Irvine Welsh on angst, addiction and writing

After spending the last couple of months rereading Irvine Welsh novels, as well as reading the few I’d never touched, it struck me that I’d never heard him talk. Nor did I know anything about him. I was unsurprised to find out he was born in Leith and had been addicted to heroin there for 18 months. Hence the hints in a number of books about Mark Renton and Spud Murphy’s literary inclination. It suggests to me that Welsh identified with both characters in different ways, raising the question of how to interpret the conclusion in Dead Man’s Trowser’s (2019) that Renton published Murphy’s manuscript after his death. He describes in this interview how Trainspotting was an interrogative book in which he tried to make sense of how he came to heroin in the first place, highlighting the deeply existential questions explored in a book which is too easily framed in terms of the aesthetics of decay. He sees it as a ‘romantic outlaw’ identity which ‘never lasts’ as addiction collapses into the experience of ‘getting your medicine’:

His description of recovery is reminiscent of the account of the addiction centre in Skagboys, a book which I found much deeper the second time I read it. One of many things which struck me was Renton’s nascent creativity when he came off heroin for the first time in the book, reflecting Welsh’s return to his journals in beginning to write Trainspotting. He distinguishes Renton and Sickboy from the other characters in his universe for whom heroin was an existential palliative in a time of chronic deindustrialisation. For them it was a competition to see who could be most fucked up; a folie à deux which runs through his novels. He clearly identifies with this dynamic from the interviews I’ve read. Interestingly, this paired identification can also be seen in the Sex Lives of Siamese Twins (which I’m reading at the moment) in spite of the gender of the characters. I like this notion that he’s drawn to write pairs of characters which represent internal conflicts within him.

It’s interesting that he sees these characters as exceptional, caught in a dynamic which exists between them, while on the other hand seeing the enduring appeal of the books as reflecting a generalised precarity which increasingly pulls in the middle classes. He positions his characters as something like a vanguard, who “had to face these questions back in the 80s”, exploring a terrain which many would follow them into. He describes his genre as “post-industrial adjustment” in which people are adjusting to a “whole new way of life”, suggesting that automation will intensify and generalise this process; the industrial working classes were the first victim of technological change and the first to experience “emotional and physical redundancy”.

I particularly enjoyed how he described his writing process as akin to sculpture:

You sit down there. Certainly for the first drafts, I tend to let the subconcious do the heavy lifting. Do all the work. You don’t really know basically. You just sit down and type. Get lost in it. You go into this place and next thing you know there’s 20,000 words in front of you. You look at it and think ‘where did this come from?’. Then you go away, you take it out, print it off, take it out to a cafe and look through it. See can this be usable in any way; what are the themes coming out of it, what are the characters emerging, what is the storyline that’s coming out of this. It’s almost like sculpture. You get this big piece of clay and then you start to push it into something which looks like the figure you’re trying to carve.

He describes himself as a working writer who always has something on the go, whether it’s a book, a script or a play. He always has something he’s immersed in which gives him a world to be immersed in. His focus is always on the present book and he describes forgetting the past project once he’s moved onto the next one. I found another interview in which he describes his writing process in more detail, suggesting an attempt to tame the chaos which emerges from his creative immersion:

Any attempt to impose discipline on his creativity would, by the sounds of it, probably be futile anyway. “It’s just a big mess,” is how he describes his approach to plot. “And I think, all this shit here has got to be put into some kind of order. It’s like a police kind of thing, I’ve got the whiteboards on the walls and I’ve got all the pictures I’ve taken of different things, and stuff that I’ve taken off the net, and Post-it notes that I’ve scribbled on all over the wall. And there I am mixing it all around, taking it off the wall, putting it back up again.” The writing process itself is equally chaotic.

“I’m the same kind of writer as I am a drinker. I’m a binger. Abstinence followed by … well it’s an addict thing, I’ll sit there and my eyes will hanging out my head, it’ll be five days later, unshaven not changed, really, really bad. And eventually I’ll just get told: ‘You fucking minging bastard, get a shower, for fuck’s sake.’ And then I’ll get in the shower and be like, this is good, I’m going for a walk. I’m off down the pub.”

In a piece he wrote for the Spectator he describes a writing routine which perhaps contradicts this slightly, though he does present it as an ‘ideal’:

The ideal I aspire to is rising at 6 a.m., having a light breakfast, being at my desk till 10.30, and hammering out words, lots and lots of them, with an utter disregard for quality or structure, while music blares in the background. Then I’ll pack up and go to the boxing club for a workout — either a circuit, sparring on the pads, or some weights and cardio. This takes you away from the writing and, paradoxically, forgetting about it for a while allows the subconscious to do the heavy l

He describes the central existential concern he explores through his books: “why is it that when life can be so hard and difficult, we compound it by self-sabotage, doing terrible things?”. Clearly I’m not the person to write it but I would genuinely like to read a Lacanian scholar analyse Welsh’s books in these terms, because I felt I saw this underlying current clearly in the books I’ve reread over the last two months. He’s also drawn towards narratives of failed redemption in which we aspire to be better, to do better, only to collapse back into our old ways under the dead weight of habit.

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