In Mo Said She Was Quirky James Kelman enters the consciousness of a London blackjack croupier.
Helen, the novel's protagonist, works in a casino but we don’t see her at work until close to the end. Can you talk a little about deciding to begin with her cab ride home from work, and end where you do?
The story begins with Helen, this young single mother, who works five nights a week in a casino in the West End of London and she lives in the Southside of London. So she needs a car home every evening, every morning really, five or six in the morning. So she and two of her female colleagues, they’re on their way home and the taxi stops on the banks of the river Thames. It takes awhile for the traffic lights to alter, and during this time two homeless guys appear. And Helen realizes that one of the homeless guys resembles her brother, whom she hasn’t seen for 12 years. He’s a few years older than her, but as far as she knew he was somewhere else in England and she didn’t expect to see him here in London, so part of her anxiety begins from that notion of, “Is it or is it not my brother?” If it is, why is he down-and-out here in London. That kind of brings the story into life, that moment.
Did you choose that arc because you wanted to begin with her brother and leave the casino for the end?
The real kind of eventual technical problems to resolve—and I did resolve them—were to do with time. Time and space, that business really affects all art. Or all art attempts to stay in the moment, and my work usually stays in the moment. The immediate past, so it’s like, the present tense that’s just recorded. That’s what makes it past tense, is the act of recording it. So it’s a movement on from… It’s not a first-person present tense novel. Nowadays contemporary literature has taken a step back. First-person present tense. That’s the crucial thing, present tense—which I find not powerful; it’s weak. And, in fact, it’s almost like a step back from late 19th century drama, ya know. In the way that prose was going through the great writers, Kafka and others this way. It’s kind of naïve, I find it. It’s philosophically naïve. And it’s not rich in the way that the verb [snaps his fingers] can be [snaps again] very rich.
Even from a publicity angle, it seems people like to consider the work stream-of-consciousness, as much as that term is thrown around. For lack of a better term, the book seems to be a “working woman’s” stream-of-consciousness.
Except that it’s not stream-of-consciousness.
Because it isn’t in the first person?
Not necessarily. It’s simply that that’s not what it is. Stream-of-consciousness is a very tired phrase. It’s a 19th-century phrase. It suggests that my work comes within the English Literature tradition, and you can pare that down to the Anglo-American tradition, which is basically standard English literary form. My work doesn’t derive from that tradition. It has an influence within it, obviously, but my work comes from the Scottish literature tradition, which is a distinctive tradition. It comes from a different intellectual tradition, it comes from a non-empirical behaviorist tradition. It’s a tradition that took seriously Descartes. And also took seriously ways of attempting to combat Descartes’ skepticism and move into something other than that. It’s an intellectual and philosophical tradition more akin to the French tradition. It tries to find a way of bringing together external reality and the subjective perspective and perception. And what you find in the Scottish Literature tradition is an attempt to bring together the external reality and the subjective perception of it. A way of trying to pull together the external reality through the internal subjective being. You’ve transformed the external world and you’ve shaped it through your own take on language. That is part of the Scottish tradition.
There are pinpoint moments in the novel where the external world collides with Helen’s thinking. Either she’s looking at pictures, or looking out of a window.
You cannot over-exaggerated that, how important that is, because that is a very, very difficult thing to do. Some critics who deal with my work, and other similar work, don’t get that. They don’t realize that that kind of transition has happened, into the outside levels. Suddenly you are looking out a window, and it’s a third-person narrative. And you’ve got to there from some anxiety state, something driven from Helen’s psyche... into her perception of the street outside, the idea of the street outside, in a kind of objective sense. It is a very difficult transition to do. This might sound absurd to you, but it cannot be done if dialogue is framed in a way that separates it from narrative. You know how our tradition uses inverted commas? Or we might look at Kerouac and Joyce using the dash for dialogue. It doesn’t matter what punctuation or technical devices you use, as long is it is separate, then that transition I’m talking about, it cannot be done. You can’t just add in “she wondered.” That’s the sort of thing that distinguishes it from so-called “stream-of-consciousness,” which is always an internal subjective state of being almost as though it’s a random thought process. I don’t like the use of the phrase for different reasons, but one is, it suggests a non-edited process. If you look at Molly Bloom, for example, you’ll see it’s totally worked out. It’s so precise. And it has to be. You cannot be imprecise and lazy. Many students don’t get that. They think it’s enough almost to talk into a tape recorder [laughs].
Since so much of the book takes place in Helen’s momentary thinking, how did you decide when to place her into scene?
It’s not always a decision at all. My technique is always to stay in the pulse of the individual. So it’s within the moment for the individual, within the breath, every action… It’s a kind of tracking. I tend to see it as a handheld video camera, but this video camera can take in sound, and it can take in touch, and smell, all the five senses. And you have to stay within this moment and never jump ahead of the character. So using that kind of technique developed by someone like Kafka, that kind of subjunctive mood. And there are things... In my early work, I used to do it in a very studied way. In an early novel of mine there were no abstract adjectives or adverbs. Everything has to be concrete. You can see the blue sky, but you can’t see the beautiful sunset. That’s impossible because that’s a value. There’s no value-laden language allowed in that. And Kafka does that to some extent too, as part of that kind of mood, there’s no judgment being made within the text; there is no mediator between the thing itself and the audience. Most unlike the Anglo-American tradition, where, I mean, no one appears to notice the God voices are fucking racist or anti-Semitic. You go, “Hang on a sec…” Like Evelyn Waugh, you say, “This is Racist, the God voice is a fucking racist bastard.” [laughs]
Helen inhabits a fairly masculine environment. She wonders about the patrons frequently. As a man, was it difficult getting into the mindset of a female protagonist?
Well, to some extent, but I have two daughters. So some of it becomes a basic artist at work here. You know, I’ve got a granddaughter now too. And I’ve got Aunts, and a Grandmother, and mother and all this. This is stuff that you’ve internalized, to some extent; every artist should do this. As you know, once you break it down and think “What does an artist do?” Forget about being a male writer. The person first and foremost here is an artist. It doesn’t matter if you’re male or female. One of the things that you do instinctively is to observe, if you’re any good at what you do as an artist, you’re always observing. And subconsciously, you don’t have to note it all down with pencils. I never carry a pencil anyway. Although you tend to when you begin, there’s nothing wrong with doing that, but gradually you take everything in, and then when you sit down to go to work you’ve amassed a tremendous amount of knowledge and information. And that applies to a male writing about a woman, as it does the other way around, which we’re more used to. George Elliot wrote great works with male central characters; we take that for granted. Or the Brontë sisters.
So it’s that same artistic process of staying in the moment with the character.
In that sense, writing about a woman for me is no different. As I was saying to someone on the radio: it might be stronger, writing as a man, because you pick up information writing about a woman that perhaps a woman writer might ignore, because she’s so at home in that world. A male’s normal response to the novel is, “I don’t believe that level of anxiety, is that true?” Or if I would say to my daughters, “How many times a day do you say you’re sorry? How many times do you apologize to a male during the day?” He barges out a door you were going in, you say you’re sorry, he doesn’t even pause. We have three t-shirts; well that does us 10 days. [laughs] Five pairs of socks, if you even wear them [laughs]. If you look at what a woman has now, and she might not even realize until we say, ya know, “Why?” That question “why” might not rise, but to the external observer it’s different. For me, it was much trickier to work from a blind human being like in How Late It Was, How Late. A man who goes blind and it’s not congenital. That in a way was really difficult, although it’s a similar technique you use. Just stay moment-to-moment, never get ahead of the character.