The “C” word: Chef?
an interview with Irvine Welsh
Photo by Eric Lorberer
Anyone familiar with Irvine Welsh’s gritty, landmark debut, Trainspotting, can’t help but be burdened by some pretty ghoulish assumptions upon meeting the Scottish writer. So in some ways it seems fitting that what you get instead is a comfortable, easygoing man firmly in control of his career. As all successful writers must, Welsh has become adept at juggling several projects at once: he’s writing screenplays, overseeing film adaptations of his books, acting as partner in two production companies, working with translators—and he recently wrote a series that ran on British television. Add that to the time he spends on the road touring and traveling, and it seems somewhat incredible that he has produced five novels and a bevy of essays, stories, and novellas since Trainspotting appeared in 1993. His latest—The Bedroom Secrets of the Master Chefs (Norton, $14.95)—is a brooding, darkly-fantastical tale of two young men who find themselves bound inextricably by fate. Brian Kibby, fan of online computer games and Star Trek conventions, is a gullible, teetotaling virgin, and when he starts working as a restaurant inspector, he quickly becomes an easy target for co-worker Danny Skinner—handsome, hard living, popular with ladies, next in line for a promotion—to pick on. Their lives get tangled together in disturbing ways as Skinner struggles to find his father (evidence suggests an American chef, which takes him to San Francisco for one section of the book) while Kibby suffers from an invasive illness brought on by a hex (that’s right, a hex) that only Welsh could concoct. We asked Welsh to extrapolate on the many questions the book raises—questions of Scottish identity, feminism, witchcraft, and why Americans find the word “cunt” to be offensive, among other things. Answers best read in Scottish brogue.
by Emily Cook and Eric Lorberer
Rain Taxi: So this cover is pretty pornographic…
Irvine Welsh: It’s the best cover I’ve actually had in terms of eroticism—the kind you’re quite happy to have in your hotel room as some kind of stimulus. It’s bourgeoisie porn—erotica rather than pornography.
RT: I thought it was interesting that the American edition seems to have the raciest cover, as compared to the UK or Canadian covers.
IW: It is unusual for America—like with the last book, Porno, they were going to have the blow-up doll cover, the UK cover, and then they bottled down and said it won’t get displayed in shop windows—whereas in Britain there’s nothing more that bookshops like to stack!
RT: It’s especially interesting because of the section in the book about the word “cunt,” in which Danny points out that “it seems to be more offensive to use that word over here than it is to buy a handgun.” I understand that you’ve come up against some criticism about your use of this word in the U.S.—that people have actually walked out on your readings.
IW: It started out that way because people didn’t know what to expect; nowadays they know what to expect. Like anywhere, you can go to the wrong kind of place and get the people who are just on the mailing lists, and they think, “Oh, it’s Scottish, it will be about whiskey and shortbread and tartan”—and then they’re shocked when it’s not like that. The word “cunt” is interesting because it really is a taboo word here in the U.S.; even gangster rappers find it offensive. It’s actually a commonplace word in Britain, and it’s not really seen as offensive.
RT: The Bedroom Secrets of the Master Chefs seems designed to appeal both to the Trainspotting audience and the literati. What’s your sense of your readership these days?
IW: It’s a difficult thing to say. One thing I’ve noticed—I was talking to Chuck Palahniuk about this the other day—is that the readers get younger all the time, and we’re getting older. It’s difficult for me to get a handle on it—it seems to be different in different parts of the country. If I do something at the Edinburgh Book Festival, for example, there’s a solid literary crowd—because it costs so much to get in! Whereas if I go to a campus or an inner-city bookshop it’s a different thing again. There is a kind of coalition in Britain that reads me, a federation of literary types, students, working class regulars, football hooligans… it’s quite a mixed bag, really.
RT: I’m guessing another story of duality by a Scotsman, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, might have been an inspiration for your treatment of Skinner and Kibby in this book. Apparently Stevenson got the idea for that story in a dream. What triggers your writing?
IW: It can be anything, you know, it can be something that I’ve seen or heard or read… and often it’s something someone says. I’ve got this pal who has one of these catch phrases: “it’s nice to be nice.” And I was thinking: well, is it? What if someone actually believes that? That’s one of the things that started me off with this book. Also, I went back to The Picture of Dorian Grey—one of my favorite novels—I was asked to do an introduction to it for the Vintage edition and I started to think about why I liked the book, and it was basically the whole thing with duality—which as you say comes up in Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde, and there’s another Scottish book I love, James Hogg’s, A Justified Sinner—anyway, it all coalesced in Bedroom Secrets. It was a way of working out what all of this was, and Scotland’s sense of duality, too, this “Scottish or British” debate that keeps raising its head. You’ve also got that kind of thing about Edinburgh being a very run-down city on the outskirts, but at the center it’s got beautiful museums and affluent suburbs. And a whole literary thing comes out of that: you’ve got people like Joanne Rowling, Ian Rankin, and Sandy McCall Smith all living on the same street, which is amazing. (I’m not going to say the name of the street, but they all live on the same street.)
I did this book with Ian and Sandy for a charitable trust called One City, and when you look at the fact that a writer like myself and Sandy are from the same city, but our writing couldn’t be farther apart… we get on well, but we couldn’t be farther apart socially in terms of background and the two sides of the city. But it’s a quite a small city; you can go just a few streets, basically, and you’re in completely different zone, bang. So you get that sense of duality in the book—much more immediately than you do in just about any of my other books’ settings, I think.
RT: That’s true; Edinburgh and Leith represent two distinct poles in the book.
IW: The Edinburgh/Leith thing is very much like the Scotland/Britain thing. Leith, because it was a separate port, kind of got incorporated into Edinburgh against the will of the people. They had a plebiscite and voted against it, but just like Scotland getting incorporated into the UK, it was very unpopular… so you still get people who regard Leith as a separate town even though it’s not been one for ages.
RT: I love books written out of a sense of place.
IW: Absolutely: the books that are really valuable are the books that evoke a sense of place. In this book the setting becomes a character in itself—you’re physically traipsing around the city in this book, you actually feel that you’re there. I just reviewed a book for the New York Times by this Polish writer named Andrzej Stasiuk, he’s got a big reputation in Europe. He does this kind of evocation of Warsaw that’s really amazing… You’ve got so many young people walking around building sites in Edinburgh, Dublin, Chicago, Berlin. It’s the whole idea that once you have Capitalism all that stuff will renew Eastern Europe, but it’s actually renewing Western Europe. So you’ve just exported all the young people, and there’s that kind ghost-town feel to it as well, large parts of a city feel spooky and supernatural. Anyway, he really brings Warsaw to life. Getting into the guts of the city—I think it gives a thrill of dimension.
RT: And you have to do it through language—it’s an amazing challenge. Now that you live in Dublin do you find it harder to evoke Scotland?
IW: Not really, no. I’ve been in Dublin for two years now, it’s the longest I’ve been anywhere. Before Dublin I was back in Edinburgh for six months, then I was in San Francisco for six months, then I was in Chicago for a year… so I’ve not been in Edinburgh that much. I get over there a lot: I’ve got season tickets to the football, so I’m there maybe about once or twice a month. But I think in some ways you hear a book, you hear it where you come from, and you see it more closely in exile, you get that reflective thing that you don’t get when you’re right in it.
RT: There’s a passage in which Danny, during his sojourn in San Francisco, calls Scotland “the recipe for disaster. Take a cut of Calvinist repression, sprinkle on some Catholic guilt, add lots of alcohol and cook in a cold, dark, grey oven for three-hundred-odd years. Garnish with gaudy, ludicrous plaid. Serve with chivs on the side.” That’s meaty stuff to write about your homeland.
IW: I was consciously parodying that “choose life” thing in Trainspotting. There’s also that “it’s shite being Scottish” thing that they have a discussion about, and I wanted to reprise that because Leith now—some parts of it—have become gentrified. And what that has done has been to make the other parts worse, because what you had was this area down by the docks where nothing happened, it was just old warehouses, and you basically just had junkies hanging out there to score, and prostitutes plying their trade, and then somebody came in and turned all these warehouses into lofts, then they started building all these new places, and what happens is the middle class people then go to the police and say “we don’t want all this scum in the area.” So the police moved them up to Junction street, where’ve you got people who are not in any position to cope with all that drugs and prostitution—single parents, old people… It’s a place that’s already under pressure anyway, economically, and then all of a sudden there are all these social pressures. In some ways it’s better though. I used to come up to Edinburgh for a drink, but now Bernard Street in Leith has got a better vibe than Rose Street in Edinburgh, it’s got a really bustling cosmopolitan vibe down there. Leith now is a center of activity rather than Edinburgh. And I think that’s good.
RT: You’re famous for your use of Scottish dialect—what conscious decisions do you now make in this area?
IW: Well, I have toned it back in this novel. And I’ve got a new book coming out in the fall, a book of stories, and there’s only one set in Scotland. The rest are set here or in Europe.
RT: I imagine your books have been translated widely—how do translators deal with the dialect?
IW: Yeah, well it’s almost better for me because they can’t just give it to anybody—they give it to somebody who has been there, and lived there. There are a couple of translators I’ve become very good friends with because you have to get in touch with me more often. I have these two great Russian translators and they both live in St. Petersburg, and they’re friendly rivals. As soon as one of them went to the toilet, the other would say: “he made a terrible mess of translating the book.” Then they’d be big buddies when they got back together, bigging each other up. I vibed on that because it’s very Scottish. I can see why the Russians love Robert Burns, I think that Russians and Koreans have a very similar outlook to Scots.
RT: Let’s talk about the main characters—how did you come up with these two?
IW: What I wanted to do was get at the whole thing with identity, particularly at that age—when you’re in your twenties, it’s the last time you have the chance to experiment with multiple identities, to decide who you’re going to be in life. In a sense it’s the last chance to live for these guys, particularly Skinner; his quest to find out who he is, how he’s going to be for the rest of his life, is quite desperate. It’s that horrible thing where you’re expected to be one thing or the other. You know, people tend to get stereotyped for about forty percent of their behavior, so if you’re completely crazy forty percent of the time you’ll get stereotyped as crazy, even if you’re totally boring thirty percent of the time and just studious the other thirty percent of the time.
RT: Skinner’s an asshole, but also weirdly cares about Kibby some of the time.
IW: I wanted to get to that point where they cross over on a trajectory. Skinner starts off as a truly bad bastard, but when he’s nice to Kibby, when he’s not bothering him, you see that Skinner probably isn’t that bad a guy after all, he’s not the complete villain that he seems to be. He is trying in his own way; certainly he’s trying to lift the curse and get beyond it. And with Kibby, there is a negative element to his niceness—he’s not engaged in the world, there’s an element of repression that leads to an incipient bitterness, and that is brought out when he receives the curse. In the cross-over, you get to a point where you realize that you’ve got all this genetic inheritance, and you’ve got all this social conditioning, but there is a point where you do have to make a choice, and that’s the optimist in me: you have the freedom to make a choice about how you are going to be, and what you’re going to do. I think that’s what the book is trying to say.
RT: You wrote your MBA thesis on the rights of women in the workplace—which certainly comes out in this book with Shannon’s character—but I’m wondering if you have been criticized for not focusing more on women characters.
IW: I’ve been interested in writing about the basic stupidity of guys together—how when a bunch of guys get together, they dumb down as much as possible, it’s a kind-of coping mechanism. All the pressures that are on young men that no one talks about. It has a lot of interesting side-effects, in terms of class and culture, and I’ve really been fascinated with this. But yeah, the women characters haven’t had much air time. We just did a film, myself and my pal Dean Cavanagh, “Wedding Belles,” for TV in Britain, and hopefully it’s going to be screened over here soon—it has four female characters, and we were determined to write this as an antithesis to all that Bridget Jones kind-of stuff. I think of the women I know, and very few of them are obsessed with shopping, or with getting a guy—they want their own thing, they have their own network going on. It got a really strong reaction in Britain, people either really loved it or really hate it, but everyone agreed that they had never seen women on screen like that before. It’s one of the things that I am really proud of. In terms of the pacing of it, and the movement of it, it stands comparison with Trainspotting because it’s kind-of bang bang bang all the time.
I like to get characters who are in a fucked-up phase of their life—they’re not like that all the time, but they’re having a bad year or a bad six months, a mental breakdown, or a relationship breakdown. The problem is when guys are like that, any woman who’s got any intelligence isn’t going to be around them. So the women who do tend to be around them tend to be… not victims, but in a bad way themselves, they tend to be completely fucked-up and insane themselves. In some of the books—Trainspotting being part of that—it was more about being an excluded underclass, but with this book the characters—both of them are working-class guys with middle-class aspirations. It’s more of a Tony Blair novel than a Margaret Thatcher novel. It’s not like society’s saying “you’re working class, you’re excluded, you’re scum, keep out,” it’s more like, “yes, you’re poor, you’re working class, but we love you, you must join us, you must come in so we can patronize you.” So I wanted to capture that, and also that middle-class insecurity. Most people with good jobs, middle-class occupations, what have you, are only one pitfall away from social embarrassment and destitution. It’s so precarious. Even salaried people in the West now feel this sense of being trapped, not having the freedom to strike out. You’ve got first-generation Americans here who are going to be poorer than their parents. That’s never happened in the States before, and it’s going to have massive social repercussions here.
RT: The other thing I noticed here is that although it’s a very contemporary novel, set in the shadow of the 2004 American presidential election, 9/11 doesn’t play a major role the way it does in many other books cropping up.
IW: That’s the whole myth about 9/11—that is changed everything, and that nothing will ever be the same. Most people don’t give a fuck about 9/11. Most people are living in their own communities, or they’re online, and they’re basically looking for someone to shag when they’re online—they’re not reading all these debates about ramifications of 9/11, global terrorism, and Islam. Most people in the West just don’t care about that. They’re not politicized. They’re the most simplistic consumers—they’re animals, basically. I was in Athens for a football match when 9/11 went down, and it was quite spectacular—we went into this bar and tried to find out what happened, and the bartender said “it’s only the American and the Arabs. They’re not big football nations.” So the feeling was, what’s it got to do with us? Why are football games being cancelled in Europe? The intelligentsia in the West feel like they have to figure out the significance of it all, whereas people have other pressing concerns, related to basic needs. They’re worried about how to feed their families, how to get money. Young people are worried about how to meet people, have a meaningful social life. That’s the overwhelming concern that people have.
RT: But technology does play an important role in this book—the character of Dorothy Cominsky, or “Dot Com,” is the very epitome of San Francisco, where Danny rants about people being connected to computers everywhere. Whereas in the end it’s Brian’s father’s handwritten journals that solve the puzzle.
IW: When you look at the whole explosion of the Internet, the decline of print journalism, there are all of these plus-or-minus ramifications, and you have to work it out. The great thing about books is that you have a tactile thing that’s there. You can download this or download that, but how long do you want to be staring at a screen for the rest of your life? You’ve got to have some kind of proper interface for people that’s not about the screen.
RT: Your characters, even if they are only briefly in the book, are always quite layered. Why does Danny like poetry so much, for example?
IW: I think it’s a nice tic to give him. Again, if you make somebody too much of one thing or the other… I think you’ve got to show the different possibilities that exist for people. It’s not out of the bounds of possibility that Danny could be something different, he could be a poet in ten years time. He’s at that stage where he is just wrestling with what he’s going to be. There are options for him, even though he might not be able to see that. You can see different versions of people if you know them really well, you can say so-and-so’s gone down this route, but they were that close to ending up in prison, and the other way around: if someone’s in prison you can see how they were that close to being married with a couple of kids. So you can see the decisions that people make at certain key times affect them.
RT: There is a very crucial text message in the book. Did you struggle with using things like emails and text messages?
IW: You do because they change so much, they are such a big part of life, people even split up by text message, they dump each other by text. Everything seems so disposable, so throwaway, but you have to engage with that if you’re writing about the modern world. You’ve also got all these pop references that you feel obligated to make. They’re just part of the bricolage of the whole thing, whether or not these are actually significant elements themselves. I don’t actually like it that much. There’s a great book by a Scottish writer, a guy named James Meek, called The People’s Act of Love, and you can see why he wanted to write a historical novel set in Siberia, because you don’t have to write about all this crap! I can see myself wanting to write a historical novel—you don’t need to worry about references to reality TV or pop music, you can just get on with the basics of story and character.
RT: I want to go back to The Picture of Dorian Grey for a minute—it seems like literary writers are using these supernatural or fantastic elements a bit more freely lately…
IW: I’ve always been into fantasy—The Acid House has all this fantasy stuff in it—but I think because Trainspotting was my first book, there’s an idea that I am more of a social realist. Also, with people being in cyberspace and using psychoactive drugs, they have much more psychoactive lives than they used to. So I think people are either looking for the literal or they are skeptical about it. Basically everyone’s fucking clueless—there’s no one way of telling a story or looking at reality, so I think any device is up for grabs as long as it fits in with the tone. It’s a weird thing to be writing about a couple of environmental health inspectors to begin with, and when the whole thing takes a supernatural turn its got to be done in a deft way. And I brought in elements like the witch because there is a Scottish tradition of witchcraft—it goes right back to Robert Burns’ Tam o’Shanter.
RT: The curse you come up with is an alcoholic’s dream…
IW: I’ve actually tried to work out how feasible it would be to put a hex on someone. I still don’t know. This pal of mine and I in Edinburgh, we used to go for a drink on Monday morning at the Central Bar in Leith, and we’d sit there and talk about who we were going to give this fucking hangover to. We’d actually make a list of people. The Central Bar opens at seven o’clock in the morning, by the way, so you can get a few pints in before going to work—so that was another part of the genesis of the book.
RT: You also managed to write one of the most grotesque sex scenes I have ever read. The act of writing something like that must be pretty intense.
IW: Well, you don’t actually get repulsed or aroused—it just becomes a technical thing: “How does this sound?” When I first read that scene it was up in Aberdeen, and it was a very mixed crowd, they didn’t know what to expect, and a lot of people walked out—I guess they were disgusted. And without knowing the story, I guess it is pretty disgusting. Now, when I read it, I set the scene. It’s based on THE Scottish play —Macbeth — because one guy goes to see the witch, then the other guys go to see her. You would expect both Kibby and Skinner to react in that kind of situation.
RT: In a weird way you feel like Skinner is the better man for going through it. We’ve been talking a bit about Scottish writers and here’s one I quite like: Grant Morrison. He writes comics, have you read him?
IW: I’ve read Grant Morrison because I’ve read Batman, I like what he’s done with it… he’s obviously massively talented. I haven’t read comics all that much but I’d like to read more of it. I’ve always got a book in my hands, a novel in my hands. The more I get into film, the more paranoid I get that I’m going to stop seeing things.
RT: So what are you reading?
IW: You mean now? I read so many books that I can’t actually remember… it’s also the same with music, I have to look at my iPod and check what I’m listening to. I was on the phone last night, telling someone that I went to see this film last night—it was 28 Weeks Later—and I actually enjoyed it, but I couldn’t remember what it was—and two really good friends of mine produced it!
RT: Trainspotting was written off of journals—do you still keep a journal?
IW: Not so much now, no, I just have a list of projects I want to do, and I’ve got about a dozen things on the list that I want to write, and I’ll be lucky if I get to them—most of them will fall off the radar. I don’t really have time to keep a diary—like a blog, it becomes too much of a narcissistic thing.
RT: You’re often considered something of a bad boy of literature due to subject matter—do you feel the need to negotiate that territory, that kind of reputation?
IW: I’m less conscious of it than I was… when you start off with your first book, people assume that you’re like all the characters in the book—and it does complicate things, when you’re being constantly bombarded with it, but you have to embrace it. You’re never going to get beyond other people’s preconceptions of what you are and what you’re about. I’m quite comfortable now with being misunderstood. I don’t really feel the need either to pander to it or to refute it. Just go on, and do what I’ve got to do.
Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2007 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2007