The ‘Bedroom Secrets’ of Irvine Welsh
The Scottish novelist on drugs, politics, love and old people in Seattle
By Justin Chapman 10/12/2006
Irvine Welsh is very busy these days.
The Scottish author of “Trainspotting” fame never lives in one place for more than two or three years. He’s in talks for almost a dozen projects in various mediums, including adaptations of some of his other page-turners.
On top of his modest 400-page novel, “The Bedroom Secrets of the Master Chefs,” and its conjoined book tour, Welsh went to the Exit Theatre in San Francisco in June for the opening of “Babylon Heights,” a play about the purportedly drunk orgy-having, opium-smoking Munchkin actors of “The Wizard of Oz,” co-written by Welsh and Dean Cavanagh of Cottingley, Ireland. One of Welsh’s publicists, Sheryl Johnston, is in preliminary talks with the Pasadena Playhouse, among other LA-area theater companies, to produce “Babylon Heights.”
The play also premiered in Dublin, where Welsh and his second wife of one year, Beth, currently live and where Welsh workshops scripts with the Attic Studio Theatre Co.
Welsh and Cavanagh have worked on a number of projects together, including a video for the band Keane, a BAFTA (British Academy of Film and Television Arts)-nominated drama called “Dose,” an adaptation of Dave Jones’ football hooligan gang novel “Soul Crew,” a black comedy for television called “Wedding Belles” and an adaptation of Welsh’s cop-bashing novel “Filth.”
Welsh is also trying out a bit of directing, including Keane’s “Atlantic” and a 15-minute short, practice for the upcoming feature he plans to shoot in March, an adaptation he did of Alan Warner’s “The Man Who Walks.”
An adaptation of “The Undefeated,” the third short story from Welsh’s “Ecstasy: Three Tales of Chemical Romance,” begins shooting in October. Welsh's film production company Four-Way Pictures, in which Welsh partners with Robert Carlyle, Mark Cousins and "Ravenous" director Antonia Byrd, is considering the "Filth" adaptation. Michael Winterbottom and, oddly enough, Rob Schneider have shown interest as well. Byrd will also begin filming Welsh's body snatcher flick "The Meat Trade" in January.
The new book “Bedroom Secrets” is about a health inspector at the Edinburgh Council named Danny Skinner and his arch rival Brian Kibby, both in their early 20s and dealing with alcoholism and the loss or lack of their fathers. Their rivalry turns into a fierce obsession that drives them to physical and mental extremes. It’s an ambitious story that’s classic Welsh, with a powerful ending that wraps up an enthralling and provoking message of discovery, maturity and identity.
The Weekly recently caught up with Welsh on the last day of his “Bedroom Secrets” book tour in Seattle. “I’ll try not to be too much of a cunt,” he says as we sit down inside the downtown Hotel Vintage Park.
Pasadena Weekly: You said you wrote “Trainspotting” for yourself. Was that the first piece of narrative you had written, or did you start writing before that?
Irvine Welsh: I had done sort of half-ass pieces before, but that was the first time I really sat down and said I’m going to finish this thing no matter what; I don’t care what it’s like, good or bad. Before that I sort of got self-conscious about things. I just got to the point with “Trainspotting” where I said I’m just going to write this thing and if it works, it works; if it doesn’t, it doesn’t. Probably took me about nine months to finish it. I was working during the day as well, so it wasn’t like I was doing nothing else. I had a full-time girlfriend and I was doing deejay stuff. I mostly wrote in stolen hours, like in the morning and such.
Which do you like writing for more: stage, screen or books?
Books, screen, stage, in that order. With books you can do whatever you want. I’ve got to do other stuff as well; otherwise you spend all your time with people who don’t exist and you start to turn into a bit of a nut job if you just write books — it’s not a good thing to do. As much as I love it, I’ve got to do other stuff as well. Screenwriting’s great because you work with other people. I think theater is last because there’s no money in theater. It’s more of a critic’s medium rather than a consumer culture vulture or an artist’s medium. Not a feel-good medium. The critics really determine what works and what doesn’t, which is a shame because the audience can become quite disenfranchised by critics. There’s no money in it and it can be a hassle. But I always go back to it for some reason because I just like the idea of live performance.
Do you like writing with other people?
It’s a difficult thing to do. I couldn’t do it with anyone, but I can do it with Dean [Cavanagh]. It’s a good thing to be able to work with someone in that way and share ideas and such. It’s almost like a vampire, you know; you suck someone’s blood and take on their sensibilities as well as your own. It can help. Hopefully he thinks it’s helpful as well.
Dean is adapting “Filth”?
Dean originally adapted “Filth” for Miramax, and then they sold it to the UK operation. There was some confusion about who owns the rights to it. We kind of got the rights back now so I want Dean to be the principal writer and I’ll sort of work with him to get a good screenplay together and then we’ll see who wants to work on it. Winterbottom and Schneider have been interested in it. The guys who did “Football Factory” kinda wanted to do it, and also my own company, Four Way Pictures, has been thinking of a way to do it as well. I’ve got to look at the options and see who’s best to advance it. Also the filming of “Ecstasy” got pushed back from summer because the lead actor pulled out. I think they’ve replaced the lead actor and are going to shoot in October now.
I read a quote from Dean where he said, “Young people need more encouragement to develop their writing talents, that it takes years to find your voice.” Is that what you try to do in your writing course or even in your own writing?
Yeah, I think it does. I taught the BFA and MFA program in Chicago and I kind of have a problem with it. I think if you’re over 30 or 35 it’s a good writing program to get into because it gives you that structure and that encouragement. But for anyone under 35, I would say get a job, basically. Especially if they just got out of school, you know, I would say go travel or work. Get a degree in something that’s going to give you some knowledge — history or geography or social sciences or computers or business or something like that to give you a bit of background and experience.
What about an adaptation of “Porno” with the same actors 10 years later?
The same production company and Andrew MacDonald have the rights to it. They’re just trying to get the script as good as they can. I think Danny Boyle wants to wait until people perceive the actors as being a little bit older. It takes time to do it right. If you’ve got a big budget, you’ve got to have a good script to get the actors interested and involved. That way they feel there’s something in it for them instead of using them for exploitative financial purposes. We’re going to try to do the very best that we can, and if we can’t do the very best then we won’t make it. Simple as that. I think if we’re going to do it, it needs to keep the integrity of the thing intact, instead of just throwing something together that’s half-assed just to make it.
Do you enjoy directing?
Yeah, I’ve only done music videos. I’m doing a short and then I’m hoping to do a feature in March. I’ve kind of been learning a bit about myself. You do a video shoot in two days, basically, and everybody can enjoy that. It’s just good fun because you’re not doing it long enough to get pissed off. You know, if you’re shooting in the Highlands of Scotland with a huge crew, huge budget, keeping everyone happy in the cold and all that. I do enjoy it, I love working with people and being involved, but it’s easy when all I’ve done is pop videos. You know you’ll be able to get everything you need in a couple days.
Do you have plans to record with Primal Scream again, or do you like collaborating with different musicians?
I’m working with a friend of mine in Dublin on something for Channel 4. That begins shooting in September and we’re hoping to get a bunch of people doing different stuff for the soundtrack. I’ll be doing something on it myself. I’ll probably work with Primal Scream again; it’s a bit of a novelty. It’s fun and all that, but there are so many talented musicians: David Holmes, for example, or Andrew Innes from Primal Scream, who can work on scoring movies. I think they’d be great at that. Look at Clint Mansell, you know, he’s brilliant at that sort of thing. The only thing I can do reasonably professionally instrument-wise is bass guitar, but then again I’m not particularly brilliant at it. I’d rather get someone who’s really good at it. Nowadays you can sample a bass line so easily and there are so many brilliant musicians around so there’s really no point getting somebody half-assed like me trying to do something.
You recently went to Sudan and wrote a piece on that.
Yeah, I went to southern Sudan with a team of writers. I also went to Calcutta and Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban. I was the first Western journalist in Darfur when I did a report for The New York Times when the whole thing kicked off, basically, the janjaweed and that. I’m planning to do some more of that stuff next year. I start to feel selfish working on just my own stuff again. It’s a great thing to do but it can get pretty hard. I do stuff for some other charities and organizations as well. You have to limit yourself otherwise you’re not doing anybody any good. The OneCity Trust in Edinburgh is one group I’ve started doing stuff with and I want to do more with them.
You have a new novella and short story collection coming out called “If You Like School, You’ll Love Work.” How did you receive school growing up?
I hated it. It was shit. Fuckin’ horrible. I wasn’t good at anything except English and art. I didn’t have any desire to do anything else. I don’t know why; I wasn’t stupid. And now I’m interested in all that, like geography, history, science — math, even. I love all that kind of stuff. I wish I would have tried harder in school and applied myself more. I feel I’ve missed out on basic education in some areas that I should be a lot more proficient in. I don’t know why; it just didn’t interest me. I’ve never liked the nine-to-five thing, stuck in some place. I don’t know why that is; it’s just an attitude thing really, kind of temperamental.
Some of your novels focus on the interaction within a group of friends. Have you yourself had longtime friends in which you confided in or ripped off?
Yeah, I got married again last year and I had eight groomsmen. Two of them I’ve known since I was 6 years old. Grew up with them in the scheme in Muirhouse in Edinburgh. Another two or three were football hooligan pals from my teens and all that. Another couple of them were drug mates from my early 20s. I mean every one of them are sort of pre-me being a writer. That’s kind of a nice thing to realize, that my closest friends are the ones I’ve always had.
In the new book, “The Bedroom Secrets of the Master Chefs,” you make a couple topical references, such as to Tony Blair and George Bush, and talk about them through the characters’ perspectives. Is that part of your personal politics that you wrote in there or do you think current world events are relevant and even critical to individual stories?
What I was trying to do is make a point in a way that Skinner’s obsession with Kibby because he’s a bit different, it’s that kind of immaturity that we get into in our teens and early 20s before we’re fully formed. We define ourselves by people who are not like us. Being obsessed with somebody in that way, hating somebody, is almost like being in love with them. It implies a relationship with that kind of responsibility. You’re always thinking about them; you’re obsessed with them. I wrote in the whole geopolitical thing about the Middle East: If you don’t get along with them or don’t like them, just leave them alone. That’s what I was trying to say there. Like Blair is apologizing to people in India and the Caribbean and all that now for imperialism. And it’s like what the fuck — why do that and then fucking bomb people in the Middle East? We’ll be apologizing to them in 50 years time and all that. It’s like an alcoholic, you know, “Oh, I’m sorry. I love you. I’ll never do it again. I promise; I promise.” It’s that kind of insincere fucking nonsense. I was trying to get that kind of culture that’s implicit in an immature individual and also in an immature political culture. And I think Western imperialism is an immature political culture. Our institutions have never been allowed to reach the kind of maturity in adulthood because of its imperialist legacy that’s regurgitating again and again. That was the reason for having that kind of stuff in the book.
Has love helped or hindered your writing process?
It’s difficult to say. I’ve probably only been in love three times in my life. One was pre-writing and the other two post-writing. The times when you’re in love are better for you because it’s so energizing, apart from everything else. When you’re in love you’re more curious about things, you’re looking at different things and you’re more willing to try different things. Bad things don’t get on your nerves so much. I think hate can teach you a lot as well, but when you’re in love you’re more positive about people and the world.
At the Edinburgh Book Festival you were accused of misogyny after reading a sex scene between an old witch and Skinner in the new book, which is ironic because you wrote your thesis on creating equal opportunities for women.
I told the woman concerned that you can’t really call it misogyny because the old woman in the scene is empowered, not the other way around. She’s sort of manipulated this young guy into doing something he wouldn’t normally have done. She actually came up later and said she meant misanthropist, not misogynist. Which, you know, it may be ageist. I think I’m probably ageist in a sense that I don’t think people should be treated badly, I think they are treated badly and should be treated a lot better. But we have to accept the realities of getting older are that basically you get fucking ugly to look at and boring to talk to. Simple as that, you know? Not in all cases, but gradually it happens. There are some very interesting old people, but that’s because they were exceptionally interesting when they were younger. As good as they may be, I don’t think they’re quite as interesting as when you see them back when they were younger. It’s not discrimination against the old; it’s just a misanthropic thing to the extent that it’s something everyone goes through; it’s part of the life cycle. It’s not punishing old people because they come from a certain generation or that they’re superior to the next generation of old people who right now are young. It’s just a natural thing.
What keeps you writing, for instance through writer’s block?
I don’t really get writer’s block. I don’t believe that, I think it’s a lot of shite. It never really bothers me. What keeps me writing is I don’t feel I’ve written what I want to write yet. Aside from volume and all that, I know I can [write] better than what I’ve done. My whole sort of philosophy has been to accept in myself that writing’s a valid career choice, not so much accept that I’m a writer, which took me a long, long time, but to accept that that’s what I am, that’s what I’m doing, that’s probably what I’ve always been. Instead of saying I’m some kind of cultural activist or some kind of iconoclastic figure. Everyone writes from different cultures. The one I write from is just another culture; it’s not necessarily superior or inferior to the next. Different cultures of society produce good and bad writers. We live in a multicultural world, we should have multicultural art.
How do you respond to people who say you accurately depict the relationship between humans and intoxication compared to those who say you glorify drug use?
The people who say “glorify drug use,” that’s the kind of thing people who have never taken drugs would say. That’s people talking outside their own experience. When “Trainspotting” came out, all the health education stuff in Britain at the time was “Just say no.” Now all the health education stuff is out of “Trainspotting,” you know, most people know that’s not the case at all. There’s nothing glamorous or glorifying about fucking come downs or getting sick on heroin and I depicted that just as relentlessly as I depicted the highs. People do it because it feels good, and you’ve got to show that reality. And then it fucks them up and it starts to feel bad, and you’ve got to show that reality, too. You know, to not show these realities is just nonsense. You’re only showing half the picture. How dumb is it to say this is what happens when you take heroin, and you show them ODing on the couch or something, and then someone takes heroin for the first time and they have this euphoric rush and all that, you know. How irresponsible is it for the health education people to say that’s what happens when you do heroin? That is what happens to your health when you do heroin. If someone’s in great pain they’re going to shortly dismiss the second half of that message, which is the most important half of that message. You’ve got to show the whole package. That’s what I’ve been trying to do, to be honest in that way. I don’t want to encourage people to take drugs. I don’t want to encourage people not to take drugs. That’s not my business. All I’m doing is showing the reality of every kind of drug and its lifestyle.
Have you had any sort of serious life-threatening encounters with drugs?
Yeah, you sort of laugh these things off. I almost drowned in a swimming pool and was rescued one time. I overdosed and went to a hospital two times. I’ve done all sorts of reckless things. It kind of makes my blood run cold when I think about it. I think that’s why a lot of people do it, to behave stupidly and irresponsibly. It’s about the human spirit. This whole notion of ceremony and celebration and intoxication is so much a part of celebration. It’s so engrained in the human spirit. Like anything, you’re going to have casualties on the way.
Did you ever have to get treatment?
Yeah, I tried methadone years ago and it didn’t work for me. Different things work for different people so I don’t want to dismiss it, but the only thing I could do is going it cold turkey. Just sweat it out and take it. Anybody can get addicted to drugs or alcohol or whatever, but you have to have either an incredible amount of stupidity or more likely an incredible amount of arrogance to keep it going because you’ve got to believe as your morals collapse around you and precipitate all this selfish behavior that everybody’s out of step except you. That takes an incredible amount of arrogance. Unless there’s some kind of mental thing driving it, it’s very difficult for most people after awhile to sustain the level of arrogance needed to maintain an addiction. That’s why people feel so fucking destroyed mentally.