Writing, Scottish Nonsense, and Librarians: An Interview with Chris Kelso

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June 19, 2013 by Nathaniel Tower

One of the toughest things about being a successful writer is balancing writing with a career. Since writing doesn’t pay the bills for most of us, a day job is a necessary evil, but it also can serve as a refreshing break from the stress of the writing world. Today I chat with Chris Kelso, an expert at juggling his real work with his other work. I’ll let you decided which is which.

Chris Kelso is an author and illustrator. He is the author of “Schadenfreude” (Dog Horn Publishing), “A Message from the Slave State” (Western legends Press) and “Charm/Offensive” (StrangeHouse Books). Along with Garrett Cook, he is the co-creator of Imperial Youth Review.

Founder, Imperial Youth Review

Chris Kelso

NT: Chris, thanks for chatting with me. I admire your work and am intrigued to find out more about your process. As a Scottish writer, how do you feel about writing for an American audience? Do you feel there is anything about your writing style that is innately Scottish?

CK: I actually find that my natural writing voice errs more towards the American. I’ve grown up with a lot of US culture and that was more real to me than my immediate environment. I find that when I try to write “British” or about characters that are closer to home – that they often feel labored or not fully realized. It’s weird. It might have something to do with the fact that my peripheral surroundings simply aren’t interesting enough to be interesting. I really can’t write about Scottish characters, not really anyway. I put this down to my need for the unfamiliar to spark my creative imagination. I do think I carry a lot of my Scottish attitude with me though. It’s more to do with tone and less stylistically. I’m a very morose person and the Scots are kind of synonymous with that particular disposition. I’m no different.

NT: You have a relatively new novella out right now. Tell us about it.

CK: “A Message from the Slave State” is really just one big metaphor about the intrinsic servility of man. It’s my take on a pretty overused theme actually. Like most people I need a day job to facilitate my writing habit, but it’s easy to become quite jaded by the industry because of this.  Pain and suffering is something we’ll never be free of and there are all these unseen individuals who puppeteer our lives. On top of that it’s in our genetic make-up to belong to something, even if it’s the imposed structure of an omnipotent slave culture. We cannot escape it. And I wrote the thing in 4 days – which is kind of ironic, because manuscripts I’d spent months and months on never saw print, but this was my first publication! It follows a man named Dan Smear who is a thoroughly reprehensible drunkard. The Slave State is after him, trying to get him to work in a forced labour enclave mining inessential minerals for all eternity. Dan Smear doesn’t want to do this so goes around acting like the worst human being since Caravaggio.

NT: You seem to be working on a boatload of new projects. What are you most excited about?

CK: Hmm…I’m really excited about the anthology I’m editing with Hal Duncan. It’s called “Caledonia Dreamin’: Strange Fiction of Scottish Descent”. It was amazing to see an idea I had blossom into this big thing with Hal attached. Finding a publisher was also ridiculously easy one he was on-board, so I’ve enjoyed the whole process of this one. We’ve just wrapped up the final table of contents and then it’ll be on its way to David Rix over at Eibonvale. It was such an honour to have Hal working beside me too, he’s taught me a lot. It’s also been great reading through the slush piles with him, he’s a tyrant of an editor but that’s why I’m so sure this anthology will be such a success.

NT: How do you make time for all these projects? Do you have to balance all this with a dreaded “day job”?

CK: I’m lucky in that I work in a library, so it’s not too far removed from what I’m actually interested in. It’s still tough trying to balance everything all the same. I’ve only recently come out of higher education on a full time course too and, to be perfectly honest, I’m astonished I managed to pass the damn thing! Juggling work, writing and other financial/emotional commitments is all part of being a writer in the modern climate. I can’t tell you the amount of relationships that have succumbed at the hands of over-work. But then you’re expected to have a lot going on these days. I look at my pal Garrett Cook. I think it’s unbelievable that he can be so accomplished as a writer and have that kind of accumulated fanbase, and still be struggling to make ends meet. I look at him and the reality check comes. Whenever I start feeling indignant about my life situation, I just think about him and I get major perspective.  If I wasn’t compelled to write my life would be a hell of a lot easier. But that’s just what it is, a compulsion, and I’m a submissive to it.

NT: You serve as agent of Adam Lowe. Tell us a little about that. How did you come to be an agent?

CK: Well, I’m actually not his “real” agent. I tried shopping around a great little novella of his called “Troglodyte Rose” and Adam said he’d give me a share if it found a respectable home. I do like bigging up Adam’s work because he’s a major talent. I think we work well together and the really ironic thing is that he’s kind of my boss at Dog Horn. If I’d managed to get him that big contract he was after then I think I could’ve bossed him around for a bit. I think I would’ve liked that.

NT: How would you describe your writing style in one sentence?

CK: Honestly? Utter nonsense…probably.

NT: Who is the best Scottish writer of all time?

CK: Jesus, that’s a poser! I’d have to say that Alasdair Gray is my favorite Scottish writer. “Lanark” is a landmark in our cannon of literature, but it was also the first book I ever fell in love with. I was maybe 16 or something when I picked up a copy in the school library. I had no prior interest in reading or writing, but after “Lanark” I couldn’t shake the bug. Gray wrote and illustrated his work too which I admired greatly. “Lanark” has a lot of that Scottish moroseness that I mentioned earlier. I do try to use “Lanak” as my example-of-excellence when trying to forge a career in writing.

NT: Tell us about Dog Horn Publishing.

CK: Dog Horn is an amazing publisher. They offer a podium for writers who are challenging and shocking. The ever-tireless Adam Lowe has built up the publisher into one of the most respected houses in UK alternative fiction. He should be applauded for that. Dog Horn has a youth and personality to it that makes it stand out, much like Grove Press did in the 50’s and 60’s. I’m proud to be a part of it.

NT: You are also the creator of the Imperial Youth Review, which you describe as the anti-New Yorker. What made you start this, and why did you tout it as such?

CK: It’s more Garrett’s prerogative, but I do despise high-brow literature that excludes anything without flowery prose or which lugs around some convoluted political agenda as its bass line… The verbosity of the New Yorker is its biggest flaw. It has a superiority complex and all we’re doing is knocking it down a peg or two. Its cartoons are also shite. Ours are much better.

I started the Imperial Youth Review because wanted to throw my hat into a dying arena. It’s no small secret magazines are going under (and fast), but I believe that if the content is strong enough then it can prosper. The community of writers I’m associated with doesn’t have much of a UK audience either. Because our publisher is Dog Horn it means authors like Cameron Pierce and Nick Mamatas can get even more exposure across the pond. There’s a real market in the UK for strange/alternative fiction, hopefully IYR goes some way in providing that exposure.

NT: You seem to have a fecund mind. How do you come up with all these ideas?

CK: I do love words. I love creating messed up characters and using them in allegory. Typically I’ll be at work or at home (where I’m supposed to be studying), when an idea will come to me and I just have to get it down. It is usually when I’m meant to be doing something else that the urge comes upon me. Writing is kind of like self-sabotage for me, everything else takes a back seat to it. I think it might also be because I’m such a deeply boring person in everyday life. You know the saying that suggest authors who write disturbing fiction are usually well balanced individuals, but authors who appeal to the mainstream are themselves disturbed? – Well,  I think there’s real truth to that. If you’re working out the darkest thoughts of the human mind on paper then they’re less likely to spill out into everyday life. People like James Patterson who writes mainstream, formulaic fictions are absolutely mental. There’s no vicarious outlet, apart from inflicting terrible books on us all maybe! I guess this is my roundabout apology to my grandmother for writing about such lewd trash – and the reassurance that I’m not a psychopath. If I’d written the DaVinci Code then chances are I’d be a nutter!

NT: Where do you see yourself as a writer? What are your ultimate goals?

CK: I’d love to achieve some kind of recognition, even if it just means I can give up the day job and write full time. This is of course completely unrealistic. I’m not looking for any kind of grand celebrity status, because; let’s face it, that was never on the cards for me or the type of stuff I write anyway. If I can gather a small group of fans I’ll die a happy man…a happy, poor, poor man…

NT: Okay, your turn. Ask me one question. Anything. Make it count.

CK: What’s your most memorable sexual injury?…

NT: Hmmm… Any sexual injuries I may have experienced have vanished from memory. Too bad.

One thought on “Writing, Scottish Nonsense, and Librarians: An Interview with Chris Kelso

  1. Scotland! And yes, Alasdair Gray is fairly stunning. Great interview!

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