The Interrogation Room – An Interview With Benjamin Myers

Next up in The Interrogation Room… Tom Leins catches up with Benjamin Myers, the award-winning author of Pig Iron, Beastings and The Gallows Pole to discuss his recent crime novels Turning Blue and These Darkening Days.

Turning Blue is one of the most disturbing crime novels I have read in recent years, and some of the imagery was truly stomach-churning. In crime fiction terms, how far is too far?

If you approach a subject with some degree of understanding, research or empathy, then I don’t think too much is off-limits. There’s always a danger of being gratuitous or lazily aiming for shock tactics, but I’m far more offended by the ignorance of, for example, certain politicians than I am by anything I read in fiction. Also nothing that I write about hasn’t already happened at some point in mankind’s long and sordid history; a lot of it is inspired by what I read in the news every single day.

The cadaverous spectre of Jimmy Savile rears his ugly head through predatory light entertainment personality ‘Lovely’ Larry Lister. Turning Blue definitely feels like a post-Operation Yewtree book – was it conceived as a response to the horrors that emerged in the press, or was the book already underway?

I wrote an early draft of the book, and it was something else entirely – a short twisted love story about a lonely farmer who falls in love with a corpse (again, such things have happened). But then the Savile story broke, and he had a lot of ties to where I live – he was from West Yorkshire – so I felt I had to cover it in some way. I was borderline obsessed with Savile for a while actually, or at least with the idea that this man with no charisma or talent could nevertheless ingratiate himself into all levels of British society, from top to bottom, and flourish. He’s emblematic of corruption absolute. A figure that Prime Ministers, royalty, the legal system and the media facilitated and often encouraged. So the concept of moral corruption bled into Turning Blue as I attempted to turn it into a more cohesive and publishable work.

The rural Yorkshire backdrop you write about is incredibly detailed. How much of the location is real, and how much is imagined?

All of it is real. I live close to the moors, the woods, the reservoirs, and am out exploring most days. Some locations are composites, but a lot of the novel takes place in a very real hamlet and town.

The Odeon X also provides an exquisitely grotesque backdrop to some of the book’s queasiest scenes. Is this cinema based on real location?

Yes, it too is based on a real adult sex cinema, though I haven’t been in it. I merely heard about it, did some research, and then let my imagination fill in the gaps. I was surprised to find that such places still exist in the internet age, but seemingly they very much do, which in itself is interesting. It raises lots of questions: who would go to such places? And why?

Last month you published These Darkening Days – the second book in the Mace and Brindle series. When you wrote Turning Blue, was it always intended to be the first instalment in a larger narrative?

After I finished Turning Blue I more or less just carried on writing, straight into half of the next book. I never write novels with a publishing deal in place, so only ever write for myself really. Once they are finished I then send them out. But then other projects took over – most notably my novel The Gallows Pole for at least two years – so These Darkening Days was left on the backburner for a long time. When I picked it up again I was pleased to see it still works, and have signed a deal in France to write a third one in the series.

Speaking of series characters, who are your favourites to read?

I’m not sure I read many series characters really? Ted Lewis’s Jack’s Return Home is a wonderful novel, the follow-up is strong and the third book a stinker, so I see that as a warning really. Derek Raymond’s ‘Factory novels’ are an influence, and David Peace’s Red Riding quartet too, though I have only ever dipped in and out of these.

Turning Blue is a defiantly British story. Who are your favourite British writers – past or present? How have they influenced your own writing?

I’m quite fickle and faddish but I’m a fan of DH Lawrence, Thomas Hardy, John Clare, Ted Hughes, Gordon Burn, George Mackay Brown. I’m reading a lot of William Golding at the moment. Hanif Kureishi was a big influence. George Orwell. I like Julian Cope, Billy Childish. David Storey. Dominic Cooper is a writer few people know about. I suppose I like British writers who create a sense of place, have a unique vision, or in whose work landscape plays a part. There are a few contemporaries I enjoy – Jenn Ashworth, Cynan Jones, Paul Kingsnorth. I read a lot of non-fiction and nature writing too. Recently I’ve enjoyed books by Rob Cowen, Malachy Tallack, Richard Benson, Amy Liptrot.

Which current writers do you consider to be your peers? Any recent books you would care to recommend?

I’m not sure I have any peers as such, as I tend to move between fiction, poetry, non-fiction and journalism, and that confuses people. Also everything I have ever published has been turned down by every major publisher in London, so I feel like an outsider, a black sheep, a reject…and that suits me just fine these days. I’d recommend The Dead of Winter by Dominic Cooper, So The Doves by Heidi James, This Is The Place To Be by Lara Pawson and Attrib by Eley Williams

Finally, what are your future publishing plans?

My new book Under The Rock will be published in May 2018. It’s a non-fiction work about floods, myths, The North of England, badgers, poetry, asbestos, nettles, anxiety, foxes, swimming, nettles. It is, I hope, a sub-psychedelic experience.

For more details please visit www.benmyers.com

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Book Review: Turning Blue by Benjamin Myers

TURNING BLUE

Author: Benjamin Myers

Publisher: Moth Publishing

Release Date: August 2016

When a teenage girl goes missing on the Yorkshire Dales at Christmas, precocious, obsessive DS James Brindle from the police’s elite Cold Storage unit is dispatched to the frozen moorland community to investigate. The case, which involves the daughter of local businessman Ray Muncy, also piques the interest of local journalist Roddy Mace, who has returned home after burning out in London. As the missing girl’s trail goes cold, both men find themselves drawn to Steven Rutter, an apparently harmless loner who is harbouring a lifetime of dark secrets. Mace’s local knowledge is able to cast new light on the close-knit village and its inhabitants – many of whom are nursing their own foetid connections to the area’s sleazy underbelly.

The proliferation of rural British police procedurals may seem suffocating at times, but Turning Blue is an entirely different beast: it’s like a Peter Robinson novel as re-imagined by Dennis Cooper! From the come-stained horror-show of the Odeon X adult cinema, to the destitute Rutter farmyard, the sense of location is brought queasily to life throughout. Hellishly bleak background details are casually scattered throughout the book like chicken feed, and Brindle and Mace’s investigation unfolds in appropriately stomach-churning fashion.

If you enjoyed David Peace’s excellent Red Riding series then Turning Blue should jump right to the top of your reading list, as the two authors explore similarly bleak versions of the North, albeit decades apart. Another useful point of comparison is the work of Gordon Burn (Myers won the 2013 Gordon Burn prize for his novel Pig Iron). Indeed, his savage dissection of fictional Jimmy Savile-esque Saturday night light entertainer ‘Lovely Larry’ Lister recalls Burn at his darkest.

Grim, gripping and grotesque, Turning Blue is an outstanding book, and easily one of the best British crime novels that I have read in the last decade.

Review by Tom Leins

Book Review: Four Days by Iain Ryan

FOUR DAYS

Author: Iain Ryan

Publisher: Broken River Books

Release Date: November 2015

Four Days is a hellish police procedural which unfolds in Queensland, Australia between September 1984 and January 1986. The story centres on Jim Harris, a lazy hard-drinking detective whose alcoholism seemingly helps to blur his moral boundaries as he works alongside a posse of venal, self-serving cops on the make. When a brutal murder case unsettles Harris’s bleak equilibrium, it forces him to dig deeper than he ever has before, and he seeks to redeem himself against him numerous past indiscretions. Marginalised, humiliated and dangerously close to the edge, Harris is determined to end it – before it ends him.

A queasy, hungover mood permeates Four Days, and the tawdry private life of boozy loner Harris is raked over in forensic detail as the book judders towards its bloody climax. Mid-1980s Australia is painted with a muted palette, and the only splashes of colour come from the spilled blood or the garish interiors of the many Cairns and Brisbane brothels which the characters frequent.

Ryan’s prose is impressively understated: brisk and razor-sharp throughout, and his knack for nastiness and corruption recalls early James Ellroy. If you are sick of flabby police procedurals this grim novella is a welcome antidote. Make no mistake, Four Days trims away the fat and cuts to the fucking bone.

Review by Tom Leins