Seven Questions with Stephen Kelman, whose first novel Pigeon English, was shortlisted for the 2011 Man Booker Award and for nine other awards including the Guardian First Book Award, the Desmond Elliott Prize, and a Writers Guild Award. In this interview with Sharlene Teo, former MA student and the current David T.K. Wong Writing Fellow at UEA, Kelman offers his best tips for the capturing of voice and weathering overnight success as a novelist.
Sharlene Teo: You have a fantastic command of narrative voice, with Harri in Pigeon English being one of the most vivid and convincing depictions of an eleven year old I’ve read. What are your best tips for developing voice and consistency of tone?
Stephen Kelman: I’d say the best thing a writer can do if he or she wants to capture a voice authentically is to listen. Spend time with the people you’re writing about – either in real life or by committing enough time to allow them to form in your imagination – and keep your ears open to what is being said around you and how it’s being said. The writer’s most important requirement is a curiosity about people both real and imagined, and if you’re really curious and pay attention you’ll absorb the voices around you quite naturally. Knowing how real people express themselves will inform how you choose to make your characters express themselves. Knowing your characters and feeling empathy towards them will allow you to animate them consistently and vividly.
ST: You have been described as an overnight success and Pigeon English was one of the most high-profile novels on the Man Booker 2011 shortlist. What has been the greatest lesson you’ve learnt/ learning curve you’ve experienced in the past two years?
SK: It can be a difficult transition from unknown to established author and perhaps the biggest challenge for me was in dealing with the range of new expectations that arise from having a successful book. Suddenly you’re under scrutiny, from the media and the prize-givers, the reviewers and the book-buying public, from fellow writers, from anyone with an opinion to share. You’re required to promote your work professionally and with an eye on reputation and public image. You’re under pressure to deliver a second book that at least matches the success of the first. You want to satisfy your own artistic prerogatives while also repaying the faith that your publisher has shown in you by supporting and promoting your work. You want to gain new readers while keeping hold of those who liked the first book.
Basically, you have to learn how to be a professional author and you can only learn this by doing. I think the most important lesson I’ve learned is that, while I take pains to fulfil my obligations in the way I conduct myself publicly, when it comes down to me alone at my computer I must disregard all those expectations and just continue to do what I did first time around, which is to concern myself solely with writing a book that satisfies me. While writing, I am the only critic who matters and as long as I judge the words on the page honestly and with rigour, what follows will take care of itself.
ST: Do you believe in writers’ block? Do you have any tips for overcoming it?
SK: Fortunately I’ve never really suffered from writer’s block. I have the odd day when things don’t flow so smoothly but those difficult patches don’t tend to last. When they come, I just work through them. For me it’s all about maintaining the right perspective. Recognising that a novel is a marathon and not a sprint, allowing yourself the human trait of inconsistency, reminding yourself of all the pages you’ve already filled when the current blank page starts to resemble Antarctica. In the difficult times, controlled distraction works wonders. Go away and do something physical. Think about something unrelated to the work. Think about nothing, if you’re able to do that. A rested mind is more productive. Get to know when you’re at your most lucid and try to work in those times.
ST: You have spoken about only writing a book that you feel utterly compelled and connected to. Can you expand a little more on this notion of a writer’s territory and thematic inclinations?
SK: For me, the commitment to write a book is such an important one that I could only make it for a story that I feel I absolutely have to tell. The things that attract me to a story are very personal and instinctive. My territory as a writer is mapped by my life outside of my work, it’s not so much a conscious choice as a reaction to my individual experience of living.
So I’m naturally inclined to write about the things I feel strongly about or that interest me. What interests me as a human being? Other human beings. The things that make them unique and the things that make them alike. I might be drawn to different examples of these distinctions and likenesses than you are. I might encounter different people in my life than you might in yours, who will inspire me or provoke me to further reflection of these distinctions and likenesses. But ultimately I will always begin a story with a relationship to a person, either real or imagined. The themes of the story will emerge from them and they will, by the story’s end, be themes that define me in some way. That is what fiction is, for a writer and for a reader: an act of imagination that reminds us of who we are.
ST: Can you name the things besides works of literature which have inspired you?
SK: The music of Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, for its fearless honesty and heart. The paintings of Caravaggio, for their drama and beauty. The films of Wes Anderson, for finding humour and grace in human crisis.
ST: What are you working on right now?
SK: The novel I’m currently writing is based in part on the life of a good friend of mine. He is a journalist in Mumbai who breaks world records in his spare time. He specialises in feats of physical strength and endurance, often with a masochistic element. For his next record attempt he plans to have fifty baseball bats broken across his body. The novel follows the fictional relationship between him and the Englishman who travels to India to help him break this record.
ST: What are the most important attributes to remaining sane as a writer?
SK: Frequent trips outside. Other interests besides writing. Maintaining a relationship with the real world. Good sleep. Exercise. Reminders of life before accolades. A healthy appreciation of good fortune. An inbuilt resistance to bullshit, especially your own. I’m scoring six out of eight at the moment.