Stephen Kelman is the author of the new novel Man on Fire, which focuses on a man who leaves England for India and befriends another man who tries to break world records in various feats. Kelman also wrote the novel Pigeon English, which was shortlisted for the 2011 Man Booker Prize. He lives in St. Albans, England.
Q: Your character Bibhuti is based on a real person. Why did you decide to fictionalize his story, and what does he think of the book?
A: Bibhuti is not just a real person, he is also perhaps my closest friend, so I felt some trepidation in fictionalizing his story – but there were things I felt I could achieve with fiction that I wouldn’t have been able to with a straight biography.
I also knew that, being an outsider myself, any attempt to portray India from an insider point of view would be fraught with ethical questions.
And really, knowing Bibhuti as well as I do, I didn’t have to work too hard to imagine him in some of the fictional situations I put him in throughout the novel.
For his part, and to my great relief, Bibhuti was very happy to feature in a work of my imagination – he was curious to see where the story would lead and he loves the character based on him!
His blessing meant everything to me, and I wouldn’t have proceeded with the book if I didn’t have it. But fiction can take us, as writers and readers, to places that fact can’t reach, and Bibhuti is as interested in that journey as I am.
Q: The story is told by Bibhuti and a fictional character, John Lock, in turn. Why did you choose to have two narrators, and why did you write each in first person?
A: I wanted to introduce an English character and have him and Bibhuti’s character play off each other.
It’s the outsider perspective of the English character, John Lock, that provides the dramatic tension I was looking for, and which allowed me to explore themes of friendship, co-dependency and colonial exploitation and reconciliation.
The relationship between Bibhuti and John is at one level a mirror for the relationship between India and the UK, its former colonial ruler.
It was important that these two characters each have their own independent voice. They begin the story as polar opposites, antagonists in a sense, and end it having rubbed off on each other and found themselves to be more alike than they realised.
Q: Do you know how your novels will end before you start writing them, or do you make many changes as you go along?
A: I usually know how the story will end before I know how it begins. The final scene is what comes to me first. It’s just the way my mind works, I guess.
Knowing where the characters will end up, it’s then a very interesting task for me to figure out how they got there. Perhaps that method is what keeps me focussed throughout the writing of the novel – a good thing, as I’m restless by nature and quite easily distracted.
Q: Which authors have influenced you?
A: Although I’m a Brit, I’ve always tended towards North American writers – in particular Kurt Vonnegut and John Steinbeck. I’ve tried not to imitate their styles, but their sensibilities and their politics inform my writing.
Vonnegut is everything to me. His humanity, directness, and appreciation of the absurd are qualities I admire. Steinbeck’s sympathy with the underdog is something I share, due in no small part to the circumstances of my own upbringing. I am always looking to give voice to people who are in one way or another underrepresented.
Going back to the beginning, I wouldn’t be the writer I am had I not discovered The Adventures of Tom Sawyer when I did. I first read it at the age of 7, and it had a profound effect on me both personally and in determining the kinds of stories I wanted to tell.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’m currently writing my third novel, which is actually in an American voice – I hope you guys will forgive the imitation!
--Interview with Deborah Kalb