Trainspotting: motivation

Irvine Welsh on the compulsion to write Trainspotting

Trainspotting was the book I had to do, basically to get it out of the way, in order to become a writer. I had been obsessed with books and literature for a while, and having failed at everything else, thought that I could give writing a go. But I had to understand my own personal journey and the issues I had come through first. What sort of a person was I? What could I bring to this? I knew that I could never do genre fiction; I wouldn't have the ability to write into a marketing hole. It would bore me to tears and be too much like the proper jobs I hated. It had to be about me expressing myself, without recourse to formulae.

When I looked at my notes and doodlings in diaries over the years, I didn't have much to bring to the table. My life was essentially defined by, at best, mediocrity (I had risen to middle-management level in the public sector), and at worst failure. This latter element was with reference to recurrent drug issues, which have been discussed at length elsewhere. So I decided that this would be my starting point.

Far more important than either, I'd always been blessed with a rich inner life. I had a very happy childhood, but it always seemed a precarious one, due to the ongoing illness of one of my parents. It often seemed easier to retreat into my own head rather than deal with what was going on around me. I recall a report card at school saying that I would "never amount to anything" as I was "too much of a dreamer". This was meant as scornful condemnation; even at the time I instinctively felt it was positive and it provided me with a great deal of affirmation. For such a child, a book is a godsend. Sitting with one in front of me gave me permission to dream and enriched and defined my creative landscape.

But becoming a writer was something I didn't consider, even though one English teacher had told me that I should. Instead I found myself on the City and Guilds electronics technician course at Telford College, Edinburgh, trying to get a trade. Writing was seen as something that the idle rich did. The consensus was that working-class people read recreationally - they didn't have the time to learn the craft of the writer. This, of course, is self-defeating nonsense, but it was reinforced by the lives of my first literary heroes, people like Evelyn Waugh.

My uncle Jack was a fireman who was doing an Open University course and he passed on his books to my father. Through this avenue Waugh's Sword of Honour trilogy came into my possession. This was a revelation to me. I loved his prose and his way of setting out relationships between his characters; that odd mixture of respect and rivalry, love and contempt, was to be a huge influence on my own writing. I recognised the people around me in the type of relationships he mapped out.

But the problem was that he wasn't like me or the people around me. He was a toff. So I went on a search, from Russian classics to Black American writing, to try to find a voice and set of social circumstances that chimed. I found it back home in Ayrshire when I picked up a copy of William McIllvaney's Docherty. Then came James Kelman's The Bus Conductor Hines and Alasdair Gray's Lanark.

But these experiences seemed to be arguments against Thatcherite capitalism, while I thought, even then, that this argument was essentially nostalgic. I believed that social changes and the forces of the time made it inevitable that "they" would win the class war. Yes, this irked me as an individual, and I went on all the pickets and demonstrations, through the miners' strike onwards, but to do the right thing rather than in anticipation of victory. What I was concerned about was the social landscape we'd be left with after this: baldly, the substitution of drugs for jobs in the poorest parts of Britain.

So I started to write Trainspotting, as a way of making sense of my own life and times. When I wrote the book I was living in different circumstances from the characters in it. I had a good job, was married, and largely had my substance abuse issues under control. Acid house knocked me out of this comfort zone. Soon I was back out tearing it up at the weekends, energised by the power of that scene, but also with a new-found reflectiveness that the ecstasy "comedowns" exacerbated.

I knocked out a draft from old notes and diaries. It was way too long - about 250,000 words. I just chopped the ends off, and wrote a (I thought fairly cheesy) heist ending, in order to finish the book. I thought it would never be published, but the first person I sent it to took it on. I don't know how many languages it's been translated into or how much it has sold worldwide, but it has cast a big shadow and I've resigned myself to being called "Trainspotting author Irvine Welsh" for the rest of my life, even though I've written better books and will hopefully continue to do so. I just know that for the last decade a big grin has split my face twice a year when the royalty cheque hits the doormat. So being "the Trainspotting guy" isn't so bad.

· Next week John Mullan will be looking at readers' responses


Irvine Welsh

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