But the idea of transformation has always been something that I romanticize in a work. I’m cautious of it but I also need it to connect my thoughts with the process of making. That’s really important.
Reading Irvine Welsh means a glossary on the side: “bairn” is baby; “bevvy” to drink; “burd” a babe … writing in the voice of the Edinburgh schemes (housing projects), Welsh does for Scottish brogue what Carver did for American vernacular. And for all his bad boy persona—he’s been labeled the and house guru—Welsh enfranchises his “cunts” (pals) with a gritty sensuality. In all his books, Trainspotting (his 1993 debut novel), The Acid House (a psychedelic collection of stories), his most recent Marabou Stork Nightmares and the upcoming Ecstasy: Three Chemical Romances (October), this new Scottish bard deconstructs his world with amazing pungency.
But beyond his shit-tossing humor, Welsh says it’s not the drugs, but the cultures around them that interest him, and the fact that Trainspotting shared club-goer’s back pockets with quarter bags of ecstasy and smack, marked the book a The Catcher in the Rye for the plebs and homeboys. And even if Welsh’s amazing popularity were not testament to his skill as a writer, his incredible eye and ear for detail are, as is his capacity to access the anger and volatility of post-Thatcherite Britain, while also tackling the moral conundrums of morality and redemption, loyalty and betrayal.
Take his most recent hero, Roy Strang: a twenty-something football hooligan lying like a cabbage in an Edinburgh hospital. Going DEEPER DEEPER into his subconscious, Roy recalls growing up in the schemes, fantasizes about the hunt for a mythical stork, and dodges the answers to what brought him to his soporific state. Denoting Roy’s shifts in awareness with varying typefaces and dialects, Welsh guides his narrator through his psychic labyrinth.
So when Renton suggests, while running from the cops (“labdicks”) in the opening scene from Danny Boyle’s soon-to-be-released film adaptation of Trainspotting (to the backdrop of Iggy Pop’s Lust for Life): Choose life: cars, game shows, junk food, pensions, fucked-up brats … or, drugs, it’s not so hard to watch later when the skag-withdrawing hero swims through a shit-infested toilet. Treasure is an evacuated fix: opium suppositories, buried in the wads of soiled paper.
Jenifer Berman You’ve been coined the acid house guru. How do you feel about being the voice of a generation?
Irvine Welsh It’s a load of crap, really. Part of the process of understanding something different is to mythologize it, and that’s what the mainstream media in Britain did with Trainspotting. The book was so different and so obviously from another culture. They weren’t used to it. And as a writer I colluded with that as well. A lot of big things happened in Britain in 1988-’89 with the birth of acid house culture. It became a reaction against the status-quo sterility of the ’80s. Unless you became part of the upwardly-mobile middle class in the ’80s, Britain was quite a desperate place to be.
JB You’ve said that it took HIV and AIDS in the schemes (the housing projects) to give you, and writers like you, legitimacy and a way to write about Edinburgh. Was that you’re objective, to write about Edinburgh—to educate people outside of Scotland as to the situation there?
IW Edinburgh is almost always portrayed as having become a very bourgeois city. I mean, if you look at the representations of Britain in popular culture … Four Weddings and a Funeral, Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility … it’s seen as a very middle class place. And that was never my experience growing up in a housing scheme outside the city. The problem with that touristy kind of culture is that it tends to marginalize the people who live there and the issues and problems that they face. I wanted to write something that came squarely up to that.
JB And in all your books, drugs are a symbol of class apartheid. In Trainspotting, you say, “They cunts aw fucking dying ay AIDS. Killing thumsels. Serves the cunts right.” Tommy dies of AIDS, and he’s the one who initially condemns his friends for doing smack. How palpable is the prejudice?
IW It runs deep. And even within “drug culture,” there are the different subcultures, which don’t really intersect: smackheads, ecstasy, alcohol … . Like Begsbie in Trainspotting, a violent alcohol guy who condemns other drugs. There’s real disdain there, a self-contained prejudice.
JB Your characters barricade themselves against the enemy—parents, the middle classes … . There’s an incredible need to escape.
IW There are two kinds of working class philosophies, a radical or revolutionary one that sees the middle and upper classes as enemies; and another more individualistic desire to escape from the working class and assimilate into the upper classes. That antagonism is always going on in a working class head. It’s wanting to be in a different situation.
JB So as Renton says in Trainspotting, “Life’s boring and futile. We start oaf wi high hopes then we bottle it.” There’s the underlying choice: choose life, washing machines, mortgage payments, cars, junk food … or drugs; or running away, as Kenton does to Amsterdam and Roy Strang does to Manchester. Are those the options?
IW I don’t know. The old routes of radical social change were destroyed by the ’80s, just as social mobility was destroyed by the failure of Thatcherism in the ’90s. Both of these possibilities have lost their impact in the past two decades.
JB For the most part, Trainspotting was written in the vernacular, in the voice of the schemes. In Marabou, you balance that voice with what one would call “proper English.”
IW: Trainspotting came out first, and I couldn’t see the characters having any other voice except their own. It would’ve been so pretentious to put those voices into standard English. But in Marabou Stork, I was looking at the way working class people are taught to assimilate … Roy Strang’s fantasized African adventures … he’s creating this fantasy world out of the material you have growing up, James Bond and all that. The middle class character is an omnipotent, all-powerful character for whom nothing bad happens to, nothing goes wrong for. Roy’s fashioning an escape world from these materials, and that was why the scheme voice, the working class voice, was less ubiquitous in Marabou. This country is so class-based and linguistically imperialist, one of the only ways that you can articulate your voice is by adopting or appropriating that BBC accent, the standard English, all the middle class trappings.
JB Drug culture is present in all your books: the escapism, stigmatization, group dynamics, the adhesive that drugs provide among groups of people. Do you think that you’ll exhaust drugs as a primary underlying plot?
IW Only when society becomes more relaxed about drugs. Because it’s always been a drug society, people have always wanted to get off their face since time began and have always had their drug of choice. What happened in the ‘80s was that the drug of choice changed from being alcohol to drugs like ecstasy, cocaine … Ingesting them, the different states of consciousness that people get into on drugs is not my primary interest. The sub-cultures and underground cultures around the drugs are. And they’re created by the authorities and the media’s reaction. So when the authorities start lightening up, and getting a bit more reasonable about it, then I’ll have a lot less to write about.
JB I read that article by Will Self in The Observer, that made such a deal about glamorizing drugs—he said, “turning human tragedy into a source of rich belly laughs.” Do you put any credence in that?
IW I understand he’s a middle class Oxbridge writer, accusing me of drug voyeurism. What the fuck is he doing reading the book anyway? It’s not written for the Will Selfs and the public school types of this world to pontificate over in their drawing rooms and their broadsheet columns.
JB When I saw the film version of Trainspotting the weekend it opened in London, the room was filled with slumming guys in Pumas. There’s a strong desire for that kind of voyeurism, and people have taken to you as an empowering figure, as a role model.
IW If people feel that what I’m doing is important to them, and it inspires them in some way to be creative, or it gives people a positive view on things, then that’s brilliant. I don’t take on any responsibility for that. The stage adaptations and the plays, because that’s more of a middle class thing, have been seen as voyeuristic. But, it’s precisely the bourgeois-types that are perceiving it that way. They’re recognizing that voyeurism in themselves. It’s a different world and they’re not part of it, they’ve never been part of it, never will be part of it. They see that, feel that, and then they are all enraged about it. That wasn’t my goal. You don’t have to decide that culture should be only for the middle classes.
JB What was your opinion of the screenplay? So many novelists complain about adaptations of their books into film. Did you have issues with John Hodge’s interpretation?
IW No, John put it well. I just let him go on with it, I didn’t interfere at all. As he said himself, I was very saintly. He also said that writing the script was like being a constitutional monarch. He could have consulted with me on everything but it would have been a meaningless consultation, because my part of the process was done. You cannot be too precious about things, you have to give people their heads, let ‘em go on with it. People are going to try to transform it. I didn’t have much input in the film, but I did have a small part acting in it.
JB So many writers have a problem with letting go and then seeing something that is completely different from what they intended.
IW The culture is there for everybody. It’s there for everybody to access. Ideally, in a few years time, all the novels will get published on computer so you can have interactive choices, you can make your own endings. The culture belongs to everybody. It’s not like this is my finished work, as published. I’m not into all that.
JB It sounds like Miramax, your American distributor, is thinking of dubbing the film because of the strong Scottish brogues. What do you think about that?
IW: On one level it’s terrible because it’s losing part of what the culture’s about, where the characters come from. There is a tremendous resistance in America to anything that sounds a wee bit un-American … if it doesn’t happen in America, it doesn’t happen. They’re better off just making it a small cult film, than trying to make it into a big mass market film and dubbing it in “American.” Although it would be quite funny to watch. (laughter) It would be totally ridiculous as well, having people speak with an American accent because people can see it’s not America. The whole Hollywood thing is quite culturally imperialistic. It’s a shame, because American people could identify with the film. I was speaking to Iggy Pop, and he was saying that you’ll have no problem with it at all. Look at something like A Clockwork Orange, it was an event. You pick up the themes and rhythms very, very easily.
JB It’s certainly an urban film. How strong is the influence of a moral majority in Britain? Did you come up against issues of censorship? As we do in the States, for instance, with stickers on records saying, “Parents should be advised, material is inappropriate to children.”
IW The only reason there hasn’t been that kind of backlash against my work is because there can’t be a moral majority here. You hear voices from the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph, but they’re too incompetent and disorganized in Britain to make much of an impact. That is to say, they are the government of the country. And the government’s too disorganized to make much of an impact.
JB I was discussing your work with another writer, who said it was such a pleasure to read your books because they made reading a challenge. Do you find that a complement or a condescension?
IW It’s only a challenge for certain people who don’t come from that culture. But, the publishers have done all the market research, and they’ve found that half the people who have bought the books have never bought a book before, never even read a book before. And I think that’s incredible. Obviously it’s no challenge to them, because it’s an affirmation of their culture. Our culture is hierarchical, it starts off at one place, and it works out contingently from there. If it’s good it will become universal. What people are saying makes it a challenge, it’s the shock, the lack of recognition of that kind of culture. The people from within that culture, don’t find it a challenge.
JB In Marabou, you use three tiers of consciousness: the present, when Roy is in a coma in the hospital; the past, in flashback; and the fantasy hunt for the stork in Africa. And by using different typefaces and a variety of voices, you represent the rapid shifts between these states.
IW Again, you’ve got to remember that a lot of the people who are reading the book are growing up in a video technology, a computer games, graphics era. They’re used to seeing things laid out differently, so text presented in different ways doesn’t really present as much of a challenge as it does to say, people my age who might think to themselves, “Oh fuck, what’s all this?” It’s just meat and drink to younger people, ‘cause they’ve grown up with similar types of representations in different media.
JB Roy’s African adventure gets progressively out of hand, fast forwarding through genres: adventure to thriller to horror. Roy’s losing his grip on the fantasy as the hospital lights are shining in his eyes. Was Marabou, aside from the subject matter, from a purely formal point of view, fun to write?
IW No. I couldn’t split the two up. Marabou was a book I just wanted to get out of as soon as possible. Like method acting, it was method writing, and Roy’s was not a frame of mind that I particularly liked being in. The anger, his hatred.
JB Was it cathartic on some level?
IW Sure. You have to identify with your character, focus in on things from your past.
JB Anything you’d like to mention in particular?
IW No, don’t think so. That’s the whole point of writing fiction.
JB You really do capture this manic sense of the individual being somewhat schizophrenic, and battling these multiple voices.
IW You do. Your external life is often very different from your internal one. There’s so many different levels of things going on, and you can create the feel for the kind of dislocation and fragmentation in people’s lives by using these techniques. Words that stop in mid-sentence, or split into a different story. The only acid test is if it works, as long as it supports what you’re actually trying to say. I’ve read a lot of books where the authors think it’s clever to use postmodern techniques in and of themselves, but these techniques have got to support the story rather than just be there for their own sake.
JB So how does it support your story? In terms of Roy’s fear of accepting, or admitting, his participation in the gang rape he and his friends committed?
IW The text moves all over the place, in and out of different realities, like Roy does in order to suspend a lot of the truth. The text is a dislocator, so he can escape the real world of the rape and his confusion. Like the storks are the dopplegangers for his fears.
JB You never studied as a writer, and you seem obviously critical of a literary establishment. After having had a string of careers, how did you end up writing?
IW It just came out from me, really. I didn’t study writing, I didn’t go to writing school, I didn’t join any writing groups, I didn’t study English literature. It just kind of evolved. I got into the habit of writing notes, and then it would be sketches. It started when I was going across the States in a Greyhound. I was so bored, so I took a little notepad, and started writing things to amuse myself. And then when the whole HIV thing hit Edinburgh, I wanted to write about that in some way.
JB Do you feel a part of this school of new Scottish writers: Andy O’Hagen, Alan Warmer, Robin Robertson, Janice Galloway?
IW Eh … not really, no. I’m not saying that I don’t respect them as writers, I do, but I don’t think you can feel that sort of thing. A scene. Writing is a solitary pursuit. It’s just that we’re all getting a bit more attention now. James Kelman wrote a book a few years back that kicked off a bit of interest in Scotland and in a sense that’s continued. There’s been a lot of good writers in the past from Scotland who have been a bit neglected.
JB You’ve been challenged by some for not being able to as effectively write female characters. But in Marabou Stork, Ms. X, though she barely has a voice, is, in the end, the only one who’s really able to say “No.” This No, this ability to act or speak out against one’s community, is an underlying theme in all your work.
IW Yeah, it’s not so much I can’t write women characters, it’s a question of being very wary of doing it. It’s about acknowledging that you’re not a woman, and acknowledging the other-ness … of how women characters think, feel, react and all that. I don’t think women and men do think, feel, react differently. But again, it’s this whole imperialist thing. You’ve got to be aware of the issues and acknowledge the possibility of that other-ness. So, it’s been a tentative process, for me, writing about women characters.
JB Marabou is on one level so much about Roy Strang’s relationship with his mates, and his need to acknowledge his participation in the rape. I have to say, that it was difficult for me to read that rape scene. It’s incredibly vivid, graphically brutal, and yet, by that point in the novel you’ve shown Roy in a sympathetic, compassionate light because of his abuse by his uncle, his crazy family … . You opened the book with a quote by John Major, “We should condemn more and understand less.” In writing the book did you come to any conclusions?
IW I don’t really think you can come to a conclusion. Your job is to flag up these questions and issues. The idea that pain is passed on. It takes a strong person to deal with it, let go of it, without passing it on again in some way. It’s usually not directed at the person who gave you the pain in the first place, but to some other innocent person. And people do rise above it, and do sort of get beyond it. (pause) Day before last, I went to see the dramatization of Marabou Stork Nightmares at a theater in Glasgow, and it was quite hard for me to see the rape scene acted out. They did it quite unapologetically and it lasted for about eight minutes. When you’re writing something like that you distance yourself from it, at least you’ve got some kind of psychic shock absorbers on. But I’ve never actually read that scene back to myself, and to actually see it in the theater being acted out was quite uncomfortable, in the sense that the audience was really, really uncomfortable at that point as well, as they should have been. That was the whole purpose of it. To show it in a kind of nasty, unrelenting way. What’s really offensive to me is the way that rape’s been treated in a lot of fiction in Britain. You see dramatizations of Catherine Cookson’s books on television, and the person that gets raped always ends up marrying the rapist. It’s always something ridiculous and disgusting. And people who criticize the graphicness in Marabou should think about the way rape’s traditionally been dealt with in British fiction, which is more offensive.
JB Is that just in British fiction, or in fiction in general? It’s a bold move for a man to feel as if he can write about rape from a woman’s point of view—though it’s primarily from Roy’s perspective, you do bring her voice in at the end.
IW Yeah, I mean, provided you’ve been brutalized completely by the world you live in. And to commit rape in the first place, you must have had to have been abused yourself. Rape isn’t a big problem for the rapists, as it wasn’t for Roy and his gang at the time. It only becomes a big problem when you become sensitized, when you open up your feelings. I’ve had scores and scores of letters from women, but also from men who’ve abused women. There’s two guys in particular, and I couldn’t really let them go off with what they’d written to me, so I’ve been in correspondence with them. And they’ve been saying that it’s because they’re reading the book, that they’ve looked at themselves in a bit more detail. There’s this one guy in particular who’s been moved to all sorts of self-revelation. And these are quite working class guys who wouldn’t get into the middle class counseling type of thing.
JB Since they’ve also been abused, are you saying that on some level you exonerate them from responsibility?
IW No. But many of the men who have written to me say they were repeatedly abused.
JB Then what’s your feeling on the nature vs. nurture question?
IW I’m generally undecided. Most abusers have been abused themselves. Yeah, I would give the importance to nurture rather than nature. I don’t think the debate itself is as simple as that. Scotland is one of the most repressed societies. It completely sustains that kind of misogynistic behavior. The pubs, dark inside … a completely masculine environment. And then there’s this militaristic, football thing, and adults in positions of trust. The massacre where all those children were killed happened just down the road from me.
JB And Roy’s just looking for respect. “It’s my fucking entitlement,” he says. You rarely consider how the man comes to understand what he’s done, or even to think about the ramifications of his action, and how he grapples with that. Repeatedly, there are images of the posters from the Zero Tolerance campaign in Edinburgh: THERE IS NO EXCUSE. NO MAN HAS THE RIGHT. WHEN SHE SAYS NO SHE MEANS NO. And in the end, you provide no answers to Roy’s quest for resurrection. But you do set up a dichotomy between condemnation or understanding.
IW It’s not as simple as me putting on my own little hat and saying, “Well, you know, we have to understand and all that.” But we should understand that we keep making the same mistakes over and over again, that there’s that retributive element, that that is a part of humanity as well. And to ignore that retributive instinct is folly. I’m not saying you necessarily pander to that. But in some ways, you have to stand beyond that and say you can’t ignore that retributive instinct.
JB When you say it takes an incredibly strong person to say “No,” it does present options. Does saying no mean confrontation? How does one define, what you call “rezurrection”?
IW Yeah, every individual has to come to it by the way they’re being fenced in.
JB And you’re very condemning of that bourgeois Oxbridge literary community.
IW See, it’s not so much condemning. People can produce good work from that kind of place, but what I dislike about it is the tendency to see itself as a universal, rather than just another subculture. And because it’s another subculture, so-called literary fiction in Britain is just a genre fiction. It’s like Crime, or Romance. That’s why I prefer American writers, because they don’t have that kind of baggage. In America, you can get somebody like…Bukowski, or even somebody more respectable, like Burroughs, or Harry Crews or Dennis Cooper or Gary Indiana, who’ve got a sort of legitimacy. You’ve also got your John Updikes, but, there’s a sense of it being, to me, a much broader cultural base than there is in Britain.
JB In the end, both Roy Strang and Renton need to leave the environments that they come from. Roy moves to Manchester and Renton runs off to Amsterdam … . So getting back to the theme of betrayal, Roy doesn’t seem to go along with the rape easily, while it’s happening; but there’s his fear of disappointing his mates.
IW Yeah, that sense of affirmation within your peer group is such a strong and powerful part of the culture. It’s unfortunate that’s it’s been used in such a destructive way, and is becoming more and more destructive. The only places people can meet collectively, now, are through gangs and groups of friends. It’s very difficult for people to do it anymore through other collective ways like trade unions, football. The only ways that young working class people can get together are at raves and parties.
JB In John Hodge’s first film, Shallow Grove, he takes issue with turning on one’s friends to save oneself, and he clearly pulled that from Trainspotting. But at the end of the film, when Renton walks off with the bag of loot, and is crossing Tower Bridge with this ear-to-ear grin … it’s a much more concise happy ending, whereas your book is far more ambiguous.
IW Yeah, the book was never really finished, you don’t know what happens to him, or what happens to them. Does he stay in Amsterdam forever, or did lie stay there for a couple weeks and get bored and go back? Or does he go back on smack? There’s no resolution, and there can never be any resolution in fiction. People don’t just put stuff behind them. All this stays with them in some form or another. I like the kind of episodic structure of Trainspotting rather than the one worked out in the novel. I have a worked out novel, Marabou Stork Nightmares, where the person’s got to die. But I don’t like to think of there being a real ending in a book.
JB A traditional narrative arc, where the character moves through a very predictable, linear—
IW It’s a predictable trajectory, this becoming a man by slaying the dragon, marrying the beautiful princess and then going off into the sunset. Or some kind of variation on that, yeah.
JB You construct a notion of a character, or a scene or a place, almost solely through capturing the voice, especially in the vignettes in Trainspotting. It allows for a much more subjective reading experience.
IW The attempt to frame the conclusions and endings is another example of that kind of traditional, bourgeois, omnipotent ruling class author, you know what I mean?
JB Umm hmm.
IW The author knows what the endings and conclusions are, and can sort out all the problems of humanity. You don’t know. So why claim this omnipotence? It’s silly. This is what I’m against, the author trying to set himself up as a god-like figure who knows all the answers and knows what is going to happen. Look at a novel like … say, Martin Amis’ London Fields. It starts off with this guy who’s a white, omnipotent, middle class author. He’s sitting in this pub in West London, in walks this French vamp, you have no idea what she’s doing in this pub in West London. And there’s this darts player in the other corner, and the author decides to stage their whole lives ahead of them for the whole book, just like that. I think that’s flicking nonsense. I can’t suspend disbelief enough to get anywhere near that kind of nonsense.
JB So this whole school of meta-fiction, the author’s omniscient voice, is a self-aggrandized narcissism?
IW I don’t give a toss what the writer’s views are, or what they think. So, I try rigorously to apply that to myself. I want to create characters who speak for themselves, in their own conflict. I don’t want them to prove my ideas. So if the characters conic to me as racist or sexist, or violent or psychopathic or whatever, so be it. I’m not going to set myself up as this great liberal who approves or disapproves of the characters in the book. To me they only exist as a culmination of behavior. The chattering classes always think that they have got to pontificate about any kind of art that conies along whether it’s from their culture or not.
JB So writing these books is a way to work through social apartheid?
IW I’ve another book out in two months time, Ecstasy: Three Chemical Romances, and it’s either going to get good reviews or it’s going to get bad reviews, but it doesn’t matter because it’s going to sell a shitload whatever happens. I’ve been fortunate enough to discover my readership in my lifetime—and what that’s done is completely negate any part of these liberal critics who only like things that will affirm their own values, but won’t challenge them. People are going to buy it anyway, whatever they say, whether they rave about it, or they slag it off. It makes no difference at all. And that’s a comfortable position for me to be in.
JB Britain is as much an amalgamation of cultures as the United States is, but from what you’re saying, the British literary community is less-or not-apt to accept those voices. What about Hanif Kureishi, for example?
IW It’s more to do with class than ethnicity. They tend to accept ethnic writers as long as they’re middle class. Hanif Kureishi is writing about middle class suburban Asians, not Bradford or East London homeboys. Whereas, Caryl Philips is writing about the legacy of slavery, but it’s acceptable because he went to Oxford.
JB In five or six years you’ve written four books. Are you concerned about exhausting your voice or being too prolific? Is this now, the life of a writer?
IW Basically, I don’t give a toss. I’ll just write until I can’t write anymore. If my next book was my last book, I wouldn’t care at all. If my next book was my two hundredth from last, it wouldn’t bother me. You can only write so long as you feel you’ve got something to say. I don’t think there’s any particular virtue in being a writer.
JB When the film opened in London, the hype was incredible. You and the guys from the film—John Hodge, the director Danny Boyle, and the producer Andrew MacDonald—have been interviewed by just about every publication in Britain.
IW Yeah, the publicity budget was more than the budget for the film, actually.
JB The film never stops. That’s the biggest criticism I had. It’s only in the scene where Dawn, the baby, dies, that the film allows for emotional reflection. Whereas in the book, Renton is also clearly a reflective character.
IW Yeah, that point comes across more in the book. But I like the film’s bias towards action, rather than reflection. Because that’s one of the reasons people go on taking drugs, getting into that sort of lifestyle, ‘cause they don’t reflect, they just keep on moving.
JB Amidst all the hype—the reviews and the interviews—have you been asked questions that have made you reconsider, or see your work in a different way?
IW There’s one critic who said that while what I do in Marabou Stork was from the best of motives, that in the kind of society that we live in now, there’s a perversity that’s grown up, that sees Marabou as pornographic. People will get off on the rush, rather than what is actually being said and written, the actual content. That’s something I’ve considered…I don’t know if it’s changed the way I write though. I don’t know whether you should pay attention to critics or completely ignore them, I just don’t know what I think yet. I tend to just brush them off. (laughter)
But the idea of transformation has always been something that I romanticize in a work. I’m cautious of it but I also need it to connect my thoughts with the process of making. That’s really important.
Sign up for the BOMB Retrospective newsletter to receive curated selections from each decade of the archive.