As part of his appearance at the Auckland Writer’s festival, during which he was promoting his new work The Sex Lives of Siamese Twins, I caught up with Irvine Welsh to talk about American literature, feminism and why creative writing courses are not for the under-25’s.
The Sex Lives of Siamese Twins is your first novel set entirely in America. I found certain similarities with Chuck Palahniuk and Bret Easton Ellis in themes and style – do you see that in your writing?
These guys all came around at the same time as me, so there is a shared sensibility, it’s maybe not so apparent when I write in Scottish. American Psycho and Fight Club were the two last great American novels, real kind of game-changers in a way. The interesting thing about them is that they’re both end of empire novels. There are a lot of good American novels since then, but they’re not groundbreaking. They’re looking at modern America and making re-runs of John Updike in a modern context. American Psycho and Fight Club were incendiary novels that didn’t seem to have any antecedents at all. Fight Club was about looking at the first generation that were going to be poorer than their parents. Ellis’ book was about looking at the Americans who had everything and really had nothing as well: that sense that with consumer capitalism anything that can offer you any cheap buzzes or sensations is never going to be enough.
Do you notice the same sentiment in Britain?
It’s a similar kind of thing. Now people feel very alienated from the mainstream and politics and society and have all the bread and circus TV to keep us amused. There’s such an emptiness now for young kids.
Are you planning to write about these problems in future work?
In a way I’m always writing about them. It becomes more and more apparent. Its middle class kids too now, they used to be able to get a good job but now you go to college and you’re lucky to get a retail job after a degree. People are struggling and they’re constantly in debt, all we can do as a society is to say let’s get the banks lending again and have another consumer boom fuelled by debt. That’s not a long term solution for a problem. It’s not a good time to be young, it’s a terrible thing. People like myself shouldn’t be feeling pity for young people.
The only bright spark on the horizon as far as I’m concerned is Scottish independence and modernising the whole island and breaking the impasse that we’ve had for the last 35 years with neoliberal policies.
What do you think the outcome of the referendum [on Scottish independence in November] will be?
There will be independence, I’m not sure if it’ll happen with the referendum. In the broad scheme of things it’s definitely going to happen at some point. There’s nothing holding the UK together as there used to be: no empire, no industry, no welfare state. That was the glue that held it together and they’ve all gone now. I think people are just fed up. That’s the real fear of the British Establishment, they don’t really give a toss about Scotland but they’re worried about England if Scotland goes. No House of Lords, no public school elite, no city of London bankers, if they’re all taken out of the system and people govern successfully without them they’re gonna start saying that we don’t need them either.
How do your two female protagonists, Lucy and Lena, relate to ideas of gender and feminism?
Lucy and Lena represent two types of feminism, Lucy is an aggressive empowerment of ‘I’m gonna kick any man’s ass’, whereas Lena is much more a traditional sort of feminism. We have to bring those different values together rather than ape the worst of male behaviour. They need one another to complete them really and one needs to be a bit more sensitive to other people’s needs whereas the other needs to toughen up and believe in herself a bit more.
Do you approach female protagonists differently to male protagonists?
No, not at all. You’re not conscious of that, you write in character as a character. You don’t really think about gender. If I’m writing about the guys from Trainspotting or Filth I’m not thinking about Renton or Bigby as men. Similarly I’m not writing Lena or Lucy as women. Obviously they are, I’m not saying this is how they are because they are women. I think there’s a whole vested interest in creating divisions in humanity where there are none. I find men’s magazines and women’s magazines spurious and distasteful with gender stereotypes that don’t really exist or exist minimally compared to the emphasis that is put upon them.
Is the junk food and exercise that play a central role in Sex Lives truly addictive?
I don’t think it’s drugs or fast food or compulsive fitness or anything like that it’s consumerism as a whole. We’ve opted for a consumer society and built a kind of zoo. It doesn’t really suit us as animals, we’re wandering round this crazy zoo. Like when you put polar bears in cages and just walk in the same pattern all the time. We have the same obsessive compulsive behaviour, it’s just that bit more sophisticated so we’ve got a bigger zoo to wander in. We have all these things and we make an addiction out of everything. We’re addicted to fast food, television, sex, drugs anything that we have a compulsion for and in order to address these compulsions we don’t stop doing these things – what we have is another product, another thing to consume. If you’re getting fat eat less, but we have another product or another diet or exercise regime or diet pills or whatever. This is the way our minds have been programmed by the environment we live in.
How do you approach teaching creative writing?
I got into trouble with the University of Chicago [teaching creative writing] because with the younger ones I said look, don’t bother with this course, leave, get a job doing bar work or waitressing. Get a convertible and an eight-ball and drive down to Mexico and meet some hookers and get something to write about. They could all write really well but they had nothing to write about. If I see another submission with ‘I remember back in high school’ I’ll go crazy. I got into trouble with the authorities because they wanted people to be on the course and enrol. The ones that were late twenties upwards got a lot out of it, they had loads of stories but they needed the technical ability. The idea of structure development and character and pacing. I think they got a lot out of it. The younger kids would be better off doing another degree.
How did you gain that technical ability without the formal study?
Just by doing it, writing a lot, trying out and writing the same story in different ways and I saw what worked and what didn’t. Writing is an experiential based thing. You just have to keep doing it. You do loads of bad writing before you get to any good writing.
Do you see Lucy and Lena appearing in future projects?
Walking by the beach in Miami, maybe hand in hand with James Franco. You never know, I see characters like tools in a box, you have tools for certain jobs and you stick ‘em in the box and think I might need it again, sometimes they gate-crash into new stories without you being conscious of it.
Don’t miss the NZ Booklovers’ review of Irvine Welsh’s latest novel The Sex Lives of Siamese Twins.