Bedroom Secrets of the Master Chefs (W.W. Norton)
An interview with Irvine Welsh
By Chris Adams
photos by Dave Dawson
Although he’s most famous in the States as the author of Trainspotting, a book that was translated into a successful film (one that launched the career of a young Ewan McGregror), Irvine Welsh is the acclaimed Scottish author of seven subsequent gripping, visceral, and ironic novels: The Acid House, Marabou Stork Nightmares, Ecstasy, Filth, Glue, Porno, and his most recent novel, Bedroom Secrets of the Master Chefs. Bedroom Secrets is the story of two young men at seemingly opposite ends of the spectrum of male identity: Skinner, a womanizing alcoholic intellectual, and Kibby, a sensitive young teetotaler virgin who passes his free time with video games. By one act of sheer focused hate, Skinner inadvertently curses Kibby, who, as a result, is forced to bear the consequences of Skinner’s excesses. Lollipop caught up with the thoughtful and amiable Mr. Welsh at a Brookline Indian takeout joint during his extensive coast-to-coast book promotion tour to discuss Bedroom Secrets, punk rock, writing, drugs, and Munchkins. Yep. The Oompa Loompa kind. Dig:
Do you think it’s actually possible to loathe someone so much that you inadvertently cast a hex on them?
I dunno… I think you’d probably end up casting a spell on yourself! You’d probably fuck yourself up. Originally, I was going to make the two characters in their late 30s and early 40s, but I changed it, because once you get to that age, you’re already fully formed; if someone gets on your nerves, you just walk away and kind of forget about it. But when you’re younger, you identify yourself by the opposite of what you want to be. I think that’s why Skinner hates Kibby, because he sees the opposite of himself. The weird thing is, if you really hate someone, it’s almost as if you’re kind of responsible for them. It’s kind of like having a relationship with them, because you spend so much time thinking about them: They’re a constant point of reference to you.
If you had a Dorian Gray kind of poppet, like Skinner, what would you be doing right now?
(laughs) Aww, fuck… I’d probably be in a pub drinking a pint and doing shots, snorting giant lines of cocaine in the toilet, and George Bush or Tony Blair would be dealing with the hangover.
I loved that joke in the book: “I love Bush, it’s just that fucker in the White House I can’t stand.” When I first started reading Bedroom Secrets, I found it curious that I related to both of the characters. They represented extremes of how I perceived myself at various stages of my life. As a shy kid in my early teens, I probably felt a little like Kibby, and, as sharp-tongued, kind of malevolent wiseass in my early 20s, like Skinner.
Well, they’re two sides of the same thing; that’s why the two characters become so intertwined. There are parts of each character that anyone can identify with. They actually become kind of similar. That’s what you do as a writer: You look at yourself and think about how you might have been in different positions or situations in your life.
You create or define yourself as what you love, or against a backdrop of what you hate. Eventually, though, you’ve got to grow up. How much do you have to be stripped of those initial associations? Is it something you have to go through?
That kind of identification is the fuel that gets us through our 20s and 30s. And then, when you get into your 40s, there’s almost a regression. That’s why people start doing weird things, like having affairs, going with younger women, changing careers, that sort of thing. They’re trying to redefine themselves, because they’ve outgrown what they used previously. When you hit your early 40s, it’s almost like going back into your early 30s; everything seems up for grabs again.
I think there’s a massive rebellion that takes place within the self. It’s starts in your early 30s, and then gets to a pressure point in your mid-40s. People start wondering “What the fuck am I going to do with the rest of my life?”
The role of what constitutes a man in Scotland, is it really as clearly defined as you’ve presented it? Does being a man in Edinburgh necessitate that kind of macho bravado, “beer, whisky, and fitba” thing?
Traditionally, that’s been the case. It’s still really hard to escape from it. Scotland feels so peripheral, on the margins of Europe.
Was that tough for you as kid with an interest in writing, being an artist?
I don’t think it was, really. I went through a tortured phase as a teenager, but we all do that. When I was writing in school, essays and things like that, I really didn’t equate that with being a writer. It wasn’t until later that I put two and two together. I didn’t see it as being a career at the time.
Now that it has become a career, what kind of writing schedule do you maintain. Do you write every day?
No, I have to give myself a break. But when I do decide to go for it, I’m quite disciplined, and I stick to a regime. I try to do a first draft in maybe a fortnight. I don’t spend too much time on it, I just batter it out, then I put it away and don’t look and it for a while. Then I go back and start doing the rewrites. Writing the first draft is the fun part of it. But then you have to shape it into a book, and that can be a long process.
You were a teenager when the Sex Pistols happened in London. Was punk rock a catalyst for you and your development as a writer?
Yeah, I went to London, and that was a big thing for me. Edinburgh’s a big enough city, but London’s a metropolis, and you can go there and just lose yourself, reinvent yourself, become somebody entirely different. You can go there without people’s expectations shaping what you are. It was a really good thing for me to do.
It’s like, you could be scabby little Johnny Lydon from wherever, but in the environment of punk, you could re-invent yourself as the “enfant terrible” of rock and roll. Did you ever think of picking up a guitar instead of the pen?
Yeah, I did actually. I fucked around in bands, but nothing really came of it. I still do music. I’m working on something now, but it’s almost more of a hobby. I enjoyed it, but it wasn’t the right thing for me. I came across writing through the music. I was kind of shocked and surprised to find that I could write!
I think it’s a process of unlearning. I hated writing, all the rules that you had to remember, and I didn’t start getting into it until I said “fuck it” and just put down my thoughts exactly as they came to me, and that’s when it became liberating and exciting.
Yeah, I think you kind of learn not to write. I think, with a lotta kids, the education system knocks the desire out of them. When kids show an aptitude for music or writing or whatever, there’s a lot to be said for just letting them go and do it. I like what Ray Bradbury said about writing: “It’s like jumping off a cliff and building your wings on the way down.”
Speaking of “the way down,” there’s a thread of almost Dickensian bleakness through your work. The struggles of youth aiming for some idealized future, and then at some point, they get broken, and just fade into abject reminiscence. They just sort of give up and live in the past.
Yeah! (laughs) I went to this pub in Edinburgh, and you see a lot of old punks who now dress normally, or like fucking yuppies, or whatever. Even sadder are the ones who still dress like punks! It’s like, punk died in 1982! It a real weird thing. To me, punk was a great education for six months, and then I moved on and got into other things, like house music, Nile Rodgers, the Chicago thing. That made sense to me. It had that kind of punk sensibility of anything can happen and you can do it yourself. It opened up a lot of possibilities. I could actually go out, buy records, and start mixing stuff together and DJ at parties.
Besides music, there’s a massive focus on sensualism in your work, be it coke, smack, Ecstasy, sex, and, specifically in Bedroom Secrets of the Master Chefs, food.
Taking drugs is always going to take a default position when we’re fucked up, or when we’re pissed off: It’s a way of getting out of it, because it takes us to a different mental state. It makes sense, when you think about it. If you see the human experience as being triumph or tragedy, you’re always going to have good times to celebrate, and the whole notion of celebration is bound up with intoxication. It’s a real cultural thing. If people want to celebrate, they want to dance, smoke some herb or weed, drink alcohol, or take some manufactured chemicals. That can work with food, too. And when people are having a bad time, they remember the good times, these celebrations, and they think about that agent that’s gonna make them feel good. We use drugs to enhance how we feel, and also as a way to avoid misery. If you feel good, you take drugs sensibly, and you’re gonna have a good time. But if you feel bad, you take drugs to run away and hide. Chances are, you’re probably not gonna enjoy ’em, but if you do enjoy ’em, it’s gonna be temporary. And when you come down, your problems are still gonna be there.
Your most recent work also explores the cultural fascination with celebrity, which ties in with the notion of a “lost father.” Do you think people’s obsession with celebrities has to do with some sort of spiritual or cultural breakdown?
In a way, yeah. I think it’s because people, “choose work” and because of that, they’ve lost communities, they’ve lost families. They’re still there, but they’re tenuous, compared to what they used to be, so people latch onto magazines like OK, and read all that crap about who’s shagging who. It’s a crass and superficial way of pulling it all together; it’s a common bond. You can talk about this reality TV show, or soap opera, or celebrity; it’s a way of making society cohesive in a real kind of flimsy, facile way.
Looking at screens seems the way we perceive reality entirely: Like it’s NOT real unless in comes through a screen. This (pointing out the window) is the new virtual reality.
Yeah! I mean, I still go to the cinema, but I find it kind of hard to watch TV, or even go on the Internet these days, and see the same thing over and over again. I want to go outside and walk and see new things, things I haven’t seen before.
You mentioned cinema: How did you feel about how Trainspotting was represented on film?
I thought it was great; it really captured the spirit of it. The producers wanted to do a BIG film, rather than just an art house thing, and that really appealed to me. There were so many people who wanted to present the characters as victims, and I really didn’t see it like that. I saw the characters as people who get fucked up, getting into smack and all that; it’s something that’s easily done. They were into something that wasn’t necessarily good for them, but that was a trajectory of their own choice.
Plus, at the end, there’s some optimism, some transcendence. Or at least a temporary escape for a couple of the characters.
You’re always gonna get casualties, some people who just get by, and you’re always gonna get the odd lucky bastard who gets away with it and escapes.
Your characters are always very distinct and colorful. Are there people you know who think a character is based directly on them?
Every nutter in Edinburgh thinks they’re Begby. “That’s fookin’ me!” It’s just something people see in themselves. But yeah, you do get some real psychopaths. Really, though, my characters are mostly composites of the types of people you see day in and day out.
I hear you have a play called Babylon Heights coming out. What’s it about?
It’s about the actors who played the munchkins in The Wizard of Oz. They’re in a hotel room in Culver City, and they can’t go out, really, it’s almost like they’re under house arrest. So it’s basically about munchkins going stir crazy in a hotel room.
(Momentary silence. Glances exchanged. Both start laughing.)
So, the eternal question: When you’re a munchkin stuck in a hotel room in Culver City, whaddaya do?
Basically, what they did in real life: Take drugs and have wild sex parties. There’s nothing else you can do! What else could you do?
Having effectively covered the ground from male identity roles to munchkins in the space of an hour, it’s agreed that a drink’s in order, so we head off to The Coolidge Clubhouse for, appropriately, a couple of pints and whiskeys.