James Kelman: your ability to make a living gets assaulted

James Kelman sips a black coffee and tugs at his crewneck jumper. Cuban music pumps from speakers in the ceiling. A shaft of light splits this Glasgow cafe in two; threads and dust float in the air.

Kelman’s eyes are pale blue, his voice gravelly. Were he wearing chainmail and a loincloth, he could pass for the Thracian slave-turned-warrior Spartacus, as played by Kirk Douglas, but without such a notably cleft chin.

At 62, he is of an age where his stature as an artist should be obvious. To call him a great Scottish writer would be accurate; to call him simply a great writer would be more concise. Kelman’s inclusion as “the only Briton” on the shortlist for the 2009 Man Booker International Prize – a sister award to the yearly Booker, recognising a writer’s overall body of work – will chime as richly deserved with those who value the Glaswegian author’s prose, and as an abomination for those who don’t and never have.

He will learn next month whether he has received the accolade, and its £60,000 tax-free prize, prior to the award ceremony in Dublin in July. The 14-strong list of contenders includes the Australian Peter Carey and Mario Vargas Llosa of Peru.

“It’s a strong list in terms of the work people have produced,” says Kelman. “Even the ones I don’t particularly like.” But the smart money, he says, would be backing other horses, not his own. “I’m one of the big outsiders – the odds are probably about 16 to one. I’m the second youngest guy on the list, apparently, so they probably think that if I don’t drop dead, I might get it in the future.”

The Canadian short-story-writer Alice Munro would be favourite, he says, or the Indian author Mahasweta Devi. The Kenyan writer Ngugi Wa Thiong’o must have a chance, too, Kelman thinks. “He’d probably be about seven to one if I was the bookie.”

Try betting that a Kelman victory would cause a backlash from sections of the British press and the bookies wouldn’t touch you with a bargepole. His work has been a thorn in certain sides since his first novel, The Busconductor Hines, entered the running for the Booker 25 years ago. One judge stopped reading after 60 pages because he didn’t have a dictionary of Scottish words.

Re-read that book now and you might wonder what the problem was, beyond prejudice. His victory in the 1994 Booker, for How Late It Was, How Late, provoked the kind of outrage experi- enced more recently by artists such as Tracy Emin, directed half at Kelman’s work and half at Kelman himself.

The notion was that the novel lacked artistic merit; that it had been written by an “illiterate savage”; and that Kelman had done no more than “transcribe the rambling thoughts of a blind Glaswegian drunk”. A few years later, the author was asked in all seriousness whether he revised his work or if it just came out as it appeared in print.

The kindest interpretation of such comments is that they constitute a type of praise, in that Kelman had somehow hood- winked his critics. “It was a sort of backhanded compliment,” he says. “But this sort of thing isn’t good because it hurts the writer. It destabilises your position within the bookselling and marketing industry, and your own publisher starts to lose confidence in you.”

The now defunct Dillons, among other chains, was reluctant to stock his books, regardless of their quality. “How do you deal with that?” he asks. “Gradually the whole budget gets cut; you can’t get into the window of Waterstone’s or Borders. That’s what happened to my own work back then, and it still happens now. Your ability to make a living gets assaulted.”

Kelman’s latest novel, Kieron Smith, Boy, began as a series of short stories that “seemed not to be stopping and demanded I go further with them”. It’s his worst-selling book in 20 years, shifting only 1400 copies in hardback. The paperback version is released next week. But it has also been branded a masterpiece, taking the Saltire Society’s Scottish Book of the Year award and the Aye Write! Bank of Scotland prize for Scottish fiction.

It’s the first time one of his novels has won a prize in his homeland for two decades. The book is a window into the mind of a young Protestant boy, with a Catholic name, during his childhood in Glasgow in the late 1950s.

It is written entirely from the perspective of Kieron, whose tics on the page include starring out swearwords and sexy words he perceives to be offensive, many of which are innocuous. The novel, as with all of Kelman’s novels, is a world unto itself, with its own internal logic, hard-wrought poetry and humour. The technical demands were such, he explains, that he couldn’t have taken on this novel as a young writer. Early reviews in the London-based press pointed to the authenticity of Kieron’s voice, which is true and not true.

As the narrator, Kieron speaks as any Glaswegian child might, but his voice is tempered throughout by the need to mind his language. As insisted upon by his mother, “didnae” becomes the more cumbersome “did not”; “wouldnae” becomes the less authentic-sounding “would not”.

“It’s almost been written by the boy as he is at the end of the novel, in his first year at senior secondary school,” says Kelman. “The novel is a sort of public thing, and not just for his pals, so the story in that sense is quite formal. It’s maybe the way he would go about it if his mother was listening to him, or his school teachers. He’s correcting his language for the adult population.”

Central to the tale is the boy’s self-censorship and his way of being socialised. In this the book is reminiscent of Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn – an exposé of society by someone still partially on the outside looking in. Writing about Kafka’s three novels in his collected essays, And the Judges Said, Kelman states his case.

“One reason why children have such a highly developed sense of injustice is because they are frequently breaking rules of whose existence they are unaware ... This is why many children go around as though expecting a sudden retribution, a sudden strike from the hand of an adult.”

Today, coffee in hand, he puts it even more succinctly. “In any decent work to do with children, whether boys or girls, there’s always a sense of injustice.” In physical terms, nothing much happens in the book, so some have written it off as a glorious failure. Plots always involve some- one having trouble getting something, someone or somewhere before ultimately succeeding but Kelman’s books have never followed this pattern.

The bus conductor Hines dreams of emigrating to Australia but probably never will. In You Have to Be Careful in the Land of the Free, Jeremiah Brown plans to return to “Skallin” from “Uhmerka”, but maybe won’t. Kieron Smith might join the army, or the navy, or neither.

The desire for escape is always there, but there is rarely any realistic hope of this. “Plot is not something I’ve ever been inter- ested in,” says Kelman. “There’s no plot to people’s lives, not unless you’re some sort of weird religious person. If you’re a Christian or Muslim you might see things as having a plot. It’s a very religious concept. Occasionally plot disguises a lack of creativity, in the same way ideas about design disguise the true beauty of humanity.”

So what is that beauty? “Being able to make up your life as it goes along, just basic existence and the heroism of being a human being. As soon as you talk about design you lose that heroism and you’re back into things to do with gods and stuff like that. It’s really a recipe for being poor creatures, like trained dugs.”

Kelman’s wife, Marie, has been the family’s main breadwinner almost consistently since the pair met in 1969. He has never made a living from his writing and slips his work into the cracks between family commitments and occasional teaching posts. When he’s “in the swing of things” he might get two hours of writing done in a single sitting. When he’s not, his concentration levels slump and it’s a case of “coffees every 40 minutes”.

“I’m a grandfather now so the domestic side of life always interferes. That can’t be helped. I’ve always adapted my working practices around being unable to devote my life whole-heartedly to writing. A lot of my methodology is rooted in the economics of being an ordinary person.”

Would he have coped with the transition to multimillion-selling books and a life of luxury? It’s a redundant question, of course, and entirely hypothetical.

“I’ve never been in that position and never will be,” he says. “But the idea of having enough money has appealed to me on occasion because it would mean I could do my work properly. If you have to give your best time to an employer, it’s really difficult. You can become quite bitter and I’ve often been in that position of bitterness.”

Should it be otherwise? Kelman is one of several prominent writers who want to see an overhaul of arts funding in Scotland. Those driving the visual arts in Scotland are riddled with “upper-class English values”, he says, and “couldn’t tell a good piece of Scottish painting if it f—ing hit them in the face”. The same goes for literature.

“You hear people on the periphery of the arts, including journalists, getting p—ed off with novelists and short-story writers because they feel we shouldn’t be subsidised, which is fair enough. But it means they don’t really value literature. Our arts establishment just creates tiers of bureaucracy. I still find it shocking that artists can’t be supported.”

But, given there would always be a limited pot of cash, who would choose which artists get the funding? Kelman looks mildly incensed. “Writers and artists would select. It’s quite obvious that’s how it should be done. Why does it not happen? Ah. There you are. I’m having another coffee.” I’m not sure he should – for my sake in particular.

He is a formidable conversationalist and keeping up with him face to face can be infinitely more difficult than it might appear on the page. On his return to the table, I mention a personal bugbear. As with writers such as Janice Galloway and Alasdair Gray, Kelman’s work can be difficult to find. In Waterstone’s, for example, his books are not where they should be: the K section of the fiction shelves.

Galloway and Gray are not under G. Instead they are annexed in a separate section under Scottish literature. “It’s part of the old imperial legacy that we’re marginalised in our own country,” says Kelman. “Our work isn’t classified as literature, even in Scotland– it’s classified as Scottish.”

Such oddities, he says, are due to “a great weight of propaganda and disinformation and the fermenting of this kind of system of beliefs”, by which he means the idea that a particular form of English is viewed as being inherently more valuable than others.

“The higher you go within a university or educational establishment, the closer it gets to Oxbridge.” Even in the University of Texas or California’s San Jose State University, where Kelman has taught as a writer in residence, “they will assume the best writers are those that write about the English upper classes. Often they won’t even see what their own great writers are doing or the language they’re using. They might see it as being somehow radical but they won’t see that it shows greater technique than establishment writers.”

Kelman dislikes when any of his books is described as the Great Glasgow Novel, or the Great Scottish Novel. “Only an inferiorised culture would ever talk in those terms,” he says. “It’s quite sad and pathetic. Scotland potentially has about five million great novels. All we’re talking about is a life, in the sense that a great piece of art is usually to do with human beings, whether it’s by the great Russians, or any of the great French or Italian writers. They all come back to people.”

Seen in this light, the vitriolic attacks on Kelman’s work take on a more sinister aspect. They constitute a dismissal of the kind of lives he writes about, which could be summed up as largely ordinary Scottish people, living largely ordinary lives, speaking in a largely ordinary way.

The alternative, of course, would be to write books that mimic a more generic form of English, as countless authors from Scotland and elsewhere have done, to the benefit of their bank balances and public standing. To compromise, in other words. Kelman refutes the term.

“I think what you’re talking about is selling out, and I don’t see that as a compromise,” he says. “Either you sell out or you don’t. Someone might say, ‘I would rather not be Alasdair Gray, I would rather write a book that made the popular market and sold 30,000 copies,’ but that sounds like the height of absurdity.”

Put this way, it does. But what’s to gain, fundamentally, by not selling out? “Well, what do you think?” I’m not entirely sure. Maybe your sense of integrity, the ability to say you’ve done work you’re proud of, that you’ve contributed ... “You’re talking as a critic,” he says.

“If you don’t sell out, it means you can do your work properly.” That sounds pretty definitive, but maybe it’s not. “Nobody ever offered me enough dough to sell out,” he says. “If they gave me a million I would sell out but they never do that. They’ll maybe offer me 10 grand and a packet of Woodbines. With working-class artists, they hope you’ll sell out for a working-class wage.”

In the early 1990s, after his novel A Disaffection had been shortlisted for the Booker Prize, Kelman was hoping for a £60,000 advance on his next two novels.

“I was fighting really hard because I thought my value at the time was quite good,” he recalls, “but I couldn’t get £60,000. They offer you a kind of bonus and expect you to sell out for it, and that’s still the case for me.”

Kelman is involved with several film projects, one of which is a low-budget adaptation of How Late It Was, How Late. It will be shot in Belfast, he says, because nobody in Scotland would back it; because of this, his quintessentially Glaswegian narrator Sammy will become an Ulsterman. “There came a point for me when I realised that none of my work would be adapted in Scotland,” he says.

“When they ask you to sell out here, they’ll offer you £20,000 and want the same rights they would demand if it was a Hollywood movie.” Things are unlikely to improve, he says, “until Scottish culture is valued properly by people in Scotland, and that seems to suggest that we require an independent structure”.

He hasn’t voted since the 1979 devolution referendum and, as an “old socialist”, is unlikely to throw his weight behind the Scottish National Party any time soon. “Well, obviously not, because I’m a republi- can,” he says. “The SNP are still in favour of the monarchy, as far as I’m aware, which is an extraordinary position in the 21st century.”

In the meantime, Kelman’s modus operandi is simply to “batter on”. I wonder if he has a sense of posterity; that one day people will look back at his work and celebrate it without prejudice. “Well, yeah, I think as you get older you can’t help but occasionally see that,” he says.

“If you look at the coming generations then yeah ...” He tugs at his jumper again. “You know, one is not yet dead, but you can see how people tend to treat you as though you are dead. They feel they can walk round your work, throw a lasso around it.”

He grimaces at the idea of evaluating his life’s work: that’s not his job, and not his interest. “I don’t really do that. It’s more to do with working my way through things and moving on, trying to cope with the aesthetic and formal problems each new project usually involves.” He unleashes a brief, Thracian smile and stands to leave. “That makes it almost quite exciting.” 


First published in The Herald Magazine, 2009.