He smashed it with Trainspotting, then followed that up with a number of iconoclastic books that blew the socks off established publishing standards . . . and now he’s heading for Bali. Tony Stanton spoke to the erudite author ahead of his appearance at UWRF.
Irvine thanks for taking the time to talk with us. I wanted to start with a passage I read from a Guardian interview with you last year by Simon Hattenstone, who wrote:
“It’s a nasty, brutish world he creates. In Filth, his protagonist is the filthiest of police officers; Marabou Stork Nightmares is about a man in a coma who was sexually abused by his uncle; A Decent Ride features an oversexed cabbie; Bedroom Secrets Of The Masterchefs is about a hard-drinking football hooligan; and on it goes. Welsh returns again and again to the same themes of corrupt, destructive masculinity: drinking, scoring, snorting, raving, shagging, bragging, betraying and destroying.”
Yet when I listened to a podcast of you with James O’Brien I was shocked to find out that you’re actually a very sweet bloke. What’s going on there?
Well, I tend to write about the human existential crisis that is bound up with the end of industrial society and our untethering to traditional elements supported by it; capitalism, socialism, the wage economy, imperialism and the patriarchy. Of course this is all a crisis for traditional masculinity but it’s broader than that.
Because I write about a declining narcissistic culture and I’m fascinated about its foibles, vanities and abuses, doesn’t mean I’m in a position of advocacy (or condemnation) of that culture. I was also brought up to be polite.
You were still young in 1993 when you wrote Trainspotting, which was voted – I read somewhere – the 10th greatest book of the 20th century. How did you manage that at such a youthful age?
I started it when I was 28 but I felt I was very old then. I’ve never ever felt as old in my life as I did when I was 28. I think it’s about not doing what you want with your life. Writing Trainspotting for me had an element of desperation: it was about fashioning an escape and freedom, not from heroin addiction but from the crushing bourgeois nine to five life I’d embraced to replace it.
I saw an excellent portrait of you wearing a T-shirt with a slogan that said “The book was better.” Do you think Trainspotting the book was better than John Hodge’s screenplay for the movie, and how involved were you in the film?
They are very different animals. Obviously without the book there is no film so on that basic level it’s obviously better. But the more I get into screenwriting the more I appreciate John’s genius in adaptation.
What’s your process for writing, and has it changed over the years? Do you have a set time that you sit down etc? Can you talk us through the creative process as you experience it?
No, it changes all the time. One of the best things about every new book is that you can impose a different regime on yourself and mix things up. Most writers I talk to are creatures of habit, they find a place and a regime that suits them and stick with that. I prefer to shake it up to get out my comfort zone.
Did you know all the traits of each character before you start putting words to them?
Again, each project is different. Sometimes you have the story or the characters well worked out in your head before you commit to page, other times you try and find them through the writing.
The entire gang came back to life in T2 Trainspotting, the brilliant sequel based on your novel Porno. How gratifying was it to have Danny Boyle back in the director’s chair for that, and what did you think of the movie?
Well, you can’t go wrong with Danny. It’s a joy working with him and John, you become like a bunch of enthusiastic kids setting out for college, planning to change the world. When you’re around that energy and attitude you know that something special will come out of it. There’s no cynicism in the air at all; though more than enough wry skepticism.
You’re coming for UWRF next month (October). Is this your first trip to Bali? What are you expecting?
Heard great things about it. Friend who visits regularly reckons the Balinese are the most chilled out people in the world.
You’re living in Miami currently? Doing Pilates, I heard. Do you ever revisit Scotland and wonder how you managed to escape that world of Edinburgh in Thatcher’s Britain – the drugs, the violence, the filth . . .
I’m back in Scotland at the moment. I’m always here and have kind of relocated. I’m bouncing between Edinburgh, Barcelona, London and Marseilles these days. I don’t really try to avoid or seek out anything. I just hang out and let what happens unfold. Life is a big drama, just enjoy it and when it gets too much, go away and relax and then write about it.
What are you working on at the moment? Do you like to stay busy as a writer, or are you tempted by other paths these days?
We’re shooting Creation Stories and have two other films ready to go and are working on several TV projects. I also have a big music project and a new book. I’m tempted by everything.
What would you say to your 18-year-old self today, and what advice do you have for anyone of that age who is involved in the creative field?
It’s such a different creative world to the one I started out in that I have literally no relevant advice to offer anyone younger than myself. Basically they know much more about it than I do. I’m always asking young people “what do you think I should be doing about this?”
You just did a DJ spot at Glastonbury, how did that go?
The great thing about DJing – especially if you’re playing you’re own music – is that you get an instant reaction in a way you don’t with a book or even a movie or stage show. I love the immediate buzz. Glastonbury was the best one ever. The weather was great and I hooked up with a ton of old pals who were determined to have it.
Describe yourself in five words.
I have zero self awareness.
When were you last happy?
I’m very, very, very happy right now as I tend to be every morning and I hope it carries on into the rest of the day!
Irvine Welsh thanks for your time.
Irvine Welsh will be appearing in an in-conversation event as part of the main program at the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival, which runs from October 23-27. He is also a headline DJ for the closing night party at Blanco Renaissance Museum (free for UWRF ticket holders, there will be a charge for the public). For more info on UWRF 2019 go to www.ubudwritersfestival.com