Cal Flyn Interviews The Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award Winner 2022 Tom Benn

Posted on 14th March 2023 by Mark Skinner

Congratulations to Tom Benn, whose immensely powerful, playful and compelling novel Oxblood - about three generations of women from the same Manchester family living with a legacy of male violence - has scooped him the coveted Sunday Times Charlotte Aitken Young Writer of the Year Award. In this Q&A with last year's winner Cal Flyn - who triumphed for Islands of Abandonment - Benn describes the process of writing the book and the importance of its message.   

Tell us about Oxblood, your latest novel.

Oxblood is about a great-grandmother, grandmother, and teen mother, living together in a council house in 1980s’ Wythenshawe, Manchester. The criminal patriarchs of the family are dead, and so the house is haunted by male violence, but also literally haunted by a cheerful, horny ghost. 

What made you zero in on the stories of the Dodds women, as opposed to those of their men? 

I was interested in what it meant to be trapped in the orbit of certain men, by marriage, motherhood, or daughterhood. I wanted to find a language to try to interpret how the women preserved and deceived themselves; how they loved and denied each other; what it felt like for each, before, during and after the ruinous disappointments of these men. That seemed like a good place to start. To make the margins the whole world of the novel and to stay there and see what that might do to the book, to the reader, to the crime genre, and to me. It meant there was more on the line, more to go wrong – which is maybe why it took so long to write. 

Do you think of Oxblood as a political book?

I was conscious of wanting Oxblood to resist the market-friendly tropes for working-class fiction. So often working-class regional stories get packaged as gritty poverty tourism or mawkish fairy tale: modes that flatter middle-class preconceptions. Instead, I tried to write a novel that didn’t pander to reductive aesthetics or the gaze of gatekeepers. This made it much tougher to sell. But I knew Oxblood’s narrative voice couldn’t be characterised by a poverty of language; that just because my characters live on a council estate didn’t mean their inner lives had to be sparer, less complicated. I wanted to do justice to their complexity. It was also important to me to be truthful when writing fiction set in the recent past; to avoid moralising, but not let our former or current selves off the hook so easily.

Did you have a favourite character while writing?

Manchester itself. Oxblood’s mongrel blood, like mine, belongs to the city. 

Personally I loved Vern, your sweet-tempered "horny ghost". What prompted you to make this leap into a more magical form of realism?

Thank you. For me, genres like ‘magical realism’, ‘crime’ or ‘literary fiction’, are fluid frameworks. They can offer distinctive and authentic ways of representing reality on the page. With Vern’s ghost I was looking for a more truthful way to represent Carol’s reality, one that acknowledges how we really experience ruptures – violence, trauma, shame, lost love – which affect us non-linearly. Our ghosts are discontinuities; they bleed out of our heads and our homes, derailing our trains of thought, altering our physical trajectories through the world.  

You have often been characterised as a writer of 'northern noir'. Do you agree with that?

If being characterised as ‘northern noir’ puts me even vaguely on a continuum with writers like Emlyn Williams, Gordon Burn, Ted Lewis, David Peace, Karline Smith, Peter Kalu, and emerging voices like Nina Bhadreshwar, then that is seriously flattering. Noir fiction, like the North itself at its best, can be innovative, even surrealist. It’s crime fiction with a fatalistic grin. Conventional crime narratives move towards the restoration of order. Noir fiction does the opposite: it arrives at disorder (like the Joy Division track). Noir examines those Yelena Moskovich calls ‘the hell-seekers’. The broken pieces. The most forgotten, lost, ugly, gorgeous, displaced, and unrepentant. 

You've somehow—magically—impossibly—written four novels already. What makes you so productive? (Do you have any tips?)

I wrote my first three books comparatively quickly and innocently while in my 20s. But Oxblood took almost eight years in total. Much of that time was spent tuning and retuning the sentences; trying to do some justice to the places and voices that I knew growing up, but had never encountered on the page before. If you want to write novels faster, my tip is to be more innocent. The less you know, the surer of yourself you can be. But I’ve learned that being forced to slow down and really interrogate your stake in the story, and your approach to its telling, makes the writing better. 

How do you feel about being a 'young' writer? And how does the prospect of getting older make you feel?

I don’t think of getting older as necessarily a conservatising force. I feel hungrier than ever for dissent in art, work, and life; for alternative ways of seeing and being. But I do experience getting older as a reckoning (or a denied reckoning) with innocence. I was very much a ‘nan kid’ and became obsessed early on with the highbrow and lowbrow of 20th century media. My guides were my older relatives in a big working-class multicultural family. This might have made sure my interests didn’t fall too far into romanticism or nostalgia. And my instincts are still to try to make sense of the present and its possible futures first by looking at the past and its lost futures. Young or old, this will probably always be motivating what, how and why I write.


There are currently no comments.

env: aptum