He may be reluctant to admit it, but, as years go, 2018 has been a pretty significant one for Irvine Welsh. Trainspotting, the audacious debut novel about a group of Edinburgh heroin addicts that made him a household name and spawned an era-defining film, celebrated its 25th anniversary in the summer, reminding the generation that came of age in the 1990s just how old they are.
As if to underscore that fact, in March, Welsh released Dead Men’s Trousers , his 12th novel and the fourth to revolve around Trainspotting’s enduring anti-heroes, now aged the wrong side of 50. And, in late September, the author reached a significant milestone of a personal nature: he turned 60.
Is this a time for reflection and a juncture at which to look back on everything he has achieved over the past quarter century? Hardly, says Welsh.
“Sometimes you walk into a shop and you see all these spines with your name on them on all these different books and you think, ‘Where the f**k did these come from?’ You don’t really have that much connection with them once they’re gone. If I see ‘Irvine Welsh: Trainspotting’, then I look next door to it and see ‘Jeanette Winterson: Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit’, I’ll feel as much connection with one as the other. It’s just something else on a shelf.”
Welsh is talking on the phone from his native Edinburgh a few days after the aforementioned birthday; although he is still a regular visitor to his hometown, he has lived in the United States for most of the past decade and currently lives in Miami. The Florida sun clearly agrees with him as, rather than slowing down and taking stock, the author is a hive of creativity: his next novel – “an intergenerational meditation on post-traumatic stress disorder in America triggered by gun violence” – is almost complete, while he also has a handful of film and television projects in the pipeline, and is working on tracks for an album of acid-house techno.
He is indifferent to turning 60 (“these things only become an issue if there’s a crisis, if something bad happens, but I’m not bothered about dates on calendars”) and he says he celebrated the occasion in low-key fashion, with a few close friends. While he admits to being partial to the odd narcotic-tinged blow out, the one-time heroin addict’s most consuming habit these days is his exercise regime, particularly the time he spends working out at his local boxing gym.
Although well-travelled, he says he has never been to Hong Kong, and is looking forward to his first visit, during which he’ll get the chance to express his twin passions, with a pair of talks at the Hong Kong International Literary Festival and a DJ set at Clockenflap music festival.
The first of his events at the literary festival sees Welsh discussing film adaptations alongside fellow novelist Meg Wolitzer, on November 9. As well as the movie Trainspotting (1996) and its 2017 sequel, T2 Trainspotting, cinematic versions of Welsh books or stories include The Acid House (1998), Ecstasy (20) and Filth (2013), while the author has been involved in a handful of other film and TV projects as a writer, director and producer. Potential TV adaptations of his novels Crime (2008) and Skagboys (2012) have been mooted, as has a second Trainspotting sequel and a Welsh-penned film based on Alan McGee’s 2013 autobiography, Creation Stories: Riots, Raves and Running a Label is apparently in the works, but the writer is staying tight-lipped for the time being.
“Anything that you do now, you’re kind of hoping that someone’s interested in it and wants to take it to the screen,” he says, “but I think with these things you almost damn them by talking about them. Until something gets greenlit, it’s never happening; that’s the way I look at it. When it’s the first day of principal photography, then I can believe it.”
His second talk, on November 10, will centre on his latest release, Dead Men’s Trousers, which he says is the last hurrah for Renton, Sick Boy, Begbie and Spud, the characters who tripped, schemed, scammed and bludgeoned their way through Skagboys, Trainspotting and Porno (2002). As if to reinforce this finality, the book’s dust jacket synopsis promises, “One of these four will not survive to the end of this book,” because, as Welsh explains, “One of them had to go – it’s impossible to think of them all being there after all the things they’ve been through.”
Still, things could have been worse: “I had a scenario whereby every one of them died. I didn’t know which one I would pick. In the end, I picked the one I cared about the most.”
Dead Men’s Trousers is a classic slice of Welshian storytelling – a gloriously obscene yet strangely life-affirming romp laced with lashings of sex, drugs and black-market organ harvesting, all told in his signature, phonetically written Scottish vernacular.
At the start of the novel, we are reintroduced to the estranged former friends, who are enjoying varying degrees of success in their respective fields: Renton is a high-flying DJ manager worn down by constant travel and the demands of his charges; Sick Boy is running an escort agency in London and reluctantly reconnecting with his family in Edinburgh; Begbie – to everyone’s surprise – has reinvented himself as a successful artist in California; and hapless Spud is begging on the streets of Edinburgh.
Despite their contrasting fortunes, the quartet find themselves at a crossroads, and after a series of chance encounters, their lives are soon re-enmeshed as they pursue their own roads to redemption and attempt to make amends for their ample assortment of past regrets.
“I think it’s just a bit of a cycle of life,” says Welsh. “Trainspotting was basically about friendship and betrayal, whereas Porno’s about revenge and [Dead Men’s Trousers] is about redemption. So they’re all books about friendship, and I think that betrayal-revenge-redemption cycle is a very common and a very natural thing in life. We get very much into our own egos and we feel like we’re being betrayed, or mortally hurt by people and want to get revenge on them, then we get to a certain point where we think, ‘Well, this isn’t really that important,’ so we get a bit more chilled again.”
This ethos is embodied in particular by Begbie, who has undergone an unlikely metamorphosis from jailbird headcase to respected artist, complete with picture-perfect wife and kids. Following on from 2016’s The Blade Artist – a bloody whodunnit of sorts that explains Begbie’s plausibility-stretching transformation – Dead Men’s Trousers sees the character demonstrating a new-found self-control and capacity for forgiveness, albeit underpinned by a nagging thirst for violence.
“He’s become an interesting character to me again,” says Welsh, who concedes that Begbie’s previous incarnation had reached a creative dead end as “this kind of comic relief-type guy who came out of jail and caused havoc”. To make him into a character he once again wanted to write about, Welsh says he had to “reboot” him.
“At first, I thought of him as a character who’d be redeemed by art, by love and all that, so I threw all these things at him, but it’s much more interesting if he is still a nutter. He is more of a cold-blooded one now, hiding in plain sight, basically. So that was his journey.”
Once dubbed “the poet laureate of the chemical generation” by 1980s-90s culture bible The Face magazine, Welsh’s own experiences with drugs have been well documented, both in interviews and, to one extent or another, in his books, and so it comes as little surprise that mind-altering substances play an important role in Dead Men’s Trousers.
This time, the narcotic in question is dimethyltryptamine, better known as DMT, a powerful psychedelic known for inducing intense hallucinations and – for some – spiritual breakthroughs. It’s a drug that Welsh has experimented with and describes as “life-changing”, and one that has led him to view the world in a whole new light.
“I was never religious, and I’m still not religious, but I was a confirmed atheist and now I think there is something both before and after our existence here,” he says. “I think [life] is just a small part of a bigger thing.”
According to Welsh, he first tried DMT about 10 years ago, and renewed his acquaintance with it while researching Dead Men’s Trousers. “It’s not a party drug, it’s not a hedonistic drug, it’s very much like an experimental thing. You feel like you’re experimenting with your own life and your own internal workings. It’s a drug that forces you to contemplate big questions.”
Ever keen to push the literary form, Welsh briefly turns the book into a graphic novel so the reader can see what the characters experience on their DMT trip. “I like to do things that can have some sort of visceral and typographic experiments on the page,” Welsh says. “I’d worked with Dan [McDaid], the graphic artist, before on a project, and I thought he’d be fantastic to do it. And he was really interested in DMT as well, so he got it straight away.”
And yet, the DMT trip and an ecstasy-enhanced outing to a Scottish Cup football final aside, most of the drug-taking in Dead Men’s Trousers feels joyless and mundane compared with the hedonistic crusades of his earlier works. Renton, for example, habitually uses cocaine and Ambien to cope with jet lag and the pressures of his job, and Welsh makes it clear he is not having fun.
“I think that’s almost the experience that people have now,” reflects the author. “There’s so much self-medicating going on. I live in Miami, and there’s so many professional people there that microdose. I know lawyers and artists who microdose on acid or mushrooms at work to feel a bit better. It’s almost this idea that you manage your own mental and emotional state.
“We are becoming very much that kind of animal. You can see us eventually having a chip inside our heads that controls our moods and levels of intoxication. We’re much more about being programmed and programming ourselves, and our algorithms and stuff, so it’s a really interesting time we’re moving into; quite a strange and disturbing time as well.”
“Strange and disturbing times” could be an epithet for Welsh’s body of work, and the author’s penchant for grotesquely twisted yet utterly compulsive set pieces is as strong as ever in Dead Men’s Trousers, where a Christmas dinner ruined by a Sick Boy-inspired, narcotic-driven sexual misdemeanour and a DIY organ-harvesting operation in the bowels of a derelict Berlin industrial estate are among the more memorable scenes. Given the over-the-top nature of what he has written, does Welsh find it difficult to keep pushing the envelope from book to book?
“No, in some ways it gets easier because life is so much more extreme,” he says. “There seems to be less violence on the streets and stuff like that, but I think there’s a lot more psychological violence because people are a lot more psychotic and a lot more hurtful towards each other in a manipulative and verbal game-playing way. That’s quite disturbing as a citizen, but for a novelist it’s tremendous […] When I look at the books now, they’ve become much more hyperreal than they were back in the day, and the characters have become much more cynical, and that’s because the world has become like that.”
With 12 (soon to be 13) novels under his belt, Welsh says he is turning his creative energies towards the very nature of how we consume fiction.
“I love stories and I love telling stories and all that, but I kind of wonder if the novel as such has gone as far as it can go,” he says. “The thing that it does have is an incredible interface with the reader’s brain, because the reader makes their own novel. [The author] provides the material and the outline of the story, but the reader makes the movie of that novel in their head.”
Welsh says he has been pondering ways to make the novel a more interactive experience, one in which the author’s work would be a jumping off point for readers to develop stories unique to themselves.
“That’s what authors do; we all take the ideas of other people, we all take the ideas of things we see in the world, and we make them into something else. It’s the transformative element that’s the key thing.”
Energised as he is by the act of creation, however, Welsh acknowledges that he is usually sick of the sight of a book by the time he has finished writing it.
“I’m so f**king relieved to have it out the way,” he says, “because you live with a book for so long and it takes up a lot of your life. Some books are fun and joyful to write, others are quite stressful. You might have been living with a character that you don’t really want to live with for a long time, and it has ramifications for your life when you do that. So it’s quite an intense experience. When you get rid of it, it’s always a joyous experience.”
Welsh says he has little interest in revisiting his books, other than checking for continuity or to refresh his memory of how he originally pictured certain characters, because “all you see is flaws”. He also steers clear of reviews.
“The first couple of books I read the reviews and they were always the same: whether they were positive or negative, it was usually just a string of adjectives with ‘brilliant’ or ‘s***’ at the end of it, so I wasn’t really learning that much other than the stock prejudices of the bourgeoisie, and I knew what they were anyway.”
More to Welsh’s taste is the ritual that marks the conclusion of the writing process.
“I just go out and get pished, basically,” he laughs.
A different track
“I’ve been working on a techno album recently so I’ve got a few of my own tracks,” says Welsh, who will be playing a DJ set at Clockenflap on November 10. “It’s acid-house techno, not really banging, full-on kinda mad stuff, but it’s a lot of classic acid house, swirling effects and noises and all that, and boomy basslines. Some of it is pretty groovy as well.
“Hopefully people are going to go for it and jump around and have a bop, but you’re not going to have your ears bleeding and pounding all night, and you’re not going to want to start doing loads of base speed and be stripped to the waist and salivating and banging your head off the floor and all that. I hate when you get to that point where the BPM [beats per minute] just keeps creeping up and all the women start to move off the floor and it just becomes a big sausage fest.”
Irvine Welsh will appear at the Hong Kong International Literary Festival on November 9 and 10, and at Clockenflap Music & Arts Festival on November 10.