Thrillers With Attitude Literary Smorgasbord: Chapter One

For the past six weeks I have been interviewing a variety of flavoursome writers for my Literary Smorgasbord. The Smorgasbord began as a vague idea one Friday evening. By the following Thursday the first interview had been posted and it has rolled from there.

The only thing I decided on from the start was that I wanted to feature a really great mix of writers. So far, I’d say that’s a mission accomplished.  But before moving on to the next set of interviews, I thought I’d have a bit of fun looking back at what has become Chapter One of the Thrillers With Attitude Literary Smorgasbord.

My first guest was poet, Stephen Keeler. I met Stephen when I attended one of his classes here in Ullapool – The Thrill of the Thriller. I don’t think we ever really got to the nub of what that class was about but it was a lot of fun. In his interview, I asked Stephen at what moment he had first defined himself as a writer.

One sunny school day in 1958, in Mrs Butterwick’s class when she asked us all to write about what we wanted to be when we grew up. I wrote, “I want to be a writer.” and could think of nothing else to write.

The ritual humiliation of the young Stephen Keeler by Mrs Butterwick duly followed.

You know that saying about school being the happiest days of your life? I think whoever said it couldn’t have gone to school.  Either that, or they went on to have one truly miserable life.

Stephen introduced me to the local writing group, which was where I met YA author, Cyan Brodie. Cyan, or Phil as I know him, has become a good friend over the years and can always be relied on when I need an honest crit.

I also met Alison Napier through the writing group. We only met a couple of times before she moved to Perth but our friendship has blossomed through the medium of Facebook. Alison’s interview had me howling with laughter, though I had to decline when she offered a photograph of a fish supper as her portrait.

Alison owned up to a chaotic approach to her writing. At the other end of the scale, with a much more measured and defined way of working is Drew Hipson. As Drew works within a framework of deadlines and publishing dates for his magazine, All Mod Icon, that’s hardly surprising, but I would hazard a guess that when he is working on his memoir, Le Depart, he does so in the same disciplined way.

I take a similarly disciplined approach, mainly because it’s the only way I can be sure of writing anything. As it turned out, Drew and I have a few other things in common, including a love of great graphic design, Charles Bukowski’s writing, and the music of The Jam.

All Mod Cons by The Jam.

All Mod Cons by The Jam.

You know how it is when you really get something? When you know it, understand it, feel it? It was like that for me from the moment I first listened to The Jam’s third album, All Mod Cons. The profound anger at the heart of the lyrics resonated with me. There was plenty to be angry about back in 1978. Problem is, while a few things have changed for the better, there is still a lot to be angry about in 2015. All Mod Cons plays as fresh today as it did then, and it resonates still.

Humphrey Bogart in a publicity shot for The Maltese Falcon.

Humphrey Bogart in a publicity shot for The Maltese Falcon.

I was a fan of film noir long before I even knew there was a name for the kind of movies I liked.  The Maltese Falcon, Double Indemnity, Ace In The Hole – I couldn’t get enough of them.  Everything about them, from the moral ambiguity, existential struggle, and cynicism, to the cracking dialogue and often stylised delivery, sang to me, and of course I eventually graduated onto noir books.  It was no surprise then that when I came across the term neo-noir, I immediately wanted to know more.

Neo-noir author, Richard Thomas, does a great job of explaining what it’s all about in his Smorgasbord interview, but for a real taste of it I recommend reading his book, Disintegration. It blew me away.

If ever a person blew me away, it was Orla Broderick. The woman is a force of nature. The kind you meet and then think, what just happened? Earlier this year, an impassioned call for action from Orla resulted in previously empty bookshelves in Women’s Aid shelters across the country groaning under the weight of books sent in by authors and publishers. Way to go, Orla. She also has a good line in nun stories.

In 2014, Orla won a Scottish Book Trust New Writer Award. When she performed onstage for the Award Showcase in January, the recipients of the 2015 Awards were in the audience. Stephen Keeler was one of those recipients. And so it comes full circle.

I can’t wait for Chapter Two of the Literary Smorgasbord, which is going to kick off with a very different flavour of writer – a stand-up comedian.

Thrillers With Attitude Literary Smorgasbord: Stephen Keeler

If you have ever been anywhere near a writing group or book festival of any kind, you will know that writers come in all shapes and sizes, from big, robust circles, to tiny, stabby stars. They come in different flavours too, from cool, classic vanilla, to eyeball-exploding, triple-hot chilli sauce. Some of the nicest people around are writers, but some of them truly are mad, bad and dangerous to know.

Thrillers With Attitude has undertaken to meet up with a few of these weirdly-shaped and strangely flavoured writers, some well-established, others emerging, so that you, dear reader, can find out more about them without endangering body or soul.

Welcome then, to the Thrillers With Attitude Literary Smorgasbord.

My guest this week is poet, Stephen Keeler.

Hi Stephen, thank you for agreeing to take part in the Literary Smorgasbord. Please tell us a little bit about yourself.

Thanks for inviting me. This is a real pleasure.

I was born and grew up in the north-east of England and read English at Durham University where I also qualified as a primary and secondary teacher.  I worked in Sweden for five years in the early 1970s, and met my (English) wife there. She was a school teacher and eventually head of a large west London junior school.

I took an MA in applied linguistics at London, and we moved to China in 1981 where I directed a UNDP programme for British Council in Xi’an for a couple of years.  Back in the UK, we found a lovely house in Richmond-upon-Thames and lived there for the next 25 years during which I worked as a freelance language teacher and consultant, mostly in Sweden but also in the UK and for The British Council in Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia and other Soviet bloc states. Our daughter was born in 1988. My wife died in 2003.

I moved from west London to Ullapool in 2010, to write, and this year (2015) I was fortunate to be selected for a Scottish Book Trust New Writing Award.

What were you like at school?

Junior school me was well-behaved and polite and passed the 11+ (thank God!).

Grammar School me was a bit of a yob, really (massive understatement). I was rarely in serious trouble but rarely really out of it, until Philip James Osborn walked into my classroom spitting fire and ready to haul me into some kind of civilised state, with violent force if necessary, not least by introducing me to Lit-er-a-ture. I owe him everything: Joyce, Milton, Chaucer, Forster, Golding, Shakespeare, of course…

What has been the evolution of Stephen Keeler, the poet?

I wrote the usual compulsory embarrassing guff as a fey teenager, and even gave some of it to girlfriends. Ouch! My toes are actually curling as I type this. Another English master at the same school told me my poetry was crap so I wrote no more for over forty years. No exaggeration.

I wrote prose, and much of it had poetic elements. I also wrote occasional journalism, travel pieces, a detailed journal, academic papers, school books, study materials, occasional memoir sketches and even an award-winning series of English-language magazines and workbooks for teenagers. But I kept the poetry well back until I suppose it began to seep out.

I started to write poetry a little more consciously when I joined the North-West Highland Writers group which I found very supportive when I first moved to Ullapool.

Last December (2014) those wonderful people at the Scottish Book Trust decided to give me one of their New Writing Awards, and it is no exaggeration to say that it has changed everything for me.

At what moment did you first define yourself as a writer?

One sunny school day in 1958, in Mrs Butterwick’s class when she asked us all to write about what we wanted to be when we grew up. I wrote, “I want to be a writer.” and could think of nothing else to write.

Everyone else wrote pages about being a nurse or a train driver or fireman or secretary – they were somewhat unenlightened not to say unimaginative days – but I could write no more and so was hauled out in front of the class and made an example of. “Well some writer you’ll turn out to be if you can’t manage more than that!”, hissed Mrs Butterwick through pursed lips, her eyes narrowing like a big cat about to maul. I was metaphorically mauled anyway by then. And maybe she was right. OfSTED wouldn’t have let her teaching style pass unremarked but I bear absolutely no grudges. No, really I don’t.

Why do you write?

Because I couldn’t not write.

How deep do you dig when you are writing – how much of yourself do you expose?

Two questions there, I think. I dig deep. I had what might euphemistically be called a colourful childhood; I’ve travelled very widely and lived for lengthy periods in a number of countries. I have a lot of ‘material’ to call on. I am especially interested in the importance of objects (was it Rilke who said that there was nothing of any more significance than objects?) and how they signify. I find myself calling on childhood memories even when not writing specifically about childhood. Toys, ornaments, streets, cities, cars all seem to feature a lot in my poems. Old girlfriends, my daughter and my dearly-loved and much-missed wife, too.

But, having mined material, I’m not sure that I really ‘expose’ much of myself. No one would be interested in that. It is the universal appeal of literature, its ability to speak to the reader in language and images and rhythms and signs that help us keep our sanity. I think.

Are you inspired by any writers in particular?

I read the James Bond novels of Ian Fleming as they were published over fifty years ago, and swallowed them whole. I have no doubt that much of my professional life and the vast amounts of travelling I’ve done are as a direct early influence of Fleming. For a while, as a gauche young man with more on his mind than in it, I even smoked Morland cigarettes, and I once went into Boots, in Darlington , and asked if they sold Benzedrine tablets!

As a poet I am strongly influenced by Philip Larkin who I believe to have been England ’s greatest poet of the second half of the twentieth century.

Best writing moment so far?

The realisation that you’ve somehow, against all the odds, managed to nail it in a poem. Nothing, well nothing much, beats that.

Of course, in ‘career’ terms nothing has come close to getting a Scottish Book Trust New Writing Award, as a result of which I got a support gig with Elvis McGonagall recently and learned all over again what it means to be stage struck. I loved it!

What are you working on right now?

All poets want their first collection published. I have the material for a first collection and am actively seeking a publisher.

I’m working on a pamphlet of poems about railway travel. Yeah, I know.

My Scottish Book Trust year project is The Poet’s Calendar in which I am writing one poem each month, about that month. So far I’ve written January to June… a bit predictable maybe but a realistic project with a more or less 100% chance of being completed.

What are your ambitions, writing-wise?

Getting that first collection in print and on bookshop shelves.

What is your writing routine – do you have a favourite time of day for writing?

I live alone and so can write whenever I like. I frequently write very late into the night, and just as frequently wake at three and jump out of bed with a ‘thought’. I’ve been known to greet my postman (around 10.30) in pyjamas having been up for eight hours writing. Something he never believes.

Do you have a set amount of writing to do each day – if so, how is it measured – pages, word, lines, time..?

I try to write something every day, even if it’s only notes. My writer’s notebooks are my most important piece of kit.

I don’t measure by quantity or time. When I begin to work on a new poem I try to work on it uninterrupted until at least a first draft is complete. I may work on some poems like this for three or four days. Seamus Heaney’s answer to the question’ ‘how do you know when a poem is finished?’ was, ‘when it stops bothering me’. I get that.

How do you write – longhand, laptop, typewriter, quill and ink?

Quill and ink, of course. I’m a poet, what d’you expect?

Any writing habits – music, particular place to work?

I need complete silence to write. I write on narrow-lined A4 pads from Ryman, with a Staedtler Stick 430M (nerdy enough?) but usually transfer to my laptop at some difficult-to-pin-down (critical mass?) moment, to develop and finish.

What inspires you to write?

The unbelievable good fortune of being alive, and wanting to celebrate that. I know that sounds guffy, but hey…  And all that stuff about wanting to know what I really think about more or less anything. It’s true for me. And the exhilarating experience of finding a poem taking its own course (sometimes you have to rein it in).

Any advice for aspiring poets?

Three things: read poetry, read poetry and read poetry. You cannot write poetry if you don’t read it.

If there was one person, either contemporary or historical (or fictional character) you could spend a day with, who would you choose and why? How would you spend the day?

Flippant or serious? Flippant, I think: Greta Garbo – or the person who is for me her latter-day equivalent – Susan Sarandon. How would I spend the day? I should be so lucky!

Serious: my maternal grand-father who was a complex and accomplished man but who was profoundly ill-at-ease with himself. I’d love to spend a day with him teaching me to build radios and use a soldering-iron and develop photographic film and make mandolins, all of which he did effortlessly it seemed to me as a small boy. Odd how I don’t miss my parents but I frequently think of him and wish he’d had an easier life.

What are you reading at the moment?

Fifteen poetry pamphlets I’ve just been sent to review by the end of the week, oh and Johnny Rogan’s comprehensive biography of Ray Davies (a hero of mine and contender for your question about who I’d like to spend a day with).

 A few quick questions. Favourite book?

The Whitsun Weddings by Philip Larkin.

Author…

William Boyd

Drink…

Hendrick’s gin

Food…

Janson’s Temptation (a Swedish dish with anchovies, potatoes and cream)

Film…

Casablanca – unoriginal, I know, but that moment when they all stand to sing the Marseillaise has the tears pouring every time

Radio programme…

I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue (Radio 4)

Television programme…

Lilyhammer (Netflix)

Music…

Elgar Cello Concerto and Peter Warlock’s Capriol Suite; Beatles, Kinks, Cream, Elvis Costello, Tord Gustavson.

And finally, where can readers find out more about you?

On Twitter @stephenkeeler and you can read about me and my fellow New Writing Awardees at the Scottish Book Trust.

Thank you, Stephen.

This has been a lot of fun. Thank you so much for inviting me.

 

Stephen Keeler. Photo: Rob McDougall/Scottish Book Trust www.RobMcDougall.com 07856222103 info@robmcdougall.com

Stephen Keeler.  Photograph by Rob McDougall/Scottish Book Trust.

LG Thomson is the author of Boyle’s Law, Each New Morn, and Erosion.