Tom Benn: ‘Experiencing the worst day in a fictional life is very funny to me’

The award-winning author on his long-awaited new novel Oxblood, Irish roots and moving to Norwich

Congratulations, Tom, on winning the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award. What does it mean to you?

Cheers. It couldn’t be more surreal and encouraging to win an award that has championed so many writers whose work means something to me.

Tell us about your latest novel, Oxblood. It took eight years to write?

It’s about three generations of mothers in a crime family, living together in 1980s Wythenshawe, Manchester. The patriarchs are dead but their violent legacy traps these women together and also keeps them apart. I wanted to give expression to a place and an era, its moral canvas, and female perspectives. This meant I had to really take my time.

It was rejected by two dozen publishers. What was their problem?

An unruly novel about northern nanas in a haunted council house probably sounded like a risky investment to mainstream gatekeepers. There was little that was recent and comparable with Oxblood to point at and say: Well, that broke through; this might just too.

What are the traps and tropes associated with working-class fiction?

It’s often reductive misery porn or sentimental, nostalgic fairy tales. These modes might flatter middle-class preconceptions but they rarely implicate the reader. But with Oxblood, I’d rather some of my readers occasionally feel like they’re trespassing on the page than my characters feel like they’re trespassing on their own story.

One of your characters, Vern, is a ‘horny ghost’. How did he come about?

Vern seemed like a more honest way to represent how we experience ruptures – trauma, violence, guilt, grief – which affect us non-linearly. Our ghosts are discontinuities, haunting our heads and our homes, derailing our trains of thought, altering our physical trajectories through the world.

Manchester is a key character. Describe the city. It has rich Irish roots, like yourself.

My maternal grandad came to Manchester from Liberia; my paternal great-grandad came from Limerick to chef at the Midland Hotel where he wooed my great-grandmother (who was on the silver service staff). My nana used to tell us stories of him throwing kitchen knives at the rats. This to me is Manchester: the mercurial city, the mongrel city, and the folded city Michel Butor alludes to in Passing Time.

You’ve written a short horror film, Real Gods Require Blood, and are associated with northern noir. Do these genres help define you as a writer?

To me, genres are ever-evolving narrative frameworks that expose our fears and fantasies, offering writers trenchant tools to interrogate, repurpose and vandalise. We might turn to genre for comfort: to escape the tedium, uncertainty and injustice of reality; but genre can also confront these horrors, directly or askance, and say something troubling and truthful about them.

What projects are you working on?

My next novel. It’s about dancing, light, freedom, music – and more murdered northern ghosts.

Have you ever made a literary pilgrimage?

I’ve been a pilgrim for art and film: visiting Den Bosch for Bosch’s paintings, and Poulsbo and North Bend [in] Washington for Twin Peaks. I’d love to reach Oxford, Mississippi, for a Faulkner pilgrimage.

What is the best writing advice you have heard?

From the new M John Harrison, Wish I Was Here, his aphoristic “anti-memoir”: “Work into a genre if you like, but from as far outside it as possible.” Or this from Susan Sontag’s diaries: “Madness as a defense against terror. Madness as a defense against grief.” For me, writing is always the madness and the response to the madness.

Who do you admire the most?

Admire the art over the artist, the work over the worker. People transgress and disappoint but art can transgress to transcend.

Which public event affected you most?

Maybe the 1996 and 2017 Manchester bombings. They’ve never really left my head or my heart.

Which writers, living or dead, would you invite to your dream dinner party?

To witness the mid-meal apocalypse: James Ellroy, Ishmael Reed, Zora Neale Hurston, Blaise Cendrars, Begum Rokeya, Marco Vassi, Alan Moore and Anna Kavan.

The best and worst things about where you live?

When I first moved to Norwich from Manchester at 18, I was dismissive of how small and slow the place seemed by comparison. But it’s a regional outlier innovating from the margins, welcoming and incubating talent from everywhere. Now I teach creative writing part-time at the University of East Anglia. It’s the city to hide out in and write books.

What is your favourite quotation?

From Mary Gaitskill’s courageously nuanced personal essay, The Trouble with Following the Rules: “The truth may hurt, but in art, anyway, it also helps, sometimes profoundly.”

A book to make me laugh?

I don’t know what books will make you laugh but here are some that make me laugh: Kafka’s The Trial, Nathanael West’s Miss Lonelyhearts, Richard Price’s Ladies’ Man, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood, and Philip Roth’s Sabbath’s Theater. Basically, any screwball tragedy or harrowingly absurd story in which characters confront their own shadows, or experience surreal, mundane or violent social hypocrisies. Whether the torment is a cosmic justice, self-inflicted or a persecution, experiencing the worst day in a fictional life is very funny to me.

A book that might move me to tears?

See above. What makes me laugh might make you cry, or vice versa.

Tom Benn is the winner of the 2022 Sunday Times Charlotte Aitken Young Writer of the Year Award for his novel, Oxblood

Martin Doyle

Martin Doyle

Martin Doyle is Books Editor of The Irish Times