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Interview with Stephen Kelman

Bloomsbury author Stephen Kelman offers his advice to aspiring writers. Stephen is the author of Pigeon English, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2011, The Guardian First Book Award 2011 and The Desmond Elliott Prize 2011.

Starting Out

When did you first start writing and how to did you go about starting your first novel?

I first started writing as a hobby when I was eight or nine and I had my first short story published when I was 16 in an adult anthology. I answered an advert in the local paper. A local publisher wanted stories of 1000 words exactly so I wrote one and they chose to include it.

The first time I attempted a novel was in 2006 and I completed it and sent it off to agents and it got lots of rejections. One agent asked to see the whole manuscript but then decided to pass and at that point I thought I might give up. Then I got the idea for Pigeon English. I’d been thinking about the Damilola Taylor story and I was very moved and affected by it. Since then it’s been in the back of my mind that it would be an important thing to write about, but I didn’t have any personal connection to the story so I waited. Eight years later nobody else had written the story.  I’d just received a rejection but the idea felt really strong to me so I thought I’ll give it one last go and if this one doesn’t work out then I’ll give up. That was back in 2008. Immediately as I began my first draft it seemed a lot stronger than the work I had done before. It was the quality I was hoping for and the voice of Harri was a lot of fun to write, he carried me along and gave me the confidence I needed to continue.  It took me from December 2008 to May 2009 to write the first draft. I’d been made redundant from my day job and in a weird way it turned out to be a blessing because it gave me the time to write.

How did you go about approaching an agent?

I bought myself a copy of the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook, as all aspiring novelists are advised to do, and I looked down the list and found half a dozen agents who I thought might be sympathetic to my book and sent off my submissions to them: covering letter, synopsis and three sample chapters. The first three agents rejected it but the fourth was Conville and Walsh. My agent Jo Unwin emailed me and said she loved the book and invited me to a meeting in London. She signed me up there and then.

What is your advice for writers who are just starting out?

I think the main piece of advice is to find a story that you’re compelled to write. You’ll know when you’ve found it, it will come to you. You should have one that’s compelling to you, that you feel is your calling, and have characters you care about and something you want to say that’s personally important to you.

Developing Your Talent

How did you develop your writing style?

It’s very kind of you to call it a writing style. It’s all the narrative voice of Harri and I did whatever felt natural to him. In a way it was as much an acting job as a writing job, placing myself in the character’s skin and seeing the world through his eyes and always keeping in mind how he would respond to situations and because I knew him well it was easy. It’s all Harri and not me. From a novelist’s point of view there are certain techniques I employed, a series of seemingly unconnected segments that all added up to a portrait. But that’s the way a boy of his age would process things and how an 11 year old thinks. Our minds go off in all sorts of different tangents, and that informed to the decision to write it in an erratic style.

What are your tips on writing a pitch and synopsis?

In my synopsis I tried to get across the essence of the story without stating the theme, and wrote a summary of the story, beginning, middle and end. The themes and what you’re trying to say will naturally come out. The people who read them are very practised readers; they know how to extract what the book is about. They don’t want to be told what it’s about, they just want to know if it’s going to be a good story or not.

Were you rejected at first and how did you cope with it?

At the time I was angry and upset and frustrated, I’d only ever wanted to be a writer. It’s tough to face rejection and to have to consider you’re not good enough but for some reason I had this inner resilience, I kept plugging away. Luckily I received good news before my resources of patience and resilience were exhausted.

What advice would you offer to writers whose novels are at first rejected?

If you believe strongly enough in what you’ve written don’t give up, there are lots of agents and publishers out there. Someone might see something in your work that others don’t. Take on board any advice that these people give you if you get feedback and act on it. If it’s a dream and ambition of yours then you should try everything to make that happen. It’s all about pursuing dreams. I had no idea if I was good enough, I’d never studied creative writing, I was doing this on my own in isolation.

Emerging and Selling Your Book

How did you know when the editing stage was finished?

After I got my agent we worked together for 6 months editing the draft, she gave lots of advice and notes and I would go and act on them or ignore them. The first draft was 30,000 words too long so we did a lot of trimming and we beefed up the plot, that took a further 6 months until then we felt it was ready to go out into the world, and that’s when we submitted it to publishers. The editing phase is quite important, you’re advised to strip away what is unnecessary, get down to the nitty gritty – either use it or lose it was a phrase my agent used – and get the plot moving forward while retaining the essence of your characters.

Did your friends read Pigeon English first or did you have outside support?

Absolutely not, nobody read it first. The reader, David Llewelyn at Conville and Walsh, read it first. Now that I’m working on my second book I don’t let anyone see it before I feel it’s a fit state to be read, which is usually two or three drafts in.

Promoting and Publishing

How hard, or in your case, how easy was it to find a publisher? Tell us about the bidding war between 12 publishers.

We sent off the submission to the publishers in January 2010 and at that time we had no idea what kind of reaction to expect, so we sent it off to everyone. The next morning Bloomsbury got in touch with a pre-emptive offer and we thought maybe we’re on to something. My agent suggested we hold out and within three days another 12 offers were on the table, 13 all together, one dropped out when they realised they couldn’t afford us. Then we met four publishers per day to discuss their response to the book and what their plans might be. After a lot of deliberating, upping of bids, and sleepless nights, we decided that Bloomsbury was the best fit for us, there’s a real family atmosphere and they’re a great bunch of people. We knew they ‘got’ the book and would do everything they could for the book and history has fulfilled that promise. As an aspiring writer you hope that one day a publisher will make that offer and I was ready to accept whatever offer came along, it was overwhelming.

How did you feel about being shortlisted for the Man Booker?

It was just bonkers, being an aspiring writer from the age of 6 and becoming aware of what the Booker prize is and what it meant… you do allow yourself to day dream about walking up and accepting the prize, but I never expected it. To get that call was just a bizarre dream. I’m still getting used to the idea that I’m fulfilling my dreams. To be among that company and have that recognition was just amazing.

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Image copyright of Jonathan Ring