Gritty novel with its roots in the North

Inspired by the work of Gordon Burn, Benjamin Myers won a prize named after him. Yvette Huddleston spoke to the writer.

Ben Myers
Ben Myers

“I think I had been subconsciously researching the book for years,” says author Benjamin Myers whose latest novel Pig Iron has just won him the inaugural Gordon Burn prize.

Set among the travelling community of the North-East, the book has had a long gestation. “I was always reading up on travellers; I’ve been interested in them for a long time and that inspired me to create my central character.”

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Now based in Mytholmroyd in Calderdale but originally from Durham, Myers says that he had also wanted to write a novel set in his native city. “I’m 37 now and I haven’t lived there properly since I was 18 but sometimes you have to leave a place to understand it – and a lot of the book was drawn from stories I heard when I was growing up.”

Published by Bluemoose Books in Hebden Bridge, Pig Iron is a gritty, no-holds-barred novel which tells the sometimes gruelling story of a John-John, a young man who is attempting to escape his brutal past, by abandoning the travelling way of life and settling down in a steady job as an ice cream man. However, the legacy left by his violent, bare-knuckle boxing father overshadows his life.

“I was interested in violence, in the sense that I wanted to look at what makes people, specifically men, violent towards each other,” says Myers. “I knew that if I wanted to explore that subject I would have to be quite visceral. I read quite a lot on the theory of violence, trying to understand the motivations of violent men and to what extent they were a product of their environment. The novel is really about whether John-John will revert to type.”

Winning the Gordon Burn prize, announced at the Durham Book Festival last month, means a lot to Myers, particularly because Burn was such a big influence on him as a writer. “He is a writer’s writer and was really underrated,” he says. “His writing is very stylish and hard hitting. He was from Newcastle, although he lived in London, and his books were dark, intense and powerful and got to the heart of what it meant to be part of the North.”

Burn’s background, like Myers’, was in journalism. He was one of the first people to write about Yorkshire Ripper Peter Sutcliffe – Somebody’s Husband, Somebody’s Son was published in 1990 – and went on to write an account of serial killers Fred and Rosemary West in 1998’s Happy Like Murderers. “The fact that the prize was set up in his honour and that I won it is very exciting,” says Myers.

A bonus was meeting novelist David Peace who, along with Guardian columnist Deborah Orr and broadcaster and journalist Mark Lawson, was on the judging panel. Myers cites Peace as an influence, particularly on his last book, Richard, published in 2010, a novelisation of the life of Manic Street Preachers’ Richey Edwards who disappeared in 1995 and was officially declared dead in 2008. “The Damned United persuaded me that you can put a real-life person into a fictional setting.”

As preparation for Pig Iron, Myers spoke to travellers, tracked down old documentaries about the different communities and read sociological studies. He says that, apart from the prize, the best compliment he has received is the positive feedback to the novel from travellers who have praised him on the accuracy of his depiction of their way of life.

“One woman who got in touch had left her husband because he was violent,” he says. “She was a gipsy and she asked me if I was. So I think at least I got the research right.”

Pig Iron, published by Bluemoose Books, £7.99,