In the grand scheme of junkie lit, you've got William S. Burroughs, Hubert Selby Jr., and then there's Irvine Welsh. For the last two decades, the Scottish author of the 1993 seminal classic, Trainspotting, has cranked out titles including The Blade Artist, The Sex Lives of Siamese Twins, and Porno, each exploring the druggy, seedy underworlds of Edinburgh and beyond. No stranger to controversy, Welsh is a modern-day literary icon, a writer as comfortable with novels as he is plays (Babylon Heights), short stories (Reheated Cabbage), and feature films (The Acid House).
Today, Welsh's novel, Dead Men’s Trousers, debuts in the UK. The book reunites Trainspotting favorites Mark Renton, Begbie, Sick Boy, and Spud, later on in life. Renton now has a jet-setting career as a DJ manager, Begbie a successful artist, Sick Boy a pimp, and Spud a beggar. There's rage, reunions, and even a death in the crew. (In 2017, the characters returned to the screen in T2 Trainspotting.) I caught up up with Welsh by phone to find out what fans can expect from Dead Men’s Trousers.
VICE: Did you ever think the characters from Trainspotting would take on such lives of their own? That you’d still be telling their stories decades later?
Irvine Welsh: Not at all, I was just happy to finish the book. I had notes for the book for a long time, and I hadn’t done anything with it, and I just decided I would try and finish them. I hadn’t really written anything before, so I was just so relieved to finish it and get it out to a publisher. I didn’t really expect it to get published. I didn’t expect the book to do well. Everything was kind of a bonus, and the most important part was actually doing it and finishing it. But the guys are fairly universal, they’re kind of archetypes—everybody knows versions of these guys, basically.
Trainspotting is the book everyone knows about. Which do you think is your most underrated, and why?
Glue is in some ways a better book than Trainspotting. I think if Glue came first, it probably would have done as well as Trainspotting, but sometimes it’s not the best book that does it, it's the first one that breaks through. I think Marabou Stork Nightmares is a better book than Trainspotting too, but it’s not as well-read or known, so you never really know. I suppose its kind of like having lots of kids—you’re proud of them all. The most successful one is kind of like the one that becomes the actor. A film star is going to be well-known, the other one becomes a carpenter, but the carpenter might be a better guy.
So what can fans expect from Dead Men’s Trousers?
If Trainspotting was about friendship and betrayal, then Dead Men’s Trousers is a redemption thing. It's that time of life that they’re looking back on, not necessarily with regret, but looking back at the mistakes they made in life. They’re trying to get some kind of resolution, some kind of redemption over it, but they’re still very optimistic and twisted guys. So it doesn’t quite work out the way they really want it to.
Would you say their maturation is a reflection of yours?
I supposed I have matured in a lot of ways. It's really the wrong time to ask, because I was out rather late last night behaving a bit irresponsibly, but generally I’m much more mature and responsible now. These guys aren’t quite that way. If people do mature, it gets a bit boring. They’re probably more persons—much more than me—of their own vanities and vices.
Did you ever expect to be successful when you first started writing?
I messed around in music for a long time. I didn’t really get anywhere, and I thought I would be successful. I didn’t expect to be successful in writing. When you’re younger, you’ve got this incredible ego. You believe you're going to be successful although there’s no real evidence for it. I was one of these guys who thought, I’m going to do something that’s going to make an impact. But I wasn’t sure what it would be.
I thought it would be music. I wrote ballads, and ballads are just stories in songs. I thought, Just get rid of the music and write stories, and keep going from there. It came easy to me, because writing you don’t really have to learn anything. Everybody can write, basically. The technology of it is very easy. You do your own thing, walk at your own pace, and follow your own ideas. There’s no real compromise about it, so that suited me.
How much of Francis Begbie is real, and how much is he an invention?
You never really know, because I’m the kind of writer who tends to let the subconscious do the heavy lifting. I just sit down there and write. You don’t really know at the time where it comes from. When you get into it, you can see similarities, where two or three people fall into every type. There’s always elements of yourself, maybe repressed elements of different characters. To me, they’re more like emotional states that you think yourself into, and you build it from there. I find music helpful for building characters. What would this kind of guy listen to? What would a womanizer listen to? What would a psycho listen to? What would an intellectual listen to? I just make these different playlists and I put them on when I’m writing, and it helps me.
In The Blade Artist, Begbie kept talking about Guns-n-Roses's Chinese Democracy album. Is that where it came from ?
I was on the plane one time listening to some music, and Chinese Democracy was one of the albums on the plane. I thought, This is something Begbie would really like, because everybody else hates it. I listened to it a couple of times and thought it would be great if he really liked this album, like got quite obsessed with it. Basically a modern obsession, because most obsessions are 80s stuff, so I updated the obsession a little bit. There’s something about the album—I’m not mocking it myself—but I could see why somebody like him would like it, basically.
What was it like getting everybody back together again for T2 Trainspotting? Is a third installment in the works?
I really enjoyed it. It was wonderful to get everybody back together again.
I think a third one would be pushing it. When you think about movies, everybody loved The Godfather, everybody loved The Godfather II, but nobody gave a fuck about The Godfather III. Same with Terminator I and Terminator II. Terminator III was decent, but not in the same league. I think, cinematically, it’s better to quit while we’re ahead. Also, does John [ T2 screenwriter John Hodge] want to spend a year of his life on the script? Does Danny [director Danny Boyle] want to spend two years of his life on another Trainspotting? I would be a bit surprised if we managed to get together for a third one.
How do you feel about Trump’s recent suggestion that we should be giving drug dealers the death penalty? Will it solve the opioid crisis?
It’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve heard. All these right-wing politicians are not really interested in people who take or deal drugs. They’ve never taken drugs, never came across a drug dealer, and have nothing to do with drugs. They’re easily influenced by attention. It could be anything. Wars on drugs, wars on terror, wars on crime, wars on the public... It’s just nonsense, basically.
You’ve been living in the states for some years now. Recently, you made Miami your new home. How do you feel about Trump's America?
We’re living in very polarizing times. The changes in the economy are going to make it very hard for people to make money. They are making it harder for people to make wages and for people to make profits. When they stop paying wages, nobody is going to listen to all this shit. Even rich people, because the industrial economy is tanking, just disappearing. It’s bringing all these divisions to the floor. All the agendas and divisions from the old imperialism, and all the racial and ethnic divisions, are breaking down.
It’s like we’re in this position where everything is polarizing, and all these divisions that date back to colonization, imperialism, and the American Civil War, are all re-manifesting again and seem more acute than ever now. Every nation, and the public, is being forced to come to terms with this imperialist past and the old institutions from that era. We’re no longer serving people now, because we’re moving into a different type of economy, a different type of society. I think America is in that kind of crisis.
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