why did you want to include real people or characters based on real people? Were you trying to say something about celebrity? Why are we fascinated by people like Jimmy Savile?
Benjamin: You wonder, how the fuck did he get that far? He was mates with Prince Charles, Thatcher, he had a lot of sway at the BBC, major charities. Basically every British institution.
Me: He’s a personification of what is wrong with the power system that runs through the British Establishment?
Benjamin: His rise coincided with the rise of pop music, pop culture, TV, The Beatles, Ready Steady Go!
Me: And yet he wasn’t interested in music.
Benjamin: He hated music. He hated kids. He knew fuck all about music. I was fascinated by how he got that far.
Me: He was a charlatan.
Benjamin: He was the sort of character you’d get at a carnival in the 19th century hoodwinking people. I interviewed Rolf Harris once. I was a fan.
Me: That was more of a shock. In a way that it wasn’t with Jimmy Savile.
Benjamin: I interviewed Ian Watkins from Lostprophets. It took a few days for the interview to happen because he kept disappearing. It was just a phone interview and loads of people I knew had worked with him. Were friends with him. I kept trying to get him on the phone. He’s buggered off to Berlin. He’s gone on a bender. I eventually tracked him down. Ended up that we really hit it off actually.
Me: What was he like? Was he intelligent? Was he charismatic?
Benjamin: Well, yeah. He was quite funny. He got a first at uni in graphic design or something. There was an academic background. We got talking. I told him I’d written a book about Richey Edwards, another South Wales rock star. He gave me his mother’s address and I sent him a copy. He read it. We started tweeting each other a bit. I always hated his band. The photo shoots that I saw, look at the state of these guys, particularly that singer. Working way too hard. Narcissistic.
Me: We were talking about Jimmy Savile and the birth of pop culture. Is there something endemic within pop culture which contributes to this culture of abuse? Someone like Ian Watkins on one level is a narcissist, but that’s different to being sexually abusive. But are they linked in some way?
Benjamin: It was quite a shock. When he was arrested and charged I realised that the time I was trying to track him down he was at the height of his atrocities. I couldn’t believe what I read. I don’t think anyone could.
Me: When you read The Marquis de Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom, that idea of the libertine is that you are only free when you are free of all constraints, and that means also the social and moral constraints of the day. Savile talked about ultimate freedom. He said that he had ultimate freedom but only a handful of people in the world had that kind of freedom. Ian Watkins was exercising that kind of ultimate freedom.
Benjamin: That’s a really interesting point. After he was convicted, we were all messaging each other. People at Kerrang!, where I used to work. He was on the cover every few months. A friend of mine posted an interview he did with him. Ian Watkins was straight edge. He didn’t do drink or drugs for years. He turned 30 and thought, I’m going to give it a go. He embraced coke and meth wholeheartedly. This friend published the Kerrang! interview with Ian Watkins and after the arrest I went back and read it in a different light. Exactly what you said, he said he’d been reading de Sade and he said there was a freedom to be found in saying fuck it, no rules, party time. You read it and you just think, a rock star getting into drugs, big deal. But you read it now and you realise he wasn’t talking about doing a few lines of coke-
Me: He was talking about fucking babies.
Benjamin: Well, yeah, and all of this was going on while I was writing this book.
Me: I’m still trying to eke out this connection between a culture which gives licence and freedom and acknowledges narcissism in a context that is a positive one, i.e. pop culture, and one which leads ultimately to fucking babies?
Benjamin: I suppose what you’re asking is, I did a piece for the New Statesmen about him, ready to click send when he was convicted. It was asking, are we as music fans in some way culpable for elevating people to a higher status?
Me: Not only do we allow it, we celebrate it.
Benjamin: A lot of rock stars in the 70s. I mean Bowie, Jimmy Page and so on, were fucking 14 year olds and it was all men and there was a, what a man!, sort of attitude.
Me: Bill Wyman as well. Mandy Smith was 13 when he first starting seeing her. I remember at the time, there was some condemnation, but a lot of people were just like, well Bill is Bill, that’s rock and roll.
Benjamin: Yeah, what a legend, what a lad. When of course it is morally wrong. So Turning Blue, it is a crime book but I wanted to look at the idea of the occult, the things that are hidden. Conspiracies of men.
Me: I still want to come back to this point though. When you put someone in your book that is not exactly Jimmy Savile, but it is clear that that is the reference point, what is the effect of that? You’ve got a fictional world and you include a non-fictional character, in a way you are breaking the fourth wall, not in a Brechtian sense, that’s more a political device, but stylistically you do that. I’m reading this book at the moment called The Girls by Emma Cline. It’s a fictionalised version of the Manson cult from a 14 year old girl’s perspective. She gets seduced by the girls that surround Manson.
Benjamin: Yeah, I’ve read about that. She’s this nice middle class girl and is pulled in.
Me: Yeah, and it’s clearly about Manson, except that the Manson character is called Russell, Suzanne – the girl who seduces the protagonist – is clearly based on Susan Atkins, Dennis Wilson is a character called Mitch. As I’m reading this, each time I come across a character recognisable from the real world, it stops me and takes me out of the fictional world, while I assess to what extent the characteristics converge and to what extent they are distinct. Now I’m thinking critically rather than emotionally about that world. To what extend is that a useful fictional device?
Benjamin: I think if you are writing about Jimmy Savile, and originally my character was much closer to Savile, and my editor said, we know it’s Savile but he doesn’t have to have silver hair and smoke cigars. If you’ve got a real character your reader is arriving with a set of preconceptions of what that character represents. I did the novel Richard, which was very much about a real character but was about 50% invention and 50% research. You have to hope the reader accepts it. It would be really hard to write a novel about an underground world of grotty men, without people thinking Savile anyway.
Me: There are certain things in there that made me wonder about your research. Cinema X for example.
Benjamin: You might recognise it.
Me: It’s the one based in Huddersfield?
Me: Appropriately next to Beast Market.
Benjamin: Yeah. I didn’t know Huddersfield till I moved up here. But whenever I go I usually park in a little bay next to Cinema X. Only I didn’t realise, it was only when I looked it up.
Me: It’s a throwback to a previous era. I remember when every town had one, but now it’s rare. It’s a bygone symbol.
Benjamin: I was worried about writing about that. And readers in, say, London going, that’s not convincing, the internet has killed all of that. Adult porn cinemas don’t exist anymore. I didn’t go in. I didn’t join.
Me: And yet in your book it doesn’t exist to simply show films. And that’s very believable. Someone like me passes these places and thinks, that can’t just exist to show porn films. There must be another purpose.
Benjamin: I went on their website. I thought, who would go to a place like this when you can get porn so easily. You can get it on your phone, or wherever. Not everyone has the internet. Who would go to a place like this?
Benjamin: Farmers, maybe guys for religious reasons, or he lives in a house with the mother-in-law, eight kids, he needs to go somewhere private. I looked at the website for Cinema X and it looks so cheap and 70s – it was so at odds with the way things are now. It’s almost nostalgic when you see something like that. Like when you see an original butchers with an original frontage.
Me: Do you think we are at a stage now where we will look back on some forms of pornography affectionately?
Benjamin: More innocent perhaps. People can watch anything nowadays. Where is this going? Where is this leading. Anyway, I went on the website and it said, come and enjoy a cup of coffee in our cafe, and it looked grubby. There was one in Rochdale too. A lot of the post-industrial towns. They’re defiant against the advance of technology. I became fascinated by who would go there.
Me: But in your book, there is no innocence, it is not nostalgic. The cinema is just a front, for what you call the occult. No one is coming for a nice cup of coffee… To come back to this subject of genre just briefly, Turning Blue retains certain features that are more commonly associated with literary fiction. The dispensing of speech marks, the unconventional absence of commas. Val McDermid in her review in The Guardian picked up on its literary style. Are you trying to have your cake and eat it? Are you aware of two distinct audiences reading your books?
Benjamin: Yeah, yes. I don’t see myself as a crime writer, but the people publishing it are a crime imprint. Someone like James Ellroy or David Peace – he’s an experimental writer.
Me: Can we just stop here a moment as it’s a good spot to talk about place. Where are we right now, Benjamin? Is this the top of Scout Rock?
Benjamin: Yeah, this is the top. Ted Hughes wrote an essay about it called ‘The Rock’. It’s quite hard to find.
Me: We are just looking down now where Ted lived. That’s where the chapel was, what was it called?
Benjamin: Mount Zion.
Me: He felt hemmed in, didn’t he.
Benjamin: We live in the shadow of Scout Rock and I’ve realised recently that’s why my work has got darker, because my world now is physically darker. Ted Hughes saw it as a gloomy backdrop to his existence.
Me: He felt oppressed by it?
Benjamin: Yeah, because you can’t see anything beyond it. It blocks out the light.
Me: We can also see another one of his houses almost, Lumb Bank. Just in that clough there.
Benjamin: Yeah, and that’s Heptonstall, where Sylvia Plath was buried.
Me: To an extent all your writing is about place, about how it forms and warps character, how it influences events. You walk here every day? How does this geography filter into your writing?
Benjamin: See that house there, that’s where the King of the Coiners lived. My new book is about the coiners. He lived there in the 1760s. There’s physical evidence of what I write about all around me.
Me: Sally Wainwright’s Happy Valley is set round here, along the Calder Valley. When I interviewed David Peace a few years ago, we talked about the extent Peter Sutcliffe was a product of his environment.
Benjamin: I think living in the countryside, there is a timelessness, but there’s also a brutality – just over there is where the moors murderers buried their victims, Harold Shipman had his practice just there. The point is, we are surrounded by beauty but also the occult.
Me: Things are buried here. Things are hidden here.
Benjamin: The other day I came across a ruined cottage and there was a dead mole there. I come across dead things all the time when I’m walking. We can see down there, where people live and the traces of industry, but you don’t have to walk very far at all, and you see no one.
Me: No one can hear you scream.
Benjamin: No one can hear you scream.
Turning Blue is out now on Moth Publishing.
The Gallows Pole will be published next year by Bluemoose Books.