Edinburgh native Irvine Welsh has written half a dozen brutal, perverse-humored books, but none of them have earned him as much attention as his debut novel, 1993's Trainspotting. The book leaps from character to character in presenting a gritty, grim image of Scotland's government-housing "schemes," where heroin, crime, sex, and football are among the more attractive distractions from a go-nowhere life. Trainspotting is a challenging read: It's written in a slang-heavy Scottish dialect, and loses some readers among sentences like "It goat so's thit ah wis feart no tae rip um off." Director Danny Boyle and screenwriter John Hodge made it more accessible with a slick, stylish 1996 film adaptation that contributed greatly to the fame of star Ewan McGregor. By the time Trainspotting hit theaters, though, Welsh had authored three more books: The Acid House (a short-story anthology later adapted into a trilogy of short films under the same name), Marabou Stork Nightmares, and Ecstasy. He's since written several more, including Glue, the story of a group of Scottish boys as seen over decades, and Filth, in which a deeply unpleasant Scottish police sergeant and a tapeworm living in his body take turns delivering monologues about their lives. Nine years after Trainspotting first caused a sensation, Welsh has returned to the book's characters with Porno, a sequel that finds most of them in the same sort of squalor that surrounded them in the first book. While on a U.S. tour, Welsh spoke to The Onion A.V. Club about Porno, the marketing of underground culture, and Starbucks.
The Onion: What prompted a sequel to Trainspotting after so many years?
Irvine Welsh: The guys just sort of came back themselves, really. They kept coming back as bit characters in other pieces of writing I'd done. They've become iconic characters, and everybody kept asking about them. I think eventually, the sheer pressure of people asking, "What are you going to do with them next? Are you going to bring them back, or what?" got me wondering myself.
O: They don't seem to have changed much over the past eight or nine years.
IW: Yeah. I think Renton probably has, and Begbie has gotten much worse, much more psychotic. I don't think Spud's changed at all, really, apart from he's got more responsibilities. I think Sick Boy's more desperate now. It's his last throw of the dice, really. I think they've aged in a lot of ways, but I don't think their essential character has changed.
O: Do you think that's typical of real people, that they don't change much over time?
IW: I don't think people do change that much. I think they just become more like themselves. They become more-of, or less-of, more torn down. If they're desperate, they become more-of, and if they've accepted their lot, they're not restless; they become more content, more at ease. But the characters I've chosen to use aren't characters that would become at ease with themselves, I don't think.
O: That kind of stands in contrast with Glue, which seems to be mostly about how people change over time.
IW: Yeah, the characters in Glue, they probably do change more, but you see them over a period of 30 or even 40 years. Whereas Trainspotting was only about nine years ago, really. You don't see them as small kids, so there's not really that opportunity to see how they've changed.
O: Renton seems to have redeemed himself and put his life on the right track, but only by cheating his friends and stealing from them. Is there a moral lesson there?
IW: Well, yeah. I think that's sort of the whole problem with the way society is set up now. To get on, if you're working-class, involves betrayal of some sort.
O: When you first started writing, you said in interviews that middle-class people didn't have a clue about the depth and ubiquity of working-class anger. Do you feel that situation has changed at all over the past decade?
IW: No, I still think it's very much there.
O: Have you ever intended your books as educational tools in that area? Are you interested in rectifying the situation?
IW: I think you're just trying to look at the culture you come from and understand its place in the modern world. You're trying to make sense of it yourself. If it's an educative thing, it's to educate yourself rather than to do it for other people. All writing is like that. I think writing's quite a selfish thing, really.
O: What have you learned from your own writing?
IW: From this particular book, I think it's reinforced a lot of the things I've felt about consumerist society, the way everything is becoming... The whole point of consumer society was to give us more choices. And the irony of it is, we're becoming like the Soviet Union, but with money. I mean, how many fucking Starbucks does Seattle need? Britain is almost as bad now, but you can't go anywhere in America without seeing a Starbucks. I think there's one in my hotel bedroom here just opening up.
O: Is the same thing happening in Scotland?
IW: Yeah, it's happening everywhere. I was reading this thing that said Starbucks is seen as this indicator of a neighborhood being on the up. To me, it's a sign that a neighborhood is absolutely fucked, that every ounce of character is being drained away. It's amazing: You look at the people who sit in Starbucks, and they look so fucking weird. It's like every bit of character has been sucked out of them just by the fact that they're in Starbucks. I almost think they're just props Starbucks put up. There's a Starbucks opposite a McDonald's in Edinburgh, and I heard people saying, "Oh, look at these people going into McDonald's and eating all that terrible stuff," and about globalization and all that. But Starbucks is a trendy, right-on kind of thing, just because it has these stupid adverts about what they do in the Third World. But if you look at it, coffee sellers are struggling to make a living below the poverty line, while Starbucks' markup on a cup of crap coffee is just absolutely incredible.
O: Do you think working-class people are more aware of the issues, or more capable of fighting back, than they were a decade ago?
IW: I don't think so, not in that kind of way, because the politics have been ripped out of things now. The traditional politics that working-class people had is gone now. People fight back in a negative way–taking drugs, theft, and stuff like that. There's not a political thing through unions and organization. It's more of a buzz-and-thieving sort of vibe. But there's something quite distasteful about society, something really boring about it. It's just the blandness of it. There's almost a sense that, "What does capitalism do for an encore, now? Can it globalize and colonize the whole world?" There's no Soviet bogeyman now. All we've got is Islam to use as a kind of bogeyman. But once there are big freeways everywhere in the world, and everyone's in a petrol economy, and everybody's working at McDonald's for part-time wages, what happens after that?
O: In a way, Porno addresses that issue–it's about an attempt to wrap the idea of transgressive, escapist sex into a neat, saleable package.
IW: Yeah, yeah, that's exactly what's it's about. Porno to me was exactly the same situation as Trainspotting. Drugs were to Trainspotting as pornography is to Porno. It's an underground thing waiting to go mainstream.
O: With Trainspotting, you were accused of glamorizing drug use. Have you been accused of glamorizing pornography yet?
IW: Not yet, no. It's not a very pornographic book, really. I wasn't so much interested in the pornography itself as the pornographic sensibility, that kind of vicarious, intrusive thing about liking to see people get fucked–if not physically, then metaphorically. You can't see people getting fucked physically on TV because of the censorship laws, but you can see it happening metaphorically, with all this schadenfreude TV, this humiliation TV. To me, that's pure pornography, without the sex.
O: Do you have any value judgments about sexual pornography, one way or the other?
IW: I see it in the same way I see drugs. I think these things have got... Like drugs have their place, but their place isn't in mainstream society. Advertising has transformed the sensibility of the buzz right into mainstream society. And I think porn also has its place. It should be a subculture, but it shouldn't be imported right into mainstream society, the way it's happening.
O: Because transgression shouldn't be commodified?
IW: Yeah, that's what I mean. I think transgression should be transgression, not something that's sold and commodified. But that's just the problem, now: There is no underground, you see? Anything, everything that becomes interesting or successful, the market gets it very quickly.
O: You say the question is "What will capitalism do for an encore?" But it sounds like the question is "What will the underground do for an encore?" What's left to do that hasn't been co-opted?
IW: Yeah, this is the problem now. The underground has gone overground. It's almost like you either make money by accident or design, if you do anything good that people enjoy. It used to be difficult to make money out of that, but now it's hard not to.
O: Is it true that Porno's sequences about group sex after hours in pubs, and the circulation of amateur tapes of those orgies, are taken from an actual underground scene in Scotland?
IW: Yeah. It's quite strange for me, because a lot of people you'd never think would be into that kind of thing... People used to go out clubbing and all that, and now they just go to each other's houses and have big fucking orgies. A lot of it's because cocaine has replaced Ecstasy, and people get really twisted when they do a lot of coke. It also has to do with the technology, digital video and the Internet. And it has to do... In the '80s, working-class males were perceived as being emasculated by the way all their old jobs had shifted, the mines and steelworks and all that being shut down. The yuppies shagging each other in the offices were seen as the ones having a good time. And now we see that in reverse: The yuppies in the offices are working long hours, and they're too tired to have sex when they get home, with the stress of mortgages and all that. But part of growing up unemployed or underemployed is shagging each other, just because it's something to do.
O: You make it sound like the new rebellion for the underground is in emulating the mainstream.
IW: I think the safer society gets, the more we get the urge to transgress. Transgression has always been very attractive to people. You've got so many people positioned now as transgressors–all these Bruce Willis-type characters in the movies are doing things so ordinary middle-class Americans can sleep soundly in their beds, fighting the Communist threat and all that. But they have to position themselves as mavericks, you know, who don't follow departmental rules and all that. Actually, they're status-quo figures.
O: Do you think that urge to transgress is equal in all segments of society, or is it stronger in some strata than others?
IW: I think everybody wants it now, because society is becoming increasingly bland. It's like nothing's really happening. Our culture is almost dead.
O: What was your involvement in the film version of Trainspotting?
IW: Very little. I kept right out of it. I was writing Marabou Stork Nightmares at the time, and to be honest, I felt if I had got more involved, if I'd interfered, I would have just made it worse. Because I had no role. Everybody who made the film got on really well together, worked really well together, so they just went off on their own. They wanted me to have more of a role than I did: They kept sending me drafts of the script, and I just kept on sticking Post-It notes to them, saying "Brilliant. Don't change a word." I wanted to get on with my other stuff. If Porno gets made into a film, I'm not sure I'd want a role in that at all. I'd just like to find somebody that's good to do it.
O: What's your process for writing in dialect?
IW: Well, it's easy for me, because I kinda think and talk like that anyway. It's just the voices there in my head, so it's not hard to access it.
O: Your books have been translated into more than 30 languages for international distribution. How do the translations work with the dialect?
IW: I don't know. I don't speak the languages, so I'd be the last person to know. [Laughs.] I've spoken to different people about it, and some say the translations went really well, and some say that it depends on the translator, really. It also depends on whether the country has the same problems, the same characterizations, the same culture as what I'm writing about.
O: How has Edinburgh changed since you wrote Trainspotting?
IW: I think it's just changed in the same way all cities have. The center's become closer to the downtown area, has become more affluent and wretched and touristy and developed, and a bit more boring and characterless than it used to be.
O: Because you come from the area, and write about people who share some characteristics with you, do you find that people typically try to interpret you through your characters?
IW: Yeah. I know when I go and see a writer, the first thing I think to myself is, "Are they the character in the book?" You just can't help it; it's the way people are. Because when you're sitting there with a book, it's an intensely personal experience. It's like you and the writer. You actually feel sometimes as if you'd had a conversation with that person–as if you've been in their head and their mind, and their soul, even. And you think to yourself, you actually want to go to that person and find out whether the writer is a character in the book, or the narrator, or whatever. It's that kind of thing that readers have. I have it as a reader myself, that expectation that the writer will be that person. Then I meet other writers and realize that they're not. And I probably don't think I am, either.