Edinburgh-born writer Irvine Welsh is best known for his 1993 novel, Trainspotting, which chronicled the lives of philosophical junkie Mark Rendon, hapless Spud Murphy and psycho thug Frank Begbie with savage black humor and thick Scots patois. His work since then includes the novella “A Smart Cunt” (in The Acid House collection), about a working-class stoner too smart for his social station; Marabou Stork Nightmares, the visions of a comatose football hooligan whose soul was almost saved by Ecstasy; Ecstasy, three novellas exploring the difference between genuine romance and drug-fueled ecstasy; and Filth, about Bruce Robertson, a corrupt, tapeworm-infested police detective who’d rather bust ravers for pot than investigate the murder of a black man—and has bad musical taste to boot.
Steven Wishnia got together with the 40-year-old author over several pints of Guinness during a visit to New York for this interview, originally printed in the March, 1999 issue of High Times, and republished here on the occasion of Welsh’s birthday September 27.
High Times: A couple of people I recommended Trainspotting to said they just couldn’t get past the dialect. Do you run into that a lot?
Irvine Welsh: Yeah, quite a bit, but not as much as you would think. The words being written on the page are not going away. It’s a visual thing, and people are not used to it. Once they get into it and they get the rhythm of it, it’s easier.
Once they get that “tae” is “to” and so on.
Yeah, yeah. They figure it out.
What part of Edinburgh did you grow up in?
I was born in Leith, the old port part of the city. When I was six, we moved to Muirhouse, which is what you would call housing projects, what we call schemes.
What were you into as a teenager?
Music, alcohol, glue. It’s funny, I never really got into pot until quite a bit later on. It was really weird because when you’re a kid your parents always say, “If anybody gives you any of that pot or hash don’t touch it, don’t take it,” and you go, “Yeah, right.” Then people come up to you and say, “You fancy a smoke of this?” and you go, “Ah, no, no.” And then you’ve got a bag full of glue and you start feeling that your lungs are full of evil, huffing away. I feel like I could have done something more if it wasn’t for glue. I killed a few brain cells.
When did you first get into writing?
About eight or nine years ago. I started writing when I was 30. Apart from school—compositions and all that. It was quite sudden, really. I’d been farting around for years with music. It was quite mediocre, the results. I think I got energized by getting into the dance scene, getting into the atmosphere and stuff, and the Ecstasy. It made me feel like having another blast, to try something else, the writing.
What happened is I found some old diaries that I’d written a way back, observations of things that had happened and jokes, and I thought, “Some of this is pretty good, some is not.” Then I came to write a novel, sort of using these diaries as a source. That’s how Trainspotting came out, kind of novelizing what had happened.
So it was based on diaries?
Yeah, in a sense. I was looking back at the diaries and I thought, “This is all fuckin’ self-aggrandizing bullshit.” It was almost like fiction, there was enough fiction there to start. In the best parts, I had let my imagination run away with me, so I thought, “Just keep fuckin’ going for it, it’s a beautiful thing.” So I sat down, sketched out some characters and thought about them for a while, and then just wrote the thing based on that.
How did you get it published?
I’m not sure. This guy had seen a bit that I’d put into this magazine, and then this publisher phoned up and said he’d like to have a look at it. I got a phone call from this really posh Scottish guy saying, “I really loved your novel. Excellent. Wonderful. I want to publish it.” I thought it was one of my mates taking the piss out of me, somebody ringing me up from the pub. I went away on holiday, and got another phone call a couple weeks later: “You’ve not found another publisher, have you? We really do want to publish it.” I thought, “They’re really taking the piss now.” So then I got a note on letterheaded paper and all that, and I thought, “Fuckin’ hell, man, they do want to publish it!”
Are a lot of the characters based on people you know, or composites of them?
They’re more composites than people. It’s not really interesting to write about people you know, it’s more fun to create your own types. It’s also like protecting them as well, because if you do something like that, you expose people’s real lives. Having said that, every nutter in Edinburgh thinks they’re Begbie! “I’m fuckin’ Begbie! You know I’m it!” “No, no, honestly, honestly, honestly, you’re not, you’re not.” I don’t know if it’s worse when people think they’re in the book or they think they’re not in the book. Some other guy who said to me, “That Trainspotting, I’m ashamed, man—you make that stuff up.” That’s the whole fuckin’ point of it, you know?
Some of your characters reappear in different books. Lexo, the rapist football hooligan from Marabou Stork Nightmares, and Begbie from Trainspotting are both in Filth.
It’s easier to do that in a way, because they become reference points. If I write a character with all the same characteristics, I bring them back.
Filth seems to be the first one of your books where you’re kind of getting away from writing about people you could have hung out with.
Yeah. I wanted to write about somebody—I tried to get a character together that I really detested, and then try to find a way that I could empathize with him, try to find a way into connecting with somebody that I hated so much. That was the kind of challenge that I set for myself. To live with all that can be alienating. You get into that character’s head and it’s difficult to sustain all that anger and misogyny and racialism.
Was it hard living with that?
Oh yeah, it was. A big sty came out of my eyelid while I was writing it. Like a psychosomatic sty. As I took it to the end it just vanished. I put all sorts of creams on it. It was a bit like his rash.
I heard that Filth was getting slagged in Britain.
Oh, it got a lot of really hostile reviews. It’s had a lot of brilliant reviews as well. It’s probably healthy, because you should be polarizing people. I don’t really bother much with the reviews. I’m more interested in the people who read it and really get into it. It’s got to number one on the best-seller list over there.
So you started writing when you got into the rave scene?
Yeah. What happened is that I fucked up on smack, and I sort of came out in ’81-’82. So I was quite negative about drugs. I’d become quite squeaky-clean. I was even doing an MBA at Heriot-Watt University, where my employer had sent me. It was just so mind-numbingly tedious that it forced me to write.
That’s when I got into the rave scene. So I was there doing Ecstasy and having a great time, dancing in fields and dancing in clubs, and then the rest of the week I was doing this job, this managerial job with the local authority, and at Heriot-Watt doing the MBA. It just got so fuckin’ incongruous. I just needed something to create very desperately. When you’re doing lots of E, you get really quite fired up. Your imagination starts. You open yourself up. I was kind of fighting it, to the extent that I’d become so closed to everything. I didn’t realize I’d bought into this kind of selfishness. You had that whole ’80s concept that encouraged you to be like that. I didn’t realize how much of it had got into me until I started going to those parties and raves.
Ecstasy echoed what acid did in the ’60s.
I think it did for a lot of people. A lot of the deconditioning stuff of Ecstasy was really positive. But a lot of that reserve and conditioning is there for a reason—it prevents people from getting kind of hot and vulnerable and overcommitting themselves too quickly. I think a lot of people got too intimate too quickly a lot of the time, were not able to distinguish between the drugs and what was there. That’s what I was trying to do in Ecstasy. Writing about chemical romances and looking at that sort of thing—is it real or is it illusory? Is it the drug?
In the end, it was a really positive thing for most people. For working-class people in Britain, who are treated like shit by the establishment, it broke down a lot of these class and race and sex dialogues that people have got into and it gave them a real radical outlook—especially in a place like Scotland, where there’s like a sexual apartheid. Men and women don’t really meet socially. Getting drunk in different pubs and all that—it’s like apartheid.
You mean like separate women’s bars and men’s bars?
Yeah, you’ve got women in the lounge and men in the public bar. They meet at the end of the night, they’re drunk by then, and have a shag. It’s like all of a sudden the whole social life just flipped over. That was tremendous. Punk never really delivered for me in the same way.
Why do you say that?
It became appropriated too quickly by mainstream capitalism. Because of the technology of it, the band technology, three-piece and four-piece bands, it was easy for record companies to replicate it. It got absorbed into the system really quickly. A punk was a great thing to be for about six months in Britain. After that, it was dead and buried. It was just like being a Ted or a mod or a hippie or whatever, it’s another cult.
For me, house had all these different elements in it. You had the hedonistic element of disco, the danger of punk and the social commitment in some ways of the hippie movement. The dogma is that punk is political and house is apolitical and hedonistic. But it’s more about processes now. Politics made by processes rather than by content and ideology imposing structures and processes. Punk had a lot of questions, but it lasted a year before it was cooped up. Whereas house never was about politics until the Criminal Justice Bill—a most draconian piece of legislation—moved against it. People became politicized from the idea that they were criminals taking drugs. They weren’t, they were just taking recreational drugs. That caused social change.
A lot of people say that rave music is all kind of faceless. But in a way that could be a good thing, because it keeps the star system from happening.
Well, that’s it. The result is you avoid the star system. That’s why with techno the record companies couldn’t make headway with it, they couldn’t market it around a star. You’ve got all kinds of cottage industries, the white labels, the pirate stations. There’s pirate stations all over London. Particularly in the tower blocks in the East End. You can hardly touch the knob on the radio, the stations are cutting into each other. Jungle music, they call it drum’n’bass now, was a really multiracial, working-class music from the streets. It was really full of anger. People made up their own dub tapes. Everything was original. You never had the same music twice. There’s still people doing that, still people doing straight underground music.
You’ve said your play Headstate was written in response to a mass “Ecstasy burnout” in Britain.
I think in ’92-’93 the music got harder and nastier. It got less into the happy Balearic sound that people like Barry Ramsay and Paul Oakenfold had brought from Ibiza—sort of like our freedom got started in Ibiza—and got more into a nastier, kind of edgier techno, a bit more angry and hardcore. People were seeing a diminishing response to Ecstasy, so they took loads and loads. It let some of the other drugs in, so it got darker with speed and alcohol as well. People were more desperate. You were getting all the heat from the print media and the police, so it was all this up-against-the-wall fuckin’ bullshit.
I still enjoyed it, the dancing, but I can see how Ecstasy became like the smack scene that had been there earlier. A “Fuck it, we’re on this fuckin’ self-destruct trip and no one’s going to stop us” kind of thing. The music scene was polarized. You were one of the hardcore punters that went mental or you became one of the club snobs. You got pushed into these two camps.
What’s it like now?
It seems to have gotten a bit more relaxed again. The whole thing started off with a big bang and it was great for years and years, and then everything got a bit fucked up. Now it’s all back up again really high.
When did you first get into pot?
I identified it more with taking it easy and chilling out. I started going over to Amsterdam. We used to clap to this Scottish song, “You can really fuck yourself up in Amsterdam, on something.” It’s such a whole hedonistic thing. I love Amsterdam. It’s the most civilized society. The only people who cause any problems there are the British. They’re habituated to such a repressed society, when they go away on holiday they just go fuckin’ mad.
It seems that the legalization movement in Britain has advanced more than in the US.
Yeah. The horrible thing about it is that the arguments had been won years ago. They can’t give any argument… you know, alcohol against pot.
If you were going to legalize drugs, which drugs would you legalize and how would you have them sold?
I’d start off by doing cannabis, because it’s the most non-contentious one. I’d advocate a kind of coffeeshop system, similar to Amsterdam. I like the idea of somewhere like Leith in Edinburgh being a dope zone, maybe somewhere like the East End of Glasgow. Then I would move on to controlled experiments with Ecstasy and acid, and just let people kind of get into it. I just like the idea of districts, or zones in a city being sectioned off for certain uses.
Like if you want to do it, you can go there and nobody bothers you, but if you don’t want to be around it…
Yeah! Yeah, just let ’em fuckin’ do it. That would make them eventually start to spread out. I think in Britain there’d be a lot more danger in legalizing drugs, a lot in the short term. If you legalized drugs in Britain, for about five or ten years there’d be fuckin’ chaos. But after that, once all that repression had worn off, it’d be better than it is now. I think in the States it’d be easier.
What writers do you like?
I tend to like people that I know, rather than known writers. People like Alan Warner and Gordon Spanner, Scottish guys. John King, he’s English. I like a lot of American writers as well, like Joel Rose, Lynn Tillman, Dennis Cooper and Gary Indiana, people like that. I’ve got to say I’m not really into the Beats and Kerouac and Burroughs and all that. I like them, but I kind of thought I wanted to like them more than I did.
I see some similarities to Burroughs in your writing. Not really in style, but when you say, “I’d crawl through a mile of broken glass to use the cunt’s shite as toothpaste.”
Black humor, yeah, like Burroughs.
What are you going to do next?
I don’t know. I’ve got a film coming out in January, three stories from The Acid House: “The Granton Star Cause,” “A Soft Touch” and “The Acid House.” I’ve also got a stage play coming out soon in Britain, when I get back home again.
Which one’s that?
It’s called “You’ll Have Had Your Hole.” It previewed in Leeds during the summer. I’ve got an acting part in that. And I’ve been DJing as well. I don’t want to do too much more writing just now. I want to have a wee break, just take it easy for a bit. I haven’t stopped for around six years. It’s too much like work.