Pills, Thrills, and Bellyaches
Irvine Welsh's Rebel Ink
Scottish author Irvine Welsh is best known for several things, not the least of which is his propensity for writing much of his dialogue in the impenetrable, phonetically rendered brogue of his Edinburgh roots. Trainspotting, his first novel (1994, following the short story collection The Acid House), was a dark and humorous ensemble piece that flipped the druggy world of working-class Edinburgh junkies on its pasty white underbelly and poked at it with a grubby verbal stick. Later made into a groundbreaking film starring Ewan McGregor, Trainspotting opened the door for Welsh to continue in a similar vein with Marabou Stork Nightmares, Ecstasy: Three Tales of Chemical Romance, and Filth, which followed in 1995, 1996, and 1998, respectively, along with the stage play You'll Have Had Your Hole in 1998 and in 1999, the TV film Dockers. Add to this the time Welsh has spent DJing at various U.K. and American clubs and a legendary appetite for illicit pharmaceuticals, and you've got a man to whom comparisons to William Burroughs are not inaccurate.
("Burroughs, yeah," says Welsh, "but not Kerouac. I was never into Kerouac.")
As the publicly anointed voice of "generation ecstasy," Welsh has taken on everyone from Tony Blair's "New" Labor to the BBC, and this at a time when much of the global youth culture is putting aside books for the redoubtable splendor of the Internet.
For all the brouhaha surrounding Welsh's take-no-prisoners lifestyle, it's easy sometimes to forget that he's first and foremost a genuinely affecting writer, one of the best voices of this generation or any other. His scabrous characters may be shockingly out of control, but they're also completely realistic. Glue is sniffed, love is made, and people die horribly. As Depeche Mode would say, "It's a lot like life."
Speaking of Glue, that's the title of his new novel, a sprawling 500-plus page, multigenerational epic that follows the lives of four mates from (where else?) Edinburgh as they fight, fuck, and drug themselves to adulthood. It's a return to the character-driven style of Trainspotting, in a way, but also a remarkably mature work about some remarkably immature yobbos. And it's great, hideous fun in the grand Welsh tradition.
The Chronicle spoke with Welsh about Glue (Norton, $14.95), the pitfalls of fame, and why its best not to book your book and DJ tours simultaneously ...
Austin Chronicle: Given the topics of your novels, I'm curious about where you grew up and what sort of childhood you had ...
Irvine Welsh: I was born in Leith, which is the poor part of Edinburgh in the old port district. I moved to Newhouse when I was a couple of years old, which is what you'd call a "project" -- a big municipal housing scheme. It was fine because everybody from Leith came out there, you know, and people from all parts of North Edinburgh. There really were not a lot of amenities, not a great deal of shops or pubs or stuff like that; it was just houses, and houses, and houses. The problem with a lot of places like that was when you had massive unemployment in the Eighties kicking in, there wasn't a great deal for people to do. And they had to fill up the council houses, so people weren't able to get transferred to better areas, and then it became kind of ghetto-ized.
I suppose that's informed a lot of the stuff I write about, really. The whole process was one where you have that kind of homogenized working class, yet because of the economic and social changes that took place in Britain, it got polarized into a kind of upwardly mobile working class and a sort of ghetto-ized working class, like an underclass.
AC: What was the first writing you had published?
IW: Trainspotting was my first book, although I had published short extracts from it in magazines, which brought me to the attention of other writers and publishers. That was how I got involved in Rebel Ink, which was a group of writers who were in Edinburgh at the time. It was quite a shock for me to realize there were all the people doing the same thing as me, and then to find they were fairly normal, as well; I thought you had to be a bit strange to be a writer, to sit in your room, spending all this time with people that don't actually exist, you know? That's sort of a mad thing to do. So it was quite a positive thing for me, to find out that there were other people doing this sort of thing, that had been published as well, people like Duncan McLean, Barry Graham, and Kevin Williamson (Drugs and the Party Line) who kind of held it all together with the Rebel Ink magazine.
AC: How did the terrific success of the film version of Trainspottingchange things?
IW: The book had moved from being a cult, underground type of thing to becoming a bestseller, and then it was made into a play which toured all over Britain and abroad and that kicked it up even further. Then when it went to the film it went absolutely ballistic, became an international bestseller, and also kicked up the rest of the books and made them bestsellers as well. It became a kind of industry, really. It became recognized everywhere. [Virgin CEO] Richard Branson was using it for the trains and all that. It was great for me in some ways. When your first book takes off like that, it becomes a massive sort of calling card, right? In terms of what you try to achieve through a book, it doesn't really get much better than that. That was the good part of it.
The bad thing was that although it gained a mass audience, it lost a bit of the respect from some of the punters that felt it was their thing, and now it had been taken away from them. Which always happens in Britain: The middle class always takes anything good away from the working classes. Football, music, and all that sort of stuff -- they always find a way of colonizing it, and commercializing it, and selling it back to the working class. I think a lot of people felt that way about Trainspotting. They felt it had undergone a process of commercialization which basically had taken the soul out of it.
AC: But realistically, do you think there's any way around that sort of cultural co-opting? That happens to almost every working-class movement, be it punk rock or Irvine Welsh, doesn't it?
IW: I think the only thing you can do about it is not to sell the rights to them. I've resisted selling the rights to Marabou Stork Nightmares, and there have been quite a few bids to make it into a film, but I really wanted to make sure that it wasn't done in an exploitative kind of way. Nobody has been able to convince me that they'd be able to handle it and the whole issue of rape and sexual abuse in a sensitive way. I kind of doubt whether film as a medium can do that.
Everybody that speaks to me in Britain about the books says that they think Marabou Stork Nightmares is my best book, and I think that might be because it's not been taken on by the Trainspotting process. It's been staged a couple of times but it's not been given the kind of big appropriation treatment that the other books have been subjected to.
If you want to be purist about it, I think the only way you can do that is to say "I'm not going to sell the rights to this book. If I want to make a movie, I'll write a screenplay, but I won't sell the book." Part of me thinks, Well, it's a very hard thing to do. You have to be a self-denying fool in a lot of ways. On so many levels, Trainspotting was a great movie. I think that if I'd been all dramatic about selling the rights that film would never have got made. And I think that would have been a shame, really, because I believe it was a landmark British film.
AC: What's this I've been hearing about a sequel to Trainspotting?
IW: It's the Trainspotting crowd about eight years on. It's set in the stag movie culture, with pornographic movies, that whole sex-club culture which is really quite big now with the Internet and DVD technology and people having a lot of time on their hands basically.
AC: What's the title?
IW: It's going to be called Porno.
AC: Let's talk about the impact that music has had on your life and work. It's such an integral part of both, what with your being a DJ who was there for Britain's Summer of Love in 1989 through the birth of acid house and ecstasy culture, and before that the punk scene as well ...
IW: The music made me want to write. It made me want to go out and do something. It made me want to be creative. I had been involved in music for a while without getting anywhere, and I'd also thought about doing some writing. I wanted to get those beats, those rhythms into literature. People wonder what got me into using that Scottish vernacular in my writing, and it was the music that did it. I wanted to get something that simulated that 4/4 beat, and I thought, What better way to do it than with that whole Scottish kind of thing, because it comes from that Celtic, oral storytelling tradition. It's a language of performance; it's got its own beats to it, and it's quite funky.
If you write in standard English, because it's an imperialist language, it has those kinds of controlling weights and measures. It's a bit anal and not very funky. So I tried to simulate that kind of effect that you had when you went to a club. I wanted to create a sense of perpetual action that would keep you turning the pages with the movement and the rhythm. And I used the language to do that.
Particularly with The Acid House and Marabou Stork Nightmares, I used typographical stuff like words falling off the page and all that. That was my attempt to try and put different musical effects onto the printed page. I tried to use music to directly influence literature, and not just in terms of the subject matter of going to clubs and taking drugs and getting off your tits, but the actual form of it as well.
AC: You're 42 now -- do you still neck a few E and party all night on the weekends, or has that aspect of your life chilled out a bit?
IW: Yeah, I still do, absolutely. It's a bit different for me now than it was then because I'm not living for the weekend anymore. It's a much more relaxed thing now. It's like, before, it used to be a dedicated thing. You would never go out until say 12 o'clock, and you would never take anything other than your pills and maybe a bit of blow for the comedown later on. It was dedicated clubbing. Now you go to a club and you may have a few drinks as well, you might take a pill, you might do a line of coke as well. It's much less a purist type of thing, you know?
AC: Did you experience much critical or commercial backlash because of the druggy nature of your books?
IW: I always maintained that the franchise was really the characters rather than the drugs. The strength of Trainspotting that I can see now is not the fact that the characters are all taking drugs but those characters themselves. I think in the past there's been some terrible movies and books about drugs, usually because nobody really believes in the characters. I think the thing as well is that there was an acknowledgement that it had become a kind of mainstream thing, and this drug use wasn't just limited to the sort of bohemian kids out there traveling the world and getting off their tits because they were waiting for their trust funds to come through. This was something that was happening to everybody in every street in every town.
AC: Your new novel Glue seems to be a lot more ambitious that your previous novels, not only in literal size but in the scope of characterization. Was this a conscious effort on your part to stretch a bit?
IW: I think it got so big because I didn't have a story, actually. I mean, I had to find the story in the characters because I didn't have one when I began writing. I started writing with the passage in the book set in 1990 and then I moved forward to the present day and thought, Well, now I've got to go back to 1980 to find the genesis of the four characters' relationships. And then I just tacked on the Seventies to give you an idea of what their parents were like and where they came from. So it became a story about friendship but about bereavement as well, and not being able to express your emotions, and miscommunication, and all that. I was struggling, really, to find these things for the characters; it's the most character-based thing I've done since Trainspotting. Marabou and Filth were a lot more plotted-out than this one. This is me getting back to the character-driven thing again.
AC: How long did it take to write?
IW: Too bloody long. Ages. Ages. I much prefer to write something that I at least have some idea where I'm going with it. This took well over a year, but I wasn't at it constantly -- I have a sort of rule of thumb: Write in winter, music in summer. Compared to how quickly I wrote Marabou and Filth, this really took ages, though. It was something that stayed with me awhile, but I couldn't rush it. It was much more a voyage of discovery than the others.
AC: I know on previous book tours you've brought along records and done some DJ sets as well. Will you be working the decks this time out or no?
IW: I thought about it but the thing is it's just such a pain in the ass to lug records across the States. Especially since I'm writing this time out as well, so I've got my laptop with me and it just isn't really practical to lug a big bag of records around for three weeks. It'd be nice not to think about writing for a while, though.