For a writer who had three shows running during this year’s 70th anniversary Edinburgh Festival Fringe, theatre didn’t feature that much in his life when Leith-born Irvine Welsh was growing up.
“Apart from panto at the King’s Theatre—Stanley Baxter, Ronnie Corbett and all that—it was never a big thing for me,” he says. “I got into theatre more when I was a student—you used to get cheap tickets—and I went through a time when I kind of really got into Shakespeare.”
Not that Irvine has gone all soft. “The way Shakespeare’s plays were originally performed was to working class audiences, to the general mob of people. A lot of theatre is a bit stiff and pompous now; I want to get back to that kind of theatre, to get back the kind of feeling that it’s a bit like going to a football match.”
Two of these three shows were new works: Creatives, described in the Fringe programme as a “dark, comic pop-opera”, was co-written with Don De Grazia, professor of Fiction Writing at Columbia College, Chicago and author of cult novel American Skin. Performers was a black comedy set in 1960s’ “Swinging” London, on which Irvine has worked with old friend Dean Cavanagh. The third—the show that still gained the most headlines during the Festival—was the Edinburgh return of an internationally acclaimed “immersive” adaptation of his famous debut novel, Trainspotting.
“I don’t really have to do anything with Trainspotting Live; those guys—theatre company In Your Face—have got that one!” Irvine says. “In a sense, Trainspotting’s not mine anymore; it’s one of these things that you just have to let go with good grace and let the world take it over. For me, it’s one of the most rewarding and exciting things when you get a whole new generation taking that material and owning it themselves. Performers and Creatives are different; they’re kind of like new little babies that need looking after a wee bit.”
First published in 1993, Irvine’s debut novel rapidly became a modern classic, and inspired Danny Boyle’s successful film three years later. So, nearly 25 years on, how does Irvine view Trainspotting himself—a unique calling card, or an albatross damning his subsequent career?
“Calling card, definitely,” Irvine says. “There are a lot of things I’ve done which I think are better than Trainspotting—Glue (2001) and Skagboys (2008), for example—but they wouldn’t be anywhere as well known or well read or celebrated if it hadn’t been for Trainspotting.”
Back in the day, much of the initial attention on Trainspotting focused on Irvine writing much of the book in Scots, and pretty rude Scots at that. “I tried to write it in Standard English and I found it was quite pretentious, because the characters weren’t coming to me in that way,” he explains. “They didn’t sound like that in my head, so I had to come up with something that would bring them to life for me, that would make sense of them for me. I looked at all the ways that other writers—Lallans writers and Doric writers—had resolved that issue. I just listened to people and how we all kind of talk, and perform stories in pubs. Stuff like that.
“I was just trying to fashion something but when I did, I was terrified, because it looked a mess on the page; you’re not used to seeing those words on a page like that,” he says. “I thought that nobody’s going to be interested in this but the great thing is, if you have strong, interesting characters doing kind of crazy things, people are always going to identify with them.”
As recent film sequel T2: Trainspotting showed, there’s still life in the book’s iconic characters—antihero Mark Renton, slick friend “Sick Boy”, and violent psychopath Begbie. “I didn’t plan to write a sequel, but with Porno (since republished as T2: Trainspotting), Sick Boy’s character just kind of gatecrashed into the whole proceedings,” Irvine explains. “I’d given him a different name, but then I realised after the first draft that it was Sick Boy. And if I told his story, I’d have to tell the stories of the rest of them.
“So, yeah; they do gatecrash. Begbie does a few times too; I realised that I was still interested in this guy, and if there was anything I could make him do that’d take him out of his prison and early death trajectory. I’ve got interested again in Renton, actually, which surprises me, because I thought I was so over him.”
So does Irvine think he was always destined to be a writer?
“I think so; you learn about your own motivations kind of retrospectively,” he says. “I grew up in a household where my father was very ill; it was something I didn’t really want to engage with, so I created—as kids do when they’re under stress—artificial worlds where that wasn’t happening, and where I had some kind of control. A lot of the genesis of writing is about wanting to control and to imagine yourself into a different place.”
It didn’t help that Irvine had what has since been diagnosed as mild dyslexia. “I wasn’t quite picking up words and reading quickly as I should do,” he says. “I always had a very quick, sharp mind, but it wasn’t coming across in my school work because I was kind of stumbling just enough to really knock me out of kilter, just enough to make me a little bit slower. When you’re slow at school, it’s seen as some kind of thickness; it’s equated that way, when it really shouldn’t.
“It probably helped me as a writer; because I had to take my time to figure things out, thinking through sentences, it made me a bit more reflective and contemplative about what I was actually trying to say.”
He was definitely a story teller, though. “As a kid, I would line up soldiers along the carpet, and then give them different identities, and write little bits of backstory for them on bits of paper; then I would draw images of places they were going to go,” he says. “It was a bit like filmmaking in a way. I didn’t see it as about me writing text; I saw it much more as a staging and setting up of the environment. I was creating stories, not necessarily writing stories; I was creating scenarios.”
Writing stories came as he grew older, however. “One of the things about novel writing is that you can do it on your own,” Irvine says. “You don’t need a lot of other people. I love writing for film, stage and television; you get to work with loads of people, and you get their ideas and feedback. But to get established in that is very, very difficult; if you’re from Muirhouse, nobody’s going to say to you: ‘Let’s put on your play.’
“So I realised, probably subconsciously from an early age, that the way I would develop my craft as a writer would be through writing novels, by knocking out loads of words and having the space and time to work on a piece myself without having anyone else to answer to.”
Irvine currently has several projects on the go, though he’s understandably reluctant to discuss any of them. “The problem with TV and film projects is that you need about a dozen people to all say yes at the same time, basically,” he says. “Novel wise, I’ve got three different novels that I’ve been working on over the years, and I’m just waiting to see which one hits critical mass first—and then I’ll go with that to the exclusion of all the others.”
While Irvine has been based in Chicago, his wife Elizabeth’s home-town, since 2009, he often returns to Edinburgh, and is likely to be in the capital during most of the Festival. “If people are interested and want to talk and write about you, you have to be available for that. It’s part of the whole process,” he says. “But I’m back all the time, really. I’ve still got a flat there. I come back to write quite a lot. If I’ve got a book or a movie to promote, then people see me because there’s a visibility, but I’m back so much of the time just visiting family and things, just hanging out and writing. I come and go quite quietly most of the time. I’m in Scotland for two or three months of the year.”
“I’m really, really lucky; just very fortunate,” Irvine accepts. “I’ve got a kind of licence that a lot of writers don’t have. Most writers really struggle, basically; I struggled before I was a writer, but I haven’t struggled at all since I’ve been a writer. I’ve led a charmed life. That can change—we live in uncertain times—but long may it continue, basically.”