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Man Booker Prize 2011 longlist: Stephen Kelman interview

Man Booker Prize 2011 longlist: Stephen Kelman interview

MBP: Congratulations on being longlisted for the Man Booker Prize with your debut novel Pigeon English. Where were you when you heard the news and how did you react?

SK: Thank you, I'm thrilled and honoured to be on the longlist. I was building a wardrobe in my new house when I heard the news - my agent called and told me to put my hammer down; there followed some screaming and whooping (my agent) and some stunned silence (me). I was absolutely shocked, I hadn't been expecting it at all. I finished the wardrobe the next day, but it took about a week for the shock of the news to wear off. Now I'm just enjoying being in such great company.

MBP: Pigeon English tackles the complexities of why teenagers can be drawn into gang culture in inner-city housing estates. Can you tell us a bit more about how you researched the novel?

SK: I was still living on an estate much like the one featured in Pigeon English; while I was writing the book I was able to draw from first hand experiences, overheard conversations, observed events. Also, I remember clearly the pressures I was under as a teenager and a lot of these pressures are universal and don't change across generations. There's an acute need at that age to feel a sense of belonging, of fraternity, of safety in numbers, and part of the appeal of joining a gang is to have those needs met.

MBP: Your novel could not be more topical at the moment with the backdrop of the riots. Do you feel you understand why teenagers have been involved in the riots having written/researched this novel?

SK: The teenagers living in the sorts of areas in which Pigeon English is set feel betrayed by a consumerist society that promises them plenty without really giving them the means to attain it. There's a great sense of frustration and resentment there, and a lack of positive role models to counterbalance that with a sense of hope. These kids feel like they have nothing to lose, and that's why I think they defaulted so quickly to the kind of violence and criminal behaviour we saw during the riots. They've become a generation without a clear moral grounding or a clear direction, and society's task now is to try and restore some of that.

MBP: How difficult was it to write with the voice of a Ghanaian 11-year-old?

SK: I found it an incredibly enjoyable challenge to write in Harri's voice: he felt very real to me from day one and I loved interpreting the world in his words, it made every day I spent with him a joy.

MBP: Pigeon English is set to be adapted for BBC television. Can you tell us a bit more about that?

SK: Yes, I'm very excited about that. Adam Smith (Skins, Doctor Who, Little Dorritt) is on board to direct a feature length TV film with Jack Thorne (This Is England ‘86, The Scouting Book For Boys) writing the screenplay. Casting is underway and we hope to go into production before the end of the year. I've had some input into the drafting process and I can't wait to see how it comes out.

MBP: What are you working on next?

SK: I've just finished the first draft of my next novel, which is completely different to Pigeon English. It's part novel, part biography about a friend of mine, a Mumbai journalist called Bibhuti Nayak who breaks unusual world records in his spare time.

Listen to our Man Booker Prize podcast on Stephen Kelman

Stephen Kelman, shot for The Man Booker Prize