'How Late It Was, How Late'

with James Kelman

Interview conducted summer 2019
Further interviews are available on James Kelman's personal website: jameskelman.net

TCB: How Late It Was, How Late is written in a similar close third-person style to your previous novel, A Disaffection, with one distinct difference being that there appears to be another entity, another voice, within the narrative of How Late It Was; at one moment the voice emanates directly from Sammy (like it does consistently with Patrick in A.D.), but then it seems to the voice of another, of someone who knows Sammy well but is not actually him. Is this a fair interpretation, or is this just Sammy’s way of conceiving and speaking of himself?

JK: A man who knows Sammy well sits in a Glasgow bar with other men who know Sammy well, and narrates the story to them. Every voice, and perspective, is part of the guy's narrative. The narrative makes use of literary and oratory methods, techniques and devices.

TCB: I’ve seen you mention in interviews and in your own essays how much you enjoyed the work of Caribbean and African writers when you were a younger writer – artists like Samuel Selvon and Ken Saro-Wiwa. Were novels such as The Lonely Londoners and Sozaboy important for you in developing the prose formulation of voice for this book, or was their significance more in what they represented; the refusal to assimilate to English RP for the language of their narratives?

JK: I was already involved in my own work in my own way. The crucial thing for me was recognising kindred artists involved in identical, and related, issues, struggling with language as an effect of linguistic and cultural imperialism. I came upon Selvon's work in the mid 1970s, and others such as Tutuola, and many others; Saro-Wiwa's work maybe ten years later. He was later for myself, but just one of many. The important connection was New Beacon Books, bookshop and all matters literary and political, and the connections through anti-racist struggles.

TCB: In your Afterword to the 2007 edition of An Old Pub Near The Angel, you wrote:

I tried and rejected the present tense; locked into one dimension, behaviourist, static, lacking mystery, deterministic, non-existential. Just fucking philosophically naïve… the mental masturbation of the bourgeoisie, that was how I felt about the ‘I-voice’ present tense.

This is a really interesting point for aspiring writers like myself, as so much of the literature you encounter is written in 1st person, present-tense. I guess I’d just like to ask you to explain this a little further? What is it specifically about that narrative mode that you dislike or that you think does not ring true?

JK: It is difficult to be more specific! It is one-dimensional, philosophically naive, making certain untenable assumptions about 'objective reality' and naive in its apprehension of drama, and how drama works. It is impossible to know the work of Kafka, Beckett, Hamsun, Joyce, Camus, Sartre (and countless other noteworthy writers, including James Hogg) to continue for long in that '1st person, present-tense' mode.

TCB: Did you try to write in this mode early in your career and if so, what was it that prompted you to move away from this?

JK: I didn't try to write in that mode, I did make stories using the device. The '1st person, present-tense' does have its uses. It is simply another way of making a story. I am arguing that it is a very limited device and fails to deal adequately with more sophisticated work.

TCB: Could How Late It Was, How Late have been written as a 1st person present-tense narrative coming directly from the mind of Sammy, or would this have been untenable?

JK: Not untenable, impossible, an absurdity.

TCB: There was something I mentioned during the interview we conducted for issue #3 of thi wurd – about how Flannery O’Connor said she didn’t even know the character in her great story, Good Country People, was going to have her prosthetic leg stolen until she saw it happen there on the page. Does your own level of ‘improvisation’ extend as far as this too; when writing How Late It Was, How Late were you unaware of what was happening until it was actually occurring during the writing of that first draft?

JK: I created the story from nothing other than myself. I sat down and began writing and the first sentences remained the first sentences. From thereon I moved, going more deeply, shaping and clarifying, staying with the moment, allowing the character to enter properly, within his own situation, his own existence, never jumping ahead to describe actions, never knowing more than the narrative.

TCB: The American writer Hubert Selby Jr said this in an interview in 2003, with regard to the writing of his great novel, Last Exit To Brooklyn:

I also knew that if I wrote the way I was being directed to write, that I would look like a barbarian, a primitive, and if I didn’t succeed perfectly, I’d look like an idiot. But, I had no choice. Anyway, that’s where it all started. I had to find the means, as they say, to be loyal to these people, to be true to the nature of their lives.

I think it’s fair to say that How Late It Was, much like Last Exit, is a novel that is innovatory and/or ‘experimental’ in terms of its language and syntax. A significant feature of Sammy’s thoughts and his language, which is very distinctive, is how the text deals in repetitions and fragments of sentences. Were you ever concerned with how you were managing to represent this in prose, both in terms of its artistic efficacy and how it may be (mis-) interpreted by readers/critics?

JK: I see Hubert Selby's work as within a tradition and my own is also within a tradition; these tradition are related closely, and cover concerns associated with with existentialism, anti-imperialism and the elemental rights of every human being.

TCB: A beautiful moment in the book occurs when Sammy is becoming frustrated and depressed at his treatment by a ‘Medical Officer’, who is noting down his answers to a succession of questions, and he suddenly starts singing Always on my Mind inwardly to himself. It’s then as though the music has buoyed him. How important is music in this book, to Sammy, and to you as an artist? Do you consider your work in prose fiction to have any relation to songwriting?

JK: Sammy has endured years of imprisonment, a married man with a child. I cannot imagine music not being of fundamental importance to him. Music is art. Within art people encounter all that there, and this is an aid to survival for those experiencing deprivation. Literature and orature are concerned with syntax, phraseology, rhythm, grammar: so too is music.

TCB: This is a quotation from your interview with Roxy Harris in a 2009 edition of Wasafiri magazine:

A professor at the University of Texas at Austin – she’s an African-American woman who had made certain links with my work – began teaching How Late It Was and then constructed a course to do with Virginia Woolf and James Kelman. These links and this course would have been unthinkable or seen as absurd in the UK. It often takes someone from outside the culture to see that there are things that can be shared, that can be talked about.

I think many people might find this a surprising comparison. One of Woolf’s many dubious statements about those outwith her own social elite was her disdain for “working men attempting to write” – this seems like an antithetical mindset to that of your own work. Do you appreciate the artistry of Woolf’s novels on a technical level, independent of her worldview? Do you see significant parallels between How Late It Was and Woolf’s work?

JK: I haven't read Virginia Woolf's work. On the wider issue, I don't find it easy to section off myself in such a way as to applaud technique, disconnected 'artistry'. It would become a matter of style. I do not see art operating in that way. I don't see much difference between that and finding it worthy of comment that Hitler had a very neat moustache, Stalin had a rather stylish hairstyle, that Churchill had a very fine rhetorical delivery when he made the case for chemical weapons to be used on the civilian population of Kurdistan in order to expropriate their oil-rich land. Their land.

TCB: Roland Barthes wrote:

For the purpose of achieving an ideal digressiveness and an ideal intensity, two strategies have been widely adopted. One is to abolish some or all of the conventional demarcations or separations of discourse, such as chapters, paragraphing, even punctuation, whatever is regarded as impeding formally the continuous production of (the writer’s) voice – the run-on method favoured by writers of philosophical fictions such as Hermann Broch, Joyce, Stein, Beckett. The other strategy is the opposite one: to multiple the ways in which discourse is segmented, to invent further ways of breaking it up. Joyce and Stein used this method, too;… To write in fragments or sequences or ‘notes’ entails new, serial (rather than linear) forms or arrangements.

By way of comparing How Late It Was, How Late (also A Disaffection) to your more recent work, those great novels of the late 80s/early 90s were not demarcated in any way other than space-breaks, whereas Dirt Road (2016) was presented in distinct sections, and your new, as-yet-unpublished novel Creative Chronicles is given in a succession of shorter, titled chapters. Is this a conscious development in your style of novel-writing, to move from one continuous flow to something that is more formally structured?

JK: I don't find Barthes point here of particular value. Joyce, Stein, Beckett are great writers but they operate in distinctive ways. Stein and Beckett moved much more deeply, and successfully, in relation to time and space, in my opinion. It was what Joyce aspired to. There is no 'style' in my work. These are technical matters, they are necessities. Another writer once remarked to me that he quite liked the way I didn't use quotation marks. He did not grasp 'necessity', that the movement between the external and internal was impossible where dialogue was separate from narrative. It derives from necessity; finding ways to go more deeply.

TCB: You’ve never written a sequel to any of your novels. Is this because you perceive sequels to be akin to commercialism and lacking in artistic integrity, or is it more a case that each novel feels like a finished concept in itself? I’ve always thought there could be a great second book about Sammy.

JK: I see this relating to your fourth question. My stories generally begin from one human being. It might be said that the creation of this one human being is the story. Once the human being is created there is no second story. All that might exist from thereon is a series of situations and experiences that this character, the fictional human being, encounters. Any sequel would begin from an already realized character. There's nothing in it for me, speaking as the artist, the creator. I've got too many stories to write, too many I want to write; my life is full of my own projects. If anyone ever wants to write a sequel to any of my novels I might not object, get in touch with my agent! ●

James Kelman's book, 'The Freedom to Think Kurdistan', is available from thi wurd.
You can keep up-to-date with his writing projects by following on Twitter @JamesKelmanNet