Published on May 12th, 2014 | by Curious Animal
Irvine Welsh: “Scottish Independence is inevitable”
Irvine Welsh talks about becoming a gym rat, his new novel, Trainspotting 2 and Scottish Independence
By Graeme Green
Is Irvine Welsh’s timing off? You’d expect the Scottish writer whose debut novel Trainspotting was recently voted Scotland’s most popular book of the last 50 years and whose characters have famously produced nuggets on Scottishness (“It’s shite being Scottish. We’re the lowest of the low. Some hate the English. I don’t. They’re just wankers. We, on the other hand, are colonised by wankers.”) to have something to add to the Independence debate. But here he is, in 2014, as Scotland readies itself for a historic referendum on whether to split from the UK, and he’s turned in a new novel, The Sex Lives of Siamese Twins, set entirely in Miami, Florida. I interrupt Welsh’s Sunday afternoon in the pub to talk about drugs and clubs, fame, life in America, his new HBO series Higher, the Trainspotting sequel and how he became a gym rat. Turns out he has plenty to say on Scotland, too…
You’ve had a life of extremes, drug addiction and crime. Are you surprised you’re still here, alive and writing?
Yes, it’s such an arbitrary thing. I see so many people that I know, friends and relatives, who didn’t do all that kind of stuff and some of them got really sick or died and stuff like that. There’s no rhyme or reason to it. There’s no lesson. You have to live the way you live, that suits you as an individual. Obviously, you try and screw the nut and not put yourself in any danger. You become a bit more averse as you get older. Your sense of mortality kicks in; you lose that sense that you’re invulnerable.
“A lot of my stuff is really loved by people but there’s also this visceral hatred of it, which I quite like. It’s almost as good to be detested by wankers as it is to be appreciated by really cool people.”
Do you miss the drugs and debauchery?
Yes, I miss that not giving a fuck. But a lot of people close to me don’t miss that in me. I’m a much better person. Just as much fun to be with, but much less hard to be around and less inclined to lead people astray. I was always the kind at school accused of leaving people astray. You think to yourself ‘I kind of like life and being around, so I’m not in a hurry to be the architect of my own demise now.’
The Sex Lives of Siamese Twins is set in Miami. Do you feel the same connection to writing about American culture as with Scottish culture?
It’s weird. You live the life you live. I’ve been in America for the last six years. You’re going to get immersed in it. So, yes, I do. I live the same amount of time in Miami as in Chicago. I love Chicago, it’s a great town, but I feel there are so many great writers there, like Don De Grazia and Bill Hillman. All these guys have got Chicago in their blood. It’s kind of ostracizing. I can’t write about Chicago better than these guys can. Whereas I feel like, in Miami, I know a lot of the guys that have got off the boat, from Columbia, Mexico, Cuba and all that. My Miami is better than anybody’s Miami, if you know what I mean?
What about the language and cultural references?
I don’t think it really matters whether you’re writing as an American or a Scot or a man or a woman. The most important thing is the characters; the rest is like a technical exercise to try to authenticate it as much as you can.
The book deals with modern obsessions: body image and going to the gym, where you live, the size of your house… Did you see those as ripe for satire?
Yes. In the last year I became a complete gym rat – not the worst obsession you can have. I really enjoyed getting involved into all that. The genesis of the book was when I saw this woman, a personal trainer, who was completely abusing this other woman to get her to do squat thrusts. The girl was in tears, so I was thinking, like, she’s paying for this woman to fucking abuse her. Why is this relationship continuing? That was the pivotal moment for the book. Why would you pay for someone to fucking abuse you?
Did you also research the actual sex lives of Siamese twins?
Not so much the Siamese twins, as that was backstory. But I got really into the lesbian noir fucking nightclub scene in Miami for a while. That was fascinating. I’ve made so many friends through doing this, probably more than I’ve done in research for any books. I’ve got a lot of cool girlfriends in Miami now.
There were reports you’re writing a new comedy series, Higher, for HBO, with Calvin Harris, Jay-Z and Will Smith involved, set in the dance scene. How’s that coming?
It’s like any film or TV thing. There are so many people involved in it. All you can do is work on it and hopefully it’s going to work out, but you never know with TV or film.
Do you still feel a connection to club culture and drugs?
Not so much on the drugs side of things. I’m too old to do drugs now. You just get fucked up. But I was at a fucking Weta event in Miami recently, all these fopps and subcultures. And what really fucking shocked me was I enjoyed being there much more than I thought I would. That was a bit of an eye-opener for me, that I’d still enjoy being the sleazy old guy who’s hanging around with everybody.
A Trainspotting sequel’s been talked about for years. Any news on that?
It’s the same thing as the Higher. We’re talking. But it’s like when people have divorced or split up. It’s like ‘How are they getting on?’ ‘Oh, they’re talking, they’re talking…’ That’s all it is. It’s all about talking. You’re trying to make things happen and get people together in a room and happy. Both these things – Higher and Porno, the Trainspotting 2 film – you try to advance. There are obviously some obstacles but also good things happening.
Which is the better film: Trainspotting or Filth?
I’ve watched Filth back to back with Trainspotting. Honestly, I can’t answer that question. They both have incredible things going for them. They both have fantastic cracking scripts. Danny Boyle is an amazing visual stylist and I don’t think anyone can touch him for that. But Filth looks really good and slick as well.
How did fame and the success of Trainspotting affect you?
When Trainspotting came out, I realised it was building and building, and then the play and the film came out. The other books, Filth and Ecstacy, both went in at Number One on the bestseller lists. It seemed to get crazy all around the world. Every country or language seemed to have a translation of it. I realised with the film coming out that it was going to get crazier, so I took off for two years. I went to Amsterdam and got a flat by a canal and lived there quietly. And then my wife went back to university in Stirling, so we moved into a little flat in Dunfermline. No one really knew I was around. I wasn’t seeing people in Edinburgh. I was just hanging out in Dunfermline shopping centre with the young team, getting a swig of cider from the young guys and chatting to them. It was a weird time. People thought I’d be in LA or New York, but I was in Dunfermline.
Was it a crazy time?
Oh yes. Everyone was at it back then and before Trainspotting too. Before, it was about being young and stupid and enjoying having a tear, and post-Trainspotting it was about having the money to be really decadent and really go for it. If something really weird and fucked up didn’t happen, it was almost more of an anomaly. But, being a happily married guy now, I don’t think I’m going to go into it.
2014’s a big year for Scotland. Do you think Scotland will become independent?
I think it’s inevitable at some point in time. The new model is moving away from the post-imperial pompous old generation state with hierarchies and neo-liberalism stuff. The movement is towards smaller, more ecological, more sustainable economies, not big defence budgets or aggressive taxation policies. So I think it will have its day. It’s part of the secular decline after the two World Wars and the building of the welfare state and all the things that held Britain together that don’t really exist anymore. I think it’s inevitable it will happen. Whether it’ll happen this year or not, I don’t know. It’ll be a close run thing. The British economy is in a mess and it’s going to be a mess for the next few years. People might just think they’ve been paying through the nose and it’s time to go. One thing that’s changed in the last three years is Scots’ perception of themselves as people who are dependent on the British economy to people who are dragged down and held back by it. That’s been an enormous sea change among people. These things often come down to economics and if that idea gathers strength, it might influence what happens.
Is Independence something you want?
Yes, it represents a move towards democracy. I’m not a Nationalist at all. I’m not a Scottish Nationalist and I’m not a British Nationalist. I don’t care about any of that stuff. What it is… The British establishment really hates the idea of Scottish Independence. If you think about Scotland becoming independent, they’ve got no House of Lords and no Oxbridge elite and no public school governing the country. For me, it’s about how we govern ourselves on these islands. I would love to see it happen but, more than Scottish Independence, I’d love to see English Independence; England could be the multi-cultural, post-imperial democracy it was meant to be.
Can you vote in the referendum?
I can vote because I’ve got part-residency in the UK but I won’t vote. It’s up to people in Scotland to decide what they want to do. I’ve got an opinion on it, but I’m happy not to be part of the process.
Your work over the years has shocked and outraged some people. Do you enjoy those controversies?
You don’t want consensus. It’s not a consensus-based society. We’re divided by economics, social class, culture… Books and art in general has to reflect that. If you’re building a consensus, you’re in the world of entertainment rather than art.
Do you think art should shock and surprise people?
It’s not necessary to shock or surprise but to reflect the divisions that are there. A lot of my stuff is really loved by people but there’s also this visceral hatred of it, which I quite like. It’s almost as good to be detested by wankers as it is to be appreciated by really cool people.