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The War Against Silence: An Interview With James Kelman

Interview by Darran Anderson.

3:AM: Kieron Smith, Boy is both a continuation of themes that have run through much of your writing (giving voice to the alienated, exploring grammar and syntax) and a departure away from the adult world, what inspired the work?

JK: There is no inspiration in that sense. If you are a writer you do better to write, and keep on writing. Some pieces develop more quickly than others. This novel developed from a few pieces I was working on over a lengthy period, especially one short story which did not stop. Eventually this story was not part of the novel. It concerns the boy as a 13 or 14 year old, whereas the novel ends a year or so earlier.

3:AM: In keeping with life, your books have a meandering feel, do you approach them with a plot mapped out or do you find yourself getting swept along as the book progresses?

JK: I’m unsure about “meandering”. Kieron’s life seems packed full of incident and trauma. I certainly don’t use plots, but nor do I get “swept along”. This is a working process. Creativity is not passive, I don’t see the creation of art as passive.


3:AM: You’ve said previously that books are the last truly free artform left, in what sense?

JK: I think I said something along these lines but not that, not precisely. The beauty of prose fiction that I see is simply that in order to create something you need only pay attention to personal exigency. If you work in drama there are all these other constraints; I enjoy working in drama – stage, radio, television, film – but it very rarely happens; all these other people come between yourself and the piece. And I’m not talking about actors here, but the sorts of pressure that gets applied to directors, producers and theatres. The work gets squeezed to the point where it hurts to continue. The most obvious example is language itself, if you want to work in drama, and create it from your own experience, if that experience happens to be male working class culture around west central Scotland. Be prepared to censor and suppress your characters, or write only from tiny corners of that experience. In prose fiction the freedom to work honestly exists, although you may have to fight for it. In those other areas of literature, I mean drama, there is only silence. That sort of aesthetic integrity does not exist in radio and television, and seldom on film.

3:AM: There’s a sense in your books that language is a battleground, that pride at the richness of language comes as a form of resistance against establishment-speak and that by denying the language of a people the authorities deny the very existence of the speakers. It’s evident in Sammy’s encounters with representatives of the State in How late it was, how late, the isolation of Patrick Doyle in A Disaffection and in the attempts to mould Kieron Smith “to speak proper.” Do you still see this as a battle still raging and have you seen any change between your first book and now?

JK: The distinction between battles and wars: people mistake battles for wars. Questions around language and imperialism have been to the fore for hundreds of years. My work still suffers in this respect, the new novel notwithstanding. The forces of reaction are what they are, they don’t go away.

3:AM: Do you ever tire of the controversy that your books inevitably stir up in some quarters or do you enjoy fighting the good fight?

JK: It is not a good fight. The crucial factor is the ability to earn a living, this is what is taken from writers who work on/from the margins. Your question suggests it is a fair go, an even fight, or some such nonsense. It isn’t. One side has power and authority and the other doesn’t. One has the power to stop the other from earning a living. It is better to be acknowledged as a writer than have to continue proving it all the time.

3:AM: You’ve said your method of writing is to keep several projects on the go at once, are there any that have gotten away or that you plan to come back to one day?

JK: A couple have got away; I thought I would have written at least one earlier novel but I could never devote adequate time to it. I was having to work in ordinary jobs at the time and eventually it did “get away”. However, I wrote many short stories from the wreckage. But maybe it would never have worked as a novel anyway, not at that time. Occasionally in art we take on work that we are not quite ready for technically, we need to work our way through other stuff before we can get it finished. It happened to me with my first novel, A Chancer. In order to finish it I had to write The Busconductor Hines. No doubt to finish Kieron Smith, Boy I had to finish Translated Accounts.

3:AM: There’s been a institutionalised view of Scottish history and culture that it ended with the Jacobites or the “tartan-and-heather kind of bollocks” of Walter Scott, an outlook that’s been shattered by yourself and colleagues like Tom Leonard, Alasdair Gray, Liz Lochhead and the sadly-departed Jeff Torrington, do you feel part of a new cultural era in Scotland or even the continuation of a forgotten buried one?

JK: A new cultural era in Scotland…? There is so much dishonesty around, so much humbug. Your “forgotten, buried one” is more interesting. Wouldn’t it be nice to see the radical tradition acknowledged within our education system. Imagine our college, university and secondary school students knowing about Alexander Wilson, Thomas Muir, Andrew Hardie, James Wilson and John Baird, about Hugh Miller, Helen McFarlane, Kier Hardie, Cunninghame-Graham, Jane Rae, John Murdoch and Willie Nairn, Agnes Dollan, Helen Crawfurd, Arthur McManus, George Yates and James Connolly; Patrick MacGill, John Maclean, Guy Aldred, John Wheatley, Harry McShane etc.

3:AM: For all its evocations of a turbulent childhood, Kieron Smith, Boy seems arguably your most optimistic book, do you find there is cause for hope or is the light at the end of the tunnel just an oncoming train?

JK: I don’t know what you mean by ‘optimistic’ in this context. The novel concludes towards the end of the boy’s first year at Senior Secondary school. I don’t know what that signifies. I don’t think it signifies anything. Already he has started dogging it, i.e. truanting. Who knows if he even makes it to the end of first year. He has already said “fuck” in the classroom, maybe he’ll fuck off altogether.

3:AM: What’s next for your writing?

JK: The usual: short stories, long stories, plays and essays.

One of the most original and influential living writers, James Kelman‘s works include The Busconductor Hines, A Disaffection, You Have To Be Careful in the Land of the Free and the Booker Prize-winning How late it was, how late. His latest Kieron Smith, Boy is published by Hamish Hamilton. Image courtesy of Murdo MacLeod.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, November 20th, 2008.