Ben Myers has had a pretty busy and interesting few years. From his home in the Calder Valley, where he has lived since 2008, over the past decade the Durham-born author has been quietly crafting a series of books that have marked him out as one of the most impressive, versatile – and prolific – writers of his generation.
His work, both fiction and non-fiction, has deservedly received much critical and popular acclaim. His 2017 novel The Gallows Pole, a fictional account of the activities of the real-life Cragg Vale coiners, the 18th century counterfeiting gang which operated in the West Riding, won both the Walter Scott prize for historical fiction and the Roger Deakin Award. The TV rights were snapped up pretty quickly and it has been in development for a while, hopefully heading to our television screens in the not-too-distant future. His 2018 non-fiction book Under the Rock:
The Poetry of a Place, an engaging, reflective exploration of literature and landscape inspired by the rugged beauty of Calderdale and its most famous son, Ted Hughes, was shortlisted for the 2020 Portico Prize. In a potentially awkward literary quirk of fate, Myers’ wife, fellow author Adelle Stripe, was also on the shortlist for her novel Black Teeth and a Brilliant Smile, inspired by the life of Andrea Dunbar. His most recent novel, The Offing, published in the summer of 2019, a wise and beautiful tale set in Robin Hood’s Bay just after the Second World War, became a word-of-mouth readers’ favourite last year.
He has also written anthologies of poetry – which is evident in his engagingly lyrical writing style – and this week sees him widen his range even further with the publication of Male Tears, his first collection of short stories.
“I have been writing short stories for years really but I have always found it the hardest medium to work in,” he says. “I never felt particularly comfortable with the form but I enjoyed writing them – that is how I started out about 23 years ago publishing short stories in obscure little anthologies. Between writing novels, I tend to write short stories almost as a motivator, keeping mentally fit in a way. These stories came together over a period of years – the oldest one dates back to 2005 – and I didn’t set out to write a coherent collection originally but I liked the title Male Tears, it seemed to say quite a lot in two words. It’s been publicised as a book about toxic masculinity but I don’t think that’s the full story – it is not a condemnation of masculinity but an analysis. The men in the stories are not necessarily bad, but they do make mistakes.”
Aside from The Offing, more of which later, Myers is known for his muscular, robust writing. His work has often been described as “Northern noir” as it doesn’t shy away from darkness and violence, and this is true of the stories in Male Tears. They involve gory accidents with farm machinery, misguided gestures of love that end in accidental death, kidnappings, bullying and drunkenness.
“The stories are full of cruelty and misadventure, but I also wanted to write about the kind of men we don’t necessarily read much about in contemporary literature. So, a lot of the stories are set in northern England, among agricultural workers and labourers and within the Traveller community. They are also set in different eras – there is one about a Neolithic fertility ritual inspired by a stone circle I visited in Derbyshire – and a lot of them are influenced by the landscape of the north of England. They jump around in time periods but hopefully still talk very much to today.”
The scope of the stories is impressive and, while they may be unflinching in their depiction of some of the more troubling aspects of the male psyche, Myers delves deep in an attempt to understand and explain, not excuse, certain behaviours. “I am repulsed, and at the same time fascinated, by male violence – and the reasons behind it. I think when you strip it back, men are essentially quite animalistic. I don’t think men have evolved that much.” Some of the stories also explore men’s vulnerability, creativity and sensitivity so that, as a whole, the collection presents a bigger picture of what it means to be a man.
In a sense, learning how to be a good man is one of the themes of The Offing, which tells the story of an unusual friendship between Dulcie, a bohemian woman in her sixties, and Robert, a 16-year-old from a Durham mining village. “I wrote The Offing without a book deal or any plans for how I was going to publish it,” he says. “I knew I wanted to write something that was a pleasant place to be as a writer; I wrote it for my own mental wellbeing as much as anything and then it was picked up by Bloomsbury. It has sold more than anything I’d published before in Britain, and it’s been published in Germany where it has done extremely well.”
He is working with “quite a well-known actor” who is interested in playing the part of Dulcie in a film version currently in development and a stage version, adapted by Janice Okoh, is slated to run at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough this autumn. “The success has been totally unexpected,” says Myers.
“Because I had done quite a few novels, I had slotted into a kind of pattern. You hope that people will read your books and like them and that it’s read enough to make you want to write another book. And then this just took off. I think it helped that it came out in paperback a week into the first lockdown and people were looking for something sunny and escapist to read.”
He doesn’t feel the need to be involved in any of the film, television or stage adaptations of his work. “I am happy to hand these things over,” he says. “I think books become other entities and they take on a new life of their own.”
Over the past 12 months or so in and out of lockdown he has, he says, been very productive. “I almost feel guilty saying that. I don’t have much in the way of work experience and writing is the only thing I really feel qualified to do – I have been self-employed for 20 years and a lot of writing is about sitting alone at your desk, so I found much of my day-to-day working life wasn’t very different.”
He finished the first draft of a novel just before the first lockdown and has been working on another. He has also made his first foray into music recording in a collaboration with Eccentronic Research Council, Sheffield-based musicians Adrian Flanagan and Dan Honer, who have set two of the stories in Male Tears to music.
In addition to the hugely successful German translation of The Offing, there are plans to translate The Gallows Pole into Hebrew and Arabic, Catalan and Dutch. “So there has been a lot going on,” he says, laughing. “The funny thing is that all this has happened while I have been sitting at home for a year. I have become famous in Germany without having left Calderdale.”
Male Tears by Ben Myers, published by Bloomsbury, is out now.