Monday, 12 October 2015

Stephen Kelman Masterclass, Sunday 11 October 2015, Ilkley Literature Festival

Attended this Masterclass yesterday morning as part of Ilkley Literature Festival 2015.

Stephen Kelman whose first novel, Pigeon English, was shortlisted for the 2011 Man Booker Prize for Fiction and the Guardian First Book Award and translated into 25 languages.  Kelman has also written several screenplays for feature films.

The Masterclass theme was Creating Voice and we were looking at how we build a character (first/third person) and the tools to do so.  We also wanted to discover how we could continue to be surprised by our own voice.

Stephen revealed that he edited his first two books as he wrote them, but he tried to write a first draft for the third without editing and found that he couldn't do it as that is jus not the way he works.  If you wish to force yourself to be free of the inner editor whilst writing your first draft, it was recommended that you write it longhand.  The editing process is to simply and refine, but if it is not needed, it has to go.  A writers instinct grows with experience, keep working your muscle and it will train itself.

Stephen's influences were Animal Farm by George Orwell, Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck and the simple, direct yet emotionally weighted sentences that carry a lot of power, written by Kurt Vonnegut, which he was interested to learn that Vonnegut had to work at that effortlessness.  Stephen's two books are both first person and the story their interactions with the world, but he also gave an example of third person voice which can build the voice of the character and reveal the story of the author.

The themes/messages of a book are vital.  Stephen tries to leave his personality out of it as much as he can and present the world through someone else's eyes.  Provide clues to your reader what your message it, i.e. what you are exploring in your piece, but only suggest, don't hit them over the head with it as that will not be satisfying as the reader needs room to imprint their own interpretation on it.  Allow the character to take over and lead you through the book.  He recommends choosing a character who is different from yourself.

Stephen revealed that he largely makes the story up as he goes along, but not with Pigeon English as he knew the end and with Man on Fire one of the main protagonists was a friend in real life.  In that book he followed his life, so he wrote his experience of his personality but sent it to him on his final draft and would have re-written it if he had not approved of it.  He has written 40k words of his third book and all the characters are figments of his imagination and he finds this less fraught because with a real person you have to tread a different/careful line. 

He starts off with the background of a character (you do not have to make extensive notes and plot/outline character plans) but he carries the emotional life of his character in his head before he starts. 

Stephen feels realistic is a double-edged sword as a character has to be flawed for them to be 3D real, not just a representative, but an individual who has their own journey through the world.  Give them a quest, e.g. how they seek to escape their environment.  How we choose to reveal their character when we put them on the page and we should want the reader to have their own personal connection so he feels we should allow them to decide what they look like (this was of particular interest to me as I do this with most of my characters as I feel if you are too prescriptive in character description you can stifle the connection).  He gave an example that his publishers wanted to put an image of a boy on one of his books in paperback facing forwards, but he convinced them to turn the image around so you didn't have to impose this image on the reader.  Physicality has to have a purpose and make it from the perspective of another character, for example an observation when action is taking place.  He feels that Harry (Harrison in Pigeon English) is a naive person surrounded by darkness, but the dangerous elements bounce off him.  Ask the reader questions, e.g. what is his background and why is he reacting this way?  He is more sympathetic in the extract to the pigeon than to the death of a child he knows.

Can you use ambiguity in dialogue when not in first person?  Use negative space as an irony.  Characters being aware of less than the reader does this.  When Harry joins the local gang and his own life becomes in danger, the reader realises this before the character does.  What he chooses to ignore are the bigger issues, not a game as he sees it.

In Man on Fire one of the characters John Lock is a 60 year old English man with cancer, who finds his days may be numbered and panics as he feels he has not left and imprint on the world, so want to do something magnificent before he dies.  He approaches Bibhuti Bhushan (BB) Nayak of Navi Mumbai when he comes across him on TV demonstrating his world records.  A journalist for the Times of India and a self-educated middle-class intelligent man, he breaks world records in extreme sports in his spare time, beating the pain barrier.  He has 18 world records in the book and his next record, the big one, is 50 baseball bats broken across his body.  John Lock fakes his own death, walks out on his wife and goes to India to see BB and wants to help him with his next attempt.  The reason why is explored throughout the book and there are many subtexts going on all at once, for example the fulfilment he feels by being hit by a baseball bat and contributing to world history, the nobility of intention behind this bizarre act and what is its value?  BB hopes to show the common man that there is happiness behind physical pain and his hunger for acknowledgement in a country where cricketers and Bollywood stars get it, how he feels he comes closer to God and serves his fellow man.

The book is from BBs POV and there are extracts of his fictional memoirs doing bizarre things for fun, e.g. being kicked in an unprotected groin 43 times in one and a half minutes by his martial arts students.  His language and actions show his character, for example no fear of his own mortality/pain but he thinks about this as a team effort and has compassion for those kicking him.  If he thought about it too much, he might not do them.  In India the guest is God, so they put others needs before their own, but the book shows his disconnect between his wife's response and the one he thinks she has.  This contradiction is a powerful tool in fleshing out a living, breathing human being as it doesn't hut to show the vanity of a character,then surprise the reader by how that plays out.

We had only a brief time to look at the Catch 22 extract in third person narrative and the four exercises suggested on the hand-out, but we could take these home to examine them in our own leisure.

Stephen closed the Masterclass by revealing that it took a year and a half to write and edit Pigeon English (his first draft took 6 months), then his agent told him it needed to be 30k words less and more of a plot.  He recommends that we listen to the agent as it is all for the good of the book.

For future events at Ilkley Literature Festival see:

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