About The Author
Stephen Kelman has worked variously as a warehouse operative, a careworker and in marketing and local government administration. He decided to pursue his writing seriously in 2005, and has since completed several feature screenplays.
Published in 2011, his first novel was Pigeon English, about a family newly arrived from Ghana, and is set on the same kind of housing estate he grew up on himself. It was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and the Desmond Elliott Prize.
Below you can read our interview from 2011, where Stephen talks about growng up on a coucil estate and escaping the bullies, offer his tips for would-be novelists and gives an early idea of how his next novel was shaping up.
That second novel is Man on Fire, which features a man leaving England to escape a failing marriage, a grim job and a terrible secret he cannot share. He travels to India where he meets a man who undertakes bizarre record attempts in a country where standing out from the crowd requires tenacity, courage and perhaps a touch of madness.
He shares his top 10 books, featuring titles as diverse as John Steinbeck's Cannery Row, Iain Banks' The Bridge and Polly Dunbar's Penguin.
Questions & Answers
When did you realise you wanted to be a writer?
I first realised I wanted to be a writer at a very young age, probably six or seven years old. I remember being a very keen reader at that age, and it's something that, as far back as I know, I've always wanted to do. I just feel very lucky now that I have the chance to fulfil a lifelong dream.
What was the inspiration for Pigeon English?
I think a large part of the inspiration for Pigeon English was the recent press that the UK's children, especially those that live in deprived areas, have gotten. There's a lot of noise around about knife crime and violence among the nation's children at the moment and, having grown up myself in a housing estate which is much like the one that features in the book, I wanted to show the positive aspects of these children's lives and tell their stories in a way that I think hadn't necessarily been told before.
Who is your favourite character in Pigeon English?
I love all the characters in Pigeon English - they all have their own unique voices, their own spirits - but I'd have to say Harrison, the main character. We see the world through his eyes, he's the narrator of the story and I love him; he has so much exuberance, so much curiosity for the world, and I think writing him was an inspiration to me. He's a character that I've taken with me and he's a good kid, I'm very fond of him.
How do you research your characters and stories?
I think it depends on which story you're telling. With Pigeon English I was lucky that a lot of the material came from my own experience, my own background, so I had that knowledge to draw on. Many of the characters in the book are based on people I knew growing up or have known in adult life. Also I think that having your ears and eyes open, watching the news and reading the press - just being aware of the stories that are around you and the people that around you - can often help you develop a story in an authentic and original way.
You grew up in the kind of housing estate you describe in the book. What has changed since your childhood?
Crime, poverty and violence were and still are commonplace; but growing up, these things felt more abstract than they do as an adult - they were simply part of the background hum of life and didn't seem to possess the power to infringe on the day-to-day business of being a child. When I was Harri's age (Harri is my narrator) I used to choose my route home from school based on how I could best avoid the class bully; but that bully wasn't carrying a knife, and the worst I had to fear if I ran into him was a punch on the nose. At that time - I was 11 years old in 1987 - Britain didn't have such an entrenched gang problem and whatever threat of violence there was lacked that extreme edge. There wasn't the sense, as there is now, that every encounter with those dark forces could have life-changing or lethal consequences; violence was still something that could be avoided if you were careful and stuck to the rules. At the same time, steps have been taken to address these issues and improvements have been made; ten years ago my estate (Marsh Farm, in Luton) received a large lottery award and this has been invested in over 90 projects, from improving CCTV coverage to planting trees, to the building of a community resource centre where residents can access practical advice in areas such as employment and training opportunities. It is this investment in people which might provide a route out for generations to come.
In some ways, the prospects for these children seem bleak, the adults in the novel are largely ignorant of what is going on or powerless to prevent it and no one emerges from this story unscathed. Where does hope lie?
You're right, no one does emerge unscathed, because we must all share responsibility for how society - or at least our small portion of it - runs. Even if we're powerless to affect what goes on outside our front door, we can affect what happens within our own homes. As parents and guardians we can influence what examples our children have access to, and encourage positive values. For me, this is where hope lies: in fostering the belief within our children that they can achieve whatever goals they set for themselves. Opportunities for self-improvement abound through education and hard work, and it would be failing them to say that these opportunities are not open to them simply because they happen to come from a deprived background.
Giving a voice to a pigeon who oversees events in Harri's world is a bold narrative conceit. Can you tell us more about it?
The significance of the pigeon begins with the title. 'Pigeon English' is a play on the term pidgin English: the simplified hybrid language that develops between groups of people who don't share a common tongue, and which allows them to communicate with each other. In our increasingly globalised world, where economic migration is so widespread and people from different cultural, racial and religious backgrounds are either obliged to or are choosing to work and live together, it is more important than ever that we find a means to communicate, a glue to bind those diverse elements into an integrated whole. That glue is our shared humanity, and just as Harri represents that - a recent immigrant from Africa to London who embraces his new home with wide-eyed wonder - so too does the pigeon that visits his balcony. Pigeons are found in every corner of the globe, wherever people converge in large numbers; they co-exist with us either as despised pests or as a benign feature of our everyday lives, depending on your point of view. The pigeon, then, is a symbol of immigration and of tolerance. It also comments on the things that Harri may be aware of but does not have the words to express. The pigeon in the book poses the question: how do we differ and how are we alike? How do we rub along together without causing friction?
Did you have to go back to the housing estates to ensure that the children's street language and preoccupations were right up to date?
I was living on my estate while writing the book, so I had easy access to the everyday lives of the characters I was writing about. I only had to take a walk around my neighbourhood to hear what the children were talking about amongst themselves, and many of these conversations found their way into the book in one form or another. I was lucky to be able to witness firsthand events that informed the book, and many of the peripheral characters are amalgams of people I know. I think it's important for a writer to have a direct link to their subject, and in general to be curious and receptive to what's going on around them. Real life is the best source of material.
What was the first book you loved?
The first book I remember falling in love with was probably The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain. I remember being given a copy by my grandparents when I was six or seven. It's the first book I remember reading over and over again, and also the first book that made me think, 'I would like to do that.'
Can you give us a hint about your next novel?
I can tell you that it's based on a real-life character I know, an Indian man who has a very unusual hobby: he's a serial world record breaker in bizarre and wonderful feats of physical endurance and strength. The book is part biography of him and part novel, and I hope to have it finished in the near future.
What advice would you give to any first-time novelists?
My best advice would be to repeat the last line from my earlier answer. Natural curiosity is the first-time novelist's greatest resource in discovering what it is they're compelled to write about. Once they've found their subject - the story that won't stop nagging them, or the character that gets in their head and won't go away - I would suggest simply that they persevere. It can be a difficult and lonely road to publication, and success is never guaranteed. But a good writer isn't motivated by success. I certainly had no expectations for how Pigeon English might be received; my only concern was with writing a story in a way that best served the people in that story, my characters. It's about the people in the book, not about me. I know that may sound fanciful but it's something I believe absolutely.