Three Monkeys Online

A Curious, Alternative Magazine

So that’s what hutious means! Stephen Kelman, author of Pigeon English, in interview

TMO The novel has a very localised feel – grounded very much in in the British-immigrant experience, especially when it comes to the slang that punctuates the story throughout. How much of this flavour do you think translates to other places? I’m thinking mainly of the US?

SK: I have read on a few occasions from US readers that they have had to go and google a few of these words before they can really get a flavour of the novel but you know- that’s fine. If I’m exposing people to new ways of expressing themselves and I’ve given them a little project where they can go online and learn a few new terms and stuff then that’s great!

TMO So no fear of ‘hutious’ getting lost in translation then?

SK: Well, as you say I had to place it somewhere and I placed it in an environment which I know so to be accurate and to be truthful to that I have to write it in a language that spoken there. I think largely- I hope the universal elements in the novel….the coming of age stuff, the fish out of water stuff- that’s enough I think to support people who may not be necessarily familiar with the language. A lot of it I think is explained within the context and if there are a few words here and there that make them go ….‘ah….that’s what hutious means!’ That’s been a favourite…..

TMO: Oscar Wilde once said of books that they were ‘never finished’ but merely ‘abandoned’. How do you know when something you have created is finished?

SK: Well…Pigeon English probably went through five drafts altogether over the course of a year! I guess It’s very instinctive but when you’ve ripped away all of the unnecessary flab which for me is the most important part – that’s what I have to learn [..] when to dispense with what is unnecessary. There’s a great quote also from Rodin which goes something like you start with a block of stone and then you chip away everything that isn’t a horse! I think instinctively you kind of know when you’ve got it as essential as it can be and that’s what you’re hoping to do- you’re hoping to find the essential truth within whatever story you’re telling. It got to the point where my characters knew everything they needed to know and said everything they needed to say and everything they didn’t need to say – everything which felt like pretty much the explanation. Once I jettisoned all of that I was comfortable that I had taken it as far as I could.

TMO: And if your reader’s don’t see the horse the way you did?

SK: You put your work out there into the world and allow other people to interpret it in their own way. I hear from people I’ve spoken to while I’ve been on events who’ve seen things within the novel and interpreted it in ways that I haven’t even thought of and that’s part of the fun as well –everybody’s experience is individual to themselves. You can be precious about your work and say that this is what it’s supposed to mean and I don’t want any other interpretation to be part of that but I think that’s wrong, I think that you have to allow everybody to have their own personal experience of the book and once it’s out in the world it doesn’t really belong to you anymore.

TMO: Some writers find the creative process of writing to be nothing short of torturous while for others, the words can just flow free. Where do you and your own process fall along this spectrum when it comes to realising an idea?

SK: I fall largely into the torture camp I’m afraid! I’m easily distracted for one thing which is never good! It can be quite painful for me. I’m very sort of doubtful of my own work and very self-critical so there can be days where it flows really well and I think….. ‘yeah I’ve cracked it!’ and then I could look at that work the following morning and think it’s a load of old crap and have to delete it.

TMO: Like you’re too close to it?

SK: Yeah, it’s all changeable like the weather- it depends on my mood at the time and what else is going on in my life. For example, I’m married. I wasn’t married for the first book and hopefully my wife is going to be a very useful sounding board for me so that may change it.

TMO: It’s interesting that you say that you’re easily distracted- especially as Harri seems wander through the world not only with such innocence and wonder but he also switches thoughts at the drop of a hat. Take his reflections on his Chelsea shirt for example. He goes from complaining about it scratching his nipples to hoping they have proper goal posts in heaven and then onto dogs that sneeze. Does that reflect you?

SK: Pretty much…yeah! I’m working on it as I grow older- I’m trying to reign in that a little bit but…yeah that’s kind the way I am!

TMO Great stories are often difficult to define or explain, however, I am going to ask you to do just that – what for you is the difference between a good novel and a great novel?

SK: That’s a tricky one! It comes to speak about something current as well as speaking about something both at the same time and it should do so in a distinctive voice that hasn’t really been heard before so maybe something that casts new light on an old primeval subject.

TMO: We always want to know who inspires our authors at the magazine and so now we come to you. Who are your favourite authors? Have they inspired you either directly or indirectly in your own work?

SK: When I think of great writers I tend not to get much further than Kurt Vonnegut, who tends to think about on the face of it quite mundane things but he does it in a way which really cuts to the human heart of what you’re talking about it and at the same time he does it with while having great fun with language, while using a singular voice. I think it’s that combination of casting the old in a new way. He’s definitely up there I would say.

TMO: I know that you are in the middle of your second novel and that Pigeon English is in the process of being adapted by the BBC. Anything else in the works?

SK: The new novel is going to consume me for the next year or more I should think but in the meantime I’m waiting to see what happens with the new adaptation of Pigeon English. I’ve been involved somewhat in that process. I’ve just read a draft of the screenplay for that so I will be interested to see what comes of that. In the meantime I guess I have the odd invitation to write an article here and there. I’ve just completed a travel article for Lonely Planet that will appear in an anthology later this year.


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