Durham-born Ben Myers tells Steve Pratt how he was inspired by the late Tyneside author Gordon Burn. Now, Myers has become the first winner of the Gordon Burn Award

THE writing of Gordon Burn first came to the attention of Ben Myers when he was growing up in Durham. “I became aware of him after my sister said there’s this writer from the North-East and you should read him,” he recalls.

So he read Burn’s book Happy Like Murderers about Fred and Rose West. Not only did he find it “immensely disturbing” but considered it one of the best British books of the past ten years.

As Myers became a journalist – with Melody Maker and The Guardian among the publications for which he’s written – the links to Burn continued.

When Burn died in 2009, Myers wrote a piece about him for The Guardian.

“I never met him but was inspired by someone who was also a journalist and managed to combine his journalism with love of fiction. A new style emerged looking at the idea of what’s fact and what’s fiction,” says Myers.

His own novel Richard played with that approach in a fictionalised account of Rickey Edwards, the Manic Street Preachers guitarist who disappeared in 1995, and hasn’t been seen since.

Considering the links between birthplace and writing, it seemed wholly appropriate that this year Myers won the inaugural Gordon Burn Prize, a national award in memory of the late writer presented in association with the Durham Book Festival.

His novel Pig Iron, the winning title, concerns a young traveller released from prison and settling back into the community.

“I’m quite inspired by nature and landscape, and wrote it when I moved back from London to Calderdale, in West Yorkshire, where I live just outside Hebden Bridge,” he explains.

“I knew I wanted to write something about Durham and the travelling community is the most marginalised ethnic group. But I researched the travellers’ world before I even knew I wanted to write this book which is about the countryside and the travelling community and Durham.

“It’s about post-industrialised Durham and the North-East. It seemed to be about Thatcher’s legacy, but was more a personalised story about one young man who survived a legacy of violence. His father is a bare knuckle boxer and the young protagonist has this history he’s trying to escape from.

He returns to Durham and lives on a council estate.

“There’s quite a lot of me growing up in Durham in the book. It’s a city, but feels quite a small town.

A lot of people know each other. There’s a lot of anecdotal stuff I heard growing up, stories that come through in fictional form.”

When the Gordon Burn Prize was announced Pig Iron had just been published and Myers submitted the book. Just being short-listed was enough for him. Winning, he says, was a genuine surprise. “Literary prizes are ten a penny and usually I’m not really interested in the books on the short list, but all those up for the Gordon Burn Prize were really good books I would have read anyway.”

The prize was presented in association with Durham Book Festival, which is run by New Writing North, the writing agency to which Myers owes a debt. He’s one of the 150 or so writers who’ve been helped by the annual Northern Writers Awards, supported by Northumbria University. Submissions are being requested for the 2014 awards, which are open to writers from across the whole of the North and support writers of prose, poetry, creative non-fiction and children’s fiction. This year also sees the launch of a new programme of awards for young writers.

The awards give new writers introductions to agents and publishers, perhaps getting them closer to publication. For more established writers, awards allow them to undertake new projects or finish an as-yet-uncommissioned piece of work. New Writing North also continues to work with the writers after the awards have been given out.

Myers is one of the writers who’s been helped after winning a New Writers Award. “I’m a published writer but it’s hard to get a regular income out of books, you have to diversify,” he explains. “I was debating whether to apply for Arts Council funding but knew all the money was drying up. So I applied for a new writers’ award.”

HE’S back living in the North after 12 years in London. Does he consider himself a North- East writer? “I don’t know,” is his honest answer, adding “I don’t really want to be seen as a regional writer or a Northern writer. I have another book which is set in Cumbria. A Northern book, which is set in the past, but I’ve written it to be set in any country at any time. Hopefully it’s a universal story.

“I’m also working on something in the Yorkshire Dales. There are enough novels set in London.

There still aren’t enough books set around the North-East.”

His work may also reach the big screen. Successful novels inevitably attract interest from film and television companies although more often than not the projects come to nothing. After Richard was published, Brad Pitt’s production company got in touch, although that’s as far as its gone.

“I know if a book gets a bit of attention companies will come looking. Pig Iron would be quite filmable.

I’ve spoken to a few directors and have a few connections in films,” he adds.

  • For more information about the criteria for entry for the 2014 Northern Writers’ Awards, and how to apply, visit northernwritersawards.com