Gunfights and tea-drinking: an interview with Tom Benn

19 December 2012

An interview with author Tom Benn about his forthcoming second novel, 'Chamber Music', released on 3 January 2013.

With Chamber Music, Tom Benn takes us further into the mid- to late-nineties Manchester stomping ground that distinguished his debut novel The Doll Princess (reviewed earlier this year) from the hardboiled detective fiction to which it was knowingly indebted. The earlier work was shortlisted for this year's Portico and Dylan Thomas Prizes, and its follow-up also pairs the same kind of throwback swagger with a brazen confidence to stand on its own teetotal feet. Chamber Music has all the joys that constructing a fictional universe across multiple stories brings: a familiar hero and his cast of cohorts, with narrative nods backwards and forwards. To this latter end, Benn's recurrent protagonist is forever haunted by many a past: in the previous novel, he recklessly pursued justice on behalf of an old flame whose brutal death had made otherwise throwaway news, whereas here the story at hand is told alongside extended flashbacks to a lost youth - and as both strands unfold, their interrelation becomes increasingly explicit.

Benn's protagonist is Bane, Henry, who at the end of The Doll Princess had found himself in an apparently insurmountable patch of bother (he'd rectified one lost history at the expense of another, pursuing personal needs when all father-figure/crime boss Frank had wanted from him was a job he was paid to do). Cheekily, Benn begins Chamber Music by announcing Henry Bane's death, which seems a logical but unthinkable conclusion to the events with which its predecessor ended. But the death is that of Bane's dad, also Henry, and the personal loss with which the present novel opens primes its thematic foray into broken bonds of the familial, marital and professional variety - and the varying degrees of viscosity with which their bloods flow.

Indeed, in terms of narrative and dialogue density, Benn seems to up the ante here only to accommodate more traditional characterisations. In other words, like the posturing of those socially abandoned souls that inhabit Bane's universe, style here is a kind of maguffin: an upheld elegance beneath which the real dramatic substance - in all its ugly, inconclusive, cyclical, noirish messiness - is hidden. Like a literary Don Draper, Bane's world - or the world as navigated by Bane - is one of anomalies, of sartorial fuss and exquisite tastes in music (Bane Sr. owned a record store, itself a social anomaly) amidst the icy back alleys of chaos. Into the familiar, for instance, Benn throws the exotic, and does so with the kind of precise surrealism that doesn't just grab your attention but demands it: from nowhere, introduced in a pay-attention-or-perish fashion, comes Mary, a Komodo dragon (yes) who takes a nasty bite at Bane's pal Maz. Other creatures pop up too; among the more peculiarly gruesome is a dead snake which has bitten off more than it could handle.

Chamber Music's title enjoys many associations: to a set-up designed for intimate conversation or musical companionship; to the Wu-Tang Clan, who at the time of the novel's setting had consolidated their grip on a creative turf war similar to the physical territorialism going on in the book; and to the part of a firearm in which ammunition is loaded - and, in Chamber Music, there are plenty bullets flying off into the night, and at about the same speed at which those shootin' 'em are speakin'. This much is right: speed and momentum are key with Benn's expanding Bane series. In October this year, the author gave a reading of the opening passage of The Doll Princess at the Durham Book Festival. I'd read the work previously, but to hear it read aloud by Benn was something special, and aided my subsequent navigation of the minimally-punctuated Manc accents in Chamber Music. The following interview was conducted in late November, 2012.

Michael Pattison: 'The Doll Princess' ended with a cliff-hanger, but 'Chamber Music' makes very little reference to that story.

Tom Benn: I want the Bane books to build irreversibly, and ripple thematically, but their stories aren’t conjoined (despite the novels being written straight after each other). Chamber Music is a continuation of The Doll Princess, and stands alone. And while some events of The Doll Princess seem to be overlooked for now, gaps are explored later in the series. 

The Gunst passage you quote acknowledges the practical and ethical issues of writing about something of which you have no direct experience. Is that acknowledgement important to you?

Yes, even if only as a challenge. Although that’s not to suggest I have no direct experience of anything I write about. And while the reference to a writer in the quote is significant, just the idea of beginning a story with something confrontational, something that serves as both advice and a warning to the reader, was dramatically appealing in itself.  

The first sentence of 'Chamber Music' declares Henry Bane dead. It seems more like a fresh start than a follow-up... This sense of a fresh start seems significant for Bane's story, because in 'Chamber Music' you repeatedly return to 1990, and the earlier timeline becomes a significant and parallel plot strand. You get the sense of an unshakeable past, of history coming back to haunt Bane.

Opening the book with the announcement of Henry Bane’s death could be taken as another warning - an ironic one - this time for my narrator. The death is Bane’s father, Henry Bane Senior, a character introduced in The Doll Princess, and whose relationship with Bane is explored in the 1990 timeline of Chamber Music. Like before, the past seems to infect everything that is in Bane’s present, and the structure of Chamber Music reflects this. Although Bane Senior begins dead, he is very much alive at the end of the novel. The reverse can be said for other characters. And while Bane Senior’s importance is peripheral in Chamber Music, the peripheral is still important. In the crime and detective fiction I admire, nothing is ever born in the present and death, no matter how natural or timely, doesn’t ensure closure. I want this to be true for Bane’s world. A fresh start for Bane just means he has new baggage to carry, or new old baggage...

Bane seems tougher here than in 'The Doll Princess'. He's more in control of events.

Definitely - at least in the later timeline, though he still has plenty of run-ins with the bigger and badder. The events of The Doll Princess have hardened him. He’s been staring into that abyss for too long, and the follow up to Chamber Music confronts that old idea, hopefully with some invention. In Chamber Music Bane’s getting heated up. In the next book he’s cooled very quickly and shatters.

Part of the joy with series such as this is placing familiar characters in new scenarios, or against new adversaries. The recurrent protagonist lends a sense of adventure...

Bane’s world is getting larger and more intricate and he’s starting to collect a rogues’ gallery. For the writer, there are difficulties in taking a familiar character somewhere fresh each time but it’s something I want to continue as long as I have more stories to tell. 

I don’t think the idea of recurring characters in a shared universe has to become self-indulgent and limiting creatively. People respond well to strong serial drama, whether that’s watching a soap opera, or reading Marvel comics, or untangling the timelines and cameos of Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County novels. The joys are often enhanced by a larger dosage, with the best stuff offering more than just the comfort of the familiar. 

How did you research the Jamaican patois?

The internet was a big help. As was seeing how Caribbean writers had done it. I’m a fan of authors like Sam Selvon and Earl Lovelace, and so part of the research was just borrowing ideas and discarding others that wouldn’t work for my purposes. How words look on the page is very important to me. All the accents in Chamber Music are stylised. Also, I spent quite a bit of time with Jamaican friends of the family when I was much younger. Maybe this helped too. Laurie Gunst’s Born Fi’ Dead was read for pleasure, and I think it would be deceptive to say it ever became research (beyond providing some early inspiration through her anecdotes about particularly outlandish gangsters and their strange behaviour. Tony Thompson’s British gangland books were also useful in this way). 

Hagfish's patois is almost in response to the attention given to the Manc in 'The Doll Princess'. You seem to up the vernacular a notch. 

Chamber Music was written in the middle of 2010, while The Doll Princess wasn’t published until 2012.  So there wasn’t any attention yet to respond to. I just wanted to push the language further, go for something unfamiliar.

The Komodo dragon is a vivid and frightening image. There are also scorpions and exotic birds...

Yes. A right menagerie! With the Komodo dragon – I wasn't just after something scary and exotic, I wanted extraordinary, even impossible. A creature that doesn’t belong in that world. Plus, I don’t think there are enough animals in contemporary fiction. It bothers me for some reason. Characters rarely seem to even have pets. Or maybe I’m just reading the wrong novels. 

The title of 'Chamber Music' suggests an intimate and conversational setting. It also recalls the Wu-Tang Clan...

There are plenty of hip-hop references throughout Chamber Music as well as nods to other genres. Music plays a major role in the book. The title of the novel is used in dialogue, in the spirit of The Wu-Tang Clan, as semi-invented street slang. And I suppose you could say Chamber Music is conversation driven, and some of that conversation is intimate...

'Bane' sounds similar to 'Benn'. Is he an alter-ego of sorts?

The gunfights? All me. The tea-drinking is a wild fiction.  

Would Bane ever leave Manchester for future outings? Would he survive in the South?

The South wouldn’t survive Bane.

'Chamber Music' is available for pre-order and is released by Jonathan Cape on 3 January 2013. 'The Doll Princess' is available to buy in paperback now.