The acclaimed author of Trainspotting, Filth and Skagboys takes us out on the tiles in New York City. Amid the carnage, he has a ton to tell us about books, movies and why you need to have done drugs to write about them.
It's 1 am, we've been kicked out of the Jesus and Mary Chain show and Irving Place is choked with drunks, scalpers and other "after-dark" types. A wild-haired Russian "action painter," an associate of Pussy Riot, is shoving something into my hands, jabbering excitedly. It turns out to be a few ounces of pungent weed. I glance around and Scotland's favorite literary son is deep in conversation with another Russian, eliciting laughter even though I'm sure the guy can't understand a word of his Leith brogue. Welcome to his world, kiddies. When you're out on the pish with Irvine Welsh, things just...happen.
Welsh is one of those rare writers that people outside of literary circles recognize--a status earned off the back of his writing. For most writers in a non-reading world, it takes something else--usually scandal--to endow this kind of cultural profile. James Frey versus Oprah. Will Self, busted shooting smack on the Prime Minister's plane. Hell, Salman Rushdie had to get fatwa'd.
Irvine was in town not only to pimp Skagboys--the long anticipated prequel to Welsh's 1993 novel-slash-cultural phenomenon, Trainspotting--but to promote Filth, the latest film adaptation of his work. I ask him how Filth compared to his other book-to-film experiences. "Every one I've done has been a pain to get made," he sighs. I express surprise, considering Trainspotting's runaway success. Aren't people tripping over themselves to rush the rest of his canon to the big screen? He seems amused by my naivety.
"It usually takes about five years," says Welsh. "With Filth I lost five years because of a contractual dispute. A lot of directors want to do their own screenplay, and if you've got a director who's a fucking shit writer... I mean, some of the screenplays we saw, you couldn't get any acting talent in based on them--it just wouldn't be done. Then I met this guy, Jon [S. Baird, Filth's director]. He came back with a screenplay and it was excellent."
While Welsh's books spill over with extreme sex, violence and drug use, his private life remains resolutely private. Despite having written arguably the defining heroin novel, he never felt the need to adopt the whole "junkie writer" persona. However, it's no secret that Welsh has history with heroin. For fans, this is a part of his myth: If tonight is anything to go by, it seems that whenever Irvine is recognized, people are determined to get him fucked up.
At our first bar, a group of lit students spot him and nervously approach with a glass of Scotch, like devotees of some Catholic saint laying an offering. Once he determines that they at least had the sense to order a good Scotch, Welsh drinks it straight, and spends a while graciously chatting and listening.
Later, the Russians stick with us for the rest of the night, rolling joint after joint, which we happily smoke. Welsh confirms that he did indeed use heroin--but as a former user myself, I already knew, I tell him: Trainspotting is so obviously the voice of experience talking, not some surface-skimming drug tourist's travelogue.
"Aye well..." Irvine concurs, "writing about drugs is like that though, isn't it? You can just tell when someone is writing about drugs and they've never really done them. It screams out at you. That's something where I believe you have to have been there to really get it, y'know?"
A literary superstar in Europe, the "poet laureate of the chemical generation" remains a harder sell here in the US. His uncompromisingly Scottish narrative voice and his fascination with what some call "the underclass," mean that in aspirational America, he remains a writer for those in the know.
"America's always quite a difficult market," Irvine says when I broach this. "It's very, very conservative. Complete contrast with places like Italy and Spain, where they're a lot more receptive to stuff that's way out there." Still, in hip urban centers like NYC, Welsh is fêted--as evidenced by the capacity crowd that arrived to hear him read from Skagboys.
Irvine laughs at these differing perceptions: "It's the same with the films. We did The Acid House: a small kind of low-budget movie, ...had a loyal audience, did well on DVD. It was too grungy to be a proper cinematic experience. Usually you're always compromising. But with The Acid House they just went for it and it was a really ballsy thing to do."
"It was a cult thing everywhere," Irvine continues, "...except Australia, where it was a fucking smash. This happened nowhere else in the world, but in Australia it went mental. It's bizarre. When I do book tours everywhere else, it's all about Trainspotting, you know? But in Australia it's like [he adopts a passable Aussie accent] 'The Acid House, mate--great film!'"