An Interview with Irvine Welsh
Trainspotting, the first novel by Irvine Welsh, became a stage play and then a popular feature film. Since Trainspotting, Welsh has written eight books. The Acid House was also adapted to a film. His books are known for their phonetic Scottish slang that makes us look like goofs when we have to sound out the words out loud at cafes or in parks to understand them.
Along with novels, Welsh has written plays, has done some screenwriting, and is a boxer.
I hung out with Welsh at a bar in the Upper Haight in San Francisco before he was scheduled to read from his latest book, The Bedroom Secrets of the Master Chefs, at a bookstore across the street.
What’s your reasoning behind using dashes instead of quotation marks for characters’ dialogue? Did it drive your editor nuts?
I was writing my first book Trainspotting and I started using inverted commas, you know, the quote marks and parentheses and all that, and it kind of seemed a bit poncy, a bit foppish. And it’s one thing I always hated when people sort of go like... when they do this thing with two fingers and all that. (Irvine makes two-finger quote marks in the air.) I really hated that and I just thought, “I have to do this.” It seemed too much to belong to the standard English which I wasn’t writing in. So, I was looking at some books and I was reading Roddy Doyle’s book, The Commitments, and I think it seemed to kind of gain something. He’s doing that Dublin voice and he’s using that dash and it seemed to gain power, and visually it seemed to look better. I kind of just liked it, you know what I mean? It was a basic aesthetic kind of choice, really.
The publishers are okay with it. I think that they’re quite used to that kind of thing now. My publisher is the same publisher who published Roddy Doyle, so maybe he paved the way for them, yeah?
I’m a fan of it because I think as a reader it conveys a faster pace; I don’t know if you find that, too.
I do, Tony, it kind of moves on. It sort of just goes bang, bang, bang. It’s sort of like boxer’s jabs, straight into the face you know, dooph, dooph, dooph. These commas just seem to kind of hold things up a bit, I find.
It’s funny you used a boxing metaphor because you have boxed. Do you still box?
I started boxing a bit when I was a kid, and I got right back into it when I was here in San Francisco. My friend Paul Wade has got the 3rd St. Gym, which is the best boxing gym in San Francisco. Paul’s a fantastic trainer and dedicated trainer, and since I was training with him, I just got back into it and I do it all the time now, back in Dublin, back in Edinburgh. I got a gym in Chicago when I’m over there and it’s something you kind of get used to doin’. I couldn’t go back and not do it now.
Do you actively spar with partners?
Yeah. The problem is I’m 47 now and I’m sparring with guys who are usually half my age who are fit and faster and stronger. It keeps you on your toes. You know, I find it compliments writin’. You see when you’re writin’, your head’s all over the place, and in boxing you got to be right there at the moment because otherwise you’re going to get hurt. So it’s just a great discipline, just a great way of re-ordering your head.
When you’re sparring, there’s somebody watching you and you got your headgear on so you’re not taking serious blows to the head or serious blows to the gut. It’s just jabs and it keeps you fit and the training keeps you fit and it stops you from drinkin’ too much as well because you can’t go and spar if you’ve been drinkin’, with a hangover, you just can’t do it. It’s the worse thing in the world I can think of is to be climbing into the ring to spar with someone with a hangover.
So it helps you drink less, too?
It helps me drink less as well, which is a great thing for me.
Were you drinking pretty heavily for a while?
I’ve always been kind of a binge drinker, kind of a binge-and-bust type person. I’ve always done sportin’ things. I’ve always run marathons and played football and so I’ve always been that “all or nothing” type of person; do this thing and get obsessed with it, and then I won’t drink for ages and then I’ll go out and drink heavily for a few weeks, then get fed up with it and sort of get back into training again. So it’s always been that kind of battle with me.
You talked about discipline of boxing. What about discipline of writing? What’s your writing schedule like?
I let what I’m doing dictate the process, so I’m not the kind of person that’s up at six in the morning and saying, “Well, I’ll do a few hours work,” I like to build a little regime around the piece of work that I’m doing at the time, you know. It might not be the same one. Sometimes it becomes a nighter and I’ll just work during the night and sleep during the day. Other times I’ll get up early, maybe six o’clock in the morning and go for a run and then be at my desk at seven o’clock and just work straight through until twelve, and then go for something to eat or go to a bar or something like that, or go to the bookie’s and back to the writing again. I make up a different regime all the time. I have to have a kind of regime. Once I get into that, I have to have something to do everyday, when I’m writing. When I’m not writing, it doesn’t matter, I can sit back and take notes or whatever. But when I’m actually on something like a project, a book, or a screenplay, or a short story that I’ve got to close by a certain time, I have to be disciplined about it and put a regular kind of regime in place.
Do you prefer working with a deadline?
I think so. If the publisher doesn’t set me one, I’ll set one for myself, so I need them I think.
Your first book was Trainspotting. What did it feel like when you saw your book adapted for the big screen?
It was quite a strange feeling. I mean, I’d seen it on stage first, but to see it in the cinema was kind of a weird thing. I was in the film myself. I had a part in it, so I was on set most of the time when it was being filmed, but I purposely tried not to look at any of the rushes. I just wanted to see it in the cinema, and at the cinema where it was playing, I invited some friends, people that were quite critical, like Jeff Barrett from Heavenly Records, and Paulo Hewitt, and Bobby Gillespie, and Duffy from Primal Scream; people who were quite attached to the book and would be quite gobby if they didn’t like the film. But they were all blown away and all really exhilarated by it. It was a great feeling for me to see it come off like that. It could’ve been a shit film. It could’ve been done badly. But I don’t think that Danny Boyle would make a mess of it because he’s such a great director. I mean at that time he’d just done Shallow Grave so he was on fire, like. I was actually surprised at how strong the film was and how great the characters were. It captured the spirit of the whole thing, yeah?
What was the experience of teaching writing in Chicago like for you?
I was doing the proper academic type stuff, it was the BFA and MFA type stuff. I thought the students were great and the staff was brilliant and it kind of was good for me but I couldn’t have done it longer than I did. I did it for six months and that was more than enough for me. I think you suffer as a writer possibly, having to look at and criticize all the people’s work, you know what I mean? I think it’s bad for you. I think writing is a very selfish, obsessive game. I think writers have to be very single minded about their own stuff, and the whole concept of it being taught doesn’t actually really sit that comfortable with me, you know what I mean? I think a lot of these programs have emerged now and I don’t think you should let anybody under thirty on them. I think for older people they work, but for younger people I keep saying “Just get a job,” or “If you want to be a writer, get a job and have something to write about or do a course that’s going to give you some knowledge rather than writing skills,” like. You get writing skills anyway if you just write, you know what I mean? But if you want some knowledge, you want to get some, do some kind of engineering or science or business or social studies or history or geography or something like that will give you a good general knowledge for when you go to write.
There are so many students that are really good writers, younger ones, but they don’t have a thing to write about, every essay I got had like “It all started when we were in high school” kind of thing you know. I’m like “Oh my god.” It’s the Scottish equivalent of some guys going to say, “Two pints of heavy please, barman,” in the first line of the thing, you know.
So it’s just a lot of young people crying out when they should’ve done some traveling or should’ve done a bit of work you know. The older people, I see it works for them because they need the confidence to get their stuff evaluated and read out and the feedback and all that, so I think that works there. What also worries me is that these programs are driven by the fact that there’s so many schools teaching this now. So you’re not teaching people to be writers, you’re teaching people to be teachers of creative fiction. So, it’s supply and demand basically. People want to do these courses.
So much of it has to do with motivation as well, you really can’t teach that. You can teach people the skills and that kind of thing but so much of it has to do with personal motivation, you know.
You see people like Alan Warner (Morvern Callar) for example, he’s just a writer. You don’t have to tell him to be a writer to go and do a course. He’s just a writer, that’s what he is basically. I think there’s some kind of element in that. If you got that in you, you know what you need to do and you’ll do it.
People like Will Self and Chuck Palahniuk, they’re just writers, nobody has to tell them or show them how to do creative writing. They’ll just batter away at it until they find their creative voice, until they find something that works for them and then they’ll go off with it, you know.
Is that how you feel the development of Trainspotting worked out for you?
Yeah, it’s like Ray Bradbury said, “In the writing game you jump off a cliff and then you construct your wings on the way down and you just hope you get a good working pair before you hit the ground.” And I think that’s the way it is, you’re just trying to see what works every time you’re doing it.
Do you ever get writer’s block? How do you deal with it?
Never had it, no. To me, it’s the other problem, I got so many other ideas that I just don’t have time to realize them all. So I’ve never had writer’s block. I’ve never had that kind of thing where I can’t write. I’ve had kind of a paralysis where I don’t know how to finish this story or I don’t know where to take that story or where this is going, and basically I just find that I put them away and work on something else and to work on that, and you’ll find a way through doing that to unblock the other stuff you were doing. It’s not a kind of writer’s block that you can’t write anything, it’s just you’re not quite sure where to take the next thing.
So, do you have a lot of ideas and partially written manuscripts sitting in a drawer somewhere just waiting?
Yeah. What I do is I don’t work on something and then finish it. I work on a few things and get them up to basically a certain level, and then I just keep working on it until one grabs me and assumes critical mass and I just have to go with it and finish it. And when that happens, I can look back at other things, and if they’re not so good, I’ll just bend them. And if they are good, I’ll reuse them again and take them off and go with them.
I finished a book that’s coming out next year, a collection of stories, and I’m pretty much on the way to doing another one, I’m about halfway through another novel and I’m not exactly sure as to what’s going to happen in it and how it’s going to finish and all that. And I’ve got ideas for a next novel after that, so it feels like I’m way ahead of the game.
You lived in San Francisco for a while. How long did you live here?
I was only living here for eight months in between the Mission and Castro, but it seemed a lot longer, I think it’s because I’ve been here every year for the last fifteen years. I’ve spent a couple of weeks here every year, either on book tours or DJing or visiting friends. So I got a good network of close friends here, so it feels like I was here longer than I actually was. I love it here.
With my visa, my wife’s American, and we weren’t married at the time, if my visa hadn’t have run out, I’d probably still be here. I keep making tentative plans to return to California and I don’t know. We’ve been looking at places to live in California from here to down the coast as far away as LA and everywhere in between basically. I would like to come back here at some point, even if it’s doing it only for the winters, like. I’d be able to write so much more because I’d be able to get up earlier with the light and stay up later and all that stuff.
I like San Francisco very much as a town and I feel very much at home here.
(I pull out Irvine’s latest book and show him one of my favorite lines from it)
Here’s something I love from your book on page 250: “It’s more offensive to use the word cunt, than to buy a handgun...” The setting was in San Francisco in that part. Would you like to comment on that?
Yeah, it’s weird, you know, you can buy a handgun, but when you go down to the South and there’s people walking around in restaurants with handguns in their holsters and stuff like that, and I think, well, if I get drunk, I don’t want to bump into this guy or fall across him. This is crazy, this is absolutely crazy. Yet if you say the word, “cunt,” you’re going to be ostracized, and you think, why is there this big taboo with words? Why not taboo on handguns? That would make more sense. More people would be alive, you know what I mean. I’ve called a few people cunts and none of them have died. But if I shot them with a handgun, yeah, different thing.
When did you get clean from heroin?
I stopped using heroin in 1983 and I tried it once again back in ’91-’92 when I was writing Trainspotting just to see what it was like because I couldn’t remember it and it was horrible. It was sort of like every come down I had had it was like it was right still emotionally in the system. I mean it couldn’t have physically been there after all that time. I just remember feeling really sick, which I didn’t feel before when I started so, I think that tells you you can’t go back. The older you get, you see it in different ways. Now I see it as a disease of stupidity, really. I think all drug and alcohol addiction is to some extent because you know where the route is going to take you, so there’s no real point to go down that road.
In my defense, at the time we were quite innocent. People would cry wolf to me, you know, authority figures, parents, teachers, the health education experts had said that “Smoke a joint and it’ll kill you, don’t smoke that stuff,” and you know, smoking my first joint, I was shitting myself. I thought I was just going to pass out and die from the smoke. “Speed will kill you,” you know. I used to take my blues, go to a bunkhouse, and jump around. Then it’s like “Heroin will kill you” and it’s like you hear it and it sounds like bullshit… but it almost did, I mean, it did kill a lot of people. A lot of good people as well as a lot of assholes but a lot of really brilliant people as well. And the whole H.I.V. thing was, I was fortunate that I was off it before that whole H.I.V. thing kicked off and that wiped out so many good people over in Scotland.
I was so innocent at the time about the whole thing as to the impact and what the effects of it were. Now you still see people get involved in it, and it’s basically because there’s nothing for them to do. They’re either unemployed or underemployed or underpaid or bored, and it’s like people need compelling dramas in their life. We’re all drama queens and it’s like people know by taking drugs or by dealing drugs or by taking guns out into the street or knives out into the street, they’re going to get into bother or they’re going to get somebody else into bother or something really bad is going to happen. It’s almost like people think, it’s better that something bad happens than nothing happening at all. There’s a need for compelling drama. There’s a need for stories in peoples' life; even if they’re horrible stories, people seem to need to have them.
Did it take you going into rehab to get yourself clean?
I did the cold turkey thing. I just sorted it out and it was tough going, physically tough going; for maybe about four months, it was physically hard goin’. I felt rough and sick and ill for long time, but I felt I could come through it and I could get to the end of it. I think more than being physically tough going, mentally it left me sort of wasted without any self-confidence or self-belief. I felt like everything was stripped away.
When you come off gear, you have to build a whole new set of relationships because you don’t want to be associating again like you were when you were on gear. As much as you’d like to try to help them, but you can’t.
That’s why I didn’t want to get into any AA or anything like that because I just didn’t want to be around people that had that shared back story. I didn’t want to have someone encouraging me not to be this kind of person. I just wanted to be... I mean, I just became straight as fuck after that. I went to get a job and I wanted to work hard and just do that kind of thing, meet a nice girl and get married and settle down, and I wanted to be that kind of person. One of the things that I realized was that to some extent, I'd kind of thrown out the baby in the bath water. It was like, you don’t have to choose to be a boring 9-5 white collar sort of home and garden type of guy or a fucked up junkie in the streets, there is a spectrum in between you can do. You can do other things that kind of transcends both these things. You can get into art, you can be an artist, and you can do these different things that are... that’s what I was looking for all along, the excitement and the buzz of heroin, I think I was looking for something that was going to give me that buzz. But then realizing something that I really wanted to be, yeah?
Tony DuShane is an entertainment writer for the San Francisco Chronicle and hosts the radio show Drinks with Tony. (www.tonydushane.com)