THE BIG ISSUE IN THE NORTH
Author Q&A: Benjamin Myers
Yorkshire-based writer Benjamin Myers’s novels cover the darker, less explored corners of northern England and the harsh aspects of rural life. A story in a local history book about a girl who abducted a baby and re-surfaced three months later in a state close to death provided the starting point for his latest offering Beastings, an absorbing story of a savage pursuit through the Lake District at the turn of the century.
There’re some geographical references in the book for readers familiar with Cumbria but the route the girl takes is left vague. Did you have a clear route in mind?
The book takes a definite narrative route through Cumbria. There are certain lakes, mountains, tarns, caves and passes that I reference but deliberately don’t name, primarily because I wanted it to be a universal tale. I wanted Beastings to be accessible to readers in the Australian outback or the Arctic tundra or the Amazon rainforest. The tone of the book is biblical in places and here the landscape is vast and unforgiving and indifferent to humans, as all dramatic landscapes are. Hopefully this further emphasises the fleeting nature of life, which is reduced to decades, whereas mountains “live” for millions of years.
Did you get out on the fells and try to put yourself in the girl’s shoes?
Yes, I did. I’ve begun to realise that walking is an intrinsic part of writing for me, and I’ve been exploring the Lakes all my life. I have walked everywhere in the book and explore the woods and moors most days where I live in West Yorkshire. My favourite mountain is Helvellyn, which has an almost mystical allure, but often it is the small, less significant places that are just as inspiring.
You are sparing with details such as names, locations, year, as well as with grammar. Why?
I just don’t think commas are particularly necessary. I like to credit the reader with enough intelligence to read without prompts as to when to pause or breathe. Also removing commas changes the entire pace and tone and means you can deliver sentences that come from nowhere, like upper-cuts. You can accelerate at will. I want to offer surprises, quicken the heart-rate, punch the readers in the solar plexus, then kiss them better with words. Full stops I’m a big fan of though. The more I worked on Beastings, the more time and place slipped away until all that remained were the characters and the themes that occupy them – survival, revenge, retribution.
Motherhood is a strong theme in Beastings. Was that challenging as a male author?
It was, yes, and possibly the aspect I was most concerned with – can I portray such an intrinsically female thing as motherhood authentically? It takes a large leap of the imagination to write about a female breastfeeding, but then all fiction requires such leaps.
Why does the priest make such a good villain?
The priest character is completely without morals, and that’s the one thing that all villains throughout history have in common. That total inability to sympathise or empathise. His worldview is solipsistic. He displays total selfishness and an insatiable appetite. He’s totally corrupt. Also, he is high on pharmaceutical cocaine.