Eye on the Indies

Eye on the Indies

A Look at Indie Authors and Their Publishers

By Lanie Tankard, Indie Book Reviews Editor

Lanie Tankard

Book: Dirt Road

New York: Catapult, July 11, 2017 (416 pp; $16.95, US paperback), original ISBN 9781936787500, eBook ISBN 9781936787517. Distributed by Publishers Group West. Great Britain: Scottish publisher Canongate Books.

Author: James Kelman

The only Scottish author ever to garner the Booker Prize for Fiction is James Kelman, whose novel How Late It Was, How Late won in 1994 amid controversy over its language. Christine Amanda Müller of Flinders University (Adelaide, South Australia) describes the hullabaloo in her book A Glasgow Voice (p. 234). In his acceptance speech, Kelman declared: “My culture and my language have a right to exist, and no one has the authority to dismiss that right.” (The Oxford Encyclopedia of British Literature, Vol. 1, p. 191.)

His novel A Disaffection was shortlisted for the Booker Prize for Fiction in 1989, the same year it won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Fiction. Kelman has twice been a finalist for the Man Booker International Prize, in 2009 and 2011. He received the National Library of Scotland’s 2008 Saltire Society Literary Award for Scottish Book of the Year for his novel Kieron Smith, Boy, which also picked up the Scottish Arts Council Book of the Year Award. When the Glenfiddich Spirit of Scotland Awards were established in 1998, Kelman was the first winner of the Books category.

Born in Glasgow, where he lives today, Kelman has held teaching positions at Goldsmiths’ College (London), the University of Texas (Austin), San José State University (California), and the University of Glasgow (Scotland). He is a prolific writer across a variety of genres, having produced eight novels, ten short-story collections, one drama volume of plays, and two sets of essays.

Kelman, now seventy-one, left school when fifteen and worked as an apprentice typesetter. He emigrated from Scotland with his parents and four brothers to California in 1963, returning the following year with them—minus one brother, who remained in the United States. Kelman then worked various jobs around Britain, such as bus driver, farmer, asbestos-sheet mixer, and construction laborer. In his early twenties, Kelman began writing while living in London, where he met his wife, a social worker. When they moved to Glasgow, Kelman joined a writers group formed by a Glasgow University professor, Philip Hobsbaum, and published his first collection of short stories, An Old Pub Near the Angel, in 1973.

At the Edinburgh International Book Festival in August 2016, Kelman said the idea for Dirt Road arose out of conversations with Scottish filmmaker Kenny Glenaan circa 2008. Indeed, Glenaan is one of three people to whom Kelman dedicates Dirt Road—the other two being Scottish cinematographer Tony Slater Ling and American fiddler and banjo player Dirk Powell (a founding member of the Cajun musical group Balfa Toujours). Kelman wrote the story first as a screenplay in 2010. Since that time, Glenaan has been developing it into a movie titled Dirt Road to Lafayette (currently in postproduction, shot in both Louisiana and Scotland), while Kelman was turning the script into a novel. Dirt Road was a “Book at Bedtime” series on BBC Radio last year.

Publisher: Catapult

Catapult (featured in WTP’s December literary bookmarks) is a young publishing house launched in September 2015 with a broad mission. Not only does Catapult publish books, but it also offers writing classes, produces a daily online magazine of fiction and narrative nonfiction, and “hosts an open online platform where writers can showcase their own writing, find resources, and get inspired.” Such an expansive focus creates a community in which both developing and recognized writers alike can feel at home.

Based in New York, Catapult merged with West Coast literary publisher Counterpoint Press in September 2016. Counterpoint operations remained in Berkeley (except for the Soft Skull imprint, which moved to New York).

CEO Elizabeth Koch, one of the co-founders, details Catapult’s vision in a letter on the website. In a nutshell: “We publish stories that celebrate life.” Koch holds a Creative Writing MFA from Syracuse University, where she studied with author George Saunders. She is the daughter of Charles Koch.

Pat Strachan holds the title Editor in Chief of Books at Catapult. She was formerly senior editor at Little, Brown—and previously fiction editor at the New Yorker and vice president and associate publisher at Farrar, Straus and Giroux. She has also been executive editor at Harcourt Brace and Houghton Mifflin. Strachan has earned editing awards from PEN and Poets & Writers. She is a graduate of Duke University and a Radcliffe Publishing Procedures course.

Andy Hunter, Catapult co-founder and publisher, is also co-founder and publisher of Literary Hub as well as co-founder and board chair of Electric Literature. He has been editor-in-chief of the Brooklyn Review.

Leigh Newman, Black Balloon Publishing co-founder and Catapult editor at large, teaches in the MFA Writing program at Sarah Lawrence College and is also books editor at Oprah.com. Her debut memoir Still Points North was a finalist for the 2013 John Leonard Prize from the National Book Critics Circle, where she was a recent board member.

Catapult magazine accepts writing submissions on the website.


“You can’t learn that accordion in school.”
—Queen Ida Guillory
in The Kingdom of Zydeco by Michael Tisserand

The forthcoming US edition of James Kelman’s novel Dirt Road opens in Scotland. Sixteen-year-old Murdo Macarthur and his father, Tom, muddle through after his mother dies and, seven years earlier, his nine-year-old sister, Eilidh—both from cancer. “People die and you cannot do a thing,” Murdo thinks. He and Tom are far from garrulous. “It was not something they spoke about.”

Uncle John and Aunt Maureen in northern Alabama invite the duo for a two-week visit. The long itinerary begins on a ferry in the lower Firth of Clyde. Struggles are foreshadowed when Murdo forgets his cell phone. “Some folks needed music. Murdo was one of those.” His mother had taught him to play the accordion.

Next comes a train to Glasgow, a plane to Amsterdam, a second to Memphis, and then a bus to Allentown in northeast Mississippi, where they will transfer to another bus bound for Alabama—except they miss it as Murdo wanders outside the station. Exhausted and hungry, the two find a nearby motel to await the next day’s bus. The mishap-ridden trip underscores their life journeys. Murdo repeated a grade, and he’d rather play music than return to school. Tom disagrees.

Murdo’s destiny turns on an epiphany the next morning when he hears zydeco. (Here’s an example from Clifton Chenier.) Going to buy tea for his father’s breakfast, Murdo happens upon a woman playing an accordion. Queen Monzee-ay’s granddaughter (Sarah), who Murdo met last night at a store, accompanies her on the washboard. His hands ache for his own accordion back in Scotland. Queen Monzee-ay offers to let him play hers, and is impressed by his ability. She invites him to join her at the upcoming annual Festival International de Louisiane in Lafayette.

Tom whisks him away, and they leave for Alabama with Murdo’s head swimming in zydeco. “Ye could forget everything. What happens when ye get mesmerized? The way sounds connect in yer brain. Ye hear sounds…What comes in yer ears? These wee passages and tubes. Something does. Then what happens? Connections. Memories maybe. Not just memories. Ye go someplace in yer brain.” Accordionist Flaco Jiménez has said: “The way I learned to play the accordion was on the wild and happy side, much like Cajun and zydeco music.”

Murdo’s grief lightens, but now he’s cooped up at Aunt Maureen and Uncle John’s, sleeping in the basement. Murdo walks to calm himself. One feels empathy for both father and son in their poignant pas de deux with sorrow. A wall of authority separates them. Tom keeps a tight rein on Murdo, now all that’s left of his little family. Consequent tension builds in Murdo’s mind, heightened by comments from neighbors who tell him his mother is “in a better place.”

He accompanies his relatives to a Scottish festival, where he hears songs that sound real to him: “Stories from life.” A musician comments, “All them songs are histories.” As Murdo witnesses the anger certain ones provoke, he grasps music’s role in politics and national identity formation. The rest of the novel is taut, with Murdo figuring out how to get past his father to Lafayette so he can play with Queen Monzee-ay and see Sarah again. When he does, and his father follows him, both face an even greater decision after a band invites Murdo to go on tour with them.

Kelman adroitly ushers readers into Murdo’s conscience while the teenager debates whether to lie. We become as jittery as he does during a staccato soliloquy: “Ye look in the mirror and see other people.” “…nothing you can do is hidden….” “Whatever.” “So it was too late. It was, it was too late.” When psychologist William James introduced the term stream of consciousness, he noted: “…thoughts go on.”

Murdo’s roiling mental activity allows Kelman to bring in themes common to his other work, such as class, race, gender, language, immigration, and culture—plus identity, sexism, bullies, medical care, theology and death, generations, and family history. The author’s own life parallels Murdo’s, as Kelman left school at fifteen to work in a factory and was seventeen when his family emigrated from Scotland to the United States. Dirt Road is the second novel he’s set in the diverse diaspora of America, besides You Have To Be Careful in the Land of the Free. He teaches this Scottish teenager the difference between Creoles and Cajunszydeco and conjunto. The father/son conversation about the Mexican border, dusted with Scottish dialect, is splendid.

Language can marginalize people in different societies. Kelman has long championed the working class and the underdog by shining a spotlight on the elitism of speech. People in Scotland have actually been charged with contempt of court for replying “Aye” to a judge instead of “Yes.” In Dirt Road, Kelman becomes an anthropologist as he studies the exclusivity of music in his attempt to unify.

At the Edinburgh Book Festival, he called this novel “a portrait of an artist” (meaning Murdo and his musical ability). James Kelman himself, however, is the virtuoso painting that portrait. In a column for Largehearted Boy, he wrote: “Music is art, central to human existence.” And that’s how he ties all these themes together in Dirt Road, employing French musicologist Jules Combarieu’s idea: “Music is the art of thinking with sounds.”

Parents and teenagers will view the emotional ending from different perspectives, but as Buckwheat Zydeco might put it: Ils sont partis.

Kudos to James Kelman—or better yet: Mealaibh ur naidheachd!

Copyright 2017 Woven Tale Press LLC. All Rights Reserved.

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