PEOPLE always say to write about what you know. “I find my novels often deal with aspects of journalism, music and North East Durham.”
Durham-born Ben Myers is a modern day renaissance man, a respected music journalist, author and poet, he’s also had a stint running a North East-based record label.
After over a decade living in London, he’s relocated to a Yorkshire hilltop, where he’s talking to me now.
Ben is a bit of a maverick, more Hunter S Thompson and Charles Bukowski than Sebastian Faulks or Ian McEwan.
This outsider stance has seen him co-found “The Brutalists” a group of Northern poets and authors, who were frustrated by the capital’s literary elite.
But Ben’s current novel, Richard, tackles what he calls “a modern-day mystery”. The disappearance of Richard Edwards from the Welsh band The Manic Street Preachers.
He says: “My interest was more than just in the Manic’s music. It was in them as four friends growing up with a classic story of friendship, then this disappearance.
“When I’ve mentioned him to people, everybody’s heard of it whether they are interested in the Manics’ music or not.” Although Ben has written several music biographies, he decided to turn to fiction to write this story.
He adds: “I read The Damned United by David Pearce about the time Brian Clough was the manager of Leeds.
“It appealed to me as a fictional account based on real events featuring someone you wouldn’t ordinarily expect to be the main character in a novel.”
The Manic Street Preachers have some incredibly loyal fans, some of whom have taken umbrage with the book
Ben says: “Some people have taken offence but I explain it is not meant to be a definitive work, it is a fictional account.
“The Manics themselves have been really good about it. They haven’t read it – I think Nicky Wire has skimmed it – but they say it would be hypocritical of them to condemn it as they used to read everything about their heroes.”
Ben’s twin loves of music and writing began when he grew up in Belmont, Durham. Ben’s mum Dorothy, 66, was a maths teacher at Belmont Comprehensive School, which Ben also attended.
His dad Geoff, 68, was a physics teacher at King George’s Comprehensive in South Shields, South Tyneside. Both are now retired.
Ben’s elder sister Catherine Myers, 40, is a solicitor in Newcastle and his brother Richard, 39, runs Industrial Strength digital media agency in Gateshead.
He recalls: “Writing is the only thing I ever wanted to do realistically. There was a brief time I wanted to be a boxer ... until I realised I was soft.”
Ben’s first success was at nine when he won a short story competition. But as he became a teenager, music took over a lot of his time.
As a young teen, Ben joined a punk band with his friends, calling themselves Sourface. They were once refused entry to their own gig at Newcastle’s Riverside venue due to their tender age (the oldest was just 15).
At this point, I should add, I raised memories of Sourface. I first met Ben when we were both teenagers in Durham. Sourface were the stuff of Durham legend.
There is even a rumour their singer took part in the time-honoured punk tradition of flashing the audience, not allowing his tender age (13) to stop him.
But Ben soon realised his talents lay more in the literary arena than the musical. And so he decided to combine his love of music with writing.
He started sending reviews to Tyneside’s The Crack magazine and different fanzines. After going to Luton University to study English, Ben started writing for the now-defunct Melody Maker paper.
Ben says: “I got in there after doing work experience. They allowed me to do a few reviews and it built up from there. I’d take all the jobs no one else wanted to do.”
Ben recalls a time, still at university, when he was due to go to a seminar and the magazine called.
He says: “ Melody Maker phoned me and told me Noel and Liam Gallagher were going to be at this party. They said, ‘Can you corner them and get an interview?’
“So I left a note with the lecturer saying, ‘Ben can’t be here today as he’s going to interview Oasis’.
“As it happens, they didn’t turn up so I just ended up getting drunk.”
After graduating from university in 1997, Ben was offered a staff job at Melody Maker.
Since then, he has been published internationally in publications such as Uncut, The Guardian, Bizarre, Shortlist, Mojo, Time Out and Q Magazine among others.
Over the years, he’s interviewed some of the biggest names in rock.
Ben explains: “I suppose some of the most memorable interviews aren’t necessarily the best, but I found that the people who give the best interviews are the people who are a bit smarter and also get that journalists have to do a job.
“Marylin Manson was an interesting interviewee, I interviewed him quite a few times, going out to his Hollywood castle, which used to be owned by Houdini.
“I also enjoyed interviewing the Libertines the day their first album came out. They were funny, although I thought Peter Doherty was a bit shady even then.
“Chuck D of Public Enemy was a stressful interview. He’s incredibly intelligent and sussed, and the only person I’ve ever interviewed whose taken their own notes. But he was interesting and a nice guy.
“Amy Winehouse and Ozzy Osbourne was another one.
“I was asked to get them together at the Mojo Magazine awards. She was having lots of drug problems and obviously Ozzy had his issues in the past, so I had to get them talking together on it.
“The idea was to get Ozzy to give Amy advice on her career. Which was quite a mission because he was saying ‘who the hell am I to give advice?’.”
After three years at Melody Maker Ben moved to be a freelance, freeing him up to do his own writing as well.
He says: “I was trying to write a novel when I was writing for Melody Maker but it was hard to find the time.
“By being freelance I could pick and chose a bit more and use my spare time to write.”
Ben’s first novel was based on his experiences as a music journalist in London and translated into Italian.
And it spurred him on to develop his fiction further.
However, he found resistance in a publishing world still very dominated by the Oxford and Cambridge and London Elite.
He says: “About five years ago, I was trying to write novels and publish poems and meeting with not too much success.
“I was talking about it on websites and met a few people on them, most of whom were based in London and all at a similar level, who were trying to do the same thing and finding it difficult to break into the publishing industry. We decided to meet up and discovered we had quite a bit in common.”
Ben and another two authors particularly clicked ... Tony O’Neill, who used to be the keyboardist in North East punk band Kenickie, and Adelle Stripe, a writer from Yorkshire, who is now his girlfriend.
Ben recalls: “We had a number of acquaintances in common but we actually met through the internet.
“The three of us decided we’d give ourselves a name and get ourselves published.
“We came up with a tongue-in- cheek name [the Brutalists] and within a few weeks we were being slagged off by people on the Guardian forums.
“In a way it was a bit cynical, but it was a way of getting heard. It turns out we were the first literary movement who got together through social networking. We’re in text books now.”
Ben’s next novel is set in a fictional traveller’s camp just outside of Durham. He says: “Durham always ends up appearing in some form or another. You come back to what you know and Durham is so under-written.
“There’s a certain hardness to Northern towns and Durham has that. Outside of the centre there’s a lot of unemployment and the toughness from the old pit villages.
“This book is fictional, but you do end up with real characters seeping into your novels along the way.”
For more information on Ben visit www.benmyersmanofletters.blogspot. com.
Ben’s novel Richard is published by Picador and available from all good bookshops.
Ben's top five books
1. Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe
2. Pan by Knut Hamsun
3. Ask The Dust by John Fante
4. Head On by Julian Cope
5. The Damned United by David Peace