The author of Trainspotting on 20 years of living with the drug-addicted Renton and co
Irvine Welsh’s debut novel, Trainspotting – named after slang for injecting heroin – hit the shelves in 1993. It quickly became a cult phenomenon, helped by Danny Boyle’s spot-on 1996 film adaptation. Inventively written, often in phonetic Scots dialect, the outrageously funny yet cuttingly dark book follows a group of smack users in economically depressed 80s Edinburgh caught between avoiding the mind-numbing boredom of a “straight life” and dealing with the harsh consequences of riskier living. In a now famous monologue, wry antihero Renton chooses heroin over force-fed, consumerist suburban values (associating them with the likes of dental insurance and “fucked-up brats”) – but he’s soon given cause to rethink. As the screen version of his subsequent Filth (1998) is readied for release in September, Welsh reflects on the book that started it all.
The inner irreverence to write
I’d been in punk bands but never very successful ones. I always had far too much reverence for music to be really good at it – I’d always compare myself to bands that were good and get quite demoralised. But when I started to read even the great novels there was some kind of vanity in me – I’m not sure where it came from, and it was probably misplaced – thinking, ‘I can do better than that.’ I had that kind of arrogance with it that I never had with music. I’ve always been inclined towards writing. I liked doing essays at school, but when you leave school you don’t think about that kind of thing. But when I was writing songs they were always like ballads, a big story that went on and on. I realised I was actually writing short stories, basically. It came out of that.
I just got too bored with drugs to be able to keep it up.
Going cold turkey
Art mirroring life, and getting the headspace to create
You’re not interested in writing a book with drug scenes like that unless you’ve been through something similar yourself, but you can’t really write about it if you’re living it. William Burroughs is probably the exception – he was quite prolific. A better example is Alexander Trocchi. He was a heroin addict for many years and only wrote a couple of books and some short stories over a 40-year career. You’ve got to pour your obsessions into something else less harmful and more productive for you. I just got too bored with drugs to be able to keep it up. Writing pulled me out, not only of that self-destructive side but also the spirit-crushing mundane white-collar nine-to-five stuff, which was equally as horrible in a different way.
Devising Trainspotting’s innovative style
The style didn’t come naturally, because you’re not used to seeing words on a page written that way. When I started writing Trainspotting I tried to write it in standard English but it just seemed very flat compared to what the characters were, because they wouldn’t speak or think like that. So I started to write dialogue and also internal monologue in the vernacular. When you devise a character you find all these little clues in the people you see around you, and things that have happened to you yourself. All the characters in the world are in you – they’re little instruments you use to dig the character out of yourself, keys that unlock this part of you that the character has to come out of. It’s that interplay between what you see and what stimulates you. It could just be something that someone said on the bus that resonates.
“I chose not to choose life”
Renton vs the world
Renton’s more influenced by the world than he thinks he is, and his big battle is to get free will. He gets it by breaking away. You’ve got to be part of this machine but sometimes you realise it’s probably not the best thing to be part of as well so you just want to punch holes in the walls. I’m interested in characters that have that dichotomy going on - they’ve got to settle into things and be part of this big thing but they also like to be off on their own. Everything’s about cause and effect. The idea you can do things with impunity and not suffer any consequences is wrong. That’s why I think Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment is such a great book – it shows the moral and emotional consequences for that individual. The urge to transgress in people is so strong, but the consequences are as well.
Edinburgh and heroin
From the factory floor to the city streets
Edinburgh had become such a heroin capital coincidentally through the fact that all the pharmaceutical heroin in Britain was made in the McFarlan Smith plant in Gorgie. Because no one had known about addiction, its employees historically had just taken the stuff out and built up a local crowd who were into it because it was an option. It was very pure back then – the criminal class wasn’t into it until it became a lucrative trade. The reason that factory’s there is to do with the enlightenment and the industrial revolution – it has its roots in that weird era of Scottish medicine and science.
The perks and pitfalls of knocking out a cult classic
As a writer you don’t really want fame. You want a fortune, so you don’t have to get a proper job or anything and you can just write. But you have to promote what you’re doing as well and because Trainspotting had that very hip cachet it was almost like I was treated like a pop star rather than a writer. That was a strange experience because ten years before I would have really loved and sought after that, but at that time I wanted a different kind of acknowledgement – the royalty cheques, basically. People make a fuss of you and it’s hard not to be seduced by all that. I was glad it happened to me when I was a bit older and I could dip into it rather than get completely lost in it. By the time Trainspotting really went ballistic I’d knocked out another couple of books and I knew it was what I wanted to do so I just kept on with that.
fucking hell, this kind of energy is what Trainspotting needs
Enter Danny Boyle
The dynamic director offers an antidote to junk miserabilia
I’ve still got this daft begging letter from Danny Boyle. I saw his Shallow Grave and thought, fucking hell, this kind of energy is what Trainspotting needs. The characters were shallow yuppies and neither here nor there, but the pace and power were relentless – the only way to replicate the verbal energy of my characters in that grungy heroin scene. I’d met all these very sincere filmmakers who’d wanted to do a film like Christiane F. and were only interested in showing how miserable the junkie’s life is. I didn’t want that, because it’s not true – these people have rich interior lives no matter what’s going on externally, and never quite lose their humanity, no matter how it seems. And it would just have let people who were doing well lord it over the have-nots. I could see all that guilt-tripping going on with the welfare state and the redistributive policies, and I didn’t see that chin-stroking socialistic stuff as being anywhere near relevant. The best thing you can do is tell people’s story from inside the culture.
An expanded universe of recurrent characters
I never wanted to create a Marvel universe but it’s basically the tools of the job. Characters gatecrash. When you’re writing and think, ‘Oh, I need a bad cop,’ you realise you’ve got lots of them already. Sick Boy in Porno (2002) was the ultimate example of that. I wasn’t intending to write a sequel to Trainspotting. I got three chapters in, I’d wanted to write this thing about the world of internet gonzo pornography, and realised the guy was just Sick Boy a few years older. Then when I did that I had to tell the story of the other characters from Trainspotting too, so it became a sort of sequel.
Corrupting a new generation
The transformation of James McAvoy
The character of Bruce Robertson in Filth is in this very structured bureaucracy, with a very regimented role as a police officer. He’s got all this cognitive dissonance about him because he wants to assert his individuality and that’s one of the reasons he’s going mental. James was so clean-cut he looked about ten years old, but after sitting with him for about half an hour he got into character – he aged and just looked really sleazy. When I first saw the rushes I thought, ‘Fuck me, that’s exactly how I saw Bruce Robertson.’ There was nothing for my imagination to fight to get past, he’d just become that character. When I showed my mum the trailer she was like, ‘What have you done to that lovely James McAvoy?’