Meeting Irvine Welsh on his home turf in Edinburgh, it is hard to know whether he has changed, is still the same, or was never what people thought he was in the first place. He now lives in Dublin, via London and Miami, but manages to make it back home at least once a month.
He has a Hibs season ticket. He's still pals with the boys he knew when he was six. And, yet, something about him is definitely different. "When you're kids you do things like burning insects with magnifying glasses," says the man whose books have mainly dealt with smack, scatology and the sordid sides of life. "But now if I see a snail walking across a path I've got to go and pick it up... I seem to get very emotional about suffering. If there's a cheesy romantic comedy on a plane, I'm the one with tears rolling down my face. Oh God," he laughs, "what am I saying?"
He has been in Edinburgh this time for the film festival, where he joined Sean Connery and Alex Salmond at the launch party and premiered a short film he has made about Kenny Richey, the Scottish man who was on death row in America for 21 years. The film shows a montage of the years of Scottish history that the incarcerated man missed, with a soundtrack of his heartbeat. Welsh was surprised just how much history there was, he says – and also surprised that Richey was "still so Scottish" after all these years. "We grew up around the same area," he explains. "He's jogged a lot of things in my memory which have been quite useful to me."
Welsh has been AWOL from Leith for many years now, but he is still – unwillingly – tagged as the voice of working-class Scotland. He tries to avoid being the kind of professional Scot who is quoted in newspapers with an opinion about everything, and he judges requests from political causes very carefully. He is "humbled" by the affection of the people of Edinburgh, who approach him in pubs and say, "You're Irvine Welsh. You're taller than I thought." Even after Filth, the 1998 novel that was jointly narrated by a rancid parody of a bent policeman and his tapeworm, beat-coppers asked him to sign their notebooks. But I wonder if he ever feels like a tourist in his home town. Towards the end of Filth, the scumbag cop Bruce "Robbo" Robertson runs into a local poet in an Edinburgh pub and rants at him: "So that's what they call art now is it? ... some fuckin schemie writing aboot aw the fuckin drugs him *his wideo mates have taken. Of course, he's no fuckin well wi them now, he's livin in the south ay fuckin France or somewhere like that, connin aw these liberal fuckin poncy twats intae thinking that ehs some kind ay fuckin artiste... baws! Fuckin baws!" It read as though the author might have heard this kind of thing somewhere before.
If Welsh is embarrassed about his globe-trotting lifestyle and his worldwide property portfolio, though, he doesn't show it. His new book Crime (Jonathan Cape, £12.99) pinches a minor character from Filth and takes him to the blistering streets of Miami. Ray Lennox is with his fiancée, aiming to plan their wedding and get himself together after a harrowing child-murder case back in Edinburgh. But, like a sort of schemie [council estate resident] Poirot with a murky past and a coke problem, he runs into exactly the thing he is trying to get away from. The result is a frenetic, explosive car-crash of a good old-fashioned cop drama – with a paedophile ring and lots of punching – all written as a distancing, second-person narrative: "You never smoked but always took along a packet of cigarettes when visiting prisoners... You went to your father's office in Haymarket..." And Welsh wrote it all, including the Edinburgh sections, at his winter residence in Miami Beach. How does an author channel a Scottish winter from his sun-lounger? "I quite enjoyed thinking about Edinburgh from Miami," he replies. "I thought about it in a different way. The cold and the grey and the darkness bothered me a lot more than if I'd been there." The Edinburgh he would have written in Edinburgh is a different place from the one he recalled from his place in the sun, he reckons. Even the second-person narrative "is a way of saying 'you' there in Edinburgh, it's not me, I'm in Miami'".
All this globetrotting has obviously influenced his books. He talks about the amount of descriptive writing that is in this novel, the colours and smells that he discovered in America and tried to evoke through the eyes of the outsider Lennox. The movement and space involved in the story, as the injured cop drives across state boundaries with a mixed-up 10-year-old girl by his side, could obviously not have been set on a council estate in Leith. But what is conspicuous by its absence is the visceral business of shagging, shitting and shooting up that marks out his novels as belonging to a genre uniquely their own. In fact, chapter one starts out with some of those familiar Scottish similes: "I'd fuck the hole in a dolphin's heid". But all that soon disappears when the subject of paedophilia emerges. The final pages even include a phrase about "those who satiated their drives by handing out life sentences to children". Satiated their drives? There's nothing very filthy about that. "There's so much obscenity implicit in the subject matter," he agrees. "It was very difficult to write about."
The subject was inspired by a conversation he had with long-standing friends back home. I ask him about male friendships in his books, and about how men communicate when they have known each other since childhood but are still very much blokes' blokes. His reply is surprisingly frank. "A pal told us he'd been abused, and we knew the guy who'd abused him," he explains. "He told us in the pub, a bunch of us, and he'd been kind of building up to it. It was obviously a shocking thing – but we found it very difficult to deal with it. We were all kind of..." he makes blokeish, growly noises. "We didn't really have the emotional vocabulary, culturally, to cope with that kind of disclosure. There was a sense that what the guy was saying wasn't appropriate. But it was our responseV Cthat wasn't appropriate." Welsh spent some time subsequently talking to survivors' groups, and found a stoic, aggressively male mentality that seemed quite destructive, quite "impotent", among some of the men. It was this that made him want to explore how a man like Lennox would cope with that – and why he came up with the pace, the aggression and the action of Crime.
Welsh's novels may be based on some of his own and his friends' experiences, but he is keen to distance himself from his characters. And Lennox, a troubled hero who finds his redemption and comes good in the end, is the least of them. Welsh is the first to admit that he struggled with drugs as a young man, but to be continually mistaken for characters in his first work of fiction even as he looks forward to his 50th birthday is something he has had to get used to. He is not them, though. He hasn't been for some time.
"I suppose everybody does think of themselves as basically a moral person," he says. "[But] in my late teens and early twenties I probably wasn't. Obviously it was drug problems that exacerbated it but there was a pattern... Just taking your problems out on other people, it isn't really worth it. It was a side that I think I've just grown out of: you see the things that you do that are really hurtful to people, and they're not a joke or a laugh. And I think that's something that probably kicked in with me later than it should have done." He laughs. "But it did kick in."
Although he was hailed as the wunderkind bright young thing from out of nowhere when Trainspotting was published in 1993, Welsh was 31 by the time it hit the shelves. The story of Renton, Sickboy and friends and their heroin-addled adventures in Edinburgh's housing schemes became the fastest-selling and most shoplifted novel in British history, and its surprised author was thrown into the spotlight as an unofficial spokesman for junkie youth. The truth was that he was off the drugs and reasonably well-off with a wife, a mortgage and a sensible job on the council by this time. It had just taken him a little time to process those early years before he could write them down. He can only write about a time that is long over, he says (though he says he is tempted to try a novel about old people).
"I found these old diaries and I used them as the basis of it," he recalls now. "I just wrote and wrote and wrote and wrote. It went on and on, and I just couldn't finish it. I had 300,000 words. So what I did was cut out the middle, wrote this little ending and tacked it onto the end and that was basically Trainspotting. And recently I realised that... part of it is moribund now because I wrote that ending onto it, which is a bit of a shame. But I found this early section about how they became junkies..."
This early section is the prequel to Trainspotting that he is now working on, and despite everything that has happened in between he says that writing it is just as much fun as that very first book. A lot, of course, has happened in between. Trainspotting has sold nearly a million copies in the UK alone. The 1996 film of the book, directed by Danny Boyle and starring an almost unknown Ewan McGregor as Renton, has taken £10.4m in cinema receipts. He has published 10 books, written screenplays and stage plays, released two singles with his band Hibee Nation, set up Jawbone Films with his screenwriting partner Dean Cavanagh and written a comedy drama, Wedding Belles, for Channel 4. There seems to be no end to this man's talents – but writing for the screen can be frustrating, he says: "It's almost like you have to do 10 to have one accepted." Asked what he is working on now, he finds it hard to remember everything he is writing, and what stage they are all at.
A sequel to the film of Trainspotting, based on his 2002 book Porno, is still, tediously, at the negotiating stage, but he is now more optimistic that it will get there. He just started looking at all the really good sequels ("Terminator 2 was better than The Terminator. Evil Dead II was better than The Evil Dead...," he beams) and started to feel OK. He'd like all the original actors to be in it, but the problem is that "they don't age properly, actors". And there could also be a problem with the star. Ewan McGregor recently told reporters: "I was disappointed by Porno... I would hate to damage Trainspotting." Welsh says, slyly: "I think Ewan read the book and his first reaction was, 'where the fuck's Renton?' Again, I didn't write it to be a sequel [but] Sickboy insinuated his way in. I think it probably would have been a lot stronger if it hadn't been about them, to be honest."
The problem with writing all these novels about wasted youth is that some people expect their author to be just that. And then they resent him for it. "I think there was a pressure on me to be this drugs monster from hell – this Burroughs-type character. And then I was condemned for being this person they said I was."
He admits: "I kind of played up to this noble savage ideal that I never read a book in my life, and all I do is just shoot some smack up, talk to my mates in the pub and that's me." It's an old theory that successful, working-class authors often have to contend with: that all they have to do is get high and hit a keyboard like an infinite number of monkeys and they will eventually come up with a work of genius. The truth is more boring: "This sort of work is tedious. And writers don't really like us knowing that."
It is odd to hear him talk about writers as "them", as opposed to "us". After 10 books, he is surely part of the canon. And during the six months he lived in San Francisco, he taught creative writing to students. "Writing is just rewriting, basically," he told them. "You don't spend all day trying to get the perfect sentence. You just get on with banging the story out and then take it from there." He has also travelled to Calcutta, Afghanistan and Sudan as a guest of Unicef – an experience that he says changed him. But how much? Has Leith's favourite son sold out? His event at this year's Edinburgh International Book Festival is sponsored by KPMG. Is he, as Renton might say, choosing leisure-wear and matching luggage?
If he is, perhaps he has always done it. The council job, the property portfolio and the first move to London all preceded Trainspotting. The smiling, nearly-50 year-old who sits in a café on a sunny day in Edinburgh is noticeably not Ray Lennox. I wonder whether the seedier side of his character, the "bad cop" that sits on one shoulder, comes out in his novels, leaving "good cop" Irvine to be sunny and well-balanced in real life.
He laughs. "Oh, it's a thing I've always noticed about writers," he says blithely. "You meet all these guys who write about drugs and murder and all that kind of stuff and they tend to be quite nice guys and sorted out. It's all these poets who write about landscapes and, you know, the beauty of nature and sunshine and love who are really fucked up. I don't know why it is," he concludes, finishing his cup of green tea. With that, he's away – to look for snails, perhaps.
Irvine Welsh was born in Leith, Edinburgh, in 1958: his mother was a waitress, his father a carpet salesman. Most of his early books, from Trainspotting (1993) and The Acid House (1994) to Porno (2002), are set here and follow schemies (council-estate residents) and junkies who bear many resemblances to the young Welsh. Trainspotting was a hit film, directed by Danny Boyle. Welsh has lived in London, Miami, San Francisco and Dublin, where he now stays with his wife – though he says he has "itchy feet" and plans to return to London. He has written 10 books, as well as screen-plays and plays, taught creative writing, and taken part in Unicef writing projects. He will discuss his new novel, Crime, at Borders, Bristol on 7 July.
The best of Irvine Welsh
Published when Welsh was 31, his first novel of junkie excess spawned many imitators. It has sold nearly a million copies in the UK and was adapted into a play and a hit film. Welsh's sequel, Porno, is set for similar treatment.
The Acid House
Two philosophy professors engage in a pub brawl, God turns a man into a fly, and a heroin addict cleans up and finds his humanity at the grave of his transsexual ex-girlfriend, in Welsh's first collection of short stories.
The Bedroom Secrets of the Master chefs
This story of male rivalry and a boozy curse was compared to The Picture of Dorian Gray and The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner. Welsh said it was inspired by The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, "that classic book of Scottish duality".
Welsh's nod to the history of Scottish literature. The narrative recalled Alasdair Gray, among others, as the voice of the lead character's tapeworm ate up the text. Ray Lennox, a bit-part in this tale of bad cops, went on to star in Crime.
Ray Lennox is back, and in a bad way, in a cop-thriller-meets-redemptive-road-movie set on the mean streets of Miami. Perhaps Welsh's cleanest novel to date, it deals with the tricky subject of paedophilia.
Marabou Stork Nightmares
Schoolboy derring-do met drug-rape and scary birds in Welsh's second novel, narrated by a boy in a coma. Roy Strang's unconscious proved a disturbing companion and sealed the author's reputation as a sick new talent.