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Stephen KelmanAbout Stephen Kelman

Stephen Kelman was born in Luton in 1976. After finishing his degree he worked variously as a warehouse operative, a careworker, and in marketing and local government administration. He decided to pursue his writing seriously in 2005, and has completed several feature screenplays since then. Pigeon English, published by Bloomsbury in March 2011, is his first novel.

Q & A with Stephen Kelman

What are your 5 favourite books, and why?

Animal Farm (George Orwell) – for its economy, its integrity and the incision with which it explores such an expansive topic in a wholly unexpected but perfectly appropriate way.

Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha (Roddy Doyle) – for its exuberant spirit and its humanity – it never pulls its punches, but never forgets to tickle between the last punch and the next.

Penguin (Polly Dunbar) – the most beautiful book I’ve read – poignant, funny, heartbreaking and joyful: an entire library-full of emotional acuity in less than 200 words (and some beautiful pictures).

Of Mice and Men (John Steinbeck) – lyrical yet understated, fiercely moral without ever being pious.

Breakfast of Champions (Kurt Vonnegut) – I can’t explain why it works so well, I don’t know what it’s about or care what it’s trying to say – which is exactly why I think it’s perfect. Artistically fearless yet humane. Crazily incongruous yet utterly essential.

Who are your 5 favourite authors, and why?

Variously for their humanity, pioneering spirit, generosity and effortless skill: Kurt Vonnegut, Richard Yates, Roddy Doyle, Douglas Coupland, George Orwell.

Who or what was your biggest influence in deciding to become a writer?

I didn’t decide to become a writer: it’s just something I’ve been compelled to do since before I was old enough to really know what a writer was. But my mother and various English teachers certainly played a part by encouraging me to read as many books as I could get my hands on, from a very early age.

What inspired you to write Pigeon English?

It was my reaction to the relentless stream of bad news emanating from the media, the consensus view that Britain is broken and its children –whether native or immigrant – are condemned to a life of paucity and hopelessness. Child-on-child violence is out of control, kids are killing each other for no good reason, horizons are narrowing by the day, society is failing its offspring – that’s the picture the news paints and it’s both depressingly accurate and completely wide of the mark. My childhood experience growing up on a council estate was by turns negative and positive – while I experienced firsthand some symptoms of social tension or deprivation of various kinds, I also feel privileged to have been a part of a multi-cultural community whose diversity only enriched me as a person and as an aspiring writer. It was this background which gave me a viewpoint from which to comment on the issues which affect these parts of the world today, and while I can’t deny that in some ways things have gotten worse since my childhood – crime, drugs and antisocial behaviour are much more widespread and the despair this kind of environment induces seems more ingrained – I’m also aware of the positive aspects of estate life and wanted to portray these. The book’s characters are full of life, they’re vibrant and stubborn and although they’re aware of how narrow their horizons are, they rush towards their fate with fierce spirit and dark humour. There’s an almost spiteful exuberance about them which makes it impossible to think of them in terms of heroes or villains – they’re just kids being kids the best way they know how despite society’s best efforts to impose a premature and callous adulthood upon them.

What are you reading now?

Bad Vibes – Britpop and My Part in Its Downfall by Luke Haines – thoroughly entertaining – and the complete works of Richard Yates.

What is the most overrated book you've ever read?

I don’t read books based on popularity or reputation, and I never read a bad book all the way through.

If you could require everyone to read just one book what would it be?

If they chose to read Of Mice and Men I wouldn’t try to talk them out of it.

What's the best thing you've ever written?

I have no way of knowing. I suspect it will be the last thing I ever write.

What's the last piece of your writing that you hated and threw in the wastepaper bin and why?

I don’t have a wastepaper bin, I recycle.

Is there any particular ritual involved in your writing process?

Keep writing until something good comes out. Always remember that it’s never as good as I think it is.