By Alan Black.
Irvine Welsh is a boxer. His body is close to its fighting weight, his torso hardened, and the arms sinewy. His hand speed has shifted gears from the ordinary to the fast, a punch from the Leith man of letters would set strong men on their behinds and send wimps to the hospital. Iron Irvine, Leith’s great white hope, is ready to rumble.
The undisputed heavyweight champion of Scottish literature in the last ten years is in training for an upcoming celebrity-boxing bout, aiding a charity that endeavours to prevent youth suicides. He’s scheduled to box somewhere in the UK in April, his opponent still unannounced. Welsh has been living in San Francisco, California for the last few months, training hard, punching and sparring in a gym run by two hardy Irish boxers in the city’s Mission District. “I’m obsessed with it,” he says.
Welsh tells a tale of how boxing saved him from a kicking, or worse, in a bar on the docks of Panama City. The Panamanians mistakenly clocked the writer as a lost American tourist who had strayed into the wrong manifest destiny. The Panamanians, seething from the memory of the brutal American invasion of their country in the early nineties, were ready for some revenge. Quick on his mental feet, Irvine shuffled and defused the bomb with appeals to the collective Panamanian memory, and their boxing icon Roberto “Manos de Piedra” Duran. The great boxer had wrenched the WBA Lightweight title from the Scottish boxer, Ken Buchanan in 1972. Welsh had convinced the assailants of his Scottish nationality, through the memory of the Buchanan/Duran bout, a lucky break, an escape from the ropes. It was beers all round.
Welsh takes punches in the other ring where he employs his writing craft. The recent broadside in the papers by the obtuse Scottish writer Alexander McCall Smith, denounced Welsh as a “travesty for Scotland.” He suggested that Welsh “connived” in the cultures he wrote about, a prompt for publishers to reject the Trainspotting author’s books. Throwing sucker punches from the distance of a South African newspaper article, where McCall Smith first made his assault, failed to land any bruises on Welsh.
“A travesty,” laughed Irvine Welsh, when I recently interviewed him in a San Francisco cafe, “A travesty! Fantastic! Fantastic! It saves my publisher on their PR budget. I just think it is too trivial to respond to”.
Welsh does have thoughts on the cultural drift in the new, devolved Scotland, on the continuing clash between the forces of Scotland’s conservative elites and modern realism.
“There’s all this stuff that is happening in Edinburgh now, it’s a sad attempt to create an Edinburgh society, similar to a London society, a highbrow literature celebrity society. There is this idea floating around in places like The Scotsman newspaper, that there is this kind of great and good of Edinburgh society that pontificate on all matters of a literary and cultural nature. It’s a reactionary exclusive view. I think the existence of that kind of thing is quite important though because it gives the rest of us something to kick against. It is kind of comforting to know that it is there. James Kelman won these kinds of arguments about language and culture decades ago in his novel, The Bus Conductor Hines. It is quite regressive to get into them again. Anyway, the genie is out of the bottle now. The establishment, the newspapers, they try to create something called Scottish literature, but when people are actually going to write, they are not going to necessarily prescribe to that, they’ll write what they feel. What Kelman, Tom Leonard and Alasdair Gray in Glasgow and Rebel Inc. in Edinburgh in the early nineties did, was give all the different cultures in Scotland permission to write about, or made it acceptable in publishing terms, to write about where you come from, no matter where that is. Writing is about culture and should be about everything. That’s what makes it what it is. Basically a lot of the forces that are operating in literature now, the commercial forces, realize they have to reflect something in society. You can’t just have stuff that is free and escapist, you have to have stuff that is confrontational as well. You need stuff that is mystical but you need the realism too”.
Welsh moved to the United States in 2002 to take up a teaching job at Columbia College in Chicago. The college system in the USA is a route many aspiring writers haul their wares through, the MFA (Master of Fine Arts in Writing) degree is increasingly popular. The relationship between certain writing programs and the publishing industry causes concern that working-class writers or those without the funds to study for years at college, could be missing out.
“What worries me is the professionalism of everything,” ventures Welsh. “If you want to succeed in business you get an MBA business degree. If you want to succeed in writing you get an MFA. A lot of young writers think that getting the MFA leads to the money. I think young writers should get other degrees first, social sciences, arts degrees or even business degrees. What you learn is research skills, a necessity because a lot of writing is about trying to find information. The MFA programs are probably the least research oriented of any degree. It’s much more about finding out about yourself, the kind of stuff that is going on in your own head. For some writers who have had experience in life an MFA can be a great thing. The older writers I taught, those who had been around a bit, had an advantage. The younger writers were still writing the right of passage, high school stories and I’d say to them ‘Get a job! This will give you something else to write about. You’ve got to write about something else, get some experience'”.
Recently at a reading in San Francisco, Welsh was asked why he started writing? Taking the question and somewhat turning it on its head, he suggested the question should be, why do you stop writing? “Things get in the way for many writers. Work, family, other time considerations, that’s the issues many writers must confront”.
Along with his dedicated boxing training, Welsh is keeping up speed on the writing treadmill. Already deep into his next novel, he is also working on a stage play with his stage-writing partner, Dean Kavanagh, set in the bizarre world surrounding the Wizard of Oz film production. The play centers around four dwarves who play Munchkins in the movie. The designs for the stage set will have regular-sized actors surrounded by oversized furniture.
“Writing loads is really important,” he says, “When people start writing there is this idea that you have to get everything right first time, every sentence has to be perfect, every paragraph has to be perfect, every chapter has to be perfect, but what you’re doing is not any kind of public show, until you’re ready for it. There is a kind of mysticism to writing. Every kind of book I’ve written has been written in a different way. There has not been any set time for writing, any set way, I haven’t re-invented the process every time but I almost have. I enjoy the freedom of the blank page. You have to respect the mysticism of writing; you’re always going to learn things that will work subconsciously and stuff that won’t. You can’t tear yourself apart with it either. If you become too self-conscious about it, it shows up in the work, so you’ve got to enjoy it as well”.
Clearly, Irvine Welsh is still holding the title in his career as a top rank writer. His popularity endures. His readings in the USA attract huge crowds, new generations being turned on to a writer who has put his culture on the world map. Others punching at a lesser literary weight may wish to remain silent. Punching Irvine these days is just plain stupid and could get you hurt.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Originally from Glasgow, Scotland, Alan Black is a writer as well as creative director of the Edinburgh Castle, San Francisco’s legendary Scottish literary pub. He curates the Castle’s monthly series of arts and readings, and is working on an anthology of writers who have performed at the pub.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, February 24th, 2004.