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“Historical fiction is not all tabards and turnips”: Benjamin Myers in the New Statesman

The New Statesman's Matthew Gilley speaks to the author of the Goldsmiths Prize-shortlisted Cuddy on being a heathen, Gwendoline Riley, and why he wants to see a ghost...

"Benjamin Myers, who was born in Durham in 1976, is the author of nine novels, as well as short stories, non-fiction and poetry. In the 1990s he worked as a music journalist for Melody Maker. His breakout novel The Gallows Pole (2017), about a Yorkshire coining gang in the 18th century, won the Walter Scott Prize for historical fiction and was recently adapted for the BBC by the director Shane Meadows.

He writes in the end notes to Cuddy, which is shortlisted for the 2023 Goldsmiths Prize, that the novel “began life as a bold (and possibly foolish) idea to write an alternative history of the north-east of England”. The result is a polyphonic novel told in prose, poetry and drama that begins in the late 7th century and ends in the 21st, through four distinct stories (and one interlude) relating to Durham Cathedral and St Cuthbert, the unofficial patron saint of the north. In the first, a young woman travels with the monks bearing the saint’s body. The second is a yearning tale of love in the late Middle Ages, the third follows a haunted Victorian scientist, and the fourth is an ecstatic coming-of-age story set in the present day. They come together to form an attentive exploration of place and how it impacts the human spirit.

Matthew Gilley: The Goldsmiths Prize was set up to reward fiction that “breaks the mould or extends the possibilities of the novel form”. What can an “innovative” approach offer the reader (and writer) that a more conventional novel might not?

Benjamin Myers: I think there is a fine line between work that is innovative or challenging, and that which alienates the majority of readers. No one likes a clever clogs. But there is still space to continually expand the various functions of a novel: to challenge, confront, subvert, thrill, anger, sicken, excite and experiment. It is an elastic thing that can be stretched in any direction.

The very best novels should alter the reader in some minuscule way and I’m slightly traditional in that I think, most of all, they should entertain.

This is your ninth novel and it seems like there’s some of all your past work in there. How did you come to that abundance of styles and formats?

The simple fact was I felt intimidated and exhausted by the idea of writing another long-form novel, especially one that tackled a key historical figure whose life is already well-documented, and a subject – broadly speaking: faith – that some might say that I, a heathen, am unqualified for. But I also love writing and can’t not do it, so I first wrote a novella, followed by an extended prose poem, then a short play… then I realised they were all parts of a greater whole: a novel. After that I began to stitch the various parts of the tapestry together, and weave in threads that provided narrative through-lines, as it were. None of it was planned. I always just stumble blindly from one sentence to the next.

Tell me about a piece of art, literature or music that was important to you when writing this book.

Peasant, the 2017 album by the Geordie avant-garde folk singer Richard Dawson is set in 6th-century Bryneich – now Northumberland and the Borders – and showed me that historical narratives work best when they are brought down to the human level. So with Cuddy I wanted to depict the everyday struggles of people living in the same location but across different eras, and remind readers that their concerns and desires are not so different from ours today. Also that “historical fiction” is not all tabards and turnips, and in fact can be funny, sensual, grotesque, moving – everything that modern fiction can be..."


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