Characters are everything in the works of Irvine Welsh. The novels of the Scottish author present their protagonists in full, unvarnished detail – and it is not always a comfortable experience. Drug addiction, poverty, racism and a general sense of societal malaise are common themes in a body of work that refuses to be categorised.
Born and raised in Scotland, Welsh left school at sixteen, then immersed himself in the London punk scene in the late 1970s. He played guitar and worked in various jobs, returning to his home town of Edinburgh a decade later. He wrote his first novel while working for the district council and had some difficulty in finding a willing publisher. A graphic depiction of the city’s heroin culture, Trainspotting (1993) became a best-seller and quickly achieved cult status, in part thanks to the strong characters, which translated perfectly onto the screen for the film adaptation by Danny Boyle, starring Ewan McGregor.
Since then, he has written a number of novels, screenplays, short story collections and plays. The characters in his stories often make a cameo appearance in other works, building a world of interconnected people in a setting that feels real and familiar.
Irvine Welsh (Scottish accent):
I like it when you write a character, I almost like to actually feel their breath on the side of my face when they’re talking to me and all that. You want to make them as three-dimensional and vivid as possible. If you can stuff the whole book with memorable characters, the book kind of becomes more of an event. It’s not just a simple telling of a story. It gives a kind of landscape. And I feel if you do that, it comes alive to the extent that the place you’re writing about becomes a character in the book as well, you know?
Welsh has a very specific process for writing and music has a big role to play in the formation of the characters he creates.
Irvine Welsh: For me, a lot of the composition of character comes through song. If I make up a playlist for every character, it becomes a way of finding them; you know, it becomes a way of making them very vivid in my own sense of them. So I’ll think, ‘What would this person be listening to?’ and then I’ll play some music. I have a kind of standing-up desk, ’cause I like kind of standing up when I’m sort of typing and doing the characters and then I’ve got the music on there, so I’m kind of mixing music and I’m kind of going back and banging stuff away on the keys and I’m going back into the music and there’s music blasting out. I’m modifying the music as a result of the characters, and I’m modifying the characters as a result of the music I’m playing, so you get that kind of interface.
THE QUIET PHASE
Once the characters have been created, Welsh switches into a different mode of working.
Irvine Welsh: When I feel I’ve got enough on the characters and they can kind of take the burden of telling most of the story, I basically switch off the music and I wind the desk down to normal desk height and then I just sit there and do the second phase, which is the quiet phase, it’s the exact opposite, I just need total quiet to put something together, to start working out plotlines and where is this all going to go? The third phase is may be just sitting around coffee shops with what I’ve got, kind of just making changes to it and then coming back and keying it in.
Welsh started his adult life during the 1980s boom and his experiences have coloured his work. Now the world has changed and it is, he observes, more frenzied than ever.
Irvine Welsh: We’re all pushed towards compulsive obsessive behaviour nowadays. It’s a declining end of consumer capitalism, really, as wages continue to fall, you know?, and consumer spending and we don’t have the facility to extend debt like we did before 2008. You know, advertising and the promotion of certain kind of lifestyles and products and everything becomes much more frenetic. So we just consume more of everything. We consume more drugs, we consume more sex, we consume more goods that are produced in shops, we consume more TV programmes, we binge on these Netflix shows and all that, so we’ve created this mad, kind of dysfunctional zoo, that we’re all in… We’re like hamsters on this kind of treadmill. It’s encouraged by social media. It’s encouraged by peer pressure. Most of all, it’s encouraged by the whole corporate machinery that we’re all part of.
UNITED WE STAND
His outlook may seem bleak, but Welsh has hope for a better future, provided we work together, regardless of our social standing.
Irvine Welsh: If humanity has any future, it’s not hierarchical, patriarchal, sort of class-based, divided… It’s about coming together as a common humanity. So that’s a big challenge.. It’s not going to be about men and women. It’s going to be about human beings trying to sort it out. Because you can’t really sort it on the basis of division.