Benjamin Myers – The Gallows Pole
Benjamin Myers is an author, poet and journalist in England. His prize-winning novel “The Gallows Pole” (Bluemoose Books, 2017) was re-released in the U.K. by Bloomsbury Publishing in 2019. Nashville, Tennessee-based Third Man Books, founded by Jack White of The White Stripes fame, will issue the book as its first novel. It is available for preorder here.
Described as “a roaring furnace” by judges of the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction, the book “portrays social upheavals which have a sharp contemporary echo. …” (This article originally appeared in our sister publication, The Bean Magazine, and has been slightly modified for mvm readers. Myers’ answers have been lightly edited for publication.)
In our first installment of On Coffee, singer and writer Henry Rollins, an enormously accomplished guy, told us he nurses a single cup of coffee a day and favors the taste more than the kick. Do you have a favorite beverage — tea, coffee or something else — and is there a daily ritual?
Having met Rollins, I can confirm he is not a man who needs a great deal of caffeine. However, being English, I’m both a coffee and a tea man. I drink a cup of strong black cafetiere coffee in the morning, walk the dog, then have another cup when I start writing. In the afternoon, I drink strong black tea, then decaf Earl Grey tea before bed. The landscape where I live in Yorkshire is predominantly wild, wet and windy moorlands, so I have actually invented my own drink, a sort of Yorkshire espresso that I call the Yespresso©: It’s twice-brewed tea with the bag left in a flask for an hour or two, then drunk black and sugarless in short shots. Each bitter dose is a stringent hit. It’s ultra-tea.
Would a Myers reader ever catch sight of you with a notebook or laptop in the local coffee bar or cafe? Do you have a preferred situation for writing, outside somewhere or in the house or office?
I’m too paranoid my laptop will get stolen, but I do write in cafes with pen and paper. My recent nonfiction book, “Under the Rock,” was conceived and partially written out in the wilderness in some pretty raw conditions. There’s still a certain romance to the image of a writer idling away the hours in cafes, though, in reality, it’s a hard grind.
Your latest novel, “The Gallows Pole,” is due from Third Man Books (TMB) in the U.S. this year, a project of musician and entrepreneur Jack White. It will be the first novel from TMB. Why did you sign up with them?
“Why wouldn’t I?” is probably the short answer. I’d say the spirit of Third Man is entirely in keeping with my own outlook on art and culture: They have a strong DIY punk ethic, coupled with a keen eye for aesthetics and do things for the sheer love of it. They’re the best record label in the U.S., so what an honor to be the first novelist on their literary imprint. It’s unprecedented.
The novel can be seen as a brutal tale wrapped in a crime story about counterfeiters embedded in 18th century history, all enclosed in a landscape masterpiece. If we framed this creation, what would be the ideal exhibition space?
Either in a dank, moss-covered tumbledown cottage full of sheep bones and dread, or hanging from the wall of the Guggenheim Museum as it’s so far removed from the time and place of the novel’s setting that the clash between rural gothic poverty and modern urbane sophistication would be interesting to observe.
You responded to the Brexit vote with a poem, “An Elegy for England.” It seems the Cragg Vale Coiners from “The Gallows Pole” would have turned ‘Leave’ or ‘Remain’ on its head. They want to remain on local ground and hold off outsiders while favoring leave when it comes to the crown and power-loom purveyors. Do you see a news hook there?
Brexit has dominated the British news media for two years, and the discourse has become nasty. It has been ideologically driven by chinless middle managers, so I would prefer to see “The Gallows Pole” as an escape from this slow suicide. As a writer, part of me is excited that Britain is on the cusp of something truly catastrophic, and I’m quite tempted to fill my cellar with good Italian coffee and French wine. Obviously, I voted to remain in the European Union as it has been responsible for unbroken peace since 1945.
From the opening words of the novel, the language is near palpable, reminding me of sentences by Annie Proulx and Jack Kerouac and the verbal clots of Seamus Heaney. How much of this comes in the initial outpouring and how much is shaped in revision as you seek texture and sound?
Once the voice and tone of the book was found, it came. A lot of my initial research concerned slang words and dialect that was true to time and place — the north of England, circa 1770 — but there’s a lot of rewriting involved, too.
You earned the Roger Deakin Award for excellence in writing about nature. Readers say they’ve been transported by the descriptions of places in “The Gallows Pole.” Do you think of ‘place’ as a kind of character in this and other stories?
Oh, definitely. Place usually comes first. For example, I decided that I wanted my next novel to be set in a tiny former smuggling village on the coast, so then I wrote the story around the idea of this cove, the cliffs, the sea, the farmlands around it.
You write in different forms. The American author Meridel Le Sueur said “to make a distinction between prose and poetry is bourgeois whimsy.” How does that strike you?
I think they feed one another. The prose writer who doesn’t read poetry is limiting their potential.
Our media colleagues at The New York Times like to ask an author what she or he has on the nightstand. Can you tell us three books and three musical recordings that are in play for you these days
“Don’t Skip Out on Me” by Willy Vlautin
“Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry” by B.S. Johnson
“West” by Carys Davies
“Peasant” by Richard Dawson
“Rock for Light” by Bad Brains
“The Complete Noel Coward” by Noel Coward.
The Beatles famously refused to perform in the U.S. until the group had a song at No. 1 on the charts. Will you go easier on us and tour with “The Gallows Pole” as it makes its way up the best-seller list?
As with the Beatles, I’d just like to be asked, “How did you find America?” To which I will reply, “Turn left at Greenland.”
The U.S. release of “The Gallows Pole” is Oct 15. It’s now available for preorder here.