We caught up with the iconic Scottish author for a chat about Begbie’s redemption, that sequel, David Bowie…and Sue Barker
Ask Irvine Welsh about the new Trainspotting movie. Go on – I dare you.
What you’ll find is an author practically leaking with excitement and enthusiasm for the next cinematic chapter of one of his most iconic books. Writers often have a reputation for picking holes in adaptations of their work for the big screen, but the Scottish author is glowing in his praise of director Danny Boyle and screenwriter John Hodge.
It’s his baby too after all, crawling across the ceiling complete with a spinning head.
The cinematic world seems to feed back into his work as well, with his new book The Blade Artist playing out almost like a Sexy Beast-style British crime film.
The books pick up with Francis ‘Franco’ Begbie, the Trainspotting sociopath, who has left his old life behind and reinvented himself as a hip artist in L.A. But his past refuses to leave him be, when news of his son’s death brings him back to Edinburgh.
We caught up with Welsh for a chat about Begbie’s redemption, that sequel, David Bowie and Sue Barker…
Can you tell us about the premise of The Blade Artist?
“It’s about a character called Begbie…who’s been in a lot of my stuff before. Principally Trainspotting. It came from me writing this story in The Big Issue, a Christmas story I did for them.
“He basically wasn’t functioning any more as a character, dramatically. He was either going to be in prison or dead on that trajectory. I had this idea that it would be nice if he was the most self-controlled person in the room, instead of the least self-controlled person.
“I got excited by the idea of that character changing, or at least, seeming to have changed his life quite radically. It seemed quite an interesting thing to write about.”
How soon into creating Begbie did you know that this was a character you would want to revisit in the future?
“Well, he’s so uncompromising and such a crazy guy, you couldn’t have kept that going. He would have died through misadventure or ended up in solitary confinement, in a padded cell for the rest of his life. He was just one of these characters that I thought was burned out.
“But it was interesting to try and reboot him. To redesign the character. He gets in touch with the source of his anger and his rage and he manages to contain it and exercise a bit of self-control and that generates more choices. He’s not blinded by his rage, he can pursue it with interest. He gets into art, he marries his therapist and moves to California and becomes a bit of a novelty artist. He has a shtick of mutilating celebrity heads – and it becomes popular.
“I think he knows he’s making hay while the sun shines, it’s not something that’s going to last but he enjoys doing it. He’s got the work ethic and he’s making a bit of money. He’s kind of living quite a happy life, and then he gets called back to Edinburgh as one of his sons has been murdered. He has to reconcile this idea that people are expecting him to be very violent. He’s not really interested and he just wants to back to California. It’s serious but there’s kind of a twist at the end.”
Does it speak of your affection for the character you didn’t give him such a gruesome or depressing end? That there is this point in his life where he is content or reached the peak of who he can be?
“I spent a lot of time talking to John Hodge and Danny Boyle about the character. John was saying something similar. Renton and Sick Boy seem to be the goods guys. Not quite the good guys, but they seem to be the guys who will ‘get on’, whereas Spud and Begbie are the kind of guys you think would left behind.
“That’s what exactly would happen basically. The more cynical influential guy and the sleazy guy would definitely get on in the world we live in. The loveable loser and the violent thug aren’t really going to go anywhere.
“I thought it might be interesting if it happened a little bit differently. With the world of fiction you can fantasise a little bit, you can make up alternative options for people that they would have in some oblique way in real life – but they probably wouldn’t pursue. There would be a whole range of circumstances and emotions pulling in him a direction that he’s always gone in.”
You’re doing a talk with Robert Carlyle on the character soon. How much does his portrayal in the film influence how you write Begbie now?
“You can’t help but be influenced by it because it’s such an iconic performance. There’s these different layers to the character which gives me so much to think about. It all feeds in to the mix.
“I’ve got my original version and I’ve got the version who I’ve seen develop over throughout the years. I’ve got John Hodges version, which is similar but a little different and Robert’s looking at his stuff on the page. Then it’s how Danny Boyle directs that character. There’s also the stage actors that have played him that also brought something to the mix.
“It’s a great thing for a writer, it gives you so much information from the heads of other people on how to develop the character. It’s a great kind of resource that you have when that happens.”
Do Bruce Robertson from Filth and Francis Begbie exist in the same universe? If so, would they ever cross paths?
“I think they almost did once in Filth. They were talking about hauling in these guys for questioning for a crime and Begbie was mentioned. His case was on the police board and all that. They never actually met, but it’d be fantastic.”
You recently shared a story of two missed encounters with David Bowie. You didn’t want to meet because of the esteem you held him in as an artist. How difficult was that to turn down?
“It was easy, because I would have turned into a thirteen year old girl. I respected him too much to be undignified in front of him, asking him about some session musician that was on Pin-Ups. I wouldn’t have trusted myself not to be a compulsive tedious fan boy. It was about respect more than disrespect, basically.”
Did you instantly say ‘no, I can’t do this’ or was there part of you that thought you owed it to your teenage self?
“Well the instant thing was ‘fuck! this is amazing’ then I thought about it. I had all the music and I went to all the gigs – I lived the dream. Apparently, he was a really great guy and he wouldn’t have disappointed me as a person. I was worried I’d disappoint him to be honest, because it’s Bowie.”
What can you tell people us about the Trainspotting sequel, without getting into trouble?
“Oh I can tell you everything! The plot line, how it ends…
“It’s going to be a very interesting film. The great challenge that we had was to make a film that builds on the Trainspotting legacy, but isn’t a prisoner to it.
“It’s not going to be a youth movie, celebrating the joy of being young. That’s what Trainspotting is, it’s primarily a youth movie. It’s not a drugs movie. It’s about the great adventure of being young even if you’re in bad circumstances and things aren’t going your way. There’s still that overwhelming power and sense of immortality.
“It’s now a middle-aged movie. It’s guys who are looking for once last adventure, really. It’s that menopausal thing, they don’t want to get old. They seem to refuse to get old until they just fall apart. There’s also a darkness and an energy that you’d expect.
“For my generation, they’re going to love it. There will be a sense of affirmation for them. It’s also going to be very emotional and sad in a lot of ways. They’ll look at their own lives and what they’ve been doing. It’s going to be an emotional thing for a lot of people in the UK.
“Trainspotting was really the last youth movie in the UK. It was the last one there could be, because you have a globalised world now. Everything is media culture, rather than youth culture. That’s going to change though, I think.
“It’s almost revising that. It’s interesting to see how it plays amongst young people, because they’re going to have their Mums and Dads telling them ‘Trainspotting is back! Brilliant!’ where they may be thinking ‘Well I don’t know about that’. I think because there’s been nothing in youth culture, there may be a kind of ‘take ownership of this’ again.
“You want to be a huge film culturally as well as a box office event that people spend their money on. John has a lot of interesting stuff in that script and Danny is all fired up. We’ve got to get the book out the way and I’ll get excited then, seeing everybody again. All the ugly old faces.”
You mentioned on Twitter that you were working on a TV script, is that something you’ve always had an interest in doing?
“In the States, I’ve been working on TV scripts for ages. I’ve had a few different shows that have almost gone into production and never quite made it. Cable TV drama has changed, basically. People have to work a lot more novelistically, so it’s great territory for a novelist.”
It’s probably better for someone like you now than it was 20 years ago, whereas before your work would have altered for a mainstream network.
“You can do what you like. It’s a strange world now in the States, because there’s a lot of competition. There’s a lot of defensive marking, a lot of companies will buy shows to stop others buying them and won’t have the resources to develop them. But there’s a lot of things that are really happening now, the market keeps expanding all the time and I don’t know where it’s all going to end.”
When can we expect a full erotic novel based on your Wimbledon commentary? People want that, Irvine.
“That would be great. Starring Sue Barker and Jeremy Bates. It would be fantastic. I keep on waiting for the BBC to give me a job.”
If they were to build a statue in your honour down in Leith, where would you want it to be placed to surprise unsuspecting tourists?
“I wouldn’t want a statue made for one thing. I’m not interested in legacy, a lot happened before you lived and a lot is going to happen after you die. There’s just one this spot in the middle between two different types of oblivion. I’m massively interested in what happens while I’m here but I’m not going to be interested in when I go. I’m not really bothered about a statue…
“But if you must put one, stick in at the Foot of the Walk where Queen Victoria’s statue is now.”
The Blade Artist is out now and Irvine Welsh is touring the UK.
For tickets and more information, visit penguin.co.uk.
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