interview by Claire King
Stephen Kelman is the author of the critically acclaimed Booker shortlisted novel Pigeon English and was shortlisted for Lutonian of the Year 2011. He always types out text messages using full words.
Stephen, first of all thank you for giving up your time to talk to us at the end of this whirlwind year. You’ve been fêted as a ‘Luton-boy made good’. How would you describe life growing up?
I grew up on the Marsh Farm housing estate in Luton. It wasn’t what you would call a privileged upbringing but it was better than many. I had both parents at home, and they both had jobs. My mum worked part time so she was there for me when I came home from school.
Your debut novel, set on an estate just like the one you grew up on, won great acclaim. How has it been received at home? If you went to talk to the children in your old school, would they consider you a success?
It’s hard for people to appreciate success that is not in a field they are interested in. Where I grew up it’s tough enough getting people to read…
Recently my friend, the local hardware store owner, proudly presented me to a customer as a local boy made good, and asked if he had heard of my novel. The reply was “Sorry, mate, I don’t even read the newspaper.” Writing and publishing a book is far removed from that reality.
What kind of aspirations do children in that area now have?
Their aspirations are more in the field of music or drama.
Do you mean in an X-Factor sort of way?
Yes, that can often be the case.
What made you, and your aspirations, so different?
I don’t know, there was always something in me from a very early age. I was a very precocious reader. My mum encouraged my reading and the headmistress at my primary school would recommend books for me and I could take them home. I loved reading; I would just devour books. I guess my joy at escaping into the other worlds created for me by writers then transformed into a desire to create those worlds for myself. I never wanted to be anything other than a writer.
I recognise sources of my own encouragement as a writer in those you describe. Yet there is a lot of talk these days about the inability of people to break out of a British ‘underclass’. Has the encouragement stopped? Have things changed?
When I was growing up there was a kind of ambivalence to those who are bright, who strive to succeed. My teachers took a risk in helping me. I have to ask myself if that would happen nowadays. I don’t know.
In these kinds of places there is a sort of resignation to circumstance, and much of that is fuelled by the physical environment. It’s the broken window syndrome.
There is certainly a lack of encouragement and investment, and yet Marsh Farm, where I grew up, was recently awarded a £46million grant. But people struggle to see how it has been spent. Some trees have been planted, some new road signs and some new – but ineffective – street lamps erected. So there have been some cosmetic improvements. But at the same time the community centre has been shut down. The library that gave me access to free books growing up, the place I credit with fostering my desire to read…it’s been shut down.
There is a lopsided distribution of wealth in the UK. Politicians pay lip service to development but it seems to me so often to be empty words and gestures. Is it really a priority?
OK, that’s my rant over!
And yet people want to leave their homes and come and live in places like that. There is a passage in the Pigeon English where life back in Ghana is compared to life on the estate. It made me want to tell Harri and his mum and sister to run for their lives, to go back home. What do you think immigrants like Harri’s family are looking for? Can they ever find it?
It is sad. There is a hope for a more comfortable life from a material point of view. But this often comes at the expense of other things of great value. Things like a sense of community, a sense of family. Material gain comes with a new sense of isolation, the suspicion of others... It’s a difficult compromise.
I found reading Harri’s voice like cracking a code at first, full of slang and patois…his voice was very unfamiliar to me. Did you find it hard appropriating that language?
Not really. This is where I grew up, in a very multicultural community, and I lived there whilst writing the book. I was five minutes from the local high school, so I could listen to the kids talking, hear their preoccupations.
The ending of your novel delivers a rare punch. It’s impact stunned me. How did you find that ending in you?
Thank you. I always knew what would happen at the end of the book, and so I started with that final scene and worked backwards from there. As I came to write those final words I wanted to say something simple, something that would sum up the dilemma we face as human beings. It’s a summary of the story, but also an indication that this is not the end. There’s always more to follow.
I’d just been through a beauty parade, as they call it, visiting the twelve publishers who were entering the auction for the novel. It was a very weird experience. My agent was telling me the book was something special, the publishers were courting me with Haribo and pigeon-shaped biscuits and all telling me it was something special. I wanted to keep my distance from believing all the industry hype. I wanted to wait to see what the reading public had to say.
It seems that they agreed, your debut novel is indeed something special. And this year it made the shortlist for six literary awards, including the Man Booker, the Guardian First Book Award, the Galaxy National Book Award and the Desmond Elliot Prize. Yet you described yourself as ‘Gatecrashing the Booker’. What did you mean by that?
When I heard I was long-listed for the Booker I was at home erecting a flat-pack wardrobe. When I got the call to say I was on the shortlist I was putting a load of laundry into the machine. Just normal stuff. To be honest, having a book published was already the dream. Everything else is just above and beyond that and it can feel slightly unreal, as though one day someone will appear saying I have their life by mistake and could they please have it back now.
Once I got over the initial shock in fact it has been very enjoyable. I particularly enjoyed the festivals, and meeting other writers.
I was also shortlisted for “Lutonian of the Year” by the way. Whilst with the other awards I always had a tiny hope that I might win, I’m very glad that I didn’t win that one. It went to someone who has done something of significantly longer term value to the Luton community than I did just by writing a book.
Your success has been called ‘fairy tale’, surely it hasn’t all been plain sailing?
Not at all. My first novel received its fair share of rejections. And it got pretty close. But it wasn’t right. It will never see the light of day now.
Aha, you have a training novel too!
Absolutely. And also a handful of screenplays. I won’t be putting them out there either. I don’t consider them good enough to publish, but they were a good training ground for me. I never did a creative writing course. I served my apprenticeship through writing, putting it out there and carrying on. I’m glad I had the resilience to keep going. I always suspected I was just waiting for the right story.
Tell us about your next novel?
It’s a fictionalised partial-biography of a friend of mine, Bibhuti Nayak. He’s a journalist for the Times in India, and in his spare time he breaks world records. He recently broke one by having four of his closest friends kick him in the testicles: 47 times in 90 seconds. There was also one that involved being hit in the groin with a sledgehammer. The next one involves 50 baseball bats…
Anyway, after seeing him on the BBC’s ‘¨Paul Merton in India’ I got in touch and asked him if I could write a screenplay based on his story. He agreed, and I started to write it, but then Pigeon English meant it ended up on ice for a while. I promised Bibhuti that when I got my advance I would travel over to India to meet him, which I did, and the screenplay has now become the first draft of my next novel.
As you tell it, it sounds very humorous…
There is humour in the book, but there is also a dark side to it. There is a darkness to the character inspired by Bibhuti, but also another character with a dark side, an Englishman. The two strike up an unlikely friendship, which could save them both… or it could destroy them. You’ll have to wait and see!
Stephen, is there a question you’d like to be asked that nobody has asked you yet?
“If you were president, what would be the first law you would pass.”
If you were president, what would be the first law you’d pass?
“I’ll need some time to think about that.”
Do you listen to music while you write?
Not while writing, but during the time when I’m making notes. There were three ‘theme tunes’ that emerged for Pigeon English. They seemed to guide me on some subconscious level, tell me the direction I needed to take. They were ‘Little Fat Baby’ by Sparklehorse, Time is All Around’ by Regina Spektor and Good Advices by REM.
What do you read?
I like to read something with a shrewd honesty about it. Something with a sense of humanity. Books that uncover the uncomfortable beauties of life. That’s why I love people like Kurt Vonnegut. I tend to read a lot of North American authors. There’s a Canadian author and poet, Patrick Lane. His novel Red Dog, Red Dog is wonderful. It’s a Steinbeckesque novel about an impoverished underclass, how their physical landscape restricts their dreams. I also just finished Patrick deWitt’s The Sister’s Brothers which I’d fully recommend. In terms of British authors, Jon McGregor is outstanding.
When you write a text message, do you type the whole word out in full?
Yes. The day I write an emoticon instead of choosing words will be the day I put my pen down and go and live in a log cabin in the hills.
As 2011 comes to an end, what is your personal take on the year? What hopes do you have for 2012?
It’s been an overwhelming year for me, like ten years in one. It’s been the realisation of a life-long dream, and on top of that I married – my childhood friend from whom I’d been separated for 25 years! We finally found each other again. I also had a bereavement. It’s been a very intense year. Mostly in very happy, positive ways. I feel this year has brought out the person I was always meant to be. Destiny at play.
In 2012 I hope things will calm down a little. It would be good to have time to spend with my family. Also time to write, to prove I’m not just a one hit wonder.
I hope for peace on earth…OK, if you pick me as Miss America I’ll make a fine ambassador.
But seriously, everybody, just love each other.
Or like Mr Vonnegut said, “Babies…be kind.” Thank you Stephen!
Find Stephen’s wonderful book here.