If you haven’t seen someone reading Stephen Kelman’s Pigeon English while on public transport, then we’re thjnking you haven’t been paying very good attention. The hugely acclaimed novel is told from the first-person perspective of 11 year old immigrant narrator, Harrison Opoku, as he and his family try to get by in a council estate. Its wonderful author, Stephen Kelman, was kind enough to answer some of our questions.
Planet Notion: You were unemployed when Bloomsbury offered to publish your book. What did it feel like to be recognised for something you had worked so hard for?
Stephen Kelman: Having wanted to be a published author for as long as I can remember – and having almost given up on it ever happening – when it finally happened there was a surreal element to it, I found it difficult to take in at first. Once I’d had a chance to process it, I think the overriding emotion was one of gratitude. I was very aware of how slim the odds were of my book – anyone’s book, in fact – finding the right home at the right time, and I just felt incredibly honoured that a publisher like Bloomsbury believed in it enough to want to go ahead and, quite literally, make my dreams come true. Also, a great sense of relief that I hadn’t been barking up the wrong tree all these years.
PN: What made you want to be a writer?
SK: I’ve wanted to be a writer since the age of six, it’s just an instinctive thing that’s been part of me since I can remember. I was a very keen and precocious reader at that age, and the love of reading very organically and quickly became a desire to write.
PN: What was your favourite book as a child?
SK: The first book I fell in love with – that I read over and over, and that I remember making me think I wanted to write a book of my own – was The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain, a copy of which was bought for me by my grandmother for my sixth birthday.
PN: Did you study in the UK? What did you study?
SK: I went to the University of Bedfordshire and took a degree in a wholly unsuitable, unfulfilling subject that was completely unrelated to my writing aspirations. But I finished it, and have the certificate to prove it. If nothing else, I have staying power.
PN: Pigeon English is a very honest, raw novel that deals with thoughts and events that a lot of children can relate to. What was your inspiration to write about the subjects of growing up, moving, experiencing and dealing with life itself?
SK: Well first of all I think adolescence – Harri, my narrator is 11 years old – is a really fertile age to explore; an age when the boundaries and possibilities of the adult world are being tested, when an individual’s morality is being formed, and this ties in with the topic of the book. I was very interested in how a child might react to moving to a different country, with a different set of rules in place, a different set of pressures and threats to those he has faced before, and how this might impact on his nascent sense of his own identity, what he might do to assert that identity against some pretty tough obstacles. Harri’s story is, in essence, about self-determination, choosing to do the right thing when it’s not always the easiest path to take.
PN: What is your background?
SK: I was born and raised on a council estate called Marsh Farm, in Luton, which was and still is quite a diverse neighbourhood with its share of problems. I was fortunate in that both my parents were around, and they were both in work so, although things were never easy, my childhood wasn’t as deprived as some. Although my household was never an artistic one, I was always encouraged to follow my own dreams, which is something I feel very lucky about.
PN: Are there any characters in the book that represent part of you or what you have experienced or felt in the past?
SK: I think a lot of the characters in Pigeon English reflect my feelings in one way or another, or at least give voice to some of the things I have experienced growing up and living in an environment that is similar to the one in the book. That sense of dread and of frustration is something I felt at times, but I also felt a great sense of privilege in being exposed to a diversity of cultures from a young age, and this is reflected in some of the more exuberant exchanges between the children. The character who most closely resembles me is Dean; when I was eleven years old I had two best friends, one of whom was a positive influence on me and one of whom was negative, and these relationships are quite similar to those between Harri, Dean and Jordan in the book. A number of the scenes between them were directly informed by my memories of that time in my own life.
PN: How long did it take to complete the book, until you were completely satisfied with it?
SK: The first draft took six months. It took a further six months, once I’d secured an agent (the amazing Jo Unwin at Conville & Walsh) to trim and hone the manuscript into the form in which it was submitted to publishers, and once Bloomsbury had acquired it, another couple of months’ fine-tuning with my amazing editor, Helen Garnons-Williams.
PN: Have you read any of the other novels that have been nominated for the Desmond Elliott prize?
SK: No, I haven’t, but I look forward to doing so very soon.
PN: What are your plans now? Are you working on your next piece?
SK: Yes, I’m working on my second novel right now. It’s completely different to Pigeon English, it’s partly about a friend of mine who lives in India, who breaks world records in his spare time. That’s all I want to give away for now…
PN: Do you think life in London (and any other city) in relation to gangs, crime, etc. has become worse over the years?
SK: I think it’s quite clear that the gang culture has had a detrimental effect on life in our cities, and that the threat of lethal violence has become an almost mundane part of daily life for the children who live in these environments. Until we invest properly in education and training, and give our children the opportunities they deserve, I’m afraid there will always be a minority for whom crime is an attractive alternative.