INTERVIEW: Tom Benn on representation, Beatrix Potter and ‘Oxblood’

Photo credit: Beth Moseley

As part of my interview series Writers on Research, I spoke to author Tom Benn on the research process behind his novel Oxblood (Bloomsbury, 2022).

As someone who was born in South Manchester, one of the more obvious questions in terms of source material for Oxblood is to what extent you drew from personal experience. I wonder though if that is a question that you’ve already encountered, and whether you feel there is a certain burden of representation involved there. Do you feel there is a broad sense that novels with a working-class or Northern framework are more likely to, or are even expected to, reflect personal experience?

I was actually born down south, to Mancunian parents, who moved back up north to be near family when I was still in nappies. There’s little about Oxblood that’s explicitly autobiographical: I’m not a grandmother, or from a faded Wythenshawe crime clan; nor have I ever house-shared with a cheerful horny ghost of a murdered librarian (as far as I know). But in the novel, I do inhabit places and perspectives that I’ve known and loved and lived alongside, though ones which I still wouldn’t fully claim as my own. Since Oxblood takes place before I was born, I’m really writing about my parents’ and grandparents’ generations of working-class life. And I soaked up their stories while growing up, for sure, which helped conceive Oxblood. I wouldn’t call any of this a burden, though there is moral responsibility inherent in putting those lives on the page, voices which are so often poorly represented in modern fiction: marginalised, romanticised, demonised, caricatured, or entirely absent. As for the question of expectations for regional and/or working-class novels: I suppose it depends on whose expectations? The mainstream publishing industry, for commercial and demographic reasons, shows limited interest in this fiction, especially if these stories resist or problematise the broad tropes associated with northern working-class narratives: miserabilist poverty porn or sentimental nostalgia. One rejection Oxblood received from a major publisher, before finding a good home at Bloomsbury, was along the lines of: Sorry, but we’ve already bought a working-class novel this year. Of course, there could be only one! But published novels are niche commodities selected and produced for a marketplace. Framing a fiction that’s from or about ‘the margins’ as one rooted in autobiographical experience, especially experience of tragedy and adversity, might make it more attractive to the mainstream. In an attention economy, it’s often a good way of getting people to listen, and if you’re a major publisher, of making some profit for your shareholders. With Oxblood, I had to be very honest with myself and know what I was willing and unwilling to compromise, personally and on the page, to reach an audience.

Related to that, I’m interested in the term ‘Northern Noir’, which has in the past been applied to your work, as well as to writers like Benjamin Wood, Benjamin Myers and David Peace. I’m curious to know how you feel about that term as a genre label, and more broadly how you feel about the literary association of the north of England with menace, violence and gloom, if such an association exists.

Firstly, if being dubbed Northern Noir puts my work in conversation with these wonderful writers, then that’s incredibly flattering. And while those gritty associations with the label might be reductive, alternative labels and their own associations for the region might be equally so. Think of the cosiness of classic Hovis ads, Lowry tea-towels, or the kitsch cornet of Corrie’s theme tune. But maybe these ways of labelling or representing the north and its cultural identity aren’t even binaries. For me, the most pitiless, brutal Northern Noir writer isn’t Ted ‘Get Carter’ Lewis, but Beatrix Potter. The only books I really remember from childhood are hers, with their glorious folk-horror sadism. The rat tails nailed to the barn wall like some gruesome satanic ritual; and poor Jemima Puddle-Duck being rescued from the sly fox only to have her almost-hatched eggs smashed by the dogs. And yet those books, all set in Lancashire, have always been branded as cosy nursery fodder, a comfort-fantasy of pastoral provincial Englishness. Maybe that’s the true north: both the rabbit and the knife.

Something that jumped out for me whilst reading Oxblood is the way that the cadence of working-class Mancunian patter interacts with a very quote-unquote ‘high’ literary style throughout the novel. Was there a tension there between crafting an ‘authentic’ localised voice alongside poetic experimentation, neologism, etc? Did those two approaches, if they are distinct at all, inform and/or challenge one another?  

I wanted the novel to have a rich narrative voice, one that might do some justice to three generations of stubborn Wythenshawe women. Their house is haunted; they’ve been locked out of time, but remain in motion. Both ‘high’ and ‘low’ registers became necessary to cover that bigger, riskier canvas. And it was necessary to reject any hierarchy between these registers. This mongrel approach seemed right. Manchester is a mongrel city, and I’m very much a Mancunian mongrel: neither nowt nor summat, as we say. To explore why the Dodds women sometimes deny each other’s agency and voices, I needed to access all streams of language and expression that belonged to them regardless.

I’m glad you touched on time there. As well as place and localised voice, the novel is also informed by a specific time period, the mid-1980s. I’m curious to know how you approached 1980s Manchester as a temporal space, and particularly if you think there is something intrinsically ‘eighties’ about the experience of the Dodds women and the men who cast such a shadow over their lives.

With a city as mythologised as 80s’ Manchester, it’s the footnotes and marginalia that matter to me the most. Lost voices, whose forgotten stories complicate or counter the louder ones. I relied on conversations with older relatives and did bits of local research when necessary. I checked what was in the papers and charts at each point in the Dodds women’s lives we directly see (from mid-1961 to mid-1985). But I’m unsure how intrinsically ‘eighties’ the Dodds women’s experiences are. Women were suffering (and resisting) the ruinous consequences of men long before the advent of Thatcherism and MTV. However, I did want to try to evoke what it was like to be these women, in this place, at this time. What it felt like; how they spoke; what secrets they kept, even from themselves. Crimes rupture the lives of certain people in certain places at certain times. That specificity was something to strive for. I’m a big believer in the route to the universal being through the local.

Finally, while the novel is thematically broad, it is your handling of adolescent sexual experience which most intrigued me. I feel as though much contemporary literary fiction avoids the challenge of representing adolescent sexual experience because it is simply too difficult, though some writers do it well. As a reader, I found Oxblood to be particularly sensitive to the complex emotions associated with both these experiences and our memories of these experiences, and I’m interested to hear about your approach as a writer. How did you handle it? How did it feel?

Cheers. To be honest, I wasn’t steered by any moral or literary anxieties around how to represent adolescent desire. I just tried to make sure the reader experiences its mercurial power as Jan does: as danger and bliss; pride and shame, exploration and compulsion. Each of the Dodds women is fiercely devoted to a different form of denial. But Jan is the most outward and defiant. She’s tearing through the present to escape the past that has trapped her mam and grandmother. And so Jan tests her sexual power, rescues and abjects herself through her body. This makes her bold and gobby, but desperately vulnerable. None of it felt easy to write, but I’ve had messages from and encounters with readers telling me they knew a few Jans growing up, or saw their younger selves in her. Let us remember all our Jans gently, and without judgement.

Tom Benn is an award-winning author, screenwriter, and Lecturer in Crime Writing. His first novel, The Doll Princess (Cape), was shortlisted for the Dylan Thomas Prize and the Portico Prize, and longlisted for the CWA’s John Creasey Dagger. His other novels include Chamber Music (Cape) and Trouble Man (Cape). He won runner-up prize in the 2019 Desperate Literature Short Fiction Prize, and his essays and fiction have appeared in Granta and The Paris Review. He won the BFI’s iWrite scheme for emerging screenwriters. His first film, Real Gods Require Blood, premiered in competition at the Cannes Film Festival, and was nominated for Best Short Film at the BFI London Film Festival. His fourth novel, Oxblood (Bloomsbury), was longlisted for the Gordon Burn Prize, the CWA’s Gold Dagger, and in 2023 received the Sunday Times Charlotte Aitken Young Writer of the Year Award.

Joe Bedford’s interview series Writers on Research is made possible with National Lottery funding via Arts Council England.

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