Irvine Welsh was at our exclusive Q&A event last night, followed by a preview screening of Ecstasy, a film adaptation of his short story collection, out in cinemas this Friday. If you missed it, worry not – here’s our interview with the man himself.
“It’s been close to 20 years since the ‘Trainspotting’ characters were first put on paper, but the heady cultural impact they made on the public was undoubtedly due to Danny Boyle’s 1996 big-screen adaptation. And while Renton, Sick Boy, Spud and Begbie remain icons of their generation thanks to a stellar cast whose faces have become synonymous with the roles and adorned many student bedsits since, the supporting likes of Alison, Kelly, Davie and Renton’s brother Billy have largely been forgotten.
So with ‘Skagboys’, Irvine Welsh’s prequel to his renowned debut, there are some loose beginnings to tie up. And tie up they do – so effortlessly, in fact, that you can’t tell that two decades have passed between them. But then again, that’s probably because they haven’t. Not really. While packing up to move home from Dublin to Chicago three years ago, Welsh discovered the original disks from the Amstrad he’d typed ‘Trainspotting’ on. ‘When I wrote “Trainspotting” it was too long,’ he explains. ‘So I chopped out the middle section and wrote the heist ending, but the first 100,000 words were about how they got to that point and I just forgot about it. So I found a guy who could convert the files to Word for me, read through it again and was surprised that I really liked them as young lads out on the town and how they all had different reasons for getting into heroin. I started to think about the ’80s, wrote more and before I knew it, I had another novel on my hands.’
Despite him being one of the most pored-over British writers of the last two decades, Welsh’s work has always been the antithesis of populist fiction. His storylines are rarely relatable and more often than not delivered in brash Scottish phonetics, a style he’s largely stuck to throughout a back catalogue of seven novels, various short story collections and screenplays. But surely harking back to his time growing up on the crumbling estates of north Edinburgh must be difficult, now that success has rendered him so far removed from his origins? ‘I just go back home and hang with my mates for about ten minutes and it all comes flooding back,’ he jokes. ‘It’s the kind of mindset that I’m stuck in, really. My line of enquiry as a writer is to look at why people fuck up. We live quite psychologically harsh lives, yet we always compound that by making the wrong decisions and that’s what really fascinates me: why we keep making the same mistakes and how for some of us failure is such a widespread cultural expectation that we actually embrace it. I mean, what is there in terms of employment, career and educational opportunities? There’s nothing. People need compelling adventure in their life and drugs do offer that – on a pretty fucked-up level, but they still offer it.’
If ‘Trainspotting’ sketched a stark portrait of an unsympathetic society, then, ‘Skagboys’ burns it into a canvas the size of a tower block, with heroin once again positioned as a means of escape. Now that the Conservatives are back in power and the economy is plummeting, it seems apt for Welsh to deliver a novel that remembers the dark days of Miners’ Strike and the poll tax. ‘Yeah, the Tories are back in power and there are riots in the street and there is that incredible déjà vu about it,’ he says, ‘but to me it’s never stopped being like that. I think the whole Thatcherite thing and the Blairite thing were the same. It didn’t change the deep-seated structural problems; the lack of aspiration, the smashed-up education system, the health service – all these things have continued to be eroded.’
Although the new novel focuses on working-class culture, Welsh is keen to point out that addiction isn’t something that exclusively happens to the impoverished or uneducated. Renton, for example, the most prominent character in both ‘Trainspotting’ and ‘Skagboys’, is a successful university student with a girlfriend and has just been interrailing, but still falls victim to heroin. ‘He’s just one of these guys that if it’s there, he’ll try it,’ Welsh says. ‘Not someone like Spud, who
has nothing else in his life, or Sick Boy, who has this arrogance that nothing can touch him anyway.’
As with any sequel, much of the pleasure of ‘Skagboys’ stems from that warming sense of familiarity we get from revisiting old characters and as it turns out, it’s a feeling that’s not just limited to the reader. After all, having talked and written about his plucky junkies for so long, it’s hardly surprising that Welsh regards them as some sort of extend dysfunctional family.‘I just love these characters so much because they’re the first I wrote. I could write about six books on them, I’ve got enough sketches and scenes, but I don’t want to turn them into “Harry Potter”.’ Surprisingly, Welsh says that one of his biggest sources of inspiration is public transport. ‘I’m not being flippant when I say this. I can’t drive so I’m always on buses and trains – that’s the kind of thing that keeps me alive as a writer. In London I used to take my laptop on the Circle Line and just keep going round and a lot of the characters, the physical descriptions, came from that: people getting on and off the Circle Line. If you go on the 32 bus in Edinburgh, you’ve got more stories than you could ever hope to write down.’
Avid readers of Welsh will be privy to the odd reference to his other works scattered through ‘Skagboys’, such as the use of ‘reheated cabbage’, the name of an anthology of his short stories. Renton jokes about being a trainspotter, should anyone catch him lurking around the tracks, and there’s even an allusion to the Britpop-era film. ‘Funnily enough, that line, “Nobody’s going to make a fucking film of our lives,” was one of the old lines that survived,’ Welsh laughs, ‘and I just thought: I’ve got to keep it in, it sums up so much. I know everyone’s going to say that I put it in to make a smug nod to the Danny Boyle film, but that actually wasn’t the case.’ So now that Welsh’s most successful characters have been tapped for another hit, is there more to come? ‘I would hope it would be the end, but you don’t really have a say in it,’ Welsh says enigmatically. ‘If the characters come back, they come back. There’s nothing I can really do about it.’ – Danielle Goldstein
‘Skagboys’ is published on Thursday, Apr 19 by Jonathan Cape at £12.99.
Irvine Welsh’s ‘Ecstasy’ is out in cinemas on Friday, Apr 20.