Heather MacLeod meets up with the author at her Glasgow home
It’s late Friday afternoon and Louise Welsh welcomes me in to her Glasgow home as if she has all the time in the world; she hasn’t. After our meeting, she will head across the Clyde to the BBC Scotland studios to guest on BBC 2’s live Review Show.
Over the past week, her commitments have included viewing the Damien Hurst retrospective at Tate Modern while reading her namesake Irvine Welsh’s new novel Skagboys en route, and watching Scottish Ballet’s five-star performance of A Streetcar Named Desire.
If The Guardian’s one time ‘Woman to Watch’ is feeling anything less than poised, it is elegantly concealed, but I remind myself that in her novels, the author often teases readers with the idea of trust and whether it is wise to go the full-distance with a character’s point of view.
This is after all the writer who when discussing her much lauded debut novel The Cutting Room admitted that she’d tried ‘to create that delicious feeling of hesitation between the real and the unreal. I want to mess with folk’s heads’.
The same could be said of her fifth novel The Girl on the Stairs which is published on 2 August by John Murray, where the fearless, some might say foolhardy, six-month pregnant protagonist, Jane Logan, could so easily be taken at face value.
To make comparisons with Louise and the mind games of her fictional characters, is to do this fiercely intelligent Scot a disservice. In spite of the often dark nature of her work, Louise has a light touch, evoking descriptions such as playful and mischievous.
You can almost imagine her as the last girl at school that teachers would expect to find smoking behind the bike shed, but in reality she would turn out to be the insouciant ringleader, quietly subverting conventional expectations.
WELSH ON INSPIRATION
‘Collaborating on an opera has been such a pleasure. It’s helped stimulate parts of my brain that other music doesn’t touch. I also take a lot of inspiration from contemporary art, and being Writer in Residence at both Glasgow University and Glasgow School of Art has been a special time.’
Top of page
A SENSE OF PLACE
That contradictions are never far away in life or fiction is exemplified by Louise and her novels. The setting of The Cutting Room and indeed, Louise’s own neighbourhood are both genteel and edgy.
Her current home, the first she has ever owned, is on the top floor of a converted Victorian town house overlooking Glasgow’s urban hardscape and leafy west end, but it was the view of a disused outbuilding from the apartment Louise rented in Berlin’s Mitte district during her residency in 2007, that was the jumping off point for her latest novel The Girl on the Stairs.
This is the first time Louise has written a novel with a woman as a central character; all previous books have featured male protagonists. Not only that, Jane is – in no particular order – gay, pregnant, an intermittent smoker, and Scottish. While Jane has a Scottish sensibility and comes from a small country, the setting of the novel is European.
Jane has moved to Berlin to live with her long- term lover, a well-heeled banker, Petra, and in spite of living in an upscale apartment, begins to conceive a dread of the derelict backhouse across the courtyard, as well as suspecting their next door neighbour of sinister intentions towards his teenage daughter.
Petra thinks it’s down to hormonal gymnastics, but as Jane starts to investigate, her own past begins to collide with the back-story of the building and its residents. Through Jane, Louise explores the isolation of being in a strange country, as well as the sense of detachment that creeps in during a pregnancy.
Louise’s portrayal of Jane’s pregnancy, both physically and emotionally, is beautifully observed, and the heightened emotions and concerns about the future are so uncannily accurate, that it’s hard to believe that the writer has never had children.
‘I was going to buy a bumper book of pregnancy as part of my research, but then realised I didn’t need to as everyone has their own distinct experience. I wanted Jane’s attitude to be something along the
lines of the pregnant policewoman in the movie Fargo; that matter of fact practical way.’
From the outset, there’s a sense of unease about Jane, and Welsh deftly draws us into her world, bringing the reader on side. Ah but how far will the author allow Jane to take us. Trust and first impressions?
‘We have fleeting associations or see things and think that we know what they are, but are they right?’ suggests Louise. ‘Looking under the surface to our own prejudices, as well as re-connecting with the past can frighten us.
‘I imagine that what frightened the Picts is not so far removed from what we fear today – things don’t look quite right, horror movies where we cover our eyes in the cinema; getting scared in that way is a type of high.’
WELSH ON WRITERS
‘I guess Robert Louis Stevenson is the writer’s writer, he writes so well about writing. There’s nothing sentimental about his work, and he’s also a modern writer. He’s
one of the writers I’d like to have round to dinner – the Dr Who of the north! In terms of more contemporary writers, I’m a fan of Michael Cunningham, and I also enjoy the work of Patricia Highsmith and Elizabeth Taylor; they are such great storytellers.’
Top of page
When I suggest that the novel has all the makings of film noir, Louise explains that she does indeed think cinematically. ‘While it is a crime book in a way, there’s a lot of horror structure as I am inspired by films such as Roman Polanski’s Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby, or Don’t Look Now.
‘When you are making the reader wonder if a situation is real or unreal, the writing has to be tight as you don’t want to manipulate readers while they are getting to know Jane and thinking about her.
‘I leave things out. I know a lot more about Jane than the book reveals, which leaves space for readers to make up their own minds. In real life, even if you’ve known someone for a long time, you don’t know everything about your friend; you don’t know absolutely everything.’
While Louise is an economical writer, not revealing everything about her characters, her exacting vision means there is no shortage of intricacies to absorb the reader, while maintaining the novel’s narrative momentum.
‘I don’t know why or where things come from,’ Louise confides, ‘you just go with what frees you. I didn’t write this novel in the first person but there wasn’t a particular decision about that.
‘I started to think about the novel during the residency in Berlin, and I suppose I was walking about with it for at least five years, including 18 months to write it. I wasn’t thinking about it all the time as when you start to write something else you have to get rid of the voice of the character. I’m not quite free of Jane yet.’
Naming the Bones (March 2010)
The Bullet Trick (July 2006)
Tamburlaine Must Die (August 2004)
The Cutting Room (August 2002)
Panic Patterns (2011 with
Memory Cells (2010)
The Importance of Being Alfred (2005)
Cemetery Confessions (2004)
Edinburgh Walpurgisnacht (2004)
Plus two libretti and short stories too numerous to list here.
Top of page
THE WRITING ROOM
‘When I’m writing I need to bring in a routine and work mainly during the day, usually from 9am until 6pm, but there can be two parts to the writing day, as sometimes I’ll save a specific thing to write at night as it’s better to write it after dark.
‘It’s usually laptop and desk in my little office, and Zoë has a similar space at the other end of the house as it’s important that we each have a workspace. Zoë is my first and best reader but I would never ask her to do this at a crucial point in her own writing. When we read each other’s work, we’ll always go to a bar to avoid any tears.
‘Although I’ll move around during the course of the day, sometimes to the dining table in the bay window, the luxury of a study means you can stick things up on the wall. I do have quite a visual mind and can see how people are connected.
‘A novel is a big thing to hold in your head, so a visual picture is useful for me, and I’ll sometimes work with plans, maps and multi-coloured pens; no one else would make sense of them. I plan more in advance as I go on, and progressively become more interested in structure.’
Louise believes that the idea of sitting at a desk is the worst part for anyone who writes. ‘You’ve got to want to do it as there’s a big world out there. I’m too nosey to work in a café as I would be nebbing into everyone’s conversation.
‘I don’t go off to write, I save time so I can go for a drink later. I am a very sociable person who needs to be on her own for long periods of time, although I can and do collaborate, but I need to then go off and do my own thing; I love writing.
‘I almost always throw myself into more work post-novel. It’s a funny feeling but I don’t like to stop too much after a novel, although I like to do something different.’
WRITER IN RESIDENCE
Louise is just coming to the end of another collaboration, as Writer in Residence at the University of Glasgow and Glasgow School of Art. Both institutions are within walking distance of Louise’s flat, and she becomes increasingly animated as she reflects on the past 18 months.
‘I took the residency to have a connection with the city and to get out and about. It is an enormous privilege, and while I’m not someone who puts herself up for job interviews, this was something I really wanted.
‘The residency fitted in with my schedule at the time, and involved one day a week in each institution. Working with staff and students is enormously stimulating, being with people who have already found their voice or are trying to find their voice.
“We worked across all different mediums, from the traditional to the experimental, be it workshops,
core work, or one-to-one sessions. I’ve just finished co-editing an anthology of their writing Tip Tap Flat, which is due to be published in May.
‘Ultimately, you have to write. You can talk a good game but how does it appear on the page? Writing is the product of a lot of forms and discipline, and has to come from the heart.’
With such a broad career, Louise says that completing a book and getting it out into the world is what gives her the most satisfaction. It speaks volumes about her generosity of spirit that she
is as excited about the publication of the student anthology as she is about The Girl on the Stairs.
As I leave, I realise that just as she tantalises her readers by not revealing everything about her central characters, there is so much more to learn about the depths of Louise Welsh. This in itself is something worthy of celebration.
Just like the flat she shares with the novelist Zoë Strachan, her partner of 14 years, Louise is organised and creative, while serving up the occasional quirky surprise.
Always good company, Louise is an energising yet self-possessed presence, but this phlegmatic character admits to being on a high from a meeting at Scottish Opera earlier that afternoon to discuss her newly written libretto for an hour-long opera.
Switching her mobile to silent, she sits opposite me with pitch perfect posture, and immediately gives the interview her undivided attention. This calm focus is clearly why this ceaselessly creative author
of five novels and a long list of short stories, is also an accomplished playwright, writer in residence, broadcaster and critic.
In spite of what sounds like a hyperactive schedule, arranging the interview at short notice has proved effortless, mainly due to Louise’s organisational skills, but does she see herself as well- ordered and collected?
‘Oh I’m a tormented soul,’ Louise deadpans in that melodious voice that makes her such an engaging guest on radio shows such as Front Row, Night Waves and The Verb; a voice that is as much a trademark as her cool geometric haircut.
‘I find it hard to take things too seriously. I think I’m easy-going and easy to live with, despite what others say! My accountant would tell you that I’m the opposite of organised as I’m always the last to get my stuff in.
‘He has even referred to my life as chaotic, which I’ll admit to in terms of book-keeping but I have to be reasonably organised as a writer, as I don’t like it when things get so busy that you have to schedule your friends and family. It’s important to get the balance right as I’m essentially a sole trader.’
Louise was exactly that during the eight years she ran a second-hand bookshop after graduating in history from the University of Glasgow. In fact Dowanside Books, which specialised in Scottish literature, art and history, was minutes away from her alma mater and was to prove the inspiration for her debut novel, the noirish, The Cutting Room, published a decade ago.
‘One of the many fascinating aspects of running the bookshop was meeting so many different people, some of them really obsessed with their subject and determined to tell you all about it,’ Louise recalls. ‘I particularly liked the trainspotters who would insist on identifying a number 6023.
‘There I was in my late 20s running a shop, and it was so much hard work with not a lot of time left for concentrated work like writing. In a burning bridges moment, I sold up and started temping in an office, while getting up at 5am every morning to write; there were times when giving up the bookshop felt like a massive mistake.
‘But there are moments in life when you say, “I’ve got to change or I’m never going to get started” and that’s when I signed up for the Masters in Creative Writing at Glasgow University, where my tutor and mentor, Zoë Wicomb, challenged me by saying, “short stories are all very well Louise but it’s time to write a novel”.’
The Rubicon was crossed. Delving into the diabolic world of retro snuff porn and an auctioneer’s obsession with uncovering the truth about a collection of disturbing photos found in the house of a dead man, The Cutting Room captivated readers both in Louise’s native Scotland and internationally.
Garnering a string of awards including the 2002 Crime Writers’ Association John Creasey Memorial Dagger, the 2004 Stonewall Book Award, and the Robert Louis Stevenson Memorial Award, this assured first novel blurred the boundaries between crime fiction and literature, as well as establishing Louise’s reputation as an uncompromising writer with a finely tuned observation for human frailty.
The novel’s central character, Rilke, a gay, Glaswegian anti-hero, is a tripwire of contradictions and a screenwriter’s gift, with the setting capturing the essence of Glasgow’s edgy bohemian west end, where Louise still lives, while sidestepping a parochial or didactic tone.
The Cutting Room was followed two years later by the novella, Tamburlaine Must Die, (2004) with
poet, playwright and spy, Christopher Marlowe, striding through 16th-century London on the trail of one of one of his most ruthless creations, Tamburlaine the Great.
Louise’s subsequent novels, The Bullet Trick (2006) and Naming the Bones (2010), also deal with quests, albeit with distinctively different central characters and locations. The former is set firmly in the
21st century with the action divided between Glasgow and Berlin, while the latter leads an academic from the douce National Library of Scotland to an ancient burial ground on a remote island.
Surely an author of such stygian depth must be the product of a Turn of the Screw childhood? No, certainly not. A possible explanation for this mindset was that Louise’s itinerant childhood, her father was in the RAF, turned her into a voracious reader.
‘We travelled a lot so I attended many different schools. I can’t say I enjoyed school, although there were aspects that were all right, but I did read a lot as a kid and visit the library with my sister Karen.
‘We eventually settled in Edinburgh and my mum and dad both started teaching. When my mother was in her 50s, she did a degree in History at Edinburgh University via an Access course. I’m really proud of her, as both my parents had to leave school at 16, and the opportunities I had weren’t available to them.
‘They are now in their early 70s and so supportive, to the extent that they think Zoë and I are the best writers in the world. I think a lot of the darkness goes into my writing, there’s anger, hardness and humour there, but that frees you up in other aspects of your work.
LOUISE WELSH: THE CV
Born 1965, mainly raised in Edinburgh
1998–2000 Universities of Glasgow
and Strathclyde, MLitt in Creative Writing (Distinction)
1985–1990 University of Glasgow MA (Hons) History: Subsidiary subjects English Literature, Politics
2008–2010 Visiting tutor, University of Strathclyde, Journalism and Creative Writing Undergraduate Degree
2009 Scottish Book Trust Mentor
2003–2004 Part-time tutor, University of Glasgow, Edwin Morgan Centre for Creative Writing.
2003–2011 Tutor, The Arvon Centre
2002–2003 Creative Writing Tutor, Glasgow and West of Scotland Society for the Blind
1999–2003 Tutor, Department of Adult and Continuing Education, University of Glasgow
1990–2000 Founder and proprietor of Dowanside Books
Currently Writer in Residence for the University of Glasgow and Glasgow School
Honorary Fellow in Writing, University of Iowa’s International Writers’ Programme 2011
Stipendium, Internationales Künstlerhaus, Villa Concordia, Bamberg, Germany 2006– 2007
City of Glasgow Lord Provost’s Award for Literature (2007)
The Importance of Being Alfred, Shortlisted for Critics Awards for Theatre in Scotland, Best New Play Category (2006)
The Glenfiddich/Scotland on Sunday, Spirit of Scotland Writing Award (2004)
Rolf Heyne Debutpreis, Corine Internationaler Buchpreis for best first novel of 2004 (Germany)
Honoured by the Stonewall Book Awards 2004 (USA)
BBC’s Underground 2003 Award,
CWA John Creasey Memorial Dagger 2002
Saltire Society First Book Award 2002
The Cutting Room, Chosen as one of the top five first novels of 2002 by Guardian Weekend (23 March 2002)
Top of page
From the solitary task of the novelist, Louise has diversified into the much more collaborative process of opera creation. The libretto for an hour-long opera, Ghost Patrol, with composer Stuart McRae has been commissioned by Scottish Opera in association with Music Theatre Wales, and premieres at this year’s Edinburgh International Festival.
This is the second time that Louise and Stuart have worked together. ‘I’m excited as I’ve just been along to Scottish Opera to see the set. They are good to work with, no committees, no development hell and a huge expertise with everyone committed to making even better projects.’
‘Ghost Patrol is a three-hander: two men, a captain and sergeant in the same regiment, reconvene five years later when one breaks into the other’s bar to rob it. It’s not agitprop, but about the infection of war and the way it hurts people; that they don’t just come home and all is fine.’
Louise describes the operatic process as being similar to writing a novel, but the constraints of each form are different in terms of working out the story. ‘You can’t impose too much rigidity on the composer, and you have to leave enough space for singers.
‘It’s not unlike doing a long mathematical equation. The discipline of time is the closest you get to writing poetry. I wish I could write poetry, but mine is dreadful, I probably write a poem every two or three years and stick it in a drawer, not out of modesty!
‘I love the collaborative element of it, and while I’m a novelist not librettist the most important thing to me is always what I’m working on at the time.’