Scotland’s only Booker Prize winner tells Susan Mansfield why he wanted to write a novel about a female croupier
JIM Kelman chuckles softly as he reads the press release which came with his new book, Mo Thought She Was Quirky. It describes the book as his “break-out novel”. You can almost hear the celebration in the marketing department: this one is written from a woman’s point of view, set in London, with barely a sprinkling of Scots words and next to no swearing. This one, surely, will sell.
Kelman ponders, half-amused, keen blue eyes focused on his cup of coffee. “That would be a typically imperialist response, given that I have already …” His voice tails off. Already won the Man Booker Prize (in 1994 for How Late It Was, How Late), and been shortlisted for the Booker International. Already been called “the greatest British novelist of our time”, the most important Scottish writer of his generation, and compared to Camus, Joyce, Beckett. All this and more, but …
“But I can see … I don’t think the publishers would see this book as being too involved in dangerous ideas.” Another chuckle, laden with irony.
For Kelman is a man for whom writing and “dangerous ideas” are inseparable. To write as he does is to illuminate the lives of ordinary people, usually Scots, often working-class, and to do so using their own language. To write is to inhabit the margins. Such writing is, by its nature, a political act. That might make this a Trojan horse of a novel, detonating its subversive power only when it’s been admitted to the establishment.
The man himself can be a bit of a firebrand, capable of directing a fiercely articulated argument at the literary establishment (imperialist), the Scots (for “lauding and applauding the mediocre”), the SNP (he’s anti-nationalist but pro self-determination), or indeed a journalist who happens to get in the way. But he seems to have mellowed. Now 66, though he doesn’t look it, he prefers simply to chuckle knowingly. At one point, he squares up to the whole nationalism question, but steps back from the threshold with a philosophical “Ach …”
We meet in Kelvingrove Museum, “the nearest I have to a local cafe”. He was brought here often as a child, and his father worked here in later life as a framer, gilder and restorer. Some of his works still hang on these walls. As a teenager, he thought he might like to be a painter. “I suppose I liked the freedom of it, and I liked the lives of the artists. I preferred the lives of the artists to the lives of the saints. They led more interesting lives, and maybe more … I’m resisting saying integrity, but maybe integrity is the word. And then, of course, as a young fellow, you’re always interested in bodies. People develop an interest in Rubens not always because of his voluptuous use of paint!”
He did become an artist, of course, though his tools were words. His first book of short stories, An Old Pub Near the Angel, was published in 1973, when he was in his mid-twenties, by a small American press (it was some years before his early books were published in this country). He, perhaps more than any other, sparked the Scottish literary renaissance of the 1980s, which gave us Irvine Welsh, Alan Warner, Janice Galloway and others. But, as the trailblazer, he has always struggled, contended. A word that keeps recurring as we talk is “oppositional”.
When How Late It Was, How Late won the Booker, the reactions were staggering. One judge resigned, calling it “crap”. People counted the “f***s”. One critic dismissed it as the ramblings of a blind Glaswegian drunk. Another asked if he edited his work at all? In fact, his writing is rigorous, with its own internal pulse, capturing the halting associations and repetitions of a real human voice. We don’t observe his characters, we look out through their eyes. He suffers, perhaps, as the best realist painters do: get it right, and it looks completely artless.
He is known – somewhat unfairly – as a writer of drinking, swearing, philosophising Glasgow hardmen, though his books are more varied and his protagonists more nuanced than any of that allows. His last novel, Kieron Smith, Boy, is written in the voice of a young adolescent. “My work can be criticised for a macho quality, a heavy maleness. It can be condemned for that,” he says, choosing his words carefully, as he always does. “That’s complete balderdash. The supporters of my work through the years, at crucial periods, have mainly been women. It’s just the kind of convenient myth that gets put about. There are a lot of convenient myths about myself and other writers.”
At the same time, Mo Thought She Was Quirky is the first time he has written a novel from a woman’s viewpoint (there have been short stories), and it is a major achievement. Helen is a young Scottish woman living in London with her boyfriend, Mo (short for Mohammed), and her young daughter, Sophie. For 24 hours, we are inside her head: the exhaustion of the nightshift worker (she is a croupier in a casino), the struggle to make ends meet, the ever-present mother’s anxiety. A man just wouldn’t understand this level of worry, thinks Helen. And we forget that we’re being told this by a male writer.
“I just think you come in your own time to things,” says Kelman. “Art operates from observation really, rather than from any intimately subjective position. Having a wife and two daughters, a granddaughter, and a mother and aunts and grannies … you’re always observing things. It’s your job as an artist to observe. There has been an interesting response from the women who have read the novel. I think we are talking about notions of power in the male/female relationship in a domestic situation. Certain forms of power lies with the male, and the female is having to pick up the pieces so often. The male hero rushes ahead to defeat the gorgon and the woman has to come behind with the bandages thinking, ‘Oh god, what if he loses the fight’.”
The book explores the fundamental differences between the sexes. As six-year-old Sophie puts it: “Boys are not girls”. “Actually, I think that line was given to me by my granddaughter. It’s the kind of perceptive remark that young girls can make often. As a father you’re trying to offer an equality of potential to your daughters, but occasionally that gets thwarted, as it did with my own daughters, and I see it also with my granddaughter. Something she says or does, you realise she’s very content in her own gender. She doesn’t regret the fact that she can’t play professional football in a male football team. She doesn’t want to go out in a boat in the midst of a wild storm and catch mackerel. She would rather be out for a day with her grandmother and her mother and leave that to me and my grandson. That’s not to take a hard line on a nature/nurture debate, but these things one observes.”
Helen is perhaps the least Scottish of Kelman’s protagonists to date, at least in the way she speaks. “It’s what works, what offers a coherence. She is aware of the prejudice against the Scottish voice in London, she’s having to pass down there. If you’re working down there as a young person, as I did for a few years, you disguise your otherness, to fit in, to assimilate, as is expected of you.”
Mo Thought She Was Quirky started life 20 years ago as a short story, never published because it would never resolve itself. Some time later it became a script for a short film. Writing the novel was an act of “decompression”. From its earliest form, it set out to subvert the conventions of genre fiction – and does it so thoroughly that they all but disappear.
“I wanted to turn all that on its head. Genre, in my opinion, doesn’t take on too much of an oppositional position towards the institutions and establishment. You may have an individual character who is kind of ‘quirky’ – one who takes a vaguely existentialist position. I wanted to have a young woman who would have been more likely to be the object of things, to have her occupying the central role. A young woman in an ordinary situation, which means to be a mother, with an ordinary guy who just happens to be Muslim. I wanted to take on various of these oppositions.”
Even within the canon of his own work, it is subversive. Think of all those unlucky Kelman gamblers – now the tables are turned and we are inside the head of the young female croupier, watching the futile squandering of money at the gaming tables while she and her family struggle to get by. Her job makes her the object of predatory male gazes just as Mo, a waiter in an Indian restaurant, is forced into obsequiousness in the face of casual racism.
It’s not a book about race – it’s “simply a case of boy meets girl” – but this aspect of the novel is quietly shocking. There are places Helen doesn’t want to go with Mo because of the looks they attract as a mixed-race couple. I say I’d hoped that society had moved on. “Yeah,” says Kelman, casting his keen blue eyes into the middle distance, as if he’s resisting asking how anyone could be so dumb. “Maybe not. Obviously, I’ve been involved in some campaigning over the years, so you get to take an interest in racism, racial prejudice and stereotyping. It’s nice to take them on occasionally. For most people in our culture, prejudice equals fear, and people are very fearful. They don’t try to get to grips with the complexity of Islam, they see it as a monolithic thing. Sometimes the extent is just beyond foolishness.”
Thus is the Trojan horse is wheeled into the castle. Yet for Kelman it all comes from being true to the psyche of the character. This is the art, no more, no less. “Writers are often faced with questions which don’t apply to them, they are really to do with how a work is marketed. A writer can’t control that – I learned that from an early age. If you do try to control that, you find you get into a negotiating position which often leads to what you might call selling out, or compromise to a level where you maybe think: ‘Why bother?’.
“All the way through my writing, I’ve been under that pressure. Publishers always hope that you will compromise, not from any political thing, but simply because it makes it easier to sell your books.”
A verbal shrug. “I haven’t found that I was able to do it really. I would have to have written other types of stories.”
• James Kelman will discuss Mo Thought She Was Quirky (Hamish Hamilton, £16.99) at the Edinburgh book festival on 19 August.