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Irvine Welsh Talks 'Trainspotting,' Pop Opera, & His Enduring Love For Chicago

By Chicagoist_Guest in Arts & Entertainment on Mar 10, 2017 9:16PM

Irvine Welsh / Getty Images

By Tony Boylan

Chicagoist recently caught up with celebrated novelist and playwright Irvine Welsh, who says a third Trainspotting movie is a distinct possibility, but it won’t take another 20 years if it happens. He lives in Chicago because he loves the winters, kind of. The local arts scene is an inspiration. And if you were hoping he’d set a novel in his adoptive hometown, you can blame Nelson Algren that he probably won’t.

One of the most anticipated sequels in 21st-century cinema is premiering in the U.S. this month, but Irvine Welsh is as excited to talk about a pop-opera stage production that just closed a two-week workshop run in Chicago.

The Creatives is a story Welsh co-wrote with friend and Chicago writer Don De Grazia, author of American Skin’ and teacher of creative writing at Columbia College. It boasts music from Iggy Pop, New Order, Simple Minds, Oasis, Happy Mondays, Chance the Rapper and White Mystery; and it features original songs by British composer Laurence Mark Wythe.

But that’s Welsh. He’s a prolific writer who, after a late start, has written constantly—novels, short stories, television, cinema, journalism. It’s as if he has to rewind to talk about T2: Trainspotting, a film opening in American theaters later this month and a work that has been in process for more than a quarter of a century. T2 revisits the now infamous Scottish characters first introduced in Trainspotting in 1993, and finds them struggling with the alarming mundanities of middle age.

Welsh has authored more than a dozen novels and short story collections, almost as many screenplays, and has written or been involved in adaptations for several theater productions. And he acts, too, returning as Mikey Forrester in T2, now a prosperous fence and something of a criminal emeritus in the Trainspotting universe.

"When people ask Irvine why he moved to Chicago, he replies, 'I came for the winters.'" De Grazia said. “While he’s joking, you can get a lot of writing done when it’s too cold to go outside."

Welsh "identified with rave culture, drug culture, party culture and all these subcultures and youth movements," De Grazia told us. "What might get lost in there is maybe the most incredible work ethic I’ve ever seen."

Welsh "lives" in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood as much as you can say a writer with means and a curious intellect lives in one place. He spends parts of his winters in Miami, and three months or so each year in Scotland. He also travels frequently to pursue his two passions, art and sports, whether it’s to festivals, to collaborate on projects, to attend the World Cup or follow boxing.

At 59, Welsh is serious about his boxing workouts, having come a long way from young heroin user in economically depressed Edinburgh in the early 1980s. The Chicago fight culture is one of the aspects he enjoys about living here.

With so many projects and preoccupations, you might be tempted to blame him for the lapse of two decades between Trainspotting and T2. But you’d be mistaken.

“I wanted to do it straight away, but for one reason or another we couldn’t,’’ Welsh told Chicagoist. “But that’s probably a good thing. Danny (Boyle, the director of Trainspotting and T2) has said this a few times: It would be more interesting if we waited until (the characters) were a bit older. I couldn’t see it at the time, but now I do. If we’d done it right away it still would have been these young guys on a daft adventure.”

T2 is based on the 2002 novel Porno, and all of the characters reconnect at a time that each seeks a new phase in life. Mark Renton is getting divorced and laid off from a pedestrian office job he held in Amsterdam. Sick Boy has inherited a dismal pub in the not-yet-gentrified port city of Leith. Spud is still grappling with his heroin addiction and hoping to find a way to be a father to his son. Begbie is in jail... for the moment.

In one telling scene, Renton complains to Sick Boy about a heart ailment. He’s not upset he has the condition, but he’s ever so pissed the doctors have given him a stent and told him he will live another 30 years.

If you read Porno, you’ll recognize the story lines but see a few changes in the details. For one, a character's idea of making an X-rated film has been changed to a plan by Sick Boy, aided belatedly by Renton, to turn his auntie’s pub into a brothel. That’s because Welsh didn’t like the idea of creating a film within a film, an idea he found both trite and complicated.

‘’When you have a film within a film, I just couldn’t really see that book cinematically," said Welsh, who recalls movies being an earlier influence on his life than literature. “I don’t like films about filmmaking. Most of the time it feels self-referential."

At the same time, it was essential to follow the rule by which physicians live: first, do no harm.

‘’We were all very conscious we didn’t want to trash the legacy of the film. You had this beautiful vase in a museum," Welsh said, while seated at the Music Box lounge, drinking tea in jeans and a watch cap. “You don’t want to start chucking it around in case you drop it, basically. It took us a while to find something to add to it."

For a man who burst onto the literary scene with a mercilessly raw, crude vernacular that changed the landscape of UK publishing, he speaks in polite, measured tones. His demeanor is thoughtful and overwhelmingly polite.

The process of making T2 was an artistic inspiration for Welsh, who at one time thought he was done with the Trainspotting characters.

“I couldn't find [the Renton] character at all. Suddenly I had a big epiphany about Renton, about what he would be up to again,’’ he said, calling it a direct result of thinking about the characters so much in recent years leading up to the film. “I got a sense of him again and what he would be aspiring to."

That’s all Welsh cares to share for the moment, though. No teasers about what that aspiration might be. He only says that any additions to the Trainspotting canon will come sooner rather than later, if they come at all.

With works that focus on urban decay, socio-economic malaise and isolation, it comes as little surprise Welsh has found a comfortable home in Chicago. He has frequently described New York and L.A. as something other than the real America and Welsh, a true Scotsman, is most suited for a large, post-industrial town with a chip on its shoulder.

"In Britain we all think of everywhere in America as being like Hollywood; and it’s all about L.A. and stage moms and stuff like that," said Welsh, who has shared a home with his wife in Chicago since 2009. “And this is the opposite of that. It feels more like Scotland. Chicago feels, in a lot of ways, more like an ossified, traditional, blue-collar town. It feels very much like a British industrial town."

What Welsh doesn’t like about Chicago, and much of the United States, is the racist, segregationist underpinnings. His feelings toward the current political climate are obvious for a man whose most famous works are set against the doldrums of the Thatcher era.

All you need to do is follow his Twitter feed to feel his disdain for President Donald Trump and Brexit architect Nigel Farage and grasp his general support of progressive politics. After a discussion of identity politics and the failings of the American Democratic Party he sums things up thusly: “The political left needs to get its house in order."

He praises Chicago's arts culture for a blue-collar mentality to which he’s accustomed and drawn, and for a no-nonsense, get-it-done philosophy he particularly likes.

“People just get together, They take on these projects which are inherently satisfying their own creative curiosity," he said. “They’re not looking constantly for agents and managers and deals and signings all that stuff."

That’s another reason he was so delighted to put on the workshop production of “Creatives’’ here. It was a show on which he and De Grazia were doing large-scale rewrites and changing scene order on the fly during shows, often based on audience reaction.

“You’re working with all these really talented young Chicago musicians and actors. If they were in London they would be f--king superstars," he said. “If they went to L.A. or New York they would be cleaning up.”

Welsh and De Grazia say there is more to come from their stage show Creatives. The next stop may be the Edinburgh Festival later this year, or maybe something even sooner. But Welsh has many other projects on his mind, including a television adaptation of his 2008 novel Crime, relocated to Miami. He says that he thinks Miami lacks the gravitas for epic literary work, but it is well-suited to tales of felony and mayhem.

But would he ever set a novel in his adoptive home of Chicago?

“I’m conscious of this lineage of fantastic Chicago writers from Nelson Algren and Studs Terkel right up to Pamela Sherrod Anderson, Don De Grazia, Joe Meno, Bill Hillmann and all these writers today,’’ Welsh said. “I feel like these people have got it covered. If I wrote about Chicago it would be window dressing.’’