Louise Welsh: ‘I work best when I reach a mild degree of boredom'

Libraries, silence and lots of tea – the novelist on the tricks she uses to free her imagination

I struggle with routine and have developed ways of tricking myself into thinking my life is more interesting than it is. The first trick is to get out of bed and into the shower before I realise I have survived the night. The Today programme wakes me at 7.30 and I fire out of bed like a bullet, or at the very least before “Thought for the Day” comes on at 7.45, or maybe a tad later. My partner Zoë Strachan, also a writer, likes to come alive quietly, so we have made a pact. The Today programme in exchange for zero chatter.

The second trick is to leave the house. The writing life is full of contradictions. It depends on hours at a desk, but requires the author to be connected to the world. Setting out into the day like a useful member of society, helps. There is a time-slip vortex in our home. It takes me exactly an hour to get ready, but I rarely hit the street before 9.30.

We live in Woodlands, Glasgow, in a leafy square not far from the motorway. I like being surrounded by nature in the centre of the city. Although lately the road has been winning and petrol fumes have started to affect my chest. I go for a swim and a Turkish bath a couple of times a week, in the hope of clearing my lungs. Woodlands has a diverse demographic in terms of age, ethnicities and economic resources. It is close to the university and Glasgow School of Art. Thankfully the district has a fair amount of reasonably well-managed social housing, which helps to keep students’ mummies’ and daddies’ property-hungry chequebooks at bay. I fear gentrification, but would love a decent deli.

If the weather is bad, or I’m weighed down with books and laptop, I hop on to the underground; otherwise I try to walk to whatever desk I am working at. You see things on a walk: changing shopfronts, fashions in graffiti, the rise of cute dogs and increase in rough sleepers. For the past few years, while writing the Plague Times trilogy, I have imagined the city I love abandoned by people, falling into decay and being reclaimed by nature, like Chernobyl or abandoned areas of Detroit.

Sometimes I wish I had the ability to bed down in a series of coffee shops or bars, but they are too stimulating. I work best when I reach a mild degree of boredom. It helps me focus and re-enter the landscapes of my imagination. I like the Mitchell Library’s reading room and the university library outside term time.

It helps to be surrounded by books and other people, all working on their own projects. The library stacks put my own struggles into perspective. I wear noise-cancelling headphones to block out the sound of noisy keyboards and irritating page-turners.

I have a part-time post as professor of creative writing at University of Glasgow. My office has good light, a personal kettle and a desktop computer. I also keep a laptop there that has fallen out with the internet. I love the internet. Used well, it is a magic window, but it can also suck you in and tear up your writing day. I loaded the Freedom app, which blocks the internet, on to my home machine years ago.

The writing itself is hard to relate. It is a process of adding and taking away; deep thought and waking dreams; hard technical graft and the occasional leap of realisation. I drink lots of tea, chew gum and occasionally stand up and stretch. When I feel stuck, I put my head on the desk and try to reach that place between dreams and awareness, where the unconscious lives.

Writing novels is different from collaborating on an opera (as I am doing at the moment with composer Stuart MacRae) or an Empire Café project (a collective exploring Scotland and empire I co-direct with my friend Jude Barber). Collaboration involves meetings, other voices and laughter. Writing novels is a solo endeavour.

I am happy with my own company, but I often want noise in the evening. I like pubs, cinemas, theatres and dinner with friends. Zoë and I have Netflix nights too and evenings of companionable silence, reading. I go to bed around 11, unless I am staying up late. Whatever time it is I have to read before I can fall asleep.

Sometimes, when deadlines are menacing, I stay at home all day in my un-sporty tracksuit and write at the kitchen table. I can write anywhere, when the fear is on me, but I prefer to be out in the world. That is where I find my raw material.

No Dominion is published by John Murray.

In brief

Hours When I’m going at it, eight to nine hours

Words 500-1,000, but I don’t stress the word count, it’s not a dick-measuring contest

Teas Too many to count, my tea consumption regularly lowers the level of Loch Katrine

Coffees One, usually around 2pm

G&Ts Maximum two and always after 7pm, rules are important in the G&T dept

Stretches Fifteen minutes in the morning and another 15 at night; as Noël Cowards says: “If you stay limber, you have nothing to fear”


Louise Welsh

The GuardianTramp

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