The Scottish author on working on the buses, how writers block is an economic luxury and having 150 stories on the go
Im at the desk most mornings between 5.30 and 7. Every day is the same. I developed the practice under pressure of external commitments and obligations. I began writing while a young fellow in London in the mid to late 1960s, working at any job I could find. Most began at 8am, and went on for ever. By the time I came home I was too tired for anything. I discovered a first principle of art: a weary mindina weary body. So I did my own work first my writing which meant rising two hours before leaving the house.
In 1969 I met Marie and we married the same year. I continued writing and working after the same fashion. In my mid 20s I was driving buses. We had two kids by then. If a shift began at 5am I would have managed an hour on a story before taking the first bus out of the garage. It was a wrench leaving the story but better that than trying to write in the aftermath of a 12-hour shift.
I was stealing time, operating a simple maxim: make the best hours your own rather than those you sell to an employer. It worked. During the formative years I discovered another first principle: writers block is an economic luxury. It was inconceivable that I could steal time to write and be unable to write. Even more foolish was the notion that I might have nothing to write about. I made it up as I went along.
I was always a reader: short stories from everywhere, along with the lives of the artists; how they survived, living on their wits, writing, painting and otherwise creating as best they could. In the spring of 1973 aged 26 my first collection of stories was published in the US. The morning after publication I drove an early bus out the garage.
I applied for a job as a mobile-library driver. My only qualifications were a drivers licence and the stories I had published. I didnt get the job.
I had the typical artists fantasy, that I might land a job that enabled me to write while getting paid to do something else: perhaps a security guard or a night porter; a lighthouse keeper, a toilet attendant, a forest fire watcher. I envied those who found such work and was all too aware of those who fell by the wayside, through booze or dope or mere exhaustion; who suffered breakdowns; whose relationships fell apart, whose only support was loyal family members.
At home we were a partnership: Marie was the breadwinner while I provided an occasional chocolate biscuit. For periods I was involved in playschools and nurseries. My daughters were sensitive to the situation. We lived in a flat. If their pals were up at the door they would tell them: Ssh, Dads writing.
In my early 30s I landed a job as a writer in residence, but discovered the one thing a writer in residence doesnt do is write in residence. Once again I set the alarm clock.
Short stories are my first love. It is the diversity in their creation. When in doubt make it up; if one isnt working then jump to another. This makes the form ideal for those who must work under domestic and/or economic burdens and it is entirely consistent that women are to the fore in their creation. I recall a story in which a working mother with a house full of kids had 15 minutes a day to call her own. Take from this another first principle, not so much of art but of life itself: from the depth of weariness anything is possible. We make use of ourselves. If my mood or emotional state is wrong for one story I put it away and start another, or scroll down the old stuff and see whats what.
People inexperienced in literary art believe that stories begin from design or a kind of skeletal form, transcendental perhaps, thus Kantian rather than Platonic, words committed to the page with an internal eye to a blueprint, and after a lengthy process we end one work and move on to the next. Its nonsense. Ever peeped into an artists studio? At any one time I have around 150 stories in progress (plus essays, plays and novels). A few of those foundered years ago. Every so often I look them over, dredge up another sentence, push on a further paragraph.
Ill die at the desk. So what, wheres the coffee? Forty-five years after that first collection of stories here I go with another. Ye cannay beat that feeling man its beautiful. A new collection of stories! What a marvel.
Hours as many as possible
Words whatever is necessary
Liquid refreshment tea green and coffee densely black: alternately Usque not before 2100 hours
Exercise walking, swimming and kicking a ball about; going for a few beers with old (elderly) pals
James Kelmans That Was a Shiver, and Other Stories is published by Canongate.