Irvine Welsh Interview

Photo: Rex Bruce
Born and formed in 1961, Scottish author Irvine Welsh is now acknowledged as the distinct voice of British youth culture. Writing in a crude, phonetic dialect about drugs, sex, violence, and soccer, Welsh captured the lazy imagination of a generation not easily seduced by books. After debuting in March 1994 with The Acid House, a hilarious, soulful, and shocking short-story collection, Welsh became a full-fledged media phenomenon with the publication of his first novel Trainspotting, published in August of the same year.

The book, by turns depressing and exhilarating gave mordant insight into the Edinburgh housing projects where the writer grew up. As well as earning Welsh heady comparisons to the likes of Celine, the book was shortlisted for Britain's prestigious Booker Prize, stayed on bestseller lists for over two years, and in 1995 was adapted for the stage.

The hyperkinetic hit movie version of Trainspotting (1996), coming on the heels of Welsh's ambitious, hallucinatory second novel The Marabou Stork Nightmares (1995), engendered a level of press attention that led Welsh to retreat to relative anonymity in Amsterdam. The negative reviews that were accorded to Welsh's next book, a slightly uneven short-story triptych Ecstasy (1996), may have been as much a comment on the media overkill surrounding the writer as the quality of his work.

More plays and the film version of The Acid House followed. In the decade's end, he wrote Filth (1999) which was loved by some, but panned equally by others. Welsh then took some time off and surfaced in places like Ibiza. Now he suddenly emerges with his most complete novel yet Glue. I was able to speak to him on his recent tour.

AL: Have you been working on DJ skills and break dancing?

Irvine: The weird thing is I spend so much time writing, I don't have time for music. I will go into the studio when I get back to London. I also will go to Ibiza which I go to most summers. I have been going for years and years.

AL: Did Ibiza start happening in 1988?

Irvine: Yeah. It was Oakenfold and the Happy Mondays who kind of kicked it off. It's always been sort of a hippie alternative thing. Oakenfold started going over there. It started having a good feel to it. But when the Manumission Hotel started three years ago; that was the best time in Ibiza. It's become sort of a corporate now. It's like fucking bingo, now, you know what I mean?

AL: Packaged tours?

Irvine: Yeah, I see all these Ibiza collections of music with remixes of Moloko and Paul van Dyk. Then there's the Miami music conference. It's more fun. Miami has gotten so big, that everything that is going to be in Ibiza is showcased in Miami first. All the hits. A lot of people are skipping Ibiza and going straight to Miami. They can hear what's going to be popular in the summer. I've never been to Love Parade. They had one in Leeds which was supposed to be really good. I've been to Gatecrasher and T in The Park.

AL: There is some familiar terrain in the new book Glue?

Irvine: The usual stuff: football, drugs, sex. There's no Ibiza, but there's Amsterdam. The novel takes place over four decades.

AL: There is "Dad's ten rules" which are all about the importance of being faithful to your friends, your mates. That is pretty important?

Irvine: Yeah. It's all about taking a look at the collapse of traditional values based on Christianity and Socialism. Both of which don't really exist anymore. Certainly those were the old values that we all came from, the whole working class thing. It's like Presbyterianism and Industrial Socialism doesn't exist anymore. It's all consumer capitalism, like everywhere else. Now you have loan sharking and drug dealing and that's were people learn their morality, instead of in the churches and unions.

AL: Many of your characters are in arrested adolescence. Very few of them seem to take on the responsibility of having of family and so on. They don't mature much beyond post-adolescence.

Irvine: After you have adolescence, you have twenty years to kill yourself. If you fuck that up, then you have to think about doing something else. It's a thing that people do in our time. They realize that you are a long time dead. This is the thing about consumer capitalism: we want everything and we want it as long as possible.

AL: How did you feel about the recent football season? You follow the Hiberian team, right?

Irvine: Yes, we made it to the Cup Final but got beat. It's was a pretty good season. We got into Europe as well. We just signed an Ecuadorian guy who's supposed to be really good. Of the London teams, I like Westham. They got rid of their manager which was the wrong thing to do, I think. Football now, to be honest, it bores me. You can publish the salaries of the teams and then you look at the standings and they are almost the same. It's like American baseball, and the New York Yankees, and they have all the money. You look at the Pittsburgh Pirates -- they will never win another fucking game again. One player on the Yankees makes as much as the whole Pirate team. There's a monopoly in sports. They should break it up.

AL: I was reading some of the reviews and some of the stuff on Amazon, and the general reaction to this new book, Glue, is pretty positive. Many people hated all the music references in Filth, but most seem to really love the new book.

Irvine: I hated the music as well. I had to listen to a lot of Michael Bolton to find that character, you know what I mean. That's how I get characters. There are three things: where they stay, who they lay, and what they play. That's all my characters right there.

AL: This one guy in his review of Glue says, "Welsh has lost the plot.."

Irvine: There is no fucking plot for Glue, there are just characters. I just put a bunch of characters in one book to see where they'd go.

AL: This guy apparently liked Filth a lot too.

Irvine: The funny thing is that the people who don't like this book liked Filth, and the people who didn't like Filth, like this book. There are two types. This book appeals more to the literary types. And Filth appeals more to the sleaze merchants. There are the sleaze merchants and the literati and it's very hard to please both.

AL: Can you imagine people going into a bookstore and flipping through your books to see if there are any interruptions or tapeworms trying to control the narrative?

Irvine: Some people like the text to be broken up. They like weird things to happen. Glue has no effects. It's a straight narrative. There's no talking babies or exploding squirrels. There's no plan on what novel I plan to write next. I never know what I'm going to do one minute to the next. I don't have a master plan. I finally wrote a proper book.

AL: Americans still complain about the language. They think it's hard to read. There was a lexicon in one of the American editions.

Irvine: It makes it more fun when you have to figure it out. I don't like writing in Standard English. I tried that before. People don't talk like that. If you look at films or TV, or songs and music, people don't talk in Standard English. Why do we have to put up with that in a book, when we never would in TV, or a film, or in real life? I think Standard English is really fucking depressing and boring.

AL: Also Americans have a problem with the word "cunt." You can say "motherfucker" or "asshole" but nobody wants to be called a "cunt." It's too low for some reason. In England, you call all your best friends "cunts" all the time.

Irvine: Some people in Washington DC walked out on the reading. I don't know why it's so taboo. People invest too much power in words. If you let a word hurt you, I think it's a silly thing. Language shouldn't have that sort of power.

AL: I had a question about Ewen McGregor. You acted with him and helped him along in his career by writing Trainspotting. He's sort of a big film star now. What's he like and do you still see him around?

Irvine: He's a nice guy. He has the same bank as me, so I see him at the bank quite often, in Piccadilly.

AL: Looking at another review, this fellow was disappointed because he felt you were too conservative with this novel. How do you feel about that?

Irvine: Yeah. It's more of a straight novel really. The subject matter dictated the style. The subject matter didn't really lend itself to tape worms and stuff like that.

AL: Many people really like this character Terry in the new book and wished there was more of him in the novel.

Irvine: Really? He's a good character, because he just gets into it and doesn't give a toss.

AL: It says here (looking at an Amazon.com print out) that people who bought books by Irvine Welsh also bought books by Chuck Palaniuk, J. G. Ballard, Nick Hornsby, Bukowski, and Hunter S. Thompson.

Irvine: Hey. That's good company to be in.

AL: So, on this book tour, you are just going to do a straight reading from the new book? No performance?

Irvine: I don't know if I will be doing a straight reading because I won't be fucking straight. There will be a reading of sorts. Tonight I'm going to see Mogwai at the Fillmore afterwards. Also DJ Brian is having a party. I went to Mission Rock.

AL: Do you like Arab Strap?

Irvine: I think they are good. I like that sort of stuff. They are from Falkirk, which is just up the road from me. The Scottish have to be dark.

AL: Your upcoming novel is called Porno.

Irvine: I'm about two-thirds of the way through it. I hope to get it done this summer. It's going to be hardcore. All the freaks will like this one. All the literati will think, "Oh, he went all immature again."

AL: I just picked up a bunch of new CD's. Are you into any of these bands (opening bag)?

Irvine: Oh, Radiohead's new one. Aye. One of the guys from Radiohead was at the launch party for Glue, in London. I haven't heard this new one. It came out very quickly after Kid A. It's supposed to be very different. It's a new style again. Kid A was like their Metal Machine Music.

AL: Here's one from Sigur Ros.

Irvine: Never heard of them. What do you reckon of them?

AL: They are like Icelandic answer to Travis.

Irvine: Do you know Travis?

AL: Yes.

Irvine: I'm not a massive Travis fan.

If a band is a rock and roll band, they better be spectacular for me. I like dance music more. I think Mogwai are interesting.

AL: When you are writing novels what is your schedule like?

Irvine: I tend to work in the mornings. When I wait to start until the afternoon I'm usually fucked. Maribou Stork Nightmares took me five weeks. Glue took me about a year because I didn't have any story. It is sort of a wasteful way to work.

AL: Do you have any other hobbies?

Irvine: Hunting, fishing, shooting. And music takes up a lot of my time.

AL: Fishing? Usually catch anything?

Irvine: Yeah, I caught a few diseases.

AL: Ever killed anything?

Irvine: Just a few brain cells.

AL: People always talk about drug use in connection with yourself. Do you think that people's attitudes towards drugs have evolved?

Irvine: No, they have stayed the same.

AL: Do you look on the Internet much?

Irvine: I am not a great Internet person. I spend so much time on the screen when I am writing, the last thing you want to do is spend more time on the Internet looking at a screen. That's what I hate about all this technology. You have a screen for everything. You just have to say to yourself no more screens.

AL: Do you have a cell phone?

Irvine: No. Don't have a cell phone. Never have driven a car in my life. I don't even have a watch.

AL: You spend a lot of time in nature?

Irvine: Relaxing on beaches and stuff like that. The computer is the only concession because it's easier to write with.

AL: Seen any good films lately?

I rvine: I am a presenter of films and a film critic on TV in Britain. It's called "Cult Saturdays" on Channel Four. We screen two films and I talk about them. All films from all eras. I've been doing that about a year. I can say "This film is shite" or "It's so shite, that it's good."

AL: They put you on against The Bill and The Royale Family.

Irvine: Yeah, I clean up.

AL: So you must have five people watching you.

Irvine: Hey. Come on, man. At least a half a dozen.

AL: Is there anything you personally don't like?

Irvine: I hate politics. I'm glad that hardly anyone voted in the British general elections.

AL: Who designs your books?

Irvine: The British publishers usually come up with an idea. If the American publishers like it, they keep it. If they don't, they do their own. If the cover works, I say it was my idea. If not, I say it's them who fucked up.

AL: What about this book Glue? There is no glue sniffing in it.

Irvine: That was the joke on everyone. Have a book called Glue but don't have any glue in it. I am going to have a book called Heroin, and it will be about trainspotters and guys who look out for trains, and there will be no heroin in it.

AL: That was the idea of Trainspotting. Little kids make fun of each other and say, "You are a trainspotter."

Irvine: It's nerds.

AL: Nerds. That was what you were pointing out, that heroin users are nerds.

Irvine: It's pointless. They like to collect train engine numbers. It's the same with heroin after a while. It becomes pointless. Trainspotting is a very obsessive thing.

AL: But otherwise you promote any kind of hedonism as long as it's not destructive?

Irvine: Yeah, a bit of hedonism is good.

AL: Is that a message you want to send out to the fans.

Irvine: It's no message really. It's a personal philosophy.