Interview with James Kelman
by Fabio Vericat
Glasgow-born James Kelman began to write at the age of twenty-two in London while working at the Barbican Centre. He had previously worked in Govan driving buses and had originally undertaken a six-year apprenticeship as a compositor, from which he developed an interest for the way words look on the page. In 1971 Kelman joined a non-selective creative writing evening class directed by Philip Hobsbaum, who later introduced him to Alasdair Gray, Tom Leonard, Liz Lochead and Agnes Owens. Not not while the giro was published in 1983, followed in the next two years by the novels The Busconductor Hines and A Chancer. Greyhound for Breakfast won the 1987 Cheltenham Prize, and A Disaffection was awarded the James Tait Black Memorial Prize and shortlisted for the Booker Prize, which he finally received in 1994 for How late it was, how late. He has also produced critical essays such as 'A Reading from Noam Chomsky and the Scottish Tradition in the Philosophy of Common Sense' (1988), as well as political writings such as his report on The Freedom for Freedom of Expression Event in 1997, published under the title Em Hene! (We Exist!) in the Kurdistan Report, the Amnesty International journal, Scottish Socialist Voice and the Scottish Trade Union Review. He prefaces his latest novel, Translated Accounts, which was published last year: "These translated accounts are by three, four or more individuals domiciled in an occupied territory or land where a form of martial law appears to be in operation". James Kelman is currently joint professor of Creative Writing at the University of Glasgow.
TBR: "See when you come to think about it he didnay really like Scotland. It was his country, okay, but that didnay mean ye had to like it" (How late it was, how late). Is the Scot naturally self-conscious culturally? Why do the Scots make a national sport of boasting about how "fucking shite" Scotland is? Is this a tactic of self-preservation, a form of linguistic resistance?
JK: Scottish culture is pluralistic; there is no the Scot. If there is a lack of confidence generally, a sense of inferiority, then the historical context is crucial. You have to remember that Scotland has existed as a sort of colony of England for the past three hundred years; its ruling class sold the country back in the early 18th century. Scottish children have been educated to recognise not only their own inferiority but the inferiority of their parents, community and wider culture, including language. It is a typical colonial position.
TBR: Do you encourage the recapture of "high" culture as the legitimate realm of the people? Is the Scottish working class more likely to have a copy of a Penguin Classic popping out of their back pocket than pulp fiction, or is he/she a Billy Connolly with philosophical pretensions, as you yourself have been accused of being?
JK: People read one thing or another, "the Scottish working class" is composed of individual human beings, they have different tastes.
TBR: Here in Spain there is a strong rivalry between Barcelona and Madrid, often expressed in football terms. What is your view on this, and how does it relate to the traditional Celtic/Rangers soccer enmity in Glasgow?
JK: People of my generation and older in Glasgow traditionally lean towards Real Madrid; this is because of the great team of the late 1950s and 1960s. The club match some argue was the greatest ever took place in Glasgow in 1961, when Real Madrid beat Eintracht Frankfurt 7-3. It sold out and tickets were hard to get. Approximately 130,000 people went to see it, including my father. That Real Madrid team had a tremendous impact on world football, similar to the influence of the great Brazilian team a little later. Boys of my age revered Di Stéfano, Puskas, Santa María, Gento and the others. As I understand it Real Madrid has had a neo-fascist element within its fanbase. I was not aware of that until fairly recently. Both Barcelona and Real Madrid are always good to watch in footballing terms but sometimes the politics can have an effect. I find it extremely difficult to watch the European tournament games when the crowds chant racist slogans. It is shameful, really. In Scotland there are only two big teams, both from Glasgow, divided on sectarian lines. Rangers attracts the harder, right-wing elements; Protestant Loyalist, pro-Unionist, pro-Monarchy etc. Celtic attracts the Roman Catholic population, is thought to be slightly more liberal than Rangers and is also popular in Ireland and in the US with the Scots/Irish diaspora; a Celtic supporters club rally was held in Las Vegas some years ago and attracted 70,000 people. I do not give allegiance to either. As my father used to say "I am not biased, I like any team who beats Celtic and Rangers." I would continue to play football if I could find a league for the over 50s, composed only of players who were never any good in the first place.
TBR: You have recently taken up a post at Glasgow University. You are also considered a working-class writer. Did you ever imagine that you would end up teaching at university? How would you describe and explain your work there, and in what way, if at all, has this environment affected your writing?
JK: The post is a three-way jobshare split between Alasdair Gray, Tom Leonard and myself. Therefore, I have a third of a job with a third of a salary. But for an artist a third of a salary on a regular basis is always good. We have only been there since September. We assist in the teaching side of the Creative Writing Programme. This operates for post-graduate students who want to make a serious attempt at writing. It is too early to see how this will affect my own work although obviously any form of outside employment means less time and energy available.
TBR: In How late it was, how late Sammy's only way out other than suicide is leaving Scotland. This is something of a recurrent theme in Scottish literature. To what extent did you, too, have to get away? How is that connected to your saying that your literary roots are in America and Europe?
JK: People have to leave Scotland to work. There is no link between that and my "literary roots". My own family emigrated to the U.S. 35 years ago when I was in my teens. It didnt work out for my father and mother and we returned home, but one of my brothers remained there. Most Scottish families have relatives domiciled abroad, in the U.S., Canada, Australia or New Zealand. Traditionally Scotlands major export has been its working-class people. I left Scotland again at the age of 19 to find work in England but returned home after I married. My wife was expecting our first child and we could not afford to live in London on one persons wage.
TBR: In your article on Chomsky you say: "Reports of atrocities by refugees are difficult to cope with. We are not used to such testimonies; not unless, perhaps the refugees are in flight from the same ideological enemy as ourselves" (James Kelman, A Reading from Noam Chomsky and the Scottish Tradition in the Philosophy of Common Sense, Edinburgh Review 84 (1990). It seems to me that Translated Accounts was a long time coming. Why did you wait all these years to write it?
JK: I dont plan work in the manner suggested by your question. My stories develop as they go. I make them up as I go along. I dont wait to write something as opposed to writing something else. However, occasionally formal problems force a break in the writing of particular pieces.
TBR: You seem to suggest that you don't rely on explicit theories when you write. Is that right? and how is it that "occasionally formal problems force a break in the writing of particular pieces"? Do not these problems demand a theoretical frame of sorts?
JK: No. I don't at all rely on "explicit theories when I write". I don't even know what that means, what it might mean. Formal problems will be resolved in the writing of the story, during the creation of the art. At least that is how it happens for myself; other artists may work differently.
TBR: Translated Accounts could be seen as a wonderful access to a universal linguistic psyche that still retains political positioning. Do you have an explicit language theory deliberately applied in Translated Accounts? I am thinking of your article on Chomsky.
JK: I have no particular interest in linguistics as a study. I have no particular language theory, not in the way you suggest. There seems an "end/means" view of art implied in your question, a view that I reject.
TBR: At times it seems that masculinity is only defined in your work by an emotional and/or sexual yearning for women who remain lost, far off or mysterious, with compensation being found in some kind of male bonding or homoerotics. Do you see a preoccupation with masculinity in your work?
JK: For most males, females are mysterious: the converse is also the case. It is true to say that the vast majority of my stories are written from a male perspective. I dont think there is a preoccupation with masculinity, except insofar as aspects of masculinity are a general preoccupation among males.
TBR: The confessional nature of some of the accounts conveys a religious feeling that seems to be denied by other voices which hammer their atheism onto the page. Is there a therapeutic or religious side to your authorial stance, a way of keeping sane, which lets your characters do the talking and earn forgiveness for your sins?
JK: No. I dont accept the notion of art as catharsis, in fact I think it is nonsense. I am an atheist, and have been so since my early teens.
TBR: One of the essential themes in Translated Accounts is oppression and power. What are your feelings about the current world situation and not just the Kurds, for example, but Palestine, the September 11th attacks and the war in Afghanistan? What about the moves to curtail civil liberties in Britain and the U.S.? Are our societies becoming more repressive?
JK: This is very difficult. Who knows what "democracy" means? The concept is completely devalued. In Great Britain the little political control people did have through such vaguely liberal bodies as the Labour Party has now gone. In my own lifetime there has not been a more dangerous period. The Blair government is blatantly racist and more right-wing authoritarian than Thatchers. Across Europe the movement towards fascism is in place and gaining momentum; it is humiliating to watch government authorities everywhere bowing and scraping before the U.S. and its close allies. There is no question that European society has become far more repressive. It is worthwhile to look at the process since the late 1960s and the far-right realignment that has developed since that period. A certain level of domestic repression has always been the case in the U.S., perhaps disguised by its concentration on the non-European elements of society, e.g. Chicano, African-American, Asian-American, Native-American.
TBR: The reviews of Translated Accounts have been somewhat mixed. Some reviewers (e.g. Sally Mapstone in the LRB) seem to have found the different voices difficult to come to terms with. Why, do you think?
JK: I suppose it has to do with the lack of familiarity. There has been a fair amount of hostility to the novel. But really, it is not a question I can answer.
TBR: Are you working on anything at the moment? What are your plans? Will you go back to the kind of non-Scottish voice that figures in Translated Accounts?
JK: I have a new collection of essays published in London in April 2002, entitled And the Judges Said... It is a while since there has been time to concentrate on my own fiction. I always have different projects in process, and in my fiction there are always different voices.
TBR: One last thought: As a fellow smoker, I cannot help noticing through all the documents I have been reading, the number of times you have tried to give up and failed. Is it worth the bother? Is there a relationship between smoking and writing, do you think?
JK: I suspect Ill be giving up smoking until the day I die. There is no relationship between it and writing that I can figure out except that, as with writing, smoking can be an enjoyable solitary pursuit.
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