Irvine Welsh: ‘I thought, what if Begbie was the most self-controlled guy in the room?’

Irvine Welsh is the ​author of Trainspotting, Porno and Filth​, among many other novels and short stories. ​Born in Leith, Edinburgh, ​in 1957, he now lives in Chicago. In his new book, The Blade Artist, Trainspotting’s most violent character, Begbie, is a successful artist living in California. When Begbie returns to Edinburgh, following the death of his estranged son, he becomes torn between his new identity and his violent past.

Why did you choose to return to the character of Begbie and how did you come to the idea of writing him as reformed?
Characters kind of gatecrash into your consciousness. The Big Issue asked me to do a Christmas story a while back and Begbie, the embodiment of Christmas hell – violent, full of hate – came to mind. I thought it’d be nice to invert everything, have Begbie be the most self-controlled guy in the room. This idea enthralled me. In The Blade Artist, his two sides battle. He’s learnt to control himself through discovering art and education, but he still has this anger, violence and sadism within him.

What stood out in this book was your portrayal of Begbie’s dyslexia. What attracted you to writing a dyslexic character?
I’ve got dyslexia but I’ve been able to get over it because it’s mild. But I understand the humiliation that comes with people not understanding that dyslexia isn’t you being stupid or wilfully obnoxious. I watched a documentary on young offenders a while ago; they tested these guys and something like 80% were dyslexic. They’d all gone through that process of being regarded as troublesome or stupid at school. Begbie’s also learnt from an early age that there’s a violence to the school system; he’s been humiliated and had to defend the way he is. In the 70s, there was little understanding of how the way people with dyslexia were treated at school could determine their behaviour.

How did you get into writing? Did your dyslexia hinder you?
I came to writing through music. I wrote songs, joined bedroom bands. But I was crap at music. Eventually, the songs became poems and the poems became stories. The dyslexia did make me more reticent about writing, but I’ve got used to it. I have to do more edits, but in those extra edits I pick up on things I’d otherwise miss. You can make peace with dyslexia when it’s mild, work around it and even turn it to your advantage.

The Scottish dialect you often write in begins to slip into the narrative of The Blade Artist as it goes on. Where did this way of writing come from?
I tried to write Trainspotting in standard English but people weren’t talking like that. Standard English is very imperialistic, controlled and precise; it’s not got a lot of funk or soul to it. I wanted something more performative like the Gaelic storytelling tradition, which is something I wanted to capture.

Other than Gaelic storytelling, has anything else influenced how you write?
Sometimes a book influences me because it winds me up. There’ll be something that gets under my skin and makes me think that I can do better. But when I was younger, Evelyn Waugh was a big influence for me, and all the classics – the Brontës, George Eliot, Shakespeare, Orwell, Burroughs… the typical stuff anyone getting into literature would read. I also have an obsession with Joyce’s Ulysses.

Did Ulysses influence the way you use language?
I think so, yeah. Ulysses is like a big box of tricks that you can dive into. Each time you read it, you find something new. The way he uses language is fantastic.

Is this the last we’ll be seeing of Begbie?
I’m kind of intrigued again now. We’re shooting the film of Porno, Trainspotting 2, in May. Being back with that old crowd – Bobby [Carlyle], Danny [Boyle], Ewan [McGregor] – it pulls you back into that world and gets you thinking about all the other things you could write.

The Blade Artist is published by Random House (£12.99). Click here to order a copy for £10.39

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