Q&A with Irvine Welsh, Appearing at Books & Books Friday
Scottish writer Irvine Welsh is best known for his slang-laced tales of existential debauchery in the damp, booze-soaked climes of his native Edinburgh (the most famous of those being Trainspotting). But his latest novel, Crime, heads farther south, to the damp, booze-soaked climes of Miami. Early visits to Mac's Club Deuce, on South Beach, have left quite an impression, because the, errr, storied bar is where this book's action kicks off.
After an argument with his fiancée, vacationing Scotsman (and, conveniently, detective) Ray Lennox winds up at the South Beach dive, where he — surprise, surprise — meets two women and embarks on a little coke binge. What is surprising, however, is the turn the plot takes next: Lennox suddenly finds himself the protector of one of the women's daughters, who might or might not be the target of a pedophile ring. Okay, so Crime is not a family tale, folks, but Welsh is at his best when he walks that fine line between farce, social commentary, and prurience.
New Times caught up with Welsh by phone recently to discuss both Crime and his recently adopted home, Miami.
New Times: You mentioned by e-mail that you’ve just gotten back to the United States from filming in Wales. What were you filming?
Irvine Welsh: It’s a film called Good Arrows. It's a bit like This is Spinal Tap, but for the world of British professional darts. I wrote it with Dean Cavanagh. It was something that came a bit late, after doing Crime, so it was something that was a good fun and a bit daft and silly. We’re finished with it; we've just got to edit it, and I'll do that when I'll get back. The idea is that we're going to show it on TV in January, so we'll have it ready before Christmas, and then we'll do a separate version and take it to Cannes in April or May.
When did you first visit Miami? Was it for Winter Music Conference?
Yeah, it was one of those, years ago, it must have been probably one of the first Winter Music Conferences. I’ve just kind of gone back occasionally since then, and I got a place there about three or four years ago.
What made you actually want to get a place here?
The basic reason for me is just the light, really. We've been affected really badly over there [in the U.K.] by global warming, so we only have one season: autumn. We don't really have a summer. So it's kind of nice to get a bit of light and a bit of warmth.
How much time do you really spend here?
It depends really on my work. Not as much as I want to, because I'm just always sort of running around doing stuff, basically. I try and get down for November/December, or for January/February/March. Somewhere in that block, maybe two months at a time.
And the rest of the time you live in Dublin, right?
Yeah, I'm still in Dublin. I'm probably going to move back to London next year. I spend so much time at the airport; I’ve kind of got a lot of things going on in London with my film production company. My publisher's over there; it just kind of makes a bit of sense.
With your last novel, The Bedroom Secrets of Master Chefs, and in the case of some of your latest stories, there seemed to be a food theme, and I was afraid you were going to turn into Jay McInerney. How did that come about, and why did you then decide to move away from that with Crime?
Oh, I don’t know really. I think I was writing more stuff kind of based in the States because I was spending a lot of time over there. I've got a place in Chicago, too, so I spend a lot of time here. I'm doing more stuff about Ireland as well; I made a short film based in Dublin, so just by osmosis you start to pick thing ups.
But why a sort of detective/thriller subject all of a sudden?
I wanted to do a kind of existential thriller, but one that had a social dimension, an issue like the child abuse thing [in Crime]. I wrote about that because, being in Ireland, there's so much of that. Every time you pick up the newspaper or switch on the TV, there's another pedophile priest story that comes out. I think that people have broken the silence about that.
And I just thought that to me, it's just a very distressing thing to sort of dwell on, really. I didn't want to dwell on the pedophile aspect of it; it was a background thing.I wanted to write not a crime thriller, but an existential thriller. It’s about issues that haunt [main character Ray Lennox], that bring him to a self-realization point, rather than a police procedural thing.
I know that you just said you wanted to avoid the police procedural thing, but did you read any crime writing, anyways, in preparation for your book?
I'll take a few of those books on holiday with me.… The ones that I read would be by, like, Andy McDermott and Ian Rankin, basically just because I know them, and they're both Scottish. I'm not a big fan of the genre.
You mentioned hearing a lot about child abuse in Ireland, so why then set a story that involves the subject in Miami?
It just seems to fit -- not child abuse, but the noir-ish thing seems to fit Miami, you know? It's just this sort of big vibrant, displaced city of secrets. I'm reading a book by Andres Dubois, and he was saying that you could turn the map of America on its side and shake it, and everyone who isn't nailed down to relationships and jobs, they all spill down to Florida. It's got that kind of rootless, frontier feel to it.
You've got people coming in from Central America and South America, and there is that kind of point of embarkation thing that Ellis Island was 200 years ago, or LA was 50 years ago. New people come to America, and because of that it's a very vibrant and exciting place, and it's also got a lawless frontier town feel to it. It doesn’t have the civic culture of Boston or Chicago or New York, where people are proud of their city from growing up there. There's not that kind of old sense of being there for a long time and being part of the community in the same way. But that's probably true of all the sunbelt cities.
When did you start going to Mac’s Club Deuce, and why did you decide your novel’s action should kick off from there?
I've been going to the Deuce ever since I've been going to Miami; it’s been about 12 years since that I stepped in there. I love that bar. It's so atmospheric, it's kind of timeless, it's got all these pictures of Humphrey Bogart on the wall, and it has a great sort of vibe to it. You can imagine it being there and seeing all the transformations in the neighborhood. I just love the idea of people coming and going, but Club Deuce sort of remains unchanged.
In the rest of the book, the characters get out of South Beach and into the rest of the city. Had you ventured much beyond the Beach before, and how did you decide where else in the city to set the action?
Basically from my wife driving me around, and from jumping on the bus. One of the great things about Miami is that the public transport is very kind of sketchy, but you see a whole different side of the city. What I like to do is get the bus from South Beach across to the Omni, and jump on the Metromover and get to the Civic Center, and go on the Metrorail and all that. There's only one line, but you can go on that, you can get the Tri-Rail, from the old AmTrak station. You can get around parts of the area if you like by doing that, but it's very difficult to navigate.
I don’t drive, I can’t drive, so it compels me to move around it like that. If you haven’t got a car in Miami, you're pretty sort of bungled in a lot of ways. But with the lack of a public transit system there, as oil and gas prices continue to increase, it’s really going to warp the development of the city. Even in LA they're starting to build a kind of metro.
In Miami, because it’s so many who people work doing gardens and things like that, if gas continues to rise, how is some gardener who lives in Little Haiti to jump in a van and drive all the way down to Coral Gables and work seven days a week? You're going to need to have some sort of public transit.
What’s going on with the old Orange Bowl? Are they going to finally turn that into a proper baseball stadium?
I think so, although it’s still rather contentious....
That’s what you need to do to revitalize the downtown area. Especially with the real estate crash, it's going to be a ghost town. I think a baseball stadium or a football stadium pulls the crowds in, and gives people a reason to go downtown. If you look at Chicago, for example, with the district where the Cubs play, it's just vibing and thriving, because you've got baseball and a huge crowds there.
One of the criticisms of that plan for Miami, though, is that baseball attendance is so low.
I think that’s because people are watching it in the middle of nowhere in a football stadium. If you had a bona fide baseball stadium with the facilities around it like bars and restaurants and stuff like that, you'd have people coming downtown. I know that baseball season kind works against the climate in Miami. But if you even moved the Dolphins football stadium right into the middle of town, that would really work out.
Do you go downtown much?
Yes, although there's not a lot there. You've got the shopping area on Biscayne and the kind of Design District stuff, you've got Mary Brickell Village, but again there's not a great reason to go, you know? You've got the arena for the Heat games, the basketball and all that, but you feel that there should be a lot more social facilities.
In any event, it seems like you know the city and its neighborhoods pretty well.
I do spend a lot of my free time just kind of going around on the public transport and all that. I do a lot of writing from there as well.
From the city, or from the actual buses?
From the buses. I kind of scribble notes and all that, and find a bar or café afterward and just sit and scribble.
Do you get any weird looks, writing on the bus?
Yes, they look at me like I'm a retard. If you're white and you don't look sort of like a total kind of down-and-out, people look at you kind of weird on the buses anyways. Because the class system in America is still cut along ethnic lines, so you do tend to kind of stand out a little bit....
So you’re writing on the bus, and you’ve had three books come out within the last year and a half or so. But before The Bedroom Secrets of Master Chefs, which you finished in 2006, the last book before that was Porno, in 2002. To what to you attribute this really prolific period?
I think when your personal life is more stable, it gives you a sort of platform to write. I've done so much work in the last four or five years, and I think that’s because I've been kind of happy and settled in myself. I’m conscious of the fact that I might do too much; I should spend more time chilling out. But I’m a sort of person where the devil makes works for idle hands.
So you’re over the idea of the tortured artist.
When I'm tortured, I’m not an artist. I get kind of edgy, I lose touch with reality. Working, for me, is a kind of salvation, in a sense.
What are you working on right now? I have to ask you about something I just saw on your Wikipedia entry, unattributed, that mentioned you were working on a prequel to Trainspotting, to be released next year. Is that true?
What happened was, when I wrote Trainspotting, I had 300,000 words. It was massive, the manuscript. So what I did was chopped out the middle, and wrote an end to it, that heist ending, and that’s what I sent to publishers. That was Trainspotting. So I had two thirds of it left, and the final third was totally superfluous.
So what I did was, with the stories in the final third, I kind of just adapted some of the ideas and used them for other short stories. Some of them worked their way into The Acid House, others into different anthologies and magazines, but I basically changed a lot of the characters.
So I had this bit at the start which I forgot about. It starts about 18 months before Trainspotting, and shows you how they got to become junkies and how it changed them, and the dynamics behind each one of them getting into it. I wasn’t really interested in that at the time; I was more nihilistic in that way, and didn’t want to get into the causes and effects. I just wanted to start when they were junkies and it was a given.
So now I think I've just got a bit older and more reflective and more interested in the family and the psychological and group dynamics about how they got into that situation, and the backdrop of political changes that took place in Britain at the time as well. I have a draft of it, and I'm planning to do something with it, but it’ll probably be next year by the time I sit down with it seriously.
So you’re not tired of being asked about or revisiting those characters?
I think you have to give it a bit of time, you know? I revisited them with Porno, and when I go back to them again now, it feels quite nice. I feel like I could go right back to [my Scotland hometown] Leith as well in the Eighties and come back to it with a sort of different perspective. It would be interesting to write really young characters again, a bit crazy and wild and unformed and all that.
Besides the prequel, what else are you working on?
I'm always working on stuff. I'm trying to get a collection of stories together. There’s a lot of stuff that I've published over the years in various anthologies and magazines and all that, and a lot of these have just gone out of print over the years. There are some good stories in them and a lot of crap as well, a lot of crap stories that will never see the light of day again. Some I really like, and I want to pull them all together, and it's kind of a Nineties, chemical-generation kind of collection. Some are quite well known, some have never really been seen. It'll be good to get them back in print again.
Irvine Welsh reads from Crime this Friday at 8 p.m. at Books & Books, 265 Aragon Ave., Coral Gables. 305-442-4408; www.booksandbooks.com.
The afterparty takes place at 10 p.m. at White Room, 1306 N. Miami Ave., Miami. Ages 21+ with ID; mention Crime at the door for free admission.