‘I don’t fear death’: 21 Questions with Irvine Welsh

The author of Trainspotting and new novel The Long Knives on boxing, his life-long relationship with Ulysses, and nearly drowning in San Francisco.

When Irvine Welsh shows up to the Penguin office for our interview, the Scottish literary icon admits to being a little worse for wear, following a dinner the night before – “we drank excessively and it was fun, but I'm feeling it now," he says – but it doesn’t stop his sharp, deadpan sense of humour from bubbling to the surface.

Nor does it quell his storytelling ability: during our time together, the author of Trainspotting, Porno, Crime and its new sequel The Long Knives regaled us with stories of debauched bingo halls, lifelong relationships with novels from which he once “didn’t understand a word”, and the near-death experience in which he felt his spirit leave his body.  

Which writer do you most admire and why?

Oh, I think I like them for different reasons. I like acclaimed writers who do the odd shit book, because I like the encouragement. I tend to focus on the work rather than the writer, you know, focus on the book; I don't follow writers as much. But one writer that I really admired and really liked as a person was Alan Sillitoe, who passed away a few years ago.

What I like about Alan, he had massive acclaim in the 1960s and 1970s – you know, “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner”, and his books were made into big films – and was a big writer at the time. He kind of dropped off the commercial radar after that, but he just always wrote and was published, and he had hardcore fans. The interesting thing about him was, he really enjoyed the latter part of his writer’s life. He didn't really like being a big writer, promoting his books; he just actually liked doing it. He’d do the odd little kind of reading in a small bookstore for, you know, half a dozen aficionados and stuff. He really enjoyed kind of downsizing, he just loved writing. And the weirdest thing is, he actually wrote his very best books then, and nobody knows about them. His latter books are better than the ones that made him famous.

I admire somebody like that, who just loves to write – the publishing industry is a kind of distraction to them. I'm not like that – I like the whole gambit, basically – but I do admire people that are like that. It's a bit like Prince; he was this massive, massive star, and made an album every year, you know, maybe sometimes two or three a year. Many of them nobody cares about, and some of them are terrible. But many of them are brilliant.

What was the first book you remember loving as a child?

I think it was Willard Price’s Lion Adventure stories. He used to write all these books starting with Lion Adventure, about these two brothers who went on a safari and met these lions. So then he kind of tore the arse out of it by writing, you know, Panther Adventure and Crocodile Adventure and Ape Adventure. But they were great. They were very kind of nice, good, respectable young English lads a bit like [Enid Blyton’s] The Famous Five type of thing. It basically brought the world, these adventures, to your room. It was fabulous stuff.

What was your favourite book when you were a teenager?

'I like acclaimed writers who do the odd shit book, because I like the encouragement'

I think when I was a teenager I went through quite a few different phases. I went through a big Brontë phase for a bit, all these kind of sort of classic works of English literature; George Eliot, and all that kind of stuff. Then I sort of got into more contemporary stuff and Scottish stuff, like William McIlvanney James Kelman, people that were writing from a place I understood. I was obsessed Evelyn Waugh’s work, it was just so it was so good on male schadenfreude. It was a completely different social milieu for me, but I loved it. I had quite wide taste – you discover a real world of literature in your teens. There’s something about something about walking into a bookshop in your teams, you see all these amazing books and you read the dust jacket and you kind of take one home with you. Where I came from reading was considered snobby, “ponce-y”; I really enjoyed the almost transgressive element to it. I was also quite into the other stuff – I loved playing football, I loved boxing – so I thought, “This is great, I’m different from all my mates in the boxing club, ’cause I love poetry. I’m a Renaissance man.”

Tell us about a book that changed your life’s path

Trainspotting, definitely. When you write a book, you’re never really conscious of the impact it’s going to have. In real terms, that changed my life pretty quick. But, you know, if you're looking for the book that kind of set me off on the path to becoming a writer, that would be probably Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment, because of the brilliant morality of it. He's committed this crime, and he's killed this woman, and there's no way that he can be detected for it, but he implodes himself; his internal moral conscious and guilt mechanism kicks in and drives him crazy. To me, that was just such an interesting study in character; it broke all the rules of, you know, the crappier kind of fiction, with good guys and bad guys and all that. It introduced me to a world of moral complexity, the novel.

I always tried to emulate that, to have characters who were not necessarily the boy or the girl next door, but people who you would think “God, these are real people that are going through these real conflicts; life isn't coming easy to them, they have to make decisions and try to navigate the consequences of their actions.”

What’s the strangest job you’ve had outside being an author?

I think bingo caller was the weirdest one. It was great because it almost felt like a really shit version of showbiz. You do the party bingo, at the back of the hall, and then you do the link bingo, where you linked up with a bingo hall in Glasgow and one in Kilmarnock, one in Dundee. So you pulled from the pot, and it was all really quite intense. I was calling numbers and I was doing, you know, “number 10, Maggie’s den”, and all this kind of stuff. You had to wear tight, sequined shirts and trousers and all that. The bingo callers were all young guys, and the middle-aged women would be grabbing your arse, all that kind of stuff.

What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever been given?

Finish the bastard. You never know how good it is or how good it's gonna be until you're finished. So just finish the story.

Tell us about a book you’ve reread many times (and why)

Joyce's Ulysses because the first time I read it, I couldn't understand it. I've read it every decade of my life, basically, and it gets better every time. It beat me the first time; I was like “Ah, I just didn't understand a word of that fuckin’ book. But I read in a different frame of mind, somebody had said to me, “Don't see it as a story, just trip on the language”, and I did. When I did that, it started to open up to me. Then when I moved to Dublin, I felt like I was in the centre of this big motion picture that I created in my own head.

What’s the one book you feel guiltiest for not reading?

I don't really have a guilty thing. I think if you've not read it by now, it's maybe not for you, really. I haven't read any Lord of the Rings stuff, maybe because just because everybody was on about it, all these sort of Sixties-obsessed hippie mates and all these punks – everybody read this book. Just out of sheer contrariness I thought, “Fuck this, I’m not reading it.”

If I didn’t become an author, I would be ______

I would probably be like, something showbiz-y. I would have two jobs, definitely. By daytime I’d be, like, an economics lecture at a second-rate university. I’d be the kind of guy who's going nowhere in the career structure, in academia. The students would quite like me, and I’d be kind of irreverent about economics and financial systems and fiscal systems and all that. And by night, I would be a really crap stand-up comedian, like a third-tier sort of guy who plays the odd comedy club. I would quite enjoy it, and people would maybe laugh occasionally if they were pissed. It wouldn’t be particularly brilliant.

What makes you happiest?

I think being in love, that makes you happy. That's the happiest thing in the world.

What’s your most surprising passion or hobby?

'Being in love, that makes you happy; that's the happiest thing in the world'

I think probably boxing, because you don't associate writers with boxing – and I'm obsessed with it. When I’m settled back up in Edinburgh, and even if I’m settled here in London for any length of time or in Miami, I train all the time. I've had to stop sparring, because you don't wanna get hit in the head; as a writer, it's not a good thing. But I find it almost like the reverse of writing: when you write, you have to let your head unspool all over the place, but when you’re boxing, you really have to concentrate on what's in front of you. So you can pull yourself back together again. I find those to work very well together, even though they’re radically different.

What is your ideal writing scenario?

If I’m coming up with ideas, drafting, I usually like it to be quite busy. I like to be in the corner of a busy cafe or something, at a train station or something. I like a lot of noise and a lot of chaos around. If I have to pull it together, writing a proper book, then it sort of reverses – I have to go somewhere quiet and just work through, basically. So it depends on the stage I’m at.

What was your strangest or most embarrassing author encounter?

I've been taken for other authors. I look nothing like them, but I've been taken for Will Self and Ian Rankin. People will come up to me and say, “Oh, I liked that book you did” and all that, “it was great” – the Quantity Theory of Insanity novel or a Rebus novel. So that's happened to me.

(Do you take credit when that happens?)

Yeah, I just say, “Ah, thanks a lot, man. It was a tough one, but I’m glad I got it out of my system”.

If you could have any writer, living or dead, over for dinner, who would it be, and what would you serve them?

I think it would be nice to take William Burroughs to the pie and mash, see what he thought of it, see what he thought of the liquor. [Impersonates an English barman] “Come on Bill, sah – get a bit of that pie and mash down ye”. [Impersonates Burroughs in a gruff American accent] “I don’t know what I think of this goddamn toxic liquor shit.”

What’s your biggest fear?

I used to have this fear that I’d never see Hibs winning the Scottish Cup. And then it happened in 2016. That's parched a lot of fear from the system, really. [Laughs] Nobody likes getting older, but I don't fear death. I do fear some form of incapacitation, you know, I wouldn’t like to be in a vegetative state; I like to be able to get up and get around. I think yeah, it’s more incapacitation that would be more concerning to me than dying. Drowning is actually a pleasant way to go. I almost drowned, I had a near-death experience once in a pool in the Phoenix hotel in San Francisco; I was a bit disappointed they fucking pulled me out and revived me, the bastards. I was just enjoying floating off.

(Did you lose consciousness?)

Yes. It was like being born. I was tripping up, going right up through the water and into the air, basically – I could feel my spirit leaving my body. I was about 34, and I jumped into the pool at the Phoenix, I’d just been off a long-haul flight. Did you ever that Beavis and Butthead one where he just sank to the bottom of the pool, he just was like a brick? That happened. I got saved by a vodka promotions model from Boston. She managed to sort of help me get me out basically, and another couple came and they all held me upside down. I went to Vesuvio Café in San Francisco that night, And it was funny because I was drinking beer down one hole, and coughing up water from the pool, from the other. It was quite a weird experience.

If you could have a superpower, what would it be?

If you look at Superman's checklist, I think invulnerability would be nice. Flight would be nice. X-ray vision might get a bit pervy, so nah, not that. I think it would be great to experience flight, that would be a fantastic thing for a human being, a land mammal, to experience. Super strength would be nice as well. But I think certainly flight. Your whole kind of brain chemistry would change, your relationship with space and time would be completely different.

What’s the best book you’ve read in the past 12 months?

It would be Jenni Fagan's Luckenbooth. Sometimes you read a novel, and you think “This is a great novel”. But with that I thought, “This is an important cultural event. Something really big and profound has happened here.”

Reading in the bath: yes or no?

Yes! I do read in the bath. It’s awkward because even reading the most exciting book, I tend to nod off. So I've ruined a few books by doing that. I wouldn’t bring the Kindle in the bath.

Which do you prefer: coffee or tea?

I actually prefer tea. Coffee is a good hangover thing, but I prefer a cup of tea.

What is the best book you’ve ever read?

I said Ulysses earlier, and I go back to it all the time. The one you turn to like that has to be the best one you've read. The thing is, it's probably not the best book I've read, but it's one of the best relationships, it's been a lifetime relationship with that book. It’s a gift that keeps giving, it's like reading a different book every decade of your life you read it. I get different things out of it each time, so it’s quite an incredible piece of work because of that.

What inspired you to write your book?

Maybe it sounds opportunistic or commercial, but getting Crime made into a TV show, I got really interested in the character again. I thought, “Well, let’s go with him and see where he goes next”. I actually wrote the one after The Long Knives first – it’s already written, and will probably come out next year. So I thought, “Well, there's a big space in the middle here, let's do something with that space and write into it. I've kind of known two people that have lost hands, and thought it would be an interesting thing to write, to have somebody lose a hand, and explore the circumstances by which they might do that, how they would feel about it. Then, I thought that would be a great nemesis for [protagonist Ray] Lennox. So I thought about that character first.


The Long Knives is out now.
Image at top designed by Tanita Montgomery for Penguin
Photo: Desiree Adams / Penguin

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