Tom Benn chats getting working-class female voices right in Oxblood

Following the Dodds family that once ruled over Manchester, Oxblood gives readers a glimpse into the lives of three generations of women

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Following the Dodds family that once ruled over Manchester, Oxblood gives readers a glimpse into the lives of three generations of women trapped in a house haunted by violence, an unregistered baby and the ghost of a murdered lover. We had the honour of chatting with Tom Benn about the book that won him the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award.

First of all, why might a young woman not want to pick your book up and how would you convince her to read it? 

If someone doesn’t fancy reading Oxblood, that’s OK. They can just read something else. There’s no dearth of decent books out there, old and new, that they may find nourishing.

Italo Calvino says: ‘the power of modern literature lies in its willingness to give a voice to what has remained unexpressed in the social or individual unconscious: this is the gauntlet it throws down time and again. The more enlightened our houses are, the more their walls ooze ghosts.’ I love this idea. It served as my compass for eight years when writing Oxblood; for my weird working-class regional story to be read by someone else who wants to see the walls ooze ghosts. But an exorcism is messy, implicatory, absurd and painful. There’s no guaranteed closure, or easy gratification. But still – it might help.

Also, Elena Ferrante says that her ‘goal is to disappoint the usual expectations and inspire new ones.’ If that sounds about right to you, maybe give Oxblood a go. I’d love it to disappoint and inspire.

How has your own experience influenced this book?

Oxblood is fiction, but I wanted to give expression to some of the vanishing spaces and voices I knew from Manchester – the ones you normally never encounter in novels unless they’re being briefly patronised, caricatured or demonised.

Oxblood is very character driven. Why did you choose these characters? In particular, why did you decide to tell the story of 3 women?

I had shown the same world from the perspective of the male career criminals in my earlier books. I now needed to know what the women were up to – what it felt like for those who were trapped in the orbit of these violent men. It meant learning another language – a more dangerous, more internal language – which helped me to tell a different kind of crime story.

And what kind of research or preparation work did you do to ensure you understood and captured the female perspective?

Nothing cultivated or directed enough to call research; but I listened to the northern, working-class, and mixed-race women in my life, starting with my mother. I soaked up a lot of intergenerational working-class female voices growing up. And looking back, my first serious reading obsessions tended to be preoccupied with gender performance: from Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles to hypermasculine hardboiled fiction by Raymond Chandler, Chester Himes, and Dashiell Hammett. I’ve also always been drawn to acutely regional female voices in fiction, especially ones working at the margins of genre, whether that’s Toni Cade Bambara or early Pat Barker.

Between Nedra, Carol and Jan, who was the most difficult to depict?

Maybe Carol, because of the structural difficulties of narrating her. Due to her grief and inability to give up her ghosts (literally), she lives inside layer after layer of her past. Carol’s teenage daughter Jan was the easiest to depict, at least in a dramatic sense, because while each of the three women in the family is devoted to a different form of denial, Jan’s misdevotions are the most externalised and corporeal. Jan escapes the haunted house and kicks her way through the waking world, testing her power, agency, and currency.

Your writing style is pretty unique, making Oxblood very poetic and powerful. How did you discover your own writing style?

My writing style, if I have one, might come from my finding reading and writing so difficult. From both activities, I get many things that I need to live, but I’m driven to do each more out of compulsion than straightforward pleasure. Plus, the idea of producing a passage of prose that could have been written by someone else appals me. Which is pure delusional vanity. But I needed Oxblood’s sentences to possess a texture, friction, and rhythm that was truthful to the voices of a particular place and time. I struggle with fiction that mechanically emulates the more anonymous and anodyne forms of writing we encounter daily. It has to ask something else of me, otherwise I can’t sustain my attention and I’ll just end up on my phone.

In fact, the entire story felt very raw and intimate, allowing readers to see all the flaws of the characters. Were you worried that readers would judge them too harshly and thus felt put off by Oxblood?

It’s a good question. But it wasn’t something I ever considered, to be honest. As a reader, I don’t feel like I can demand moral purity from fictional characters. It seems odd to worry about someone sitting in judgement, wagging a finger at the imaginary lives rendered in careful words and good faith on a page. For me, characters don’t need to be likable or relatable or judicious; they’re not my friends. I just need them to be compelling. Dynamic and conflicted in their desires and responses towards the injustice of their situation. I like it when characters keep secrets from me, and from each other, and from themselves. The most interesting characters to me are the unrepentant, the hypocrites; those who are both wrong and have been wronged.

Finally, which other Charlotte Aitken Young Writer of the Year Award shortlisted books (any year) would you recommend to 18-25 young women?

All of them. This year’s alone: Lucy Burns’ Larger than an Orange, Maddie Mortimer’s Maps of our Spectacular Bodies and Katherine Rundell’s Super-Infinite. Each is written with great facility and sincerity, and risks failure by daring to acknowledge (and refusing to resolve) complexity. Each articulates something troubling, inconvenient, beautiful, and true. But I’m afraid I can’t be more specific without knowing more about your audience, since ‘18-25 young women’ is a curious demographic metric. There may (or they may not) be vast differences within that group in relation to social, economic, cultural, scholastic, and geographic background and circumstance. These intersections of identity may further determine tastes and values, and the tolerance level for having them challenged and expanded. Tech oligarchs condition us to consume the media that most flatters or affronts our egos, which endorses our own values without ever truly threatening the status quo. The writer & podcaster Raquel S. Benedict is particularly clear-sighted and trenchant on this, among other issues related to fandoms and media production and consumption. My recommendation then would be to resist the algorithm; to read stuff that makes you feel unsafe but alive. Explore its fears and fantasies, truths and lies.

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

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