Plunging into a novel by James Kelman is like diving head-first into a chilly lake.
It's a shock to your system at first, and a bit disorienting, but the trick is to keep moving. Once your muscles get warmed up and you get your bearings, the experience is exhilarating.
Kelman, 66, is the Man Booker Award-winning author (in 1994 for "How Late It Was, How Late") whose novels champion the working-class people of his native Scotland. His novels are typically told through the point of view of one character, and from the opening sentence, the reader is thrust headlong into his narrator's thoughts and perceptions.
In fact, Kelman feels so compelled to render his characters as authentically as possible that he's not above rewriting the rules of standard grammar and punctuation.
"There's a very distinctive Scottish literary and philosophical tradition that has more in common with the French than with the Anglo tradition," Kelman says. "It's a phonetic transcription that makes use of the sound of the voice on the page."
His newest novel, "Mo Said She Was Quirky," can be seen as an homage to James Joyce's "Ulysses." But instead of following an ordinary man wandering around Dublin during a single day, Kelman follows an ordinary woman working a night shift as a croupier in a London casino. Helen, who is white, is the single mother of a 6-year-old daughter, she struggles to pay her bills, and she's living with a Pakistani waiter in a neighborhood that looks askance at mixed-race romances.
The author chatted recently about his literary convictions and writing style a few days before visiting Baltimore. He's kicking off the Ivy Bookshop's new "front table" series focusing on intriguing authors from around the world.
You've been working on this novel in one way or another for 25 years.
Many years ago I was commissioned to do a short film. I'm not any good at genre pieces, and so I decided that I would try to defeat the stereotype by making an ordinary young woman the hero. She wouldn't be the society type at all but would be like the majority of people who go to work every day and get on with their lives. And to further defeat the stereotypes of genre fiction, I decided that she would have as a boyfriend a young Muslim.
The film didn't work out, and I thought it might be a short story. I felt strongly about the central character, and I wanted to tell her tale. But it was difficult. I kept putting [the manuscript] back in the drawer again and taking it out and putting it back. Then, three or four years ago, I began to get to know her properly.
This is the first novel that you've written from a woman's point of view. Was that a challenge for you?
There are all these great women writers who have written about men, and what you find is they pay attention to detail. They are very precise observers of the other gender.
I have two daughters and two granddaughters, and my first success with the female point of view was when I sketched the 6-year-old girl. She had a strength of character and she already was developing ways of keeping unwanted male attention at bay. I was very satisfied with the way I managed to capture her.
Another thing about women that I hope comes through is how tough they are. Helen always has to be on the lookout. She has to take calculated risks. She's become involved with her boyfriend, and because she works five night shifts a week, she has to really trust him with her daughter. She worries about that, and she worries that he'll be abused racially.
When all is said and done, she cherishes human beings. That's the feminine side of us, the side that puts trust and faith in people.
I was struck by the way your novel goes in and out of Helen's head. Most of the time, we'll be looking at the world through Helen's eyes. But then we'll suddenly be outside, looking at her. How do you manage to make those shifts seamless?
I always wanted to write stories about people who came from same community as myself. As a young writer, I realized I couldn't write the stories I wanted to write if I stayed in the traditional English tradition. When you have the omniscient narrative voice, the God voice, the central character always is seen as the Other. I really did not want that. That to me is death.
That transition is a very difficult thing to do. It's one of the things that makes my novels not purely stream of conscious, not soliloquies. The way you do it is that a sentence can begin in the outside world, and end up inside her head. Franz Kafka was the first writer to master that.
And, in order to make that transition, I can't have any separation between dialogue and narrative. They have to operate as one. So, I'm forced not to use any punctuation such as quotation marks and most apostrophes that distinguishes between the two.
I don't use apostrophes for negations because writing "wont" and "cant" still conveys meaning. I do use them for possessives. "Bird's" has a different meaning than "birds."
Critics have described this as your most "accessible" novel, essentially because it contains no swear words. What do you think of that?
[Kelman laughs for a long time. Then, just as he seems to be stopping, he starts to laugh again. It goes on for more than a minute.]
Maybe you can transcribe my laughter as my answer.
If you had been raised in the U.S. instead of Scotland, would you have been a different kind of writer?
I might have been susceptible to the influence of alternative American writers. They might have led me in different directions.
A landscape is never separate from the human beings who live there. Part of our tradition in Scotland is that we were forced off our land by the English and the Scottish upper classes. That's why so much of our ballads are about leaving.
We'll be free in a year's time, once the vote for Scottish independence [from the United Kingdom] is taken in 2014. Why shouldn't we determine our own existence? Can you think of any people in the world who don't want to be free?
If you go
Man Booker Prize winner James Kelman will read from his new novel at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Ivy Bookshop, 6080 Falls Road. Free. Call 410-377-2966 or go to http://www.theivybookshop.com.
About the book
"Mo Said She Was Quirky" was published April 23 by Other Press. 323 pages, $15.95.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun