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Irvine Welsh: I knew one of these guys had to die

Irvine Welsh tells Anna James about his new book, Dead Men's Trousers, and why he had to check in on the Trainspotting gang again - if only to kill one of them off...

Irvine Welsh

For Welsh, this mirrors the existential crisis the real world is going through: “All the old certainties, the old divisions of labour, of gender, of class, are changing; it’s affecting the whole of humanity and manifesting itself in different ways; the Me Too movement, Black Lives Matter, Catalan independence, the fragmentation of the old imperialist states; the old hierarchical structures are dissolving. We’re asking these big questions now but characters like Spud were asking them back in the 80s. People weren’t just sitting back thinking ‘Ah, I’m fucking depressed, I’m on the dole, I’m shooting up smack,’ they were thinking about what it’s all about, am I going to work again, what am I going to do with my life. When you had the move from medievalism to capitalism you had the Black Death; I think drugs are the transitional plague now as we move from capitalism into conceptualism.”

The book alternates between the four men’s perspectives and they are familiar but marked by the world they now live in. For Welsh, it wasn’t hard to find their voices again: “They’re so much a part of me, you just get back into that rhythm. People are like music, they all have a different beat, a different rhythm. When you see a group of friends, they have a flow to them. When you see people in a relationship, they have a kind of beat. I think that when relationships evolve and the beats don’t sync up properly, that’s where a lot of problems between people come from. There is an internal rhythm people have and annoyances in life are about having our rhythms disrupted or distorted.”

The rhythms of these men’s lives are well and truly distorted when Spud takes on a dubious role in a dodgy black market kidney transplant deal. Everything spirals out of control, and their lives are thrown together once more. The fact that one of the men does not survive the book is not a spoiler: “I thought: one of these guys has got to die, I can’t hold on to them all. In the first draft I toyed with the idea of every one of them at one point. But it’s not difficult to me emotionally - it’s an exercise, a tool in telling a story. There might be a time in the future when I look back and feel sad, but I’ve lost so many people over the years, I’ve lost really good friends, a lot of them taken before their time. When you have the reality of that, you’re not really that concerned about fictional characters.”

Irvine Welsh

We’re asking big questions now, but people like Spud were asking them in the 80s. They weren’t just sitting thinking ‘I’m fucking depressed, I’m on the dole, I’m shooting up smack.

Welsh won’t be drawn on if he has a favourite character to write, though: “You have to like them all. Every character you writer. Like is maybe the wrong word, but you have to be able to empathise with them all, put yourself in their position and look at it through their eyes. I’m drawn towards more dramatic characters, like Begbie and Sick Boy, and more complex ones like Renton, but good guys are nice to write as well because you get a bit of respite.”

There have always been comparisons between Welsh and his characters, which he sees as “kind of inevitable, but I don’t lead an interesting enough life for every book to have an autobiographical edge”.

For Welsh, the characters represent something more complex than himself or people he knows: “To me, the characters are different emotional states; I build them from there. You’re always thinking about what story you want to tell, and who the characters are that you’re telling it with. You’re using elements of yourself, but there is always a conscious act of composition going on. Everything is composed and constructed and takes a lot of time to get right. You try to capture the sights and sounds and moods and behaviours; you just keep trying to get better at it.”

For example, he sees Begbie’s transition to apparent calmness as a narrative necessity: “It’s the only way he becomes dramatically viable. If you kept him on the same trajectory he’d be dead or in prison; he has to be reinvented. He still has all this ultra-violence, but he’s in control of himself, so in some ways he’s a lot more dangerous than he was. He’s a poster boy for white male rage, railing against redundancy. He’s taken on a kind of iconic status - I get a lot of fans saying he’s brilliant and I’m like, ‘You’re missing the bigger picture a wee bit!’

“But it’s the thing about fiction; people take from it what they take from it. You can’t really tell people how to read a book, or how to enjoy a book. Everything you do, every movie you see, every book you read, you filter it through your own mind and experience.”

In many ways Dead Men’s Trousers feels like an ending. One character has died, and there’s a level of resolution for some of the other characters: “I wanted it to be an ending of sorts because I wanted them to be finished as a gang. There’s no way these guys will all be together in the same space again. I felt like I was almost pushing it a bit with this one. I mean killing one of them off makes it easier, and I think I could see them coming into each other’s orbits, or one of them cropping up in different stories. I like the idea of one of Begbie’s young girls being a psychopath - a female Begbie but raised in a very affluent California liberal household - it’s an interesting construct. There’s a lot of things to ponder. But in a way it’s not up to me,” Welsh says. “It’s more whether they’ve finished with me.”

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