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Benjamin Myers: “Historical fiction is not all tabards and turnips”

The author of the Goldsmiths Prize-shortlisted Cuddy on being a heathen, and why he wants to see a ghost.

By Matthew Gilley

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.

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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.

[See also: From Benjamin Myers to Timothy Garton Ash: new books reviewed in short]

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.

Each part of the story has some connection with St Cuthbert and Durham Cathedral. What has your relationship with the cathedral, and Cuthbert, been throughout your life? 

I was born and raised a mile or two from Durham Cathedral. Initially I took it for granted, but as I got older I began to see that it was the creation of visionaries who must have been so drunk on the idea of God that they pioneered new techniques in masonry, architecture and engineering to express their devotion. A thousand years on it is like a living piece of the past thrust up from the soil, a sculpted mountain with a small city scattered about its feet. It was thrilling to realise that I was part of that lineage (a recent test showed that my DNA is 91 per cent north-east England). As for Cuthbert, he was just always there in the background – a decent, humble man with a love of nature, and zero interest in the gaudy trappings of fame.

Character types recur throughout the novel – a boy with owlish eyes, a woman with an affinity for medicine and food – almost as if they’re produced by the place. Could you tell me about this interaction between setting and character?

I’m quite fascinated by people who choose to stay in one place their entire lives, and how they are shaped by it. Identity has become more of a fluid concept in the 21st century, and I’m all for it, but topographical and meteorological conditions can certainly shape a person.

In one section a scientist is confronted by an apparition that commands him to “let history lie”. Has researching and fictionalising historical events led you to any revelations? 

I’ve learned that though I may be classed as an atheist, I am not of the Richard Dawkins school of thought at all. I appreciate different religions and the roles they play in people’s lives. How could I, as a storyteller, dismiss Christianity, when we both deal in narratives? That was a big surprise; I always thought I was a cynic but the older I get, the less I know. Also, while I’m no parochial separatist, I learned that there is a certain spirit of the north-east that endures today, and which comes from being colonised, invaded, patronised or overlooked – just consider the complete failure of the Northern Powerhouse project. This spirit is manifested in an absurdist sense of humour and an optimistic outlook. And we’re handy with our fists. It’s no coincidence that the Romans only settled as far north as Newcastle.

[See also: Richard Milward: “I use humour as a coping mechanism”]

Do you ever feel haunted when you’re writing?

I don’t believe in the traditional idea of ghosts, but my wife has had several “funny turns” in places that we later found out were the scenes of some terrible murders, so perhaps some places hold trauma within them, and maybe we can all be haunted by buried traumas and hidden terrors, and writing is one outlet for that. Maybe “haunted” is another word for “grief”? I’d love to see a ghost though. A big, daft jovial ghost called Chris.

Why do we need the Goldsmiths Prize?

Because it values bold new approaches to what a novel can be in a way that no other prize does. It celebrates rather than penalises risk-taking. And it always features way more novels that are to my liking than the Booker Prize. Sorry, but it’s the truth.

[See also: Why we chose Benjamin Myers’s Cuddy as the 2023 Goldsmiths Prize winner]

What past British or Irish novel deserves a retrospective Goldsmiths Prize?

Berg by Ann Quin (1964) and Cobralingus by Jeff Noon (2001). That My Phantoms by Gwendoline Riley (2021) didn’t win any prizes is a crime.

Read more about the Goldsmiths Prize shortlist here. The winner of the prize will be announced on 8 November.

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