Trainspotting Author Irvine Welsh on Writing, Comics and Hollywood
Scottish novelist Irvine Welsh made in his mark in 1993 with his debut novel Trainspotting, which immediately established the Edinburgh native as a distinctive literary voice. The raw Scots dialect, unflinching depictions of drug addiction, sex and the lives of the working class would become the hallmarks of subsequent books ranging from 1995’s Marabou Stork Nightmares and 1998’s Porno to 2008’s Crime and 2012’s Skagboys.
The 54-year-old author hasn’t limited himself to novels, however, having written for theater, television and film. Likewise, several of his own books have been adapted for stage and screen, most notable among them 1996’s Trainspotting, directed by Danny Boyle, and the recent Filth.
Welsh flew to Trinidad in late April for the 2013 NGC Bocas Literature Festival, where he spoke at length with Spinoff Online in an interview that began at the Trinidad and Tobago National Library and concluded only recently via teleconference.
Spinoff Online: In your books, ranging from Trainspotting to Porno to Glue, you love creating this shared universe, similar to comics, where characters pop up, cameo or play a pivotal part or scene. Did you always envision writing in such a comic-esque format?
Irvine Welsh: I didn’t think about my books as inhabiting a shared universe at first. But I have kind of created an Edinburgh housing scheme and pseudo-universe similar to the superhero or villain universe you’d find at Marvel or DC, I admit. This actually came about by accident. What if you got a really strong character and you could keep using them again and again? Because sometimes you’ve got a new storyline and you wonder ‘Who could be the main protagonist here?,’ and it’s usually, for me, someone that comes from the bank of characters I’ve developed over time … especially if you’ve written quite a few books. It’s better than reinventing a character that’s similar to one that you’ve already got. I always end up bringing one of my old ones back.
Well, not really. I didn’t think of it that way. When I wrote my first book [Trainspotting], I didn’t think I’d write another one. But when I got the writing bug, I still really didn’t think I’d write the same characters again. When I wrote Porno as a sequel to Trainspotting, the main character was Sick Boy, but at first, he was a different character. It was only after a while writing, then I realized he was Sick Boy, but 10 years older, so I just made him Sick Boy. By doing that you change the book so it becomes more about the evolution of the characters such as Renton, Begbie and Spud from the first book. It’s a great osmosis, really, and I see this in comics, modern and past. Many writers write with a few distinguished characters in mind. I just like to make it official that I keep using them.
Filth has made the transition to the big screen. James McAvoy’s big in geek minds for Wanted and X-Men: First Class, and we’ve seen The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and Django Unchained made into graphic novel. So, could you spill the beans on Filth?
I can’t spill much as yet, but it’s being given the graphic-novel treatment, and we’re aiming to have it out around the same time as the movie. This medium’s interesting, and it offers something that the film or the novel can’t offer. It’s a halfway house between the two. Graphic novels are like storyboards for movies, which is why so many are successfully transferred to screen. We’ve got three artists tendering to do the book [Filth]. One of the guy’s very detailed, evocative, weird and scary. I prefer this, as this is pure angst with a touch of obscurity that works for Filth and its main character, Bruce Robertson. Details will be out soon!
Is it just Filth? No other books on tap from you to get the graphic novel conversion?
I have been interested in doing Marabou Stork Nightmares as a graphic novel because it’s a difficult book to do as a film … unless done as a cartoon or animation. I’d like to find a strong artist to do these transitions for the characters in their mental states and the worlds they inhabit. I’m trying to advance this graphic novel treatment for the book to see if it’ll push into the book getting done as a movie.
Switching gears to a more generic topic now, do you think comics and graphic novels could be tagged as the future of literature and writing? Some fans of the olden-style of prose see this as an indignant and apoplectic topic … taboo even.
People will respond to different things in different ways but the main thing about a graphic novel is that it gives people a visual stimulus and a storyline. This depends on how it’s drawn or what the artist inputs with respect to detail and expression. Not to mention how they draw their characters functioning as symbols, and the emotional depth and detail of the cast. It may well boil down to the overall approach by writer and artist – how much text is needed? How much image? What’s the density of both and how do we strike that balance? That’s the continuum that gets people to respond. Graphic novels, film and long-format novels can work hand in hand but some people want text so that they can create their own images in their own minds. These are folks who don’t want external images to superimpose how they interact with your text. Some want a combination of both and others just want live performances on stage or actors on screen. It’s another range of choice. Every post-war generation has grown up on comics and graphic novels and it’s natural…organic to get into original ones or ones that have been around for decades. I won’t call comics and graphic novels the future as they’ve been around forever but they are a medium that’s intriguing and evolving steadily … in fact, exponentially. It’s no indignity to have an affinity for them.
Would you consider a foray into original graphic novels, not just to delve into a new field but also, to get work out more frequently?
Well, as a writer, when you know you’re paid … this gives you the freedom to write. You write better and easier knowing such. That’s the advantage of getting paid — you get more time to write. Most writers would consider graphic novels, and I’m interested in the form so that, sure, I put more work out, get paid more but also I test my boundaries and limits more. There’ll be more feedback and folks to critique me and receive my work, which hopefully, the reception will be good. […] Nowadays, people are much less precious about what type of medium they’ll use. It’s primarily about storytelling and it doesn’t matter which medium you use — it’s about how the story can best be told by a writer. I haven’t done much graphic novels yet as I don’t know where to start. Personally and process-wise, I’d like to start by illustrating it myself and moving from there but if I started there, it’d be a film script and a storyboard to me. I have to learn more about this format I admit.
Speaking of transitions to the big screen, from The Walking Dead, which hits a weekly television audience, to the soon-to-be-released 2 Guns, you can see the scope and reach of the audience being billions. As a writer, is it a dream to have your scripts picked up for TV and film, and would graphic novels, in addition to increasing the frequency of turnover of your work, also raise the chances of your stuff making it to the screen?
Honesty speaking, I’ve done well for myself, and most of my works have been optioned already, so I don’t know if having a graphic novel stable would accelerate how many or how fast I output. But maybe filmmakers would use this visualization of the graphic novel to speed up wanting my books. That I can see happening! If they see this graphic novel, it’s easier for them to react than to a lengthy novel. But some filmmakers prefer textual formats or screenplays so they can construct their own images, as we discussed earlier. They wouldn’t prefer someone else doing that for them. I think this will change a lot though as young kids today now make their own short films. They produce, direct, script and act in them, and they don’t see the blur in between the different disciplines of film. They just make it. There’s no division in who writes and that sort of auteur is brilliant to me! The crux of it is in the stories. They’re the young Danny Boyles or Mark Millars. You don’t want hollow stories, and these graphic novelists are great storytellers. Sure, there are bad ones and ones that aren’t accomplished, but the field’s really strong and they’re helping their industry as well as the film-world.
Saga is an Image Comics title with sex, profanity and allusions to drug use and such … and your work’s been doused with a lot of this, so would graphic novels offer another avenue to bring your dimensions to the fore?
Well, there’s an abundance of skin, sex, obscenity through my Scottish dialect and, of course, violence, in my novels, and Skagboys, my current novel, has a lot of these things. Certain things are different to write in books as opposed to comics or a film script. I’ve noticed my film scripts are conservative but the books I write aren’t, as I have imaginative space for readers to construct their own image. I don’t have to hold back here with text. The readers can adjust the volume of the scene in their own head but if you see this overtly in a film or graphic novel, there’s not much your mind can do. You have to accept the images provided, as it’s all laid out there for you – bare and in-your-face. There’s no filter. I’d also be conservative on a graphic novel. Maribou, for example, has some harrowing depictions and torturous scenes, but with the book, readers can tone it down. My mum, for example, can tune it out and move on, but if she saw it on a comic or a film, it’d embed in her mind. You have to be a wee bit more conscious when you take away that freedom for people to make the images up in their heads. You have to be more responsible when you’re doing these graphic novels or films.
Another Scot, Grant Morrison, has done controversial stuff on Justice League, X-Men and Batman. In the latter, he killed Bruce Wayne, resurrected him, genetically engineered him a son and then killed the kid, Damian. So Grant’s had a wild, and some fans would say, effective ride as a comic-scribe. In his indie works, however, he’s touched on sex, violence and drugs … and seems unrestricted. With your high-level, sometimes surreal and mystical concepts , do you think you’d be comfortable doing comics and graphic novels for a prolonged stint in the near future?
For me, it’s not about being comfortable with anything. I’m uncomfortable doing films and books, so I’d like to be uncomfortable doing graphic novels and comics. This is to keep me on top of my game. It’s new territory, these comics to me, and the whole purpose of writing is to not feel happy and too secure with the world. I want to be upset and get a reaction for myself…as well as out of fans. I want to bring out cathartic undertones, empathy and the visceral nature of humans. I’ve always said that the biggest enemy of the human race is complacency. I try to shock myself out of this complacency when it sets in. I do this through my writing and if other people come along for the ride, that’s my mission as a writer – to wow and awe them, sometimes shock them. So I’d love to try my hand at these visual novels. I’d like to note that the discipline of a play or graphic novel or screenplay doesn’t intrigue me because it’s not the art form that grabs me…but it’s the story that does the trick. A lot of young guns think this is the future but I slightly disagree, as we touched on earlier. The future is whatever device gets you through the night – prose, poems or a film. But I wouldn’t rule anything out. Unconventional as it may seem, I wouldn’t discard or discourage anything. Who knows? Maybe I just might turn up writing more comics than one would anticipate very soon.
Let’s jump back to your fellow Scotsman Mark Millar for a minute. His Ultimates work influenced the Marvel’s Avengers film as well as a few of their other studio movies – some influence subtler than others. But he’s also done Kick-Ass, Nemesis, Secret Service and a couple others, and it’s obvious that there’s a propensity for his books, even before hitting stands, to be pegged for the big screen. What are your thoughts on writers writing for the sole purpose of providing fodder for studios to window-shop?
There’s no right or wrong in my opinion. It’s fantastic when you can get to that point as a writer. It’s what studios are attracted to and what people are attracted to. If he was a bad writer, then no one would care, but he has a fantastic imagination and expresses it well so studios and fans of films and comics would appreciate that. He’s selling books and great stories … and these sell great movies!
Switching to the comics front again, if you were given the chance to do a major Marvel or DC character with decades of lore, and you could leave a legacy to affect and influence writers later on … how would you feel about the challenge and pressure?
I would do a Grant Morrison and deconstruct the character. I’d do something that interests me, of course, if I had the freedom to do anything. But it’s interesting to construct my characters from scratch and build up their attributes from scratch rather than to use someone’s established character, which you could alter or trash or make into something else. I would be less into this and more into making a new one. That’s my two cents.
Well then, which character would you pick if you had to use one from the big comic industry?
Doctor Strange, because I’ve always been a fan and he’s the last of the great Marvels to me who hasn’t been given the big-screen treatment, so there isn’t that preconception apart from comic fans. Doctor Strange fans were always stranger, for want of a better word, and this unique breed in comic fandom always appealed more to me. He’s got infinite possibilities and his personal life is weirder and darker than usual and there’s a lot I can do with that. There’s a lot … I’d love to do with that!
Writers get to inculcate a lot of their personal beliefs and doctrines into the stories, but the writing community seems to have big writers complaining from time to time about editorial influence. How would you feel if your creative freedom got a bit diluted akin to this?
That’s interesting because a novel is you. It’s your personal statement, and any editing is to enhance it and make it technically sound from a story point of view. In film, it’s collaborative, with so many people involved, and then you have directors putting the stamp on it, studio execs and such with recuts and reshoots, so some may say it’s compromised. It fluctuates when it comes to how many see this as a fracture that resonates in the industry. The graphic novel is in the middle of this balance – the writer speaks, the artist draws and there’s that interface … but in film, it’s more negotiable and more about power. Marvel and DC have a huge heritage, so you can’t make too many strange things happen. Characters have to move on and be reenergized and reinvented so maybe the “geeky” audience who’s been here for years would ask who are these characters? But they’d still sense some sort of familiarity at the same time. This would come after each generation of writer toys and toils. These readers have been interested in the journey for years, and decades, and it sometimes becomes hard to keep track and remain emotionally invested in a character who’s changed so much. But when it comes to folks like Morrison or Millar, they’ll want to do stuff to go back to a singular vision they have. Ironically, when they do that and move on, once Hollywood looks at their work, whether it is for big books or on creator-owned stuff, these writers have positioned themselves and their work smartly. They’re marketable and negotiable. It’s a delicate balance like I said before with creative freedom and editorial influence but the end goal is to get the best product out on the shelves to make money.
There are a lot of British writers in the industry, such as James Robinson, Kieron Gillen, Garth Ennis, Paul Cornell, as well as artists from all over the world – Brazil, Turkey and Asia. The North American comic fraternity isn’t just kept constrained to Americans or Canadians. What do you think makes these British writers popular and what helps them adapt and transition so adeptly?
One of the reasons I think for Brits, not just writers but actors, such as Henry Cavill, Christian Bale and also, an Aussie like Chris Hemsworth, to do so well is that even though we linguistically aren’t separated from Americans, and even though it’s a different culture, we don’t have the reverence they have for comic lore. We see it more in an ironic way, this history of comics, and we’re fascinated by it and enjoy this Americana. This allows us to toy and tinker more … and we’re ready to thrash and subvert said Americana, while still being respectful. The reverence we have for Americana is tempered by the fact that we can play with it to the extent that Americans see it more of a heritage thing and are more precious regarding it while we have an extra degree of freedom and flexibility. Maybe it’s a paradigm shift, as Andrew Garfield grew up on the British stage and now he’s playing Spider-Man … so you can see this by the sheer volume of actors portraying key American fictitious icons … and they aren’t American born and bred. A lot of American actors are highly talented, as are the comic writers. The actors, though, are macho in a sense and would probably find it taboo or ridiculous to play an American superhero but our Brits and outsiders can invest more irony as we see it as a gig and we have more fun with it. The same goes for writers. Look at Robert Downey Jr. playing Iron Man successfully, and then when he plays Sherlock Holmes, he’s got that in his arsenal where it’s a deep irony, which is something I think is a more Brit characteristic than an American characteristic. Downey doesn’t hold back … he does his own thing as Sherlock because he knows he can. He has the extra room to play with.
Your thoughts on Hollywood’s tendency to reboot, remake or adapt a European or Asian story or some other foreign film? Is Hollywood running out of original ideas?
Hollywood is creating problem for itself if it takes stuff from elsewhere and Americanizes it quickly. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is a prime example when you’ve got the brilliant David Fincher, who’s done a quick remake of a film, that to me, wasn’t as good as the original. It’s just a slicker subversion but it lacks the soul of the original. It’s obviously about making money and profit for the studios but the hardcore audience who supports the original material, such as the book and film, will be alienated and see through the moneymaking scam at times. Hollywood has to invest in ideas and in original ones, so graphic novels and comics now have the best chance of breathing to life in cinemas and TV. It’s a great era and timepiece for them to do so. They can be the showcases and centerpieces of cinema…and it’s obvious now!
What’s the best advice you ever got as a writer?
Finish your story. Finish what you’re doing. It’s amazing how many writers don’t. They get caught up and they write a great line and another and think they have to keep doing this until they get a great paragraph and repeat this from chapter to chapter. That’s irrelevant … just get the basic storyline done. You can go back and do the things I mentioned just now but first and foremost … finish the story. With that spine and literary skeleton down, you can decipher what’s the three-act structure, which are the characters and what obstacles are in getting the way later on down the road. You can then plot here and there … where you want to be and what’s the resolution at the end. You can build it up later. It’ll be very interesting to see my full-fledged comic scripts and graphic novel ones too. It’s such a change for me.
In closing, what advice do YOU have to offer to aspiring writers out there?
People think writers have glamor to them and are all about kudos and moneymaking. Most don’t get recognized and certainly most don’t make much money. Most writers struggle … but to be successful, you have to be able to spend a lot of time on your own as a writer. This notion terrifies the people in my writing classes. You have to know yourself and be prepared to do this alone in a room. You’ll be with many characters in your head and it may well be insanity. Also, you have to have an ego and strengthen yourself. You have to know your own story and interests but you have to be able to get over yourself and be able to get past this and realize that you’re not that important in the grand scheme of things. Sure you can bring a lot of things such as your bio and back-story to the table, as well as the multitude of things that you like…but ultimately, it’s about looking outwards rather than inwards and it’s more about listening as opposed to talking. Get past yourself and be interested in other people.