Irvine Welsh: Dirty Realism, Empty Heads And Aliens

A pub chat about literature, drugs, football and (before and after) “Trainspotting”

Anagrama publishes “Reheated Cabbage” in Spanish, a collection of Irvine Welsh’s early stories, giving us a reason to speak to the author. We asked him to tell us more about his origins, his characters, drugs, and the prequel to “Trainspotting”, which is already out.

When he was little he wanted to be an astronaut. When he grew up, he became a real estate agent, thinking that he could get away from his neighbourhood. Later he realised that the typewriter was calling to him. And so he started to write. In a few angry nights, he typed out “Trainspotting” - still his crowning glory - the story of how Sick Boy, Renton and all the others sold their souls to the Devil (seeing themselves as incapable of escaping from the cage that they believed their lives to be) for a fix of heroin. Irvine Welsh (Edinburgh, 1958) writes dirty (dirtier than dirty) realism, about Scotland, empty heads, football and now - since his first stories have reached the book shops, gathered together in his book of short stories “Reheated Cabbage”, recently published in Spain as “Col Recalentada” (Anagrama, 2012) - aliens. Ensconced in what he likes to consider his writer’s studio ( “as I’ve pretentiously started calling it, since visiting Hemingway’s similarly-dubbed lair in Key West”, he admits), Welsh speaks to us about how the eight stories recently published in Spanish were created and what he thinks about “Skagboys”; the anxiously-awaited prequel to “Trainspotting”, which has just reached the shelves of British book shops ( “It’s my best work ever”, he says). But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. With you live from Chicago, rigorously recorded, Irvine Welsh.

"I’m fascinated by the extent to which we can spoil everything. How we can make one bad decision after another. How we sabotage our own life when it looks like everything is going well."

All of the stories in “Reheated Cabbage” were published in the 90s, in magazines and anthologies that can no longer be found; they represent the first steps in your career as a writer. How is it for you to see them again?

It’s nice. I like my first stories. I have the feeling that I’ll never be able to write with that tone of a monstrous drug addict again, but I suppose that he found his place in the great canon and that’s what matters.

Do you think that there is a common thread running through them all? All of the main characters – really, all of your main characters - are trapped, in many ways. They often seem to be sentenced by the place where they were born and the type of men (and women) that they have become.

Yes, let’s say that this is the theme of everything that I write. I’m fascinated by the extent to which we can spoil everything. How we can make one bad decision after another. How we sabotage our own life when it looks like everything is going well. And how we manage to make things even worse when they were already bad enough.

So to live is to fail? At least characters like Albert Black (the schoolmaster who wants to say a few things to his famous former student) and psychopaths like Begbie feel something like that...

Yes, failure is always there. At times we even seek it out, whether we are aware of it or not. It’s like we were looking for it. In reality, trying to embrace our current political system of globalized capitalist consumerism is embracing a system of failure. But the thing is that any alternative system is also likely doomed to failure.

What do you think of that Samuel Beckett quote that says: “Try again. Fail better.”?

I know it. I like it. I think there are a lot of interesting possibilities for failure that we still don’t know. Only boring people continue to insist on the same types of failure.

The story of the teacher in “Glue” - who reappears in “I Am Miami” - has a lot of that. Black wants to change the world; at least he wants to create opportunities for his students, boys and girls destined to become construction workers and hairdressers. However he realises that whatever you do, they continue to become hairdressers and construction workers, so he gets angry with the only person who has managed to escape from this (Ewart). Is that something that you, as a writer (or maybe as one of those boys), are aware of out there?

Yes. It all has to do with that phrase from John Lennon’s “Working-Class Hero”: “They hate you if you’re clever and they despise a fool”. One of the myths that is perpetuated to maintain our unfair class system is that the bourgeoisie want the poor to become rich. Not by a long shot! What they want is to keep the poor down; if they came up, it could only mean one thing - that they would lose part of what they have.

The feeling of being trapped is something that your style supports - with that anguished first person in, say, “Filth” - but the brutality often becomes a sort of tragicomedy (or gory comedy) that makes you laugh at things that are very cruel. Is humour a way of deactivating the reality or the brutality of everyday life?

It’s only a way of making it so that people don’t have such a bad time at really nasty moments. I grew up in a world where the humour was always very black. As a writer, I use it so that certain things that I tell are not entirely intolerable. It’s a way of lowering the tension all the time. And of course, of having fun.

I love the story about aliens (The Rosewell Incident). Were you a fan of science fiction then? Or was it just something that occurred to you? Sort of ‘what would happen if my mates could control the planet’?

I liked science fiction for a while, because I was obsessed with outer space when I was a child. Then I discovered glue and inner space became my playground. In the case of this story, it had more to do with that ‘what if?’. I think that all novels really start like that.

The police officer who wants a promotion in this story reminds me of Robertson and Ray Lennox in “Filth” and “Crime”. What is it with you and the police?

It’s just that it seems to me like a shitty job, totally disgraceful, consisting of keeping the rubbish in the bin of this society of failures.

What did you want to be when you were a child?

An astronaut. Well, a cosmonaut, because my mother was a Communist.

When did you start to write? Do you remember what your first story was about?

I remember I was in school. And that the story was about a wild hamster that lived in a can of beans. My teacher said to me: “if you have so much imagination, how is it that you don’t know how to tie your shoelaces?”, I don’t think much has changed since then.

Hearts or Hibs? Are you as obsessed with football as your characters? Where do you watch it normally, at home, in the pub, or at the stadium?

Bloody Hearts, I hate their guts. In my family there are a bunch of Hearts fans, but I’m for the Hibs, come what may. My blood is green. Where do I usually watch matches? When I’m at home, in the stadium at Easter Road. But now I’m in America, in Chicago, and I have to watch them on the telly. All of that shit with Fox and ESPN.

"I think that many people are born in a social prison - that they are sentenced to be a sort of servant, and sometimes they try to escape and they spend their lives trying without succeeding."

As an important part of you work, do you think that football makes men violent, or does it allow them to release the (violent) tension that they live with on a daily basis?

Both things. In the right measure, that anger, that violence, can keep you alive, but if it gets out of hand, it can poison both football and society. In Scotland, something like that is happening.

And what about drugs? Is real life too hard not to need them?

For a lot of people, drugs win because they don’t have anything else: no work, no money, no education, no hope.

It seems like all of the decisions that your characters make lead them to isolate themselves even more, to make their lives into a sort of jail without bars - is that true?

I think that many people are born in a social prison - that they are sentenced to be a sort of servant, and sometimes they try to escape and they spend their lives trying without succeeding. This is what happens when you’re born in a poor neighbourhood, or in a ghetto.

Do you feel close to writers like Chuck Palahniuk (who also loves your work) and Bret Easton Ellis? Who are your favourite writers?

The two you mention are very high on my list of favourite writers. Others are Orwell, Waugh, McIlvanney, Dostoyevsky… I could go on.

Do you have some sort of notebook where you write down all of your characters (their relationships, their descriptions, everything) so that you can take them up again later? Or does it just happen that you find yourself writing about Ray Lennox, Begbie and Sick Boy again?

No, it just happens. They come to me. “Porno” was never intended to be a sequel to “Trainspotting” but it just ended up that way, for example.

And speaking of the sequel, what are we going to find in the prequel, “Skagboys”?

The only thing I can say is that it’s the best thing I’ve ever written.

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