"Who says punks can't age gracefully?" Gerry Donaghy wrote upon the publication of Glue, Irvine Welsh's sixth book. "A tale of four friends growing up and growing apart, Glue demonstrates a maturity and optimism typically absent in Welsh's oeuvre. This isn't to say that he's gone soft, or lost his frequently cruel sense of humor. He's still angry, still rooting for the underdog and still capable of forcing his readers to stare into the abyss that is the dark side of human nature."
Welsh credits this maturity to the simple matter of a broader focus. "In the other novels I've written," the author explained, "I'm always watching people over a short time frame, putting them in an extreme position. Sometimes you don't see the humanity in a person because the time frame is so short and the circumstance so extreme."
In Glue, we follow four Edinburgh boys from childhood to middle age. Indeed, it's a sprawling canvas, and Welsh explores its reaches to show the often brutish, brass exteriors of his protagonists against the subtler nuances of their friendship and aging. Funny and real as ever (the first scene Welsh wrote about them documents a hilarious argument about foreskin), the novel is by turns tender, sexy, violent, and disturbing - "a fully realized vision of the world," Salon.com called it - arguably the author of Trainspotting's most impressive work to date.
Dave: How did you settle into using the Scottish dialect? You've said that when you started writing Trainspotting, you were using something like standard English.
Irvine Welsh: When I first started to get into writing, it was via music. I'd generate ideas for songs that would turn into stories, then they'd turn into novels. I was biased toward music. I was getting interested in house music at that time, going to clubs and raves, and I wanted to generate that kind of excitement on the page. I'd always liked to read, but when I picked up books I wasn't getting the same kind of excitement from them that I was from going out clubbing. I wanted to get the same kind of feel.
I grew up in a place where everybody was a storyteller, but nobody wrote. It was that kind of Celtic, storytelling tradition: everybody would have a story at the pub or at parties, even at the clubs and raves. They were all so interesting. Then I'd read stories in books, and they'd be dead. I got to thinking that it had a lot to do with standard English. I mean, nobody talks like that in cinema, nobody talks like that on television, nobody sounds like that in song. In any other cultural representation, we don't talk like that, so why do we in the novel?
Basically, particularly in Britain, it's a hegemonic thing that people who write tend to come from the leisure classes. They can afford the time and the books. They tend to be public schooled, Oxford types: writers. Consequently, you have exactly the same narrative voice. It's alright to do the vernacular in dialogue, but the narrative voice is always kept in standard English. It's a basic question, really: how do people think, in standard English or in colloquialisms?
I wanted to capture the excitement of house music, almost like a four-four beat, and the best way to do that was to use a language that was rhythmic and performative. When I started off with Trainspotting, it was the way the characters came to me. That's how they sounded to me. It seemed pretentious to sound any other way. I wasn't making any kind of political statement.
People who go into these clubs and raves, particularly the younger people, didn't seem to be reading books. People say, "Oh, it's the modern age and they don't have the attention span," but really I think they look at narrative differently. Split narratives, for example - look at video games and computer games, advertisements and commercials. Also, these people were using all different sorts of drugs, not just alcohol, which made their whole way of looking at narrative different. I wanted the content and the form to be more contemporary.
Standard English is useful for getting information across, but in terms of entertainment, it's not the funkiest language in the world. A lot of the Scottish vernacular comes from gypsy culture, right from Newcastle up to Aberdeen.
Dave: You said recently that you're only now starting to consider yourself a writer, but Glue is your sixth book. When you wrote Trainspotting, which became such a huge success, what were you thinking about? Did you think it would get published?
Welsh: I didn't have any concept of Trainspotting being published. It was a selfish act. I did it for myself.
A friend read it, and she told me, "This is good. You should send away some sections of it to magazines." She actually went to find out where these Scottish literary magazines were.
When parts were published, a lot of people began getting in touch with me....Duncan Mclean and Kevin Williamson, who was running Rebel, Inc. I'd seen him in pubs and stuff and suddenly I found out he'd been doing all this writing!
It was the same with people like Barry Graham: you knew who they were, but you didn't realize there was actually a network of them. It was quite an empowering thing to stagger around, by accident, into all these people who did exactly the same thing as myself. That was quite an exciting time. It was probably a year between my first submission and a publisher saying they'd publish the whole thing straight away. That year leading up to it, and maybe the first year after it, was an exciting time, getting in touch with all these people. So many people were getting into it. People like Laura Hird, who started to find a lot of success then.
Dave: Do you socialize among writers now?
Welsh: I don't really know that many now. I used to sort of socialize with the whole Rebel, Inc. crowd up in Edinburgh, but we never really regarded ourselves as writers. We were just into the same stuff like music and clubs, going out drinking and partying, but you don't actually see them when they're writing so it's hard to conceive of them that way. In London, I'm pals with John King, and I'll go out for a pint occasionally with Ben Richards. We don't talk about writing so much.
Dave: There's a scene in Glue about sixty pages in, the scene with the dogs...
Welsh: Oh, right. Yeah.
Dave: That scene was horrible, but it did a damn good job of showing me who these characters were and what was going on around them. That said, I put the book down for the rest of the day.
Welsh: I wanted to show that these four guys are a bit rough and ready, but they're basically good guys. There are always other people. No matter how cool or hard you and your mates think you are, you're always further down the food chain than somebody else. There are people who are a lot more brutalized, whereas these guys are just straight-out annoying. They're not the top guys in the town.
Why dogs again, I don't know. There's a dog torture thing in Marabou Stork Nightmares where the guy was really upset that the dog was getting more love from the family than he was. There's a brutal rape scene in that book, it's really the crux of the book, and I got about ten letters about the rape scene, but I got about two hundred about the dogs.
I actually like dogs, but ever since then there's always a dog abuse scene. There's one in Filth, too, when the police dog takes the acid and jumps out the window.
I think I can leave dogs alone now, three novels with dog scenes. Maybe I'll go over to cats.
Dave: The characters in Glue grow apart in some ways, but in other ways, they never do. I found the way you handled those relationships very true. I'm still friends with the guys I grew up with. We see each other almost every year.
Welsh: In the other novels I've written, I'm always watching people over a short time frame, putting them in an extreme position. Sometimes you don't see the humanity in a person because the time frame is so short and the circumstance so extreme. In Filth you have Bruce, who's had a mental breakdown.
This time, I didn't start with a story. I started with the characters. It actually started off in 1990 with the four characters rapping about the one guy's foreskin. That was the first part I wrote.
Dave: That's a great scene, by the way. It's such a funny argument for people to be having.
Welsh: At that point, the house music scene is just kicking off. And I thought, I'm going to fast forward to the year 2000 when they're no longer friends. I was going to go back and forth between 1990 and 2000, but then I realized I had to go further back, to 1980, when they were leaving school.
By the time I had referenced all the things that had happened, the book had turned into a kind of history, what's happened to Scottish working class people from the tenements to the schemes, and the schemes becoming run down and the mass unemployment, then finally the consumer leisure age of 2000. Then I thought, Well, I might as well just go back and show them as really small children, show their parents, to get an idea where they come from. The book turned into something much more ambitious than I'd planned.
To me, it's about miscommunication. They've had a bereavement, these four, but they haven't handled it very well. There's unfinished business. Each of them has different bits of information, but they haven't put it together.
Dave: The book opens in 1970. A reader is settling into the language in those first sections, meeting the characters, trying to find the story. It's not entirely clear who the focus is on until we jump to 1980.
Welsh: The focus starts on their parents, not them. They're not full characters yet. 1980 and 1990 establish the relationships, really. Then I move from the first person to the third person when I get to 2000, not only because you can give the impression that things are beyond their control - things are happening to them - but you can move things along a lot faster. They're older, and things are out of their hands. I wanted it to seem like things were moving faster, out of control, with the technology and society in general.
Dave: Carl, Gally, Billy, and Juice Terry are living on moral codes passed down from their parents. They stick by the codes they were taught by their fathers, but by the end of the book, the world has passed them by in some ways.
Welsh: The two main influences in Scotland were probably Presbyterianism and Socialism. Both those things really went down the tubes in the eighties with secular society and the collapse of trade unions, the movement of the labor party to the right - but the moral codes have come from those two things. What's replaced them is the cult of individualism.
Consumer capitalism isn't a moral code like Christianity or Socialism; it's just a descriptive statement, a set of relationships. People still espouse those old codes, but they maintain the right to shelve them if it's not in their particular interest.
Dave: Which, in this book, totally screws over the people who do abide by the code.
Dave: The book you're working on, Porno, revisits Trainspotting characters, right?
Welsh: It shows them farther down the line. It's more Sick Boy's story than anybody else's, but also Begbie is trying to get his revenge on Rents.
I always wanted to do something again with those characters. I'm still interested in them. I want to see what's happened with them. It's exciting getting back to them again.
Dave: Now that you've been writing for a while, six books, has your focused changed?
Welsh: I feel like I've exhausted guys and male friendships. I think I'll probably write more women characters and characters from different cultures in addition to this stuff. I feel like I'm getting to the point where I probably will change a lot. I have a novella coming out and a book about southern Sudan, a charity book for UNICEF. The main character is a witch doctor.
Dave: One critic noted your background working in a law office defending women's rights in the context of the way your male characters treat women.
Welsh: I wrote Marabou Stork Nightmares because of the zero tolerance stuff that was going on with violence against women. It was another world I didn't know.
I like to look at the good things and the bad things about male culture. There are a lot of great things about male culture, but there's also the slightly twisted, fascistic part when you get a bunch of guys together. They do turn into nutsos sometimes, the whole group intoxication thing.
Dave: Is your audience different in the U.S.?
Welsh: It's different in Scotland. People who come to readings are more interested in literature as such, but the readership in general is really quite diverse. It's a cliché, but it's said that people who read my books don't read any other books, and you do get that element.
Sometimes there's a snobbery among literary types that these people don't really get it, but in a lot of ways they get it more than the literati. There's a culture in the background that they understand and know. They get that deeper level. But I do get the two, particularly in Scotland. You get the guys from the football world, guys from the jails, guys who've made it through the drugs. Women as well. You do see a diversity that you don't see as much elsewhere. In the States and in England, it's a much more literary crowd.
The thing that really kicked Trainspotting off for me was definitely guys in jail, guys in prison passing around dog-eared copies. It was the most shoplifted book ever, apparently.
Dave: Most books don't appeal to such a wide audience. If it's literature, it sells to a literary reader, or vice versa, but there aren't many authors who appeal to fans of high literature as well as people who don't read other books. Maybe Stephen King would be an example. Who are some others?
Welsh: In particular, writers like John King and Laura Hird have that kind of crossover. But there aren't a lot, and I don't know why that is. There's a tension between excitement and intellect. Again, going back to The Acid House, I wanted to write something that was exciting, that turned pages, but also hopefully made people think about things. But it had to turn pages. There's a tradition in novel writing that's self-consciously intellectual rather than intelligent. The two aren't often the same. It's not knowledge and ideas for their own sake, it's story and character. Posturing and posing, doing that intellectual dance, isn't really serving plot or character.
Dave: Did you read a lot when you were younger?
Welsh: I was a binge reader. I'd read a lot for a few months, then read nothing. Somebody would recommend a book; usually every two or three years a big Scottish novel would come out: William McIlvanney's Laidlaw, James Kelman's The Trick is to Keep Breathing. Every so often one of these would come out, and you'd go around to somebody's flat and find it. That was my way into reading, really.
Dave: Do you read both fiction and nonfiction now?
Welsh: I tend to read more nonfiction, really, because when I'm writing I don't like to read other fiction. If I like a book, it can take me off somewhere that I don't want to go. When I'm not writing, I read loads of fiction, but I've been writing quite constantly lately so I've been reading a lot of nonfiction - philosophy, religion, science, history, social or cultural studies...
Dave: Is anything in music exciting you these days?
Welsh: I'm trying to get back into that as well. I'm working on a screenplay right now for the BBC, but I hope to have the decks cleared soon so I can get into the studio with my pals and put down some more tracks, try to get a strong dance single together. There are other bits and pieces I want to do as well, but I haven't been on the decks for ages. I'm really starting to miss it. Also, I've fallen behind a bit with the dance scene lately. I think it's because it's getting so corporate it's beginning to get me down. Big corporate clubs. But I'm getting older, and I'm not keeping up with what's underground as much.
Dave: You've been traveling a lot lately, I heard. What's the best place you've been?
Welsh: They've all been great. I had a great time in Bangkok. I had a fantastic time in Cuba. Costa Rica was great. I've been doing loads of traveling. I love digging out the passport and taking off.
Dave: Do you write when you're away?
Welsh: Sometimes. But it doesn't seem to matter where I am - I'm likely to write about a Scottish housing scheme when I'm in Havana. I don't think I could be a Graham Greene kind of writer, going away all the time and writing about the place. I had to do it for this Sudan piece, but I had to kind of force myself.
Dave: How did you get involved with the Speaking with the Angel project?
Welsh: I bump into Nick Hornby quite a lot. He lives around the corner from me. I usually see him in the record shop. We'd done a charity football game for Trainspotting for a drug rehabilitation group in Glasgow, and he was good enough to give up his time and play. He asked me to write a story for the collection, so I did. It's a good cause, Treehouse.
Irvine Welsh visited Powell's City of Books on June 12, 2001. A couple months later, a guy came to our building for a business meeting and, after climbing the stairs past our wall of fame, noted, "One author dated their signature wrong, huh? December 6, 2001?"
We've since contacted Mr. Welsh, and the author has kindly agreed to offer a written apology. Mr. Welsh confessed, "I should have considered that Americans write the month before the day. That mix-up was entirely my fault."
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Books mentioned in this post
Dave is the author of Out of the Book, Volume 3: State by State