Tales from the wrong side of the tracks
IRVINE WELSH IS sitting comfortably in the lobby-bar of the Clarence Hotel when I arrive to meet him, on the day his latest novel, Skagboys, hits number one in the UK fiction charts.
The hotel is a regular haunt from his Dublin days. He was even barred from The Kitchen, its downstairs nightclub, during the six years he lived in Rathmines; “The longest I’ve stayed anywhere since I left Scotland when I was 18.” Welsh fans would be unsurprised to hear that the writer was expelled from the nightclub for using illegal substances. However, they might be disappointed to realise that the writer has put his partying days behind him. Now 53, Welsh lives a relatively quiet existence in Miami and Chicago, where hard living and hard work are increasingly incompatible.
“I’ve come to believe that your engine is more important than your creativity,” he explains over a glass of mineral water, “and hangovers get harder the older you get. Basically, you just can’t wreck your engine. Your creativity is always there, but if you can’t work it’s worth nothing.”
As if he knows it seems improbable that it is merely hard work that has quashed his hedonistic impulses, Welsh spends the first 10 minutes of our conversation convincing me. Although we are meeting to discuss Skagboys, he seems more interested in enumerating the various other projects that he is involved in at the moment: the pilot he is writing for HBO (sex and drugs in the Appalachian Mountains); a production of a new stage version of Trainspotting in Chicago (“it’s a sort of remix for an American audience, but it’s also a temporal translation”); a screenplay for a feature that will star Iggy Pop; production work on a “swampy, sizzler, Cheech and Chong-style” film that he hopes to direct next year; promotion duties for the film adaptations of his work that will be released this year; and – phew – a new novel.
It is exhausting just hearing about his frantic schedule, but Welsh seems non-plussed, if not quite as exhilarated by the endless meetings involved. “It’s a bit healthier than sitting in a room on your own when you are locked up writing, talking to people who don’t exist for days,” he says. And, despite his literary notoriety in Ireland and Britain, Welsh admits that he has to work as relentlessly as he ever did because it is much more difficult to be successful in America.
“Even with my American novels,” he says – novels such as Crime from 2006 and 2009’s The Bedroom Secrets of the Masterchefs – “I’ll only ever have a cult following over there. I mean, I can’t see Skagboys hitting number one on the New York Times bestsellers list or sitting on the airport stands. Maybe if I compromised on the vernacular [in Skagboys] I would have easier success in the global marketplace, but even a minor hit in America is a huge achievement.”
Welsh is eager to place the confirmed commercial success of Skagboys in England in its context: “This is the first time for a long time that a non-genre book will be number one in the fiction charts. I’ve knocked James Patterson off the top. And I hope that it will encourage young writers – who increasingly feel like they have to write for the marketplace – that it is possible to succeed by staying true to their voice.”
There are those, however, who would be loath to place Welsh’s oeuvre – with its gleeful profanity and sensationalist violence – within the boundaries of literary fiction. Despite – or perhaps because of – the popular success of Welsh’s complex non-linear books, critics regularly suggest that he has only one story to tell, saying that his books since Trainspotting have been merely re-treading old ground. Skagboys has done nothing to challenge this view. The novel is a prequel to Trainspotting, and it is the fourth time since Trainspotting’s publication that Welsh has returned to the characters from his 1993 book: the 2002 novel Porno was a full-length sequel set 10-years on, while in Filth (1998) and the 2009 short-story collection Reheated Cabbage the sociopathic Begbie made further appearances.
Welsh had never planned to write a prequel, he explains, but he found the original manuscript for Trainspotting, which originally ran to 300,000 words, when he was preparing to move to Chicago from Dublin. “I was new to writing back then,” he says, “and I didn’t know how to write a book, so I just threw everything in, but it ended up that Trainspotting started somewhere in the middle, so I had all this material which I thought I would eventually cannibalise. When I started reading the original [manuscript] again, I got really excited, and thought ‘I have to use this.’ It has been fun getting into that world again.”
Most writers are usually embarrassed when they come across their early literary efforts, but Welsh says: “It’s different when it’s in manuscript form; a manuscript is just an early draft, really. So it was a different experience than reading Trainspotting, say, because Trainspotting’s finished, it’s not like I can change it, and when I read it all I can see are the flaws.”
Skagboys is closer to the mammoth enterprise of that early manuscript than the more contained final draft of Trainspotting, although both books share a stream-of-consciousness style that sees the first-person narrative shift abruptly from character to character, while lapsing in and out of phonetic Scots vernacular.
Compared to Trainspotting, however, as it inevitably will be, Skagboys is more uneven in style and unfocused in its subject matter, but that is perhaps because of the very nature of the prequel form. As Welsh explains: “A prequel is a very different type of book, because it has to be more thematic: if you have read Trainspotting you already know where the characters are going to end up. So Skagboys is more about the world the characters came from and what happened in society to make them who they are.”
The book is, by necessity, then, overtly political and often very angry. It is about the failure of the welfare state in Thatcher’s Britain, it offers a critique of capitalist consumer culture, and it also gives a firm two-fingered salute to the idea of social progress. As Welsh explains, the 1980s “bred a selfish individualism and a culture of entitlement” that Britain, and particularly Scotland, is still recovering from. For a disenfranchised youth – personified by characters such as Renton, Spud and Sick Boy – a life of petty theft, welfare fraud and drug addiction seems inescapable, while their fate in Trainspotting is indeed inevitable.
Of course, amid the scenes of striking miners, the discussions of the HIV epidemic, and the pharmaceutical critiques, there is plenty of sex and swearing in Skagboys for the loyal Welsh fan, too. Certainly enough to ensure the book’s continued commercial success, which makes the very mixed reviews that it has been receiving look pretty insignificant from where Welsh is sitting. Ultimately, he philosophises, “you learn more about yourself from the failures rather than successes”. But he has already left Skagboys behind for his other projects anyway. Well, at least until next time.
Skagboys is published by Random House