Q&A: Author Irvine Welsh on the ’Trainspotting’ sequel, drugs, and writing

A wide-ranging interview with the cult writer on Trump, Scottish independence, and oddly, why he’s hesitant to legalize drugs
Trainspotting writer Irvine Welsh. ( Jaap Buitendijk/TriStar Pictures/Everett Collection)
Trainspotting writer Irvine Welsh, in a cameo as Mikey Forrester. ( Jaap Buitendijk/TriStar Pictures/Everett Collection)
Trainspotting writer Irvine Welsh, in a cameo as Mikey Forrester. ( Jaap Buitendijk/TriStar Pictures/Everett Collection)

For a moment, the garrulous Scottish author Irvine Welsh is uncharacteristically lost for words.

Two decades after Trainspotting scorched up cinema screens, conveying the joys and horrors of drug life, the sequel T2 Trainspotting comes out in Canada on March 17. “Irv, you bastard, you did it again,” I congratulate him. There’s an awkward pause before he ripostes: “Yes. How are you doing?”

But Welsh, now 59, still has a lot to say. T2 Trainspotting, adapted from his novels Trainspotting and Porno, is a very entertaining film. The cult writer, one of the film’s two executive producers, has plenty of insights on getting the old band back rocking together. Over the phone from his writing den in Chicago, Welsh tells Maclean’s about porn, politics and, perhaps surprisingly, why he sometimes feels opposed to drug legalization.

Q: Trainspotting drew memorably on your experience of heroin culture. Last time we opened with what compulsion you replaced heroin with: writing. Now, in T2 Trainspotting, adapter John Hodge changed your presumed alter-ego from Renton to Spud as writer.

A: Yeah, I don’t quite know how I feel about that. It has mixed people up a bit. “Are you Spud now?” as opposed to “Are you Renton?” which is quite a nice little twist.

Q: I enjoyed the varied music, like the Clash and the Run DMC track “It’s Like That.” DMC recently told me: “Music and entertainment is a cut-throat, disrespectful, low-life, mother-f–king, crab-ass, lyin’, deceivin’, stab-you-in-the-back type of business, and that’s just the good part of it.”

A: Yeah, totally. We’ve got a play on right now, in Chicago’s Edge Theatre, that’s all about that! It’s about the music class, about the appropriation of music, and how music’s presented in the music business, how controlled it is.

MORE: Run-DMC’s Darryl McDaniels on depression and rap

Q: My Irish-Catholic buddy loved T2’s anti-Catholic song, “There Were No More Catholics Left.”

A: Yeah, it’s had a tremendous reaction. The loyalist element as well as the anti-sectarian element, they’ve both embraced it. One side has embraced the actuality of it, and the other side has embraced what they see is the irony of it. The loyalist side sees it as a kind of affirmation, the opponents of Royalism see it as a kind of satire on sectarianism [laughs]!

It’s surprising that they [Catholics] have actually enjoyed it and hopefully it’s a sign of growing maturity that people can laugh at the whole thing, the sheer ridiculousness of it. Because it is just nonsense, and it’s stupid. But also people feel a bit, almost it’s like a heritage thing, you know? It’s so much part of Scotland. [Laughs] It’s a bit like a less benign form of Morris dancing or shortbread or something.

Q: I also appreciated Prodigy’s remix of “Lust for Life,” Iggy Pop’s classic, composed by David Bowie.

A: Bowie’s death is a very emotional thing. My generation of working-class Britain, it feels like we lost our spiritual leader, our guru. I always thought that if I was to be a hundred, somehow Bowie would be a hundred and fifteen. He’d be there to still steer me and guide me.

Q: What might surprise people about T2 Trainspotting?

A: The first film meant so much to people. We thought, “We can only really mess this up—we can’t take it anywhere else.” But we’ve taken it somewhere different. It’s a much more emotional film. People will be surprised at the sadness and the pathos in it; it’s deeper. People come out of the cinema room wired, and feel moved, it unravels in their heads. I’ve heard people say they’ve seen it six or seven times, because it is so much more emotionally complex than the first one, which was a pure adrenaline rush. This one moves at a cracking pace, and it’s got all these set pieces that you expect, but it also gives the actors a lot more time to inhabit the characters. Because they’ve got older, I think it forces the audience who have been through the first Trainspotting one, to look back on what they’ve done, look back on life. It’s a very emotional experience for a lot of people.

Q: You once warned about the dangers of excessive porn, hilariously riffing about friends “masturbating themselves into oblivion.” What’s next?

A: Well, what’s next is we never leave the house! [Laughs] I think that’s probably the wave of the future, until we actually can interface with androids. When you think about what Homo sapiens are about, you almost feel that we are replacing ourselves. We won’t be able to breathe and breed on this earth, so we replace ourselves with androids that can do. The androids can go up into space and take the future of humanity forward because maybe we just bow out with a carbon-based epoch. We made the world uninhabitable for ourselves and it can only be inhabited by robots and androids.

Jonny Lee Miller (left) and Ewan McGregor in T2: TRAINSPOTTING. (Jaap Buitendijk/©TriStar Pictures/courtesy Everett Collection)
Jonny Lee Miller (left) and Ewan McGregor in T2: TRAINSPOTTING. (Jaap Buitendijk/©TriStar Pictures/courtesy Everett Collection)

Q: Republican Steve Schmidt is sharp on religious right leaders like Jerry Falwell Jr. supporting a predator like Donald Trump: “It exposes at such a massive scale, and at such magnitude, the hypocrisy.”

A: It does. You’ve got the whole stuff with transgender toilets and stuff like that—that’s no way for a government to behave. We’re supposed to be against ISIS, so why are we trying to slowly introduce a country-club version of Sharia law in America, you know? It doesn’t make any real sense at all. I think there’s going to be a lot of energy, there is already a lot of reaction against that—people are prepared to really stand up and be counted for democracy, and in the process to find out what is and what isn’t. So that’s a great thing. I think in some ways Trump is actually draining the swamp, but not in the way that he thought he was.

Q: Hunter S. Thompson told The Paris Review that his pre-writing ritual was “watching bestiality.” What is yours?

A: Ah, I don’t really watch bestiality to get myself in the zone. I think just getting up and getting to the desk is a big thing. If you can do that, you’re in the zone because there’re so many distractions that can stop you. From my bedroom to my office isn’t really that far, but I have to go via the kitchen and there’s so many things that can stop me and interrupt me. As a writer, you play this daft game with yourself—you’re constantly looking for distractions, anything to stop you from writing, but you’re constantly fighting the distractions to write as well.

You have to just put in a shift—you have to just say, “I’m gonna do this everyday, I’m gonna sit down there and I’m gonna knock this out and see what comes out.” It’s a perspiration rather than an inspiration thing. The inspiration will come as long as you spend enough time. The inspiration can come in such small ways that if you sit there just waiting for the big epiphany you’ll sit there for the rest of your life.

Q: Some publishers are now hiring sensitivity readers to flag potentially offensive content.

A: It’s absolute nonsense. It’s total f–king nonsense, and a complete and utter waste of time. It’s gonna kill culture by binding it down. You have to let people express themselves in the way that they need to express themselves. You have to express yourself in any way possible, provided you’re prepared to live with the consequences. I think that particularly in art and literature, if you start gagging that—that should be the frontier, where there’s no such thing as decency, really. In civic life, I think that’s where you can debate what is good taste and what is acceptable to other people, and what’s gonna offend people. Do that there, but leave it out of art, because art is the one frontier that shouldn’t have restraints put on it.

Q: What’s your response to Donald Trump describing us in the media as “enemies of the people”?

A: Yeah, depends which people you’re talking about! [laughs] I think the media in America have been absolutely fantastic about the rise of Trump, they’ve kept a firm eye on the ball: this constitutes democracy, this constitutes transparency, this constitutes fairness, this constitutes the way to behave in a civic society, this constitutes fascism, this constitutes authoritarianism. They’re drawing that line, and they’re calling him out every time. That’s really what needs to happen, and you just have to do that. Otherwise, if the media is just a cheerleader for an authoritarian populist, who isn’t that popular, then we’re in a sorry state. The media has to be critical—it has to scrutinize it, it has to call out things.

MORE: Why Donald Trump is a threat to the press—and freedom of speech

I think, ironically, the media’s been good for America, but Trump’s been good for the media. He’s revitalized The New York Times and CNN—it’s never had so much integrity and so much power ever, and that’s because being attacked by constant authoritarians and fascists with an agenda has actually got them to sharpen up and to get back to base principles about what the media should actually be. It’s also that the circulation boost has removed this horrible, incipient commercial pressure that compromises media. Basically, it’s got the media back to its mission in a lot of ways, and the function that it should have in a liberal democracy. And it’s also got members of the public energized and evolved.

U.S. President Donald Trump applauds his supporters after speaking at the Conservative Political Action Conference, or CPAC, in Oxon Hill in Maryland, U.S., February 24, 2017. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)
U.S. President Donald Trump applauds his supporters after speaking at the Conservative Political Action Conference, or CPAC, in Oxon Hill in Maryland, U.S., February 24, 2017. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

Q: I had an interesting chat with Anthony Bourdain recently, about how big pharma has exploited America’s opioid and heroin crisis: “These pharmaceutical company executives are dope dealers and they should be treated worse, and more roughly than dope dealers. When you’re talking about millionaire and billionaire executives at pharmaceutical companies, these are people with something to lose if threatened with jail. Frog-march them out of their door in suburbia, handcuffed and surrounded by DEA officers, with their children and neighbours watching.”

A: Yeah, that’s brilliant. He is such a cool guy. He always calls it right, Anthony Bourdain, and I think the whole influence of big pharma, and insurance as well, on the whole healthcare thing in America is really, really malign. In America I think we need to move towards a social democracy, European-style basically, and I think that in Britain we do as well. The thing here is that we have to accept that capitalism is coming to an end. We can’t provide paid employment for people, all the industries with technology are counter-intuitive to profit, and we have to have a transition to this conceptualist society. The only way to do it fairly is as a social democracy, a radical social democracy, which isn’t compromised by neo-liberalism and isn’t compromised by the rich, and isn’t compromised by hegemonic, authoritarian interests: to have that balance between the government, the private sector, and then the individual citizens again. We’ve got to get back to these base principles of what democracy is.

MORE: Maclean’s interview with Anthony Bourdain

Q: You sometimes feel contrarian on legalizing drugs: your argument being that in a place like post-industrial Scotland, illegal dealing is one of the little guy’s last gigs?

A: Well that’s the thing, that’s my one reticence. The thing about drugs is that it [dealing] gives people an income to deal with, and it also gives people a compelling drama in their lives that they used to get from the office and the factory, and they’re no longer there. What happens if you have everything in the hands of the state, particularly in the line of an authoritarian state, they just give people drugs to keep them doped up, to keep them passive. You can see that as a dystopian future unravelling as well. It’s crazy for somebody who’s kind of empowered and wealthy like myself to say, “Oh, I don’t need to be patronized by the state, I can make my own choices.” But I’ve got things to look forward to, and places to go and if that’d been me there forty years ago, when I was a young kid in Muirhouse, it might’ve been a different story. It might’ve been awkward—what do I do? Where do I go? There’s no employment for me. There’s no jobs, there’s nothing else to do. So, what is there except for drugs really? If you have no drugs, then you have revolution, and then drugs will be the only thing stopping that.

Q: Like myself, you’re a great fan of Chicago, your adopted home. What’s your response to Trump’s threat to “send in the Feds?”

A: Basically, it’s a racist thing. Every city where there’s a lot of non-white people tends to become a poster boy for this. It used to be Detroit that was seen as ‘the bad guy’ under Reagan. Chicago is seen as everything that Trump detests, which I think kind of reflects really well on the city I think, because it’s a mark of what a classy, cool, sort of place it is. You can’t tame everyone in America, as much as these people would like to, into some kind of small-town, Southern community. (It’s just not like that. People go to the big urban centres because they have a quality of life, a quality of intellectual inquiry in the big urban centres that you don’t necessarily have in smaller, rural communities. I’ve got loads of friends and relatives that live there. People like living there, bringing up their kids there and all that stuff, but it’d be the death of me. I couldn’t be in a small town, ten minutes I’d enjoy it, and then I’d get fed up because you’re so constrained and constricted by it.)

Q: Trump is not threatening white communities that are out of control with meth and opioid addiction.

A: The first time I went to West Virginia I was surprised by how poor it was. It was like north India, there’s kids running around in bare feet. The white working class has been disenfranchised as well. It’s been disenfranchised by the liberal-left as well as the conservative-right. You really have to get people right across America and Britain and Europe and the world as a whole concentrating on the economic issues that affect them, because when you don’t have that, you have all these phony, racist and cultural wars, and sexist wars. There are traditions which have basically resolved those inequities. We have to concentrate back on: Where is the money going? Where’s it been going for the last thirty years? How do we start to redistribute the cake more evenly, and give people opportunities? That’s as much about poor white people in West Virginia as it is about poor black people on the Southside of Chicago.

Q: Congress recently voted to make it easier for significantly mentally ill people to buy guns.

A: Intuitively, you’re gonna see the rise of the second amendment liberal. You’re gonna see people who are so concerned about this government that they’re gonna start buying arms in bulk. It seems to me that that’s the only way it can go. I think that a lot of people on the left are gonna get tired of fighting gun laws, so they’re gonna embrace gun culture. I think when that happens, you’ve got serious, serious trouble.

Q: Why is Mike Pence going along with Trump’s embrace of Vladimir Putin?

A: Conservatives are giving up on democracy because it’s not efficient. They want an autocratic regime. If you continue to transfer the wealth of the population of the planet to a very small amount of people, it becomes untenable at some point, a democracy, because people eventually will realize what’s going on. You can only bulls–t people through kinds of media outlets for so long, and eventually you have to physically control them.

It’s about setting up ‘we need authoritarian regimes’, and that’s really what the big game is. All these measures against different groups, against immigrants and against LGBT people—they’re really designed to see what the populous in general will stand for, and to try by stealth to institute this kind of regime. I think that in the future, as more and more money and wealth goes to the 1 per cent, it’s going to polarize into the people who are for and anti-freedom. It’s not that they’ll have a left and a right wing thing, it’s going to be a freedom and anti-freedom polarization, I think.

MORE: Donald Trump invites authoritarianism to America

Q: Will we see Scottish independence?

A: [Laughs] I don’t know, it’s all to play for again! It should’ve been buried and dead in the water. I don’t think that the Scots are happy to drift into Britain becoming the poorest of the poor, sub-American 51st state. So, I think it may happen within the next few years.

Q: Is far-right Marine Le Pen going to win the presidency in France?

A: Well, these days you can’t write anybody off. If anybody is a right-wing populist, you can’t write them off now because that is the rising tide of our time. I think that Europe has to get its act together very quickly. The Belgian guy who’s leading the negotiations against Brexit, he sees it as a whole chance to reboot Europe and reclaim the kind of social mission of Europe from all this corporate, bureaucratic, globalist stuff that has got into, building Europe for the people rather than the banks, again. I think that the Brexit negotiations have to be a big thing that determines the democratic fight-back and galvanizes democratic Europe again against this rising tide of nationalism.

MORE: Inside a meeting of minds of Europe’s leading nationalists

Q: Bourdain also told me: “Free time is my enemy. I recognized early on I’m not a guy who should have a lot of time to contemplate the mysteries of the universe. I need to stay busy… That’s just the nature of my demons.”

A: Yeah, I can relate to that. I can’t stand still; I find it very difficult to sit around and do nothing. I’ve got to have projects on the go because the devil makes work for idle hands. I’ve got to be going forward all the time. If I don’t have something to do, I’m not the kind of person who can sit on a beach on holiday. I’ve got to go and check things out and see things and look at things, and have some kind of itinerary in my mind. I think that a lot of people who are, in some ways, successful are kind of like that. I’ve noticed that in all walks of life. You want to be constantly moving into the next thing, you’re disinclined to reflect, and to kick back and relax. You want to keep going.

I couldn’t retire. I mean, what would I do? If I stop working and publishing, and TV, and film and all that, I would be dead within a couple of weeks. I don’t really have that kind of off-switch.

Alexander Bisley’s interviews for Maclean’s include Chris Hayes and Pico Iyer.