Irvine Welsh has a cold. But the voice of Britain’s chemical generation still comes through dry and wry from his adopted Chicago home. Twenty years after Trainspotting became a cinematic juggernaut, juxtaposing the joys and horrors of drug life, Trainspotting 2 just kicked off filming in Edinburgh. In the intervening years, Welsh has kept busy. Filth was a terrific film, James McAvoy brilliantly realizing Welsh’s corrupt cop Bruce Robertson. Most recently Welsh wrote A Decent Ride, The Sex Lives of Siamese Twins and, bringing Trainspotting’s one and only Begbie back, The Blade Artist.
Verging on 60, the Scot is in an entertaining, avuncular mood. Welsh and I discussed this trio, shooting Trainspotting 2, the problem with porn and, of course, The Donald.
What compulsions have you replaced heroin with?
Writing, if I’m looking at it over a long period of time. I think my compulsive-obsessive behavior now is very much orientated to work. I’m working all the time, on one project or another. I don’t really regard it as work; it’s some form of play in a lot of ways. I don’t feel as if I’m a workhorse. I would be doing this if I wasn’t getting paid.
When I had conventional jobs, I was very lazy. I cheated my employers and all that sort of stuff and did the bare minimum possible. That was because I wasn’t motivated—I had no direction in what I was doing. But when you find something that you really want to do, which has intrinsic value to you, I think you’ll always put the graft in.
I meet a lot of people who fancy themselves as writers. They’ll be stuck for hours at a barstool talking about how they’re gonna write great novels, how they’re gonna write great screenplays. You just know that these guys are not going to do anything because they just don’t know themselves. They don’t know that you have to spend loads and loads of time on your own. The reason they are at a bar telling everybody else what they’re gonna do because they haven’t got the temperament to spend hours and hours and days and days sitting on their own writing.
Bret Easton Ellis wrote Less Than Zero when he was 21. To me that’s an absolutely phenomenal achievement of discipline. Because when I started at 21, I could barely write my name. I wouldn’t have the concentration or stamina. That only kicked in when I got to my late twenties.
I was gonna raise Bret. Watching this spectacular election reminds us of Patrick Bateman’s Trump obsession. “Not Donald Trump again,” Bateman’s fiancée complains. “Oh god. Is that why you were acting like such a buffoon?”
Yeah, Trump is an interesting phenomenon of the very, very worst aspects of the American character: spoilt, entitled, a bully, an insecure child basically. It’s a worldview that a lot of people have of America, before they actually go to America.
He likes to complain about political correctness but he’s remarkably thin-skinned himself, isn’t he? Suing Bill Maher for a pointed satirical joke, threatening other reporters…
Yeah, it’s so weird to me. He just seems to be desperate to demonstrate his fundamental unsuitability for this job that he wants. You just can’t be that thin-skinned and iffy and paranoid. He’s a spoiled kid who’s been surrounded by people who’ve indulged his ego. He can’t actually take somebody criticizing him in any way. You have to have bigger balls than that to be the President.
There’s something quite sad about him. Clinton and Sanders, you can have your problems with every one of them, but they’ve got an emotional resilience that he doesn’t seem to have.
Reading A Decent Ride, The Donald seems to be a big influence on bigoted New York Republican tycoon Ronald Checker.
I think it’s not as much about him; it’s more about this idea, that spoilt archetype. It’s almost like real life imitating art. I didn’t really know that much about him before, but it’s almost like he’s read the book and he’s trying to copy that character.
“American reality out-fictionalises fiction,” as Philip Roth put it.
It is now. How can you watch The West Wing when you’ve got Trump?
One of Trainspotting’s many enduring scenes, capturing the zeitgeist of Thatcher’s ‘80s London, was Renton’s line, “There was no such thing as society.” Are Obama and now Sanders bringing the idea of society back?
Yeah, I think so. It’s very, very difficult now in the era that we live in. The neoliberal project seems to be heading for the rocks. We have big choices to make as a society in how we manage the transition from capitalism into conceptualism, the knowledge-based economy. Not the wage economy or the proper economy, but the knowledge-based economy, which offers us enlightenment but doesn’t necessarily offer us a decent living and doesn’t necessarily offer us economic growth.
“Ah blame that fuckin Internet, little bairns watch extreme porn, whin thuv not even had a proper wank. That shite would fuck any cunt’s heid up.” That’s Juice Terry of A Decent Ride. Do you agree that excessive porn culture is dangerous?
Yeah. It does desensitize people and gets them engaged in a kind of psychosis. I’ve known so many people that have just got into porn, that have just sat there and smoked dope and watched porn. And masturbated themselves into fuckin’ oblivion. It’s just alienated them from everybody, it’s alienated them from going out, it’s alienated them from having proper relationships.
I get quite a few trolls, and I don’t block any of them because it’s a fantastic research tool.
And porn sexualizes kids more quickly, without developing the social skills and emotional resilience they need to take care of themselves.
Yeah, I would go along with that. I think people are besieged by this tremendous amount of information. It is not just pornography, it’s everything. People will be very abusive to other people on Reddit and Twitter and all that. I think we’re struggling a bit now because the technology seems to be pushing so far ahead of us. We’re trying to catch up and we’re getting all this overload, but I think we’re going to be much more judicious about the use of technology. When people are very abusive and trolling, particularly when they’re anonymous, it’s like they’re saying, “I am a loser, and I want to be with other losers.” Because you don’t really behave that way if you’re happy and integrated and you’re having normal relationships.
Twitter brings out some people’s inner Begbie?
I don’t think it’s inner Begbie because they’re all anonymous. I get quite a few trolls, and I don’t block any of them because it’s a fantastic research tool. People forget you can go into their timelines and you see their whole lifetime of pain. I’ve seen a lot of people, mostly women, who’ve got a voice, who’ve got something really interesting to say, and they are set upon by a bunch of fucking idiots, basically, real fucking inadequate sad idiots, and that is not ingratiating to witness.
Researching The Sex Lives of Siamese Twins, what did you learn about yourself hanging out with young lesbian women in the Miami club scene?
I thought I would get lots of hostility: “What’s this lecherous old pervert doing hanging out with us?” Everybody was very nice and friendly and chatty. Very candid, very straightforward.
You’ve noted all writers’ characters being some part of them, at least a repressed part. Could you comment on any commonality between yourself and Trainspotting’s singular Begbie, star of The Blade Artist?
Nothing! Apart from us both being from Leith, both being Scottish, both being married to younger American women, both living in the States. Both no longer being drinkers, but appearing to be healthy eating, but apart from that no, nothing in common whatsoever!
You were a celebrity along with the likes of Blur’s Damon Albarn during the Live Forever Britpop period, partying with Keith Richards.
The thing about that era is what people say about the '60s: If you remember that much about it, then you probably weren’t there. I remember Noel Gallagher and I shooting each other with fire hoses in Hotel du Cap.
What does Trainspotting adapter John Hodge teach you as a writer?
He trained as a doctor, he’s got that surgeon’s eye. The way he looks at a piece of script, the way he looks at its function, the way he locks it all together. John has got that mordant, black sense of humor. He’s got an incredible focus. John has been a massive practical help for me. When I talk to him about my characters, I feel he understands them as much as I do and he understands things about them that I don’t. So perversely I learn about my own characters from working with him.
One of Trainspotting’s best scenes was scored by Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day,” Renton dancing under with heroin’s deathly caress. Will that perfect moment be revisited in Trainspotting 2?
They’re older guys now. It’s 20 years later, so you’d be hoping that they’d moved on. But there is that dynamic, especially between Begbie and Sick Boy. They will never take drugs on their own, they never take heroin on their own, but you put them together and you can never be sure, because there is a strange thing going on between them. It’s a different story for Spud because his way of coping with his demons is drugs of some description. So there’ll be an element of that. I think it’s more about how the characters have evolved and the competition between them. Because it’s based on Porno, it’s very much about that revenge story with Sick Boy, Begbie and Renton.
The big players are on the Internet now. So we’ve had to modernize the script and make the guys still being involved in the vice industry, but not making a pornographic film as they were before. So there’s a lot of interest and surprises about it and it’s a very, very good script. I was just on set with them in Edinburgh, the big set they’ve gone into production on now.
I originally saw it as Sick Boy’s story, so I’ll be buzzed to see how Johnny gets into it. It’s a challenge for Ewan; it’s going to be a fun film. Bob [Carlyle]’s really excited because he sees Begbie in this part as a very dynamic and powerful force. Because I’ve spoken to Bobby at length about it, I’m really excited to see what he does with Begbie because it could be a really incendiary performance.
Gary Shteyngart thinks too much literature is written inside American academic programs, where there’s a tendency to become theoretical and dull.
I taught for six months…younger kids who’ve been through the school system, who’ve been to the BFA and then moved on to the MFA. All the experience that they had was being at school and college. I used to say to them: “You’re wasting your time and money here if you want to be a writer.” Just impregnate your brother’s fiancée, get an 8-ball, go off and go down to Mexico, get with a couple of hookers, come back and give your brother’s fiancée an STD. Find something dramatic to write about, have something that actually happens in your life that you can use.
Alexander Bisley is a Kiwi cultural writer contributing to varied publications, including The Guardian, The AV Club, Slate, and The BBC. His next interview for Playboy is with Wanda Sykes. He tweets at @alexanderbisley.