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The SRB Interview: James Kelman – Scottish Review of Books

An Old Pub Near the Angel

James Kelman
Format: Paperback Pages: 128 pages Publisher: Birlinn General Publication Date: 01/08/2007 Category: Short stories ISBN: 9781846970375

Not Not While the Giro

James Kelman
Format: Paperback Pages: 208 pages Publisher: Birlinn General Publication Date: 01/08/2007 Category: Short stories ISBN: 9781846970382

How Late it Was How Late

James Kelman
Format: Paperback Pages: 416 pages Publisher: Vintage Publishing Publication Date: 01/03/1995 Category: Modern & contemporary fiction (post c 1945) ISBN: 9780749398835
by SRB

The SRB Interview: James Kelman

June 8, 2012 | by SRB

James Kelman was born in Govan in 1946 and brought up there and in Drumchapel. He left school at fifteen, and was living in London when he published his first short story collection, An Old Pub Near the Angel (1973). This was followed in 1983 with another collection, Not Not While The Giro, and shortly after his first novel, The Busconductor Hines (1984). His novel A Disaffection (1989) won the James Tait Black Memorial prize, and in 1994, with How Late it Was, How Late, he became the first and as yet only Scot to win the Booker Prize. In 2008 he won the Saltire Society’s Book of the Year Award for Kieron Smith, Boy. He has twice been shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize.

Kelman met Rosemary Goring to discuss his new novel, Mo Said She was Quirky, at the Kelvingrove Art Gallery, where his father had worked for the last eleven years of his life. Smartly dressed in crisp, striped shirt and jacket, he spoke openly and often amusedly  about his writing, and his own life. His eighth and latest novel, he explained, had begun life two decades earlier as a ten-minute film commissioned by a French film company which asked eleven international writers to create a noir-type story set in a city, in his case Glasgow.

Scottish Review of Books: Mo Said She was Quirky is a fantastic novel. I’m really moved by it.

James Kelman: That’s good, I’m glad.

 What was the inspiration?

Initially there wasn’t any inspiration. The gist of it began about 20 years ago when I wrote a very short screen play. I was quite happy with the short film, but I wanted to do it properly, and do it as a story – as I thought a short story. But it was quite complex, so much so that it never kind of worked. I realised I would have to spend time on it, more than I had thought. So I shelved the project, but I looked at it every now and again over the years, but it was never right as a short story and eventually I realised I would have to allow it to kind of breathe properly. And that eventually became a novel.

It never stopped being complex or complicated, because you know, when you’re doing it as a film you don’t have to operate within the psyche of the character in the writing itself, when you’re doing a film you can convey an interiority, if that’s the term, but once you’re working in prose it becomes trickier.

In the novel I kept the opening the same, so the point of the drama begins with the young woman coming home from work, in a quite innocuous way for a casino worker, just sharing a cab with her friends who are fellow workers. And the opening, that fleeting moment when the taxi has to stop, and she is in her own world anyway, not quite part of the conversation with her two friends, she sees this guy walking with his pal, he bears a resemblance to her brother but she’s not quite certain, she hasn’t seen him for a few years. It just seemed better to be situated in London itself.

 Because of its size?

No, not so much to do with size. It was the feel. There were different levels. One of them would be that the guy she thinks may be her brother, it was not his home either, he was displaced.

That’s how it began. It was a difficult novel to write. Not because it was from a woman’s perspective, that wasn’t the trickiest part of it. But operating within that inner dynamic is always difficult, when you’re working within a normal third-party narrative but you move from there, that transition to the inner being of the central character. Which I was working on elsewhere anyway around that period, the other two novels from then were A Disaffection and How Late It Was…

 The interior voice that all of us have in our heads can’t be translated onto the page really, because it is inchoate and sometimes almost wordless. So I wonder how you create art out of an idea.

There is a point where thought itself, as you say, it’s not even to do with transcribing. The inner musing of a human being is composed of more than language. Language will also be a part of it, but there’s other things – whether that’s images or sounds, very loose associations. So it is difficult, but ultimately as a writer you only have language to work in, so how do you use language to convey other forms of thought that are not just linguistically based?

 Yes, that’s what I’m meaning.

Well, the thing with a third-party narrative is it allows you to be external to the character too. So at that point when you can talk about her lifting a cup and moving within that to a subjective view of what’s entailed by lifting a cup. I see that now, I’ve come to see it, as being quite in the Scottish intellectual tradition. I had written an essay at that point, 25 years ago, trying to connect the Common Sense tradition with Noam Chomsky’s work. The more into the Scottish philosophical tradition you go, well, there is a point where you reach the conflict between David Hume and Thomas Reid, to do with apprehension. I find I’m moving between the external world and the subjective perception of it. So in a way,

I think the intellectual context is already there, within the Scottish Common Sense tradition, as it would be within the French or continental tradition. I can see that kind of coherence, or consistency.

 Do you think it was something you were already attuned to by being brought up in Scotland and studying philosophy as you had? And also, is there anybody in Europe doing something similar at the moment?

Technically I had already been involved in attempting these things in my earlier work, even from The Busconductor Hines, that movement of the outer world and how a human being operates within it, and how a character is seen operating within it. I think in some ways, even Hogg’s Justified Sinner is operating on that level when you have these different ways of looking at Gil-Martin, Hogg’s central character.

But I don’t see it as a Scottish thing only. I didn’t see it then like that either.

But I do think it’s one way of seeing it, it’s a context for people in Scotland. At that time I would have equated it more with the existentialist tradition and seen it more in relation to the writers and artists I really responded to as a young artist/writer. Thirty years ago I would have been inclined more to speak about Dostoevsky, Notes From the Underground or The Devils. And I would have seen Kafka, the way Kafka worked in The Castle, very much part of this. Although the finished novel is a third-party novel, at the same time during his working processes he operated in the first person. Probably for me as a young artist I would have prefaced that by ‘of course’, because I thought that’s what Kafka would have been after, drawing together the two worlds, external and internal, that’s how I would have tried to argue it then, he wanted to put forward the one thing.

 You sometimes need that distance from your younger self to see quite what you were doing, or where it fits in.

Yeah, that’s right. But I would have seen it more through language at that point, and formerly would have seen the use of standard literary form in a sense as the objective world, the external world, and when you move into the phrases and rhythms of the ordinary language-user – ordinary human beings, they use language that’s not standard in that sense – it is a reflection of the internal world of the human being. Third-party narrative as the external world, and the thought processes or maybe dialogue as the internal, the subjective, belonging to human beings, how we use language, perceiving the world around us. So you have the two distinctive worlds there, as the outer and the inner.

 And the friction between them.

Yes. So for me, the formal issue as a young writer too, was how to marry these two, and how to get from the one to the other. These issues are to do with theory of mind, I would say, or philosophy of mind, but are part also of literary tradition.

 The closeness of the writing in this novel is fiendish really, the achievement of making it look as easy as if I feel I could sit down and write this – well, I don’t, but you know, the reader will feel this is so readable, and won’t actually see the mechanics of it. So how much do you sweat over it? Is it painful?

Well, it really is. That’s why maybe it took so long to do it properly. But you don’t want the mechanics or the nuts and bolts to be obvious to everyone. A writer friend of mine, Mary Gray Hughes, said many years ago to me, that is part of what we do. These are things for writers to enjoy or appreciate in the work of other writers, but it is like a craftsman looking at the work of another craftsman, and you do respect the way they manage to put a shelf up using only one nail! So if other people are looking at a good piece of furniture another carpenter might whisper to you, do you know the guy that made this never used any nails? You’ll go, what do you mean? Well he joined it so well that there are no nails. He only used one in the whole thing, then when he finished the joining he took the nail back out. It doesn’t stop you as a layperson enjoying the furniture, but your appreciation is slightly different from the joiner who was talking to you, that is the great craft but not for everybody to see.

 It’s not the intention.

It’s that sense that it’s to be seamless, it’s to be the great illusionist. Others might know how you’re doing it, but when the thing is presented nobody should see any of that kind of thing.

 Interesting that you mention Dostoevsky there. I was going to ask you a very fundamental question about the way you write – to what extent the novel is mapped out in advance, how you choose tenses and so on. And also, I think he drafted The Idiot something like eight times. Can you tell me a bit about your writing process?

Ordinarily I just begin, I work it out on the page. There’s never any plot, or anything like that, I never know what’s going to happen. I can only intuit something is maybe longer than a short story the more I get into it. And sometimes even after the third or fourth sentence I think, this is going to be quite long.

 As quickly as that?

It can be. Because I know that once I begin to unpack those sentences, that paragraph – nowadays the analogy would be that once you double-click on it, you find out that it’s a suitcase folder rather than just a folder of documents. And you can kind of intuit that, but not always.

So, there’s not any plot. I would have been quite happy in this particular novel if the ending had happened quite soon, and I’d had to continue beyond that. It wouldn’t have been unthinkable, and certainly wouldn’t have worried me.

 So if the very last page had happened a third of the way through?

Yeah, and continuing on, it would just have been different. But the more into it I got, I realised that the ending would probably be as I suspected it was going to be, but I was prepared for something else.

 I like that. You just trust your – is it your unconscious?

No, not unconscious. No, when you’re talking in these terms there’s major issues around creativity, around how we create art. I don’t have anything against using the term the unconscious or the subconscious, but I think it’s more to do with how we order things as human beings. When you get into talking about it this way very quickly it takes you into things like creationism, and why it is there’s a need to have a belief in god, or what do we mean by providence or fate, or is it a purely existential kind of process.

It takes you into issues around determinism. But if you look on it a different way, it is a bit easier, in terms of ‘how do we create art’. I think that the problem with writing is that because we use language, it seems to suggest – how can you say it – a kind of Platonic thing, that you are putting words to an idea that already exists. And that is a mistake.

If you look at visual arts, and how you compose visual arts, or even music, how a composer would operate, I mean if you take a piece of music, and it doesn’t have to be Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, and it doesn’t have to be Miles Davis or a piece of jazz, it can be a good piece of rock music. Once you talk in these other Platonic sort of ways you have to be careful, well, you very quickly move into absurdity. It’s like, how did Cézanne know that this painting would end in that way rather than this? It takes you into something like painting by numbers. Because the painting alters with every brushstroke. As soon as Cézanne puts in a certain colour, or moves his brush in a certain way at one end of the canvas, that will alter what he does at the other end

of the canvas, and it becomes a process of pure composition. I think it’s best to think in these ways of story writing too, as a composition. So, when you get to maybe chapter eight in a novel, that allows you to go back and develop chapter three. It’s why a writer like Chekhov might say, if you’re having trouble with a story, destroy the first paragraph. What’s come out of it is the composition, and the thinking that’s begun it, seen in the earliest sentences, might be hindering the finished thing out. If you worry too much about these early ideas, you’ll put too many restrictions on yourself, you’ll stop the story breathing.

 That’s also great advice for aspiring writers. I’m slightly embarrassed by using the terms unconscious and subconscious, as you talk there, because it makes it sounds as if it’s beyond yourself. 

It does gives rise to that Platonic sense, you know, the idea that an idea exists, the ghost of the idea, and your words on the page will fulfil, or represent thoroughly the idea that already exists.

 You’re the conduit.

Yes. And obviously many writers and artists believe that’s the case, or have thought that’s the case. When they appeal to the Muse or to the hand of god, whatever it is, they believe they’re fulfilling something that already exists.

 Does that not make it harder, in a way, because then it allows something like writer’s block to come into it, because you could feel there’s something between you and something other?

Yeah, I think it does. It also stops the drama. It’s better when the drama keeps you going, you the writer, and you don’t know what will happen. When you open the door you don’t know who’s behind the door. It’s tricky, if you always know who’s behind the door, if you’re involved in that kind of plot, you’ll run into difficulties in the writing of it, because you’ll probably bore yourself.

 You once said that for most men women are a mystery, and the same works the other way round. I wondered if the fascination with the unknown was part of the challenge of writing this new novel?

What’s interesting is some of the male responses, them not knowing what’s natural. Do women act in this way? Do they feel this way? Is this how women react? These levels of anxiety? Is that how women are? So when males ask these things, implicit in that is their acceptance of unknowability. Whether or not I personally go along with that, it’s evident to me that they begin from that, because that is the questions they ask.

I don’t see anything wrong with that, it’s just that some of these things are gender-based. That’s a generalisation. In some of these obvious ways, a woman is, generally speaking in a more vulnerable position than a male, because she has to trust him. And she has to trust a male in situations where – and it’s not only in a sexual relationship, but that’s the most obvious – you have to give yourself, and you have to have faith in the man you’re entering into this relationship with, because he’s more physically powerful. And Helen has to do that not only for herself but for her daughter. She has to put her six-year-old daughter into situations with a male who is not even her husband. Some of her friends might say, you’ve left your daughter with this guy for how many hours? And he’s to dress her and put her to bed and to bathe her? So there’s these instances where women are more vulnerable than men, and a single mother even more vulnerable than other women, because of her kids.

 You talk about how children are patted and pawed, and patronised, and it’s absolutely right. I’m pretty sure I’m guilty of that myself, They’re like little animals – you forget they are adults in very small form.

Yes, they’re beings, human beings.

 They’re not someone you can encroach on.

Yeah, that’s right, they have their space, and if you do, that’s what you’re doing, encroaching.

 In this novel, it’s a household of very vulnerable people. With Sophie and Helen, and Mo, and Mo saying Glasgow and London are the only cities he could work and live, despite the fact he faces racism.

Yes. Helen’s anxiety also goes to that, because she’s very sensitive to the idea of going down the wrong street with her boyfriend. He’s Muslim, from a British Asian background so she’s already prepared to meet racism. And he treats it occasionally in too cavalier a fashion for her.

 He’s a very likeable character.

I hope I haven’t sentimentalised him. I think he is a likeable character, but I also want an unknowability about him, because the trust from her to him has to be true. She can’t know him 100 per cent.

 I began to wonder, when you talk about Helen’s brother Brian’s relationship to his father, and Helen’s with her mum, if you feel a lot of the problems that we face in society start in the family?

I suppose as a generalisation, yes. And often you might say an unjust system has unfortunately been propagated by its victims. I mean by that, an ordinary kind of working-class father will have great problems with a son who says this system is shit. A father might not want to hear it from a son, and will enter into great battles over something like that. This is probably a theme in my work, from earlier novels and stories of mine, the relationship between father and son, parents and young people.

 It’s maybe too personal a question, but what was your relationship like with your father?

In many ways it was a good relationship.

It was a good relationship with me being a young artist, because he was used to young artists, he was used to old artists too, because that was part of his work – he was a picture restorer, frame-maker and gilder. A lot of his clients were artists, so he was used to them, J D Fergusson, people like that, they were people he knew – Tom Honeyman – friends of my grandfather. Of course my father worked in here for the last eleven years of his life. So that side of it was not an issue for him, being a skint young writer, or wanting to be a writer, or rather an artist. He didn’t have a problem with that at all.

But the other side of it, he was an Eighth Army man and he’d been through all the Eighth Army battles, fought their way up through the African desert, through Italy. Then I would be a teenager, and older, talking from an anti-war position. So that became a struggle for myself and my father. Politics was an issue. As my wife remembers well, even before we got married, it used to cause us great problems.

 The casino in this novel stands in my mind as a reminder of chance and what a gamble life is. Was it a reminder to people that life can change on the flick of a card, or am I being fanciful?

No, I don’t think you are. That’s what Helen has to deal with in a day-to-day way. Also people working in casinos have to deal with the fact that they are on an ordinary working-class wage, they don’t earn bourgeois salaries, and they’re in touch with – acquainted with – people who are wealthy enough to lose large sums of money without worrying about it at all. They’re in a world of alienation. They have to deal with that. That world is obviously a world I knew about as a teenager, because I used to gamble too much, as a young guy. The experiences of A Chancer, that early novel of mine, a lot of those are semi-autobiographical. So I would have been used to that myself, but not from a working point of view.

 Yes, on the more painful end of it even, if you’re not lucky.

Yes, it’s not too much to say that!

 When you’ve sent a novel off to an agent, or publisher, how much advice are you willing to take from them?

I am kind of happy for any response. I don’t send off much nowadays. In the past occasionally I would send an early work or a work in progress, or even a finished thing to a few people, in the early days Mary Gray Hughes but then Tom Leonard and Alasdair Gray, Liz Lochhead, they’ve been good friends for 35 years. Also Jeff Torrington, and Peter Kravitz – Peter is another reader I trusted. It’s good to get some kind of response, because sometimes you’re not sure. You don’t even need a response, really. It’s almost like gauging the silence!

I’ve got a good agent, Gill Coleridge. She’s been my agent for about ten years. I feel the same with her as a reader. And my recent editors too, I think I’ve been lucky. Not because any of them would come out and say something is not working, but the level of response is enough for me to make an inference that leads me somewhere, that will confirm something in myself, that really this is not working as well as I thought it was.

And that can happen, because sometimes my work’s on the edge, not always, but often it’s on the edge and even with people I trust, ultimately I have to make a decision myself.

 Do you look ahead to the e-book revolution as being to your advantage because it’s simply all text, or to your disadvantage, because you’re so careful about the way the page is laid out?

It’s not something I’m fearful about. In terms of story-telling I think it’s probably quite exciting. For somebody who tweets or does a blog, they have to make it interesting. It’s the same as being a good journalist, or a good feature writer or story writer, ultimately you have to make it as dramatic as you can, distinguish it from other pieces of writing, so someone will read it, otherwise they won’t.

 Denise Mina said that with ebooks, she thinks it will mean more working-class writers might get into print.

It’ll be interesting to see where it goes.

It means there are repercussions for publishing, and for writers engaged in so-called literary fiction. I was in WH Smith a couple of days ago, and there are no Scottish writers apart from genre, there is not one. You don’t find any. Even in the old days when Scottish fiction was a genre in WH Smith – pigeonholed in our own country – at least we were there in the shop.

I had a Polish publisher, but they’ve just gone bankrupt, they’ve been liquidated, all their staff made redundant. Things are in a process of real deep-rooted change, and many writers of non-genre, we don’t quite know the way things are going. It doesn’t mean writers won’t go on writing. And there’s an exciting element to it. We should worry when art isn’t alternative.

 You’ve won so many prizes, and yet you’ve retained the mystery of the writer, you’ve not been sucked into the establishment as maybe you might have been in other countries. There’a strong sense of you remaining on the edge.

Do you mean in Scotland rather than the UK?

Yes, I do. 

In England, there’s been no prize for about 20 years, since the Booker Prize. In terms of Scotland, I think roughly speaking, Scottish writers are still marginalised in the UK.

I don’t have any problem in stating that. The issue is across the board in the arts: sometimes it’s best to look on Scotland as a colonised culture. The people who are in control don’t really know Scottish culture, although they do control it. It happens in the visual arts, as well as in literature. Not so much the old Arts Council. Individuals maybe within the old Arts Council knew something of Scottish traditions in art. I don’t think that’s applicable now.

So in a way you’re always on the periphery, Scottish writers, whether it’s Alasdair Gray, Agnes Owens or Tom Leonard. They have places, but not like it would be in other countries, where there might be an excitement seeing your own artists. You’re never bothered by people saying, oh, there’s such and such, you very rarely get that here.

 Would you like that?

I don’t know. It depends on the setting I suppose. It’s nice to be able to walk around, of course it is, but there is a – not a knock-on effect – a kind of corollary, it’s how does a country value its art. In Scotland it’s not really valued in that way, not generally. Scottish literature in itself I don’t think really is known. But that goes across the board. Scottish people don’t know much about their own history at all I don’t think.

 That comes back to the old colonial thing of not being taught your own traditions, or being told they are secondary.

Well, there is that. There’s also the fact that to some extent Scottish history is a radical history, it’s a history in opposition to the mainstream. And radical history is marginalised, and not necessarily taught. Heroes who are radical heroes, like John Maclean, John Murdoch and Donald Macrae, James Connolly or Arthur McManus, Helen Crawford, Agnes Dollan, they’re not really known. In other countries they would be heroes, but they’re not known in their own country, they’re radical figures politically. In other countries everybody would know who Wilson, Baird and Hardie were, Thomas Muir – or Thomas Reid, or Ferrier, or Clerk Maxwell, Hugh Miller. In Scotland they don’t know these things. They don’t know about George Buchanan, they don’t know about these great Reformation and post-Reformation figures, they don’t know about the Scottish Latin tradition. They just seem to know these silly things, fantasies about royalty and religion, kilted super-heroes. It’s really shocking, in a way, pathetic is a better word.

I would very much like to have known Gaelic. My grandmother never passed on Gaelic to her sons, never mind her grandsons. For the usual reasons. This side of my family suffered the effects of the Clearances, from the parish of Lochs in Lewis; Keose village, where the Napier Commission was held in the 1880s. MacKenzies and MacLennans. They went to America mainly, my grannie came to Glasgow. I’ve got a typical Glaswegian family, immigrant to the core, about 85 per cent Scottish, a wee drop Irish, maybe East Europe too, and a great-grandfather from Gateshead. I don’t know how many clans I’m associated with – Camerons and MacNicolls. MacArthurs and Macleods are there too. Hebridean, Argyll, and the north east. The Kelmans are from the Cabrach traditionally, west of Rhymie, along the poitin trail. So both shades of Gaelic – p and q.

 Do you think the Gaelic strain has any bearing on your literary temperament?

It’s always interested me. I’ve always liked that side. I’ve been reading Tales of the West Highlands for forty years. The great work John Francis Campbell did, people like John Dewar, it is of fundamental importance to the Scottish and wider Gaelic traditions, tremendous collections of the old stories and tales. I suppose at an early stage reading them I was interested in the actual form the storytelling took. I liked the use of the verb, and used to relate it to Damon Runyon’s rst person present-tense narratives. That for me was, yeah, this is you telling me a story. That is the foundational structure of that form. That’s me sitting down at a ceilidh at the fireside, telling a story. So when someone begins, “I am walking down the road” – once I grasped the subtlety of that, the use of the oral form, it begins in the present tense, but is of the past, that for me has been very important.

Who are you reading now?

I read for different reasons. I don’t read as much fiction as I would like to. I’ve been interested in trying to get to grips with the Scottish intellectual tradition, and how movements in thought maybe give rise to movements physically…

 Scottish history is not nice history. It’s the history of subjection. We are so used to tipping the hat to our superiors. And that’s still the way things are, unfortunately. How many other countries do we know, how many cultures in the world do we know where there’s a debate about ‘should we determine our own existence or not?’ Such inferiority, it’s shocking. Independence is not an economic decision, it is a decision to do with self-respect. How we determine our own existence, this is what we do as adults for goodness sake, it’s our culture, ultimately it concerns survival. And we’ll see it literally, if the independence movement is set back again, emigration as usual, for those able to do it, spiritual demoralisation for others.

 I’m hoping that they start to put some intellectual weight into it. 

I think it’s up to us, up to the public, that discourse should go that way. I’m not saying it’s being deliberately manipulated, but the way the discourse is at present, it’s almost like, how many people in Scotland even know that those in favour of independence are not necessarily nationalists? Of course more so in England. It’s said of me, that I’m a nationalist. I’m continually having to deny that I am a nationalist but at the same time I am 100% in favour of independence. They don’t get it.

I was thinking there about the Edinburgh Book Festival. I am doing a reading there this year but eventually I felt nauseous about the Writers’ Conference, 50 years after the 1962 thing and commemorating that. I’ve withdrawn from it. Not the book festival itself. I don’t have a problem there. I don’t really see it as a Scottish literary festival, I see it as an international book festival that takes place in North Britain. What I really object to is the British Council and its involvement as co-organisers of the Writers’ Conference, I can’t stomach it.

 Because of what they stand for?

The British Council is the British State. I stopped being involved with them years ago. It means I don’t get many invitations abroad because they do most of the foreign funding. It turns my stomach to see them listed as co- organisers. I don’t think it bears scrutiny for long. It reminds me of 1979, when people were pushed into Scotland to take on positions of power, as in the BBC, preparing for the independence referendum, in case the Thatcher government failed to stem the tide. It reminds you of the old Russian aristocracy towards the end of the nineteenth century, pushing family members into positions of power with the radicals in case the revolution succeeds, or the defence industry and major financiers during times of war, backing both sides.

 You still feel this is not an open country.

The British Council is not some autonomous, free-thinking arts body. It is sponsored by and accountable to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. It’s the FCO’s cultural wing, that’s what they are, and fair enough, they’re quite clear about their remit in terms of pushing English culture and English language – although of course their charitable status has allowed them to outsource English jobs to India to save money. These are the people who are co-organising these writer debates. The 1962 thing was important in Scotland, without overrating the thing that happened with MacDiarmid and Trocchi, but it has its place in a contemporary context, not a thing we should all think was great, because it certainly wasn’t and we shouldn’t glamorise it. I don’t think either MacDiarmid or Trocchi came out of it particularly well, to be honest about it, but there was more to it than that. There is definitely room for a healthy debate about these issues, what it is to be a writer in Scotland, to create within an inferiorised culture, the dangers of nationalism. Here’s an interesting thing. Alan Warner and Louise Welsh, Alasdair Gray, Keith Dickson and myself were on a panel in Montpelier in the south of France two or three months ago. Each one of us favours independence, and not one of us is a Scottish Nationalist, not as far as I know. Each of us has a different position, yet each of us favours independence.

There are all these different areas up for discussion, among people who share a basic feeling or sensibility, writers who have entirely different political positions from me, people on the right, unionists – who cares, just to see things debated properly, as an autonomous thing, where we know at the outset that it’s not being hijacked. How can we enter into such a thing, and having all these writers coming from other cultures, foreign writers – they don’t know what they’re walking into here. They think they’re walking into a debate grounded in contemporary Scotland, but are they, I don’t think so, they’ll be attending an event co-organised by a body subservient to the British State’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office, at an international book festival based in North Britain, at least that’s how I see it.

 Putting aside all your work obligations, and so on, if you could read any novel right now, who would you choose?

I would just go for contemporary writers.

Some of the younger short story writers I like. I can’t give you any names, also because I don’t want to, because it’s quite unfair in a way. I would like to read more contemporary prose altogether. There’s far too many projects of my own, far too many, too many stories, all kinds, novels, essays, plays. Christ almighty! And then I’ve got two grandkids.

 Is that who the book is dedicated to?


 You’re a family man.

Well, that’s always been part of my life, family.


James Kelman

HAMISH HAMILTON, PP220, £14.99. ISBN: 9780241144565

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