All Cities Are the Same: An Interview with Irvine Welsh

I am a very awkward half an hour early to my scheduled meeting with Irvine Welsh, but when I walk into the coffee shop in a part of Chicago that borders on the not-so-fine line between ‘rich’ and ‘yuppie,’ I realize it’s only awkward because he is earlier than I am. When I take my spiced apple cider and walk to the back of the shop, I find him sitting at a table with tidy stacks of paper and a Macbook in front of him. He looks at my drink and says, “Oh, I was going to get you a drink,” to which I respond, “I mean, I was going to get you one, so this is weird.”

He blinks up at me and asks me to give him fifteen minutes to finish whatever authorly pursuits which he is currently working on. I tuck myself into a corner and try not to think about how strange meeting my favorite author for tea is.

When I do sit down at his (suddenly very tidy) table fifteen minutes later, I hide all my awkwardness in my back pocket, like a pro, and talk about the weather. Like a pro. It’s a balmy 70 degrees on this February day in Chicago, and if that’s not something interesting to talk about, I don’t know what is. He laughs when I talk about sunshine and says, “I just got used to summer; dressing down, you know? I don’t want to get out that coat again. It’s the gentlest winter I’ve had here, and I’ve been here permanently for seven years. I’ve kind of been off and on for a bit. I had an apartment here and used to come over usually in the summer.”

I laugh. “Summer? Because you like getting your soul sucked out by the heat?”

He snorts a bit. “Yeah, I like the heat. Scotland is never hot. It’s cold and miserable all the time. It’s never warm. But no one actually wears any clothes there. It’ll be ten degrees and everyone will be walking around in tank tops, pretending it’s hot, like. I can’t do that anymore, but it’s a big cultural thing not to wear an overcoat.”

“I kind of wanted to move to the UK, but I guess I’d be the only one wearing a coat, so I guess I’d choose Seattle instead.”

“Seattle has got a kind of Newcastle/Aberdeen/Edinburgh-type vibe to it. It’s got that rainy sort of very green, lush sort of vibe.”

“So what made you choose Chicago over somewhere like Seattle, then?” 

He stirs his tea. “My wife is from here. I’m kind of stuck here, I suppose. It’s not been bad at all. I do so much work in LA because my manager and agent are out there, and it’s easy to get there. I wouldn’t be able to do that if I was back in the UK. I could get on the train for 3 and a half hours and be in London, but I can’t be on a plane for 11 hours that often. And I can get back home quite easily as well, you know. You can get the direct flight back to Edinburgh in the summer from Chicago, and you’ve got those flights to London.”

I ask him how he likes having an agent for TV and film, considering he doesn’t have one for his writing career. He looks off at the tattooed barista making her way between the tables and says, “The good thing is that the rights department at Random House have been the same people I’ve always worked with. When you do that, you kind of have that relationship with them. You know the book market, and you either ask for more or less or the same. They’ll either say yes or no. You can negotiate, but they’ve gotten a bit harder to deal with now. I was lucky because my first book was signed such a long time ago, and it was kind of a golden age then. Writers still moan about how bad they were treated, but they weren’t really. And if you were on the bestseller list, you made a lot of money. Whereas now, you make a bit of money, but you don’t make that much money unless you’ve got a massive book that stays on the bestseller list for years and years. It’s weird now that people read less, in terms of books and novels, but people write more. And that’s bizarre. But I think guys like myself were lucky, really, because when the Internet kicked in during the late ’90s and early 2000s, it was almost like it became a lot harder for younger writers to break through. Older writers like myself, we were like brands. It’s kind of unfair, really, for the lot of younger writers. I don’t think it does culture any good because the old writers; they might be great writers, they might be terrible writers, they might be average writers; but they’re just bought because they’re brands, you know; they’re recognizable. It’s probably easier for young writers to get published, but it’s not easier for them to establish themselves. They’ll get picked up for two books and then their publisher will say, “Get on with it, do everything on social media, publicize it.” And that’s supposed to all kind of happen, that buzz is supposed to be created through social media, and it doesn’t really happen that way. A lot of really good writers are taken on and they’re dropped after their more difficult second book. Whereas I really felt looked after when I was a younger writer. The publishers really cared about books then. They weren’t really as much concerned with the money side of it. They were excited about the book, and if they got excited, they reckoned other people would, too. Now it’s more market driven. In a way, they have to be.”

He leans back, looking at me while idly stirring his tea, the way men in the American mafia do when they realize they’re made men. Except made men drink cocktails. Irvine Welsh drinks tea. “When I bring a book to my publisher, I know how big the book is going to be as soon as I give it to them. If it’s going to be absolutely monstrous and on the New York Times bestseller list for years, they’ll always invite me to the sales conference. These are the half-a-dozen people who are going to make sure that they get their money back from this book. If it’s going to be an intermediate one and they’re only going to put a bit into it, then they won’t invite me to the sales conference. You know the level it’s going to be at before it comes out. It doesn’t matter the quality of the book or how you feel about it; that doesn’t make a difference on the impact it’s going to have.”

He laughs and sighs simultaneously when I ask how it felt to become an overnight sensation. “You see yourself as a writer; you don’t see yourself as an author. You don’t see yourself as a public face who has to sell the book; promoting and touring and stuff. That took me by surprise because I thought you just write the book and it miraculously just appeared on the shelves, other people came along and bought it, and then you wrote another one. I didn’t realize you actually have to sell the thing. I know a lot of writers who write a great first book and then they can’t even be bothered.”

I bring up how he uses dialect in his work and ask about his experiences with censorship, and he leans his head back against the oddly bright magenta wall. “For the last fifteen years, I’ve been involved in film, TV, and stage. That’s very different from writing a novel, because when you write a novel it’s very sort of indulgent. You want to amuse yourself with this story. But when you write for stage and TV, you know that people are going to actually see your words and do what you say you actually think more in terms of an audience, and you don’t do that when you’re writing a book. At least, I don’t. It’s so strange to think about who is going to act this, who is going to see this, who do you want to see this.”

Welsh’s most recent play, Creatives, which he co-wrote with Don De Grazia, was recently playing at The Edge Theater in Chicago. I ask him how it felt to sit in the audience and watch the actors interact with his writing while he hears the audience behind him, interacting with the entire performance. “It was terrible. Like, you feel so nervous for the actors. You begin to say every one of their lines with them, and sing every one of their songs. You just want them to do well, and it’s such a high-pressure thing. They’re up there on the stage. Stage is different than on a film or TV set because you can do another take, you can do as many takes as you can, you can make it look good in the edit. But when they’re up there doing it live, then apart from saying their lines and doing it right, there’s not much which you can do to make it perfect. For me, I throw a book out there and people say either it’s a great book or it’s a shit book, but it doesn’t really bother me because it might be fantastic, but it doesn’t really matter. I’ve done the best I can possibly do at that time. But when you do film or stage, you’re aware of how many people are involved in it and how many people have worked on it, and no one wants to make a fuck-up or a bad play. But it happens. So you feel much more of a responsibility for the people who have worked on it.”

While talking about collaborating with De Grazia, he mentions how revitalized he gets, as a novelist, from working with other people. “You don’t really get that revitalization as a novelist because you just write. And you make sure to show friends or whatever, but basically your editor sees it. And that’s it. Then it goes out. Whereas [when you collaborate] you’re interacting with people and, especially when you’re working with people who know what they’re doing and they’re experiencedit’s just so good to have all these heads going into one thing. It’s so invigorating to work in that environment. Don is new to writing for stage, and he’s all enthused, and his enthusiasm is kind of rubbing off on me. It’s all kind of fun. You get so much out of it.”

Welsh spent part of 2002 as a Writer-In-Residence at Columbia College Chicago, used to dabble in house music, writes plays and screenplays, as well as writing prolific novels simultaneously. I ask him how he balances all these different pursuits. “I really did the Writer-In-Residence at Columbia to get a visa to the States, because my artist visa was taking a long time to be renewed after 9/11. Whereas DJing is concerned; I like vinyl, but I wasn’t interested in taking CDs and just dumping the music into a mixer. I like going to the record shops. I used to do it a lot in London. I had a lot of friends in record shops and we used to just sit around there and listen to all the new house tracks and labels. Once all that kind of stopped and got digitalized, it lost all the magic to it. I think you get old and at a certain point you have no business being at dance clubs if you can’t dance all night, and these legs can’t really throw an all-nighter. I can do a couple of hours at a time but… I feel like a kind of creepy old guy who goes to a house club full of young people jumping around. But one of the interesting things is there are a lot of house clubs for the more mature house music aficionados, and I quite like going to them. I don’t do it around here as much. I don’t go to clubs here. And the other thing is I can’t really take loads of drugs now. I used to enjoy taking drugs, jump around all night and then stay up the next day and write. It eats into too much stamina. It doesn’t enhance it anymore.”

As Irvine Welsh is (as I described him to others prior to our meeting) ‘the king of drugs,’ I ask him what drugs do for him, and why does the concept hold such a fascination for him. “Spud was the only one who was still kind of a junkie in T2 and Porno. There was always someone who died, someone who didn’t sort themselves out. For so many, heroin was a phase, but then there were those who had anxiety or depression issues and they were self-medicating to the extent that they had to continue. I mean, one of my best friends has been on methadone for years now, and he can’t come off it, because if he does, he’s just going to go straight back on heroin, big time. Still does, to an extent. He just can’t live without it. There’s something in his chemical makeup, he says. He’d probably commit suicide if he’s off his methadone. And he’s functioning and he’s happy and all that. He needs it.”

I bring up that famous line from Trainspotting: “Choose life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family. Choose a fucking big television.” I ask him how he chose all of that over heroin (which is what Rent-Boy ultimately chooses). “I think [choosing] is a class thing. When I left Edinburgh to go to London, I was hanging out with middle-class junkies who were having loads of fun and taking too many drugs, but you could tell it was a phase they were going through. They would get it together and move on to get a job or go back to university and whatever. Back home, it was just devastated, economically. All the factories and business and offices just shut down. There was just nothing, you know; no way out. There was just drugs. And it wasn’t just taking drugs to make money or to get out of it because you’re miserable. The whole thing, the whole compelling drama was all about drugs. The street had become the new factory, basically. You go to a factory or an office and you always have a laugh; you have fun. It was all a theater of life, and that was all taken away [when the factories closed] and displaced to the streets. Because you don’t have the structure of work, you turn to the structure of the drugs; buying and using and going into withdrawal if you didn’t have it. And that gave people something to focus on.”

He looks hard at the passersby on the quiet street outside the coffee house. His eyes had been soft and kind up until this point, but now he stares at the tree shading the sidewalk as if it, and not heroin, is the one hurting his home. “All cities are the same, really. You have the tourist-central section. Then you go out and it’s all just rings of housing estates. People don’t really have much to do. They may come in; usually for football or for getting drunk on the weekends. You don’t really have a positive relationship with the city center if you live in the housing schemes. It’s for tourists. There are CCTV cameras and police everywhere. If you’re from the housing schemes you’re made to feel very unwelcome. You’re also economically excluded, because by the time you’ve come in on the bus or the tram, you don’t have money to spend. The schemes are cheaper. And it’s the same thing here. People say they’re coming to Chicago, they say they’ll take the riverboat cruise and take a boat trip on the lake or go to Navy Pier or see some theater. You don’t say you’re going to go out to Garfield Park or Englewood. Apart from it being dangerous for people who don’t know what they’re doing, there’s also just nothing to see. It’s just projects and gangs, maybe a fast food takeaway and kids standing around with their guns. It’s exactly the same. Every city is exactly the same. I grew up in Muirhouse. It’s on the very north side of Edinburgh, close to the river. We used to have a library, a pub, and a shopping center, too. The shopping center is just really crap shops now, and even the pub shut down. The library and the community center are still there. I’ve got a lot of pals who have stayed in the same area. I try to get there quite a lot; talk in the library and see pals and watch football. But there’s not a lot there. You’re basically going to someone’s house if you’re there. When I was a kid, there were load of kids just running around, playing ball. Now, if you go there, all the kids are in their flats because there’s no reason to go out. If they do go out, their activities are supervised. The kids don’t own the streets anymore; they’re more gang-oriented. It’s kind of a bit sad. Your friends are really your community. But if I’m away from Chicago for a few weeks, when I come back things have completely changed. Gentrification happens so quickly here. Where I live, near the Southport Corridor, it used to be fun. There were a lot of nice bars and nice restaurants and they’ve all shut down. It’s all a sort of bolt-store hell, nice gardens, and Starbucks.” He grimaces. “Starbucks.

I laugh at his disdain-laden tone. “Not a fan, huh?”

“Not at all.” He gestures at the room around us. “This coffee shop here has been great. It’s a great place to write. It’s pretty. You can sit up front and just hang out and chat with the barista. There are a few coffee shops around here, but this one is my favorite. What I tend to do is come here, get some ideas together, and write away, and then I’ll go back to my office. That’s the least fun part of writing, because it means I have to be stuck in this room for God knows how many days until I come up with something. I’ll start looking at a board and start to plan it out, look at how it will all work. I rearrange all these bits of paper; figure out where a chapter goes. And I’ll keep doing that. It’s become a process of writing in the subconscious and then looking at it in a more abstract way about what I’ve got going here, what it’s about, who the characters are, what are the plot points, and all that. Just getting it on the wall and going back to that. Some of them are intricate stories and others are Post-It notes, but it gets complicated a few notes in. I always find when I get to about 70,000 words, may a bit less than that, I know it’s going to be a novel. Then I think, ‘This is horrible. I actually have to finish this.'”

I thank him for his time as he picks up his tea infuser and empty mug to bring it to the barista. He reaches out to pat my shoulder and I reach out, simultaneously, to shake his hand. In the chaos that ensues, I knock over my chair. He asks if I’m okay, helps me right the chair, and brings my mug to the barista. While he chats with her about his play, I marvel over my preconceptions of Irvine Welsh. I thought he was the king of drugs. I thought that was all he was about. Having tea with him showed me that he’s more a king of people. He’s a king of stories. He lives for friendship and expression and boat rides and maybe, once in a while, he lives for having a couple hours of dancing at a house club in a new city even though, to him, all cities are the same.

© Chapin Langenheim, 2019

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