October 2007 Scotland on Sunday

James Kelman

LITERARY critics keep a special dictionary for James Kelman. It is a book full of the most sober words. The Glasgow author is "challenging", "meticulous" and "powerful", they like to say. "He never compromises the integrity of his subject for the sake of entertainment," runs one assessment. Another claims Kelman did not write his 2001 novel Translated Accounts in a "spirit of light-minded japery". Their message is that he is serious and resolute.

The novelist's own outbursts on the subjects of English colonialism, the bureaucratic mindset and the lot of the artist have done little to counter an image of fun-free intensity. Yet here he is, at the age of 61, sharing a table at the Arches Theatre and telling me about the resumption of his intermittent playwriting career with two comedies. He's not exactly laugh-a-minute, but he is quick witted, friendly and just the sort of person you can imagine writing a funny play or two.

Which is also what you'd expect from novels such as Not Not While the Giro and The Busconductor Hines. As he sees it, if certain people have missed his seam of dark humour in the past, there is a simple reason for it. "That to me is a class issue," he says. "A lot of the irony is missing for people who are economically advantaged. So much of the humour is based on the day-to-day reality for most people in the world, which is economically disadvantaged people. A lot of people find it quite funny, but the more security they have, the less funny they find it."

What's strange about finding Kelman in the Arches is not that he is in a theatre, but that he is not in a theatre more often. His twin interests in language and politics – two things that have an incendiary power in front of an audience – should make him a born playwright. Indeed, he always imagined his creative career would embrace drama as much as prose and it's only circumstance that means it hasn't quite worked out like that. "I'd always assumed I'd be involved in theatre or radio," says the Booker Prize winner who has just proof-read his next novel, Kieran Smith, boy [CORRECT], ("An upper-case B would be so f***-ing Dickens," he jokes) due for publication in the spring. "I enjoy theatre, I enjoy the drama and a lot of my work goes that way naturally."

He has had some experience as a playwright. For radio in 1978, he wrote Hardie and Baird: The Last Days, about two 19th century Glasgow radicals, and reworked it for the Traverse Theatre in 1990. By that time, he'd had a couple of other stage plays produced – The Busker and In the Night – and in 1994 he helped mount a short tour of a musical, One, Two – Hey, featuring a soundtrack by the Blues Poets. Most recently he contributed to Andy Arnold's excellent Spend a Penny compilation of monologues performed one-to-one in the Arches toilets (his was called Man to Man and was about male attitudes to drink and violence).

"It would have been good to be more involved in theatre, but the situation Scotland faces and the Scottish theatrical establishment is difficult and I've never found it easy at all," he says. "For me there's never been access to any resources except actor friends. If I'm lucky enough to have three actors, then it's a play for three people."

It is an interrupted track record, but sufficient for Kelman to have kept open the possibility of writing for the stage again. After he was asked by German radio to adapt his Booker-winning novel, How Late it Was, How Late, he thought it was time he finished a number of scripts he'd started over the years and never quite finished. "As well as the ones I'd had produced already, I discovered I had another six or seven," he says. "I wanted to get them finished with so they were not hanging around any longer. I didn't want to always see them when I switched on the computer and turned to 'drama'."

Encouraged by his friend the actor Davy McKay, he sent them to Arnold who liked what he saw and as a result we've got a Kelman mini-season, starting this week with Herbal Remedies, about a chance meeting between three people, and continuing next month with They Make these Noises, about an itinerant worker on a date with a nurse. There are more ready to roll if these prove a success. "Neither is a big play," he says. "I don't see any work by an artist as trying to encapsulate everything in a oner. You can relax and write a few plays, novels and stories, and eventually it's the body of work that adds up to what you do. I don't have any interest in putting everything in one play with a massive statement. If you want a message, away to the grocers, get your messages there."

What theatre offers Kelman is the chance to break away from the interior monologues of his prose work and to look at his characters from an external point of view. His playwriting career has been too uncertain for him to engage in the kind of formal experiments he is famed for in print; rather his plays are real-time "concrete" dramas that pursue his interest in language. "There are things I can do in theatre that I can't do in prose," he says. "The prose fiction that I do tends to work from within the psychology of characters. There are things that I would like to do that may not operate in that way. That includes historical events, like Hardie and Baird and, most of all, the external thing."

Unsurprisingly for a writer so attuned to the patterns of everyday speech, he pays particular attention to the rhythm of his dramatic writing, regarding each script like a musical score awaiting sensitive interpretation. "They are quite demanding for the actors," he says. "The behavioural rhythms are transmitted from one actor to another. It's very tight. If an actor puts the emphasis on a different part of the sentence, for example, that could throw the other actor in a difficult way. Rhythm is crucial. The problem in contemporary theatre is the influence of television. There is an interrupted rhythm because people write thinking there's going to be a break for adverts. Things aren't sustained, the idea of real time is gone and the whole drama from conversation is gone."

To explain how prose writing differs from play writing, he gives the example of 19th century authors, such as Dickens, who adopted an omnipotent role, describing in fine detail everything that was going on. In theatre, a collaborative medium, no single person can do that. "In Bleak House, which is a very rich novel, there is a third-person narrative that reminds you it is not a play," he says. "The author is giving instructions to a director, to the sound, lighting and set designer: everything in there is so concrete. If you're writing a novel, you're taking care of everything. In theatre, someone provides the set and lighting for you and the actors provide something that is not what you expect. I don't mistake prose fiction for drama at all, because I'm too excited by the medium and there are different things I can do."

His plays may not contain a big message, but he is sympathetic to the idea that in an atomised society the very act of an audience coming together in a theatre is a political act. "Since the late-70s these communal spaces have been slowly but surely wiped out," he says. "Whether it's libraries or community centres or places where people meet. These places being eradicated is a political act by government. I feel that excitement when I go to the theatre, as soon as the curtain goes up, the play begins, and there's a hush that's always exciting."

Herbal Remedies, October 16-27; They Make these Noises, November 7-16, both Arches Theatre, Glasgow

© Mark Fisher 2007/2009

This is a sample caption