This is a big week for Scottish author Irvine Welsh.
The prequel to his debut novel Trainspotting is about to hit the shelves in the form of Skagboys, which revisits Renton, Sickboy, Spud and Begbie for the first time since 2002's Porno.
At the same time the film adaptation of his short story collection Ecstasy is making its screen debut.
We caught up with him for a quick Q&A about both projects, the state of British politics and the morality involved in creating some of British fiction's darkest characters.
How was it returning to these characters for the first time in 10 years (since Porno)?
It’s been great! I love these characters. Going back meant I had to get back to how I was thinking myself back then, which took a few attempts. But I already had 10,000 words written, so I chopped off about 20,000 and then wrote a whole lot more.
You've said you wanted to show how the characters from Trainspotting ended up on heroin. What are the main motives you wanted to get across?
It’s different for each character. For someone like Spud, the manual labour he was doing has ended. He has no place in the world - no work and nowhere to go. So it’s like being part of a gang, a drug gang.
Renton’s motives are more complicated. He’s the guy who could survive and thrive under this new paradigm shift towards Thatcherite individualism, but he knows his friends and his family will be crushed by it. So he’s looking to express solidarity with them. He sees the way the world is going and doesn’t like it. He doesn’t want any part of it, even though it will personally benefit him.
In a way he’s a metaphor for the contrary Scot. They found out in a survey that proportionally, more Scottish people bought BT shares and council houses and the privatised utilities than anywhere else, but they still absolutely hated Thatcher with a vengeance and wouldn’t vote for her at all. So they were happy to take what would benefit them in the short term, but wouldn’t accept what they thought would fuck up the country in the long term.
People like to say your work is about drugs, or violence or friendship – what do you think?
What I’m fascinated by is how people fuck up, the decisions that they make, the process by which people don’t act in their own interest. No matter how bad life is, we can always mess things up even more and find a way to self-sabotage. These mechanisms arise from a fear of failure, but also a fear of success. We live fairly short lives. The good things, like love and art, redeem our lives and make sense of them. So why people reject all that, and embrace the horrors of life instead, interests me as a writer.
Much of Skagboys talks about Thatcherism - what do you make of the current government?
I think we’re seeing the same things we saw in the 80s, but it’s nothing to do with Thatcherism. You could argue that the Labour party set the template before her when Denis Healey went to the IMF in 1976, and that it continued through New Labour and Tony Blair and now Cameron. Sometimes the process has had a more human face, sometimes it’s been more naked, but the Labour party would be making the same changes today themselves if they were in power.
Your last novel before Skagboys, Crime, was very different to your usual Edinburgh stories. What was writing that like?
I wanted to tackle the topic of child abuse in some way, and Ray Lennox felt like the ideal character for this. In Filth he’s this character full of secrets who seemed to be hiding something. As it turns out, it is that he was abused himself as a child, and in Crime, as well as confronting that he wants to turn it into some kind of crusade. That’s where the idea for the novel came from.
Researching it was horrible. I talked to a lot of people who had been sexually abused. It’s very, very hard to listen to someone telling you in real detail about the abuse that they’ve suffered, and having to sit there and still engage with them and seem as though you’re still listening, when really you’re curling up and dying inside.
How do approach the issue of morality in your books, particularly with the characters you are fond of?
I think you can show people being as bad as possible, but you have to show the consequences for the people involved and the society around them. You should never shy away from people doing bad thing, but neither should you shy away from showing the repercussions this has, and the forces that are acting on them to make them behave in that way. Otherwise it’s just about giving the reader a visceral shock. If we see what is driving them to do these things, then you’ve got proper human storytelling.
Which of your characters do you like most?
These four from Trainspotting, Bruce Robertson (Filth) and Juicy Terry (Glue) are my favourite characters. And Ray Lennox (Crime) too. They’re all interesting to me. It’s a pleasure spending time with them.
The movie of Ecstasy is about to be released. What about all the other movie rumours?
Well, we’re talking about Glue. There’s a German guy looking at it. That might be the next one. We’ve also been talking about doing Crime. I am sure Ecstasy will kick start a bit more interest. Also, we’ve shot Filth now and that features one of the most incendiary individual performances I’ve ever seen from a British actor in James McAvoy, who play Bruce Robertson. That’s going to get massive attention I think. As soon as people knew I was writing Skagboys, people were in touch about making a movie of it so I think something might happen there too.
If you could get drunk with any writer from the past, who would it be?
Evelyn Waugh. I’d take him to Leith. I think he’d love it there.
What’s the best book you’ve ever written…
Probably Marabou Stalk Diaries
…and the best short story?
I'd say A Fault On The Line (from Reheated Cabbage).
What’s your next book going to be about?
It’s about two women, an artist and a fitness trainer, who get obsessed with each other.
Skagboys, published by Random House, is out tomorrow.
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