Readers of the blog will know that I’m a frequent visitor to book festivals all over Scotland. This summer, I went to the Edinburgh International Book Festival to see one of my literary heroes Roddy Doyle. I loved his novel Paddy Clark Ha Ha Ha and because I had tickets to see James Kelman at the Linlithgow Book Festival I assumed that Kieron Smith, boy would be a good starting point for my first taste of his work. I desperately wanted to enjoy the book but after 100 pages I was struggling with the stream-of-consciousness monologue and craved a conventional story arc.
I understood what Kelman was trying to achieve in Kieron Smith, boy with his clever use of language to create an accurate character study and I admire his intellect as a writer but as a reader I’m not ashamed to admit that I wanted to be entertained by Kieron’s antics as I had been with Paddy’s.
And yet although I put the novel aside for now, I was keen to see the man behind the headlines as Kelman is renowned for his controversial views and there was an uproar when he won the Booker Prize in 1994 and one of the judges, Rabbi Julia Neuberger, denounced the book as “a disgrace”.
After reading from his latest novel, Mo Said She Was Quirky, the audience at Linlithgow got an insight into the passion that drives Kelman to write honestly about the disenfranchised underclass who receives little attention in contemporary fiction. He aims to “cleanse language” and get rid of needless description to concentrate on action and movement.
An audience member asked how he responds to the critics who often slate his work. His answer was, “ F**k them!”
It was a heart-warming reaction for me on a personal level after just receiving some negative feedback on my last novel. It is clear that Kelman is not a people pleaser and he immediately shot up in my estimation.
He left me gobsmacked again when he told the audience that he is currently working on seven novels and around hundred short stories, not to mention essays! He advised any writers to see themselves as artists and to use their computer as an artist would treat their studio by having lots of art work at different stages in the creative process. This was interesting for me as I’ve always operated on the ‘one-thing-at-a-time’ mindset believing that by doing that I’d have 100% focus on a project. As I’m currently editing my novel, I haven’t continued to dabble in writing short stories at all but maybe I should be more flexible and this would enhance my creativity.
Listening to James Kelman was a privilege. He is a fascinating writer and even within a short time slot he made me think of how value laden individual words and phrases can be. His example was that in Glasgow, at five foot nine, he’s classed as a “big” man in Maryhill but a “wee man” a mile up the road in Bearsden. And he asked us to think about what the description “pretty girl” really means? We all have different interpretations of beauty and these examples of using language with care will help inform my word choice for my novel’s main character.
I plan to give Kieron Smith, boy another go with a more sophisticated outlook and with a better knowledge of the genius behind what appears a non eventful story. James Kelman doesn’t have a reputation for writing easy-to-read books and this is not necessarily a bad thing, since often the most rewarding fiction is the most demanding.
As a reader, do you like a challenge? As a writer, do you have many projects on the go or several?