Louise Welsh specialises in producing novels that cast the mind into a state of unease. Her first book, The Cutting Room, was published in 2002. It is the story of an auctioneer called Rilke who discovers a set of grisly photographs of a murdered woman. They awaken in him a morbid fascination with sex and violence and lead him into a shady, criminal underworld. It might sound like the prelude to a generic crime novel, but Welsh excels at undermining genre conventions and playing with traditions that include the gothic, horror and the old-fashioned adventure tale.
Welsh was born in 1965. She lived in Edinburgh during her teenage years but moved to Glasgow to study history at university. It is no surprise that she particularly enjoyed studying the medieval period; her imagination is fascinated by the darker side of life. After leaving university she opened a second-hand bookshop, but the urge to write finally overcame her business sense. She shut up shop around the turn of the millennium and studied for an MLitt in Creative Writing at the universities of Glasgow and Strathclyde. She is now Professor of Creative Writing at Glasgow University.
After The Cutting Room, she wrote Tamburlaine Must Die (2002), about the latter years of playwright Christopher Marlowe. Her next novel, The Bullet Trick (2006), was set in the world of Cabaret in Berlin, a city she returned to in 2012 in the sinister thriller Girl on the Stairs, about a pregnant woman who moves in with her German partner, only to find that her apartment block is not quite an antenatal haven of tranquillity. Welsh’s shadowy and disturbing novels owe a debt to the works of Robert Louis Stevenson, a writer she has read and written about again and again. Most recently, in 2016, she wrote a libretto for the The Devil Inside (composed by Stuart MacRae), an opera adapted from Stevenson’s The Bottle Imp.
In 2014 Welsh published A Lovely Way to Burn, the first of her Plague Times Trilogy, a series of dystopian thrillers. This introduced readers to a world breaking out in the Sweats, a u-like virus that kills faster than a sawn-off shotgun. Stevie Flint, a television saleswoman, is a lucky survivor. Her boyfriend, a doctor, is not. He leaves behind a laptop with incriminating evidence concerning medical research into childhood disease, and Stevie is dragged into the corrupt world of private healthcare. The second book is about Magnus McFall, a stand-up comic who finds little left to laugh about when he ends up in jail. When the Sweats break out he escapes with a fellow convict called Jeb, but the pair soon find themselves stranded with a community of religious fanatics. In the final instalment, No Dominion, Stevie and Magnus have found their way to the Orkney Islands, where survivors are trying to regain some semblance of democracy and peace. When three newcomers to the islands entice a few of the teenagers to Glasgow, Stevie and Magnus set off in pursuit across the Scottish mainland.
Nick Major met Louise in her top-floor Glasgow at flat the start of the summer. They sat in her bijou living room, eating cherry cake and drinking coffee whilst the fire spat and hissed in the grate and the rain hammered on the windows. On the wall, next to a bookcase, was a large yellow metal sign advertising ‘The Radiation Garage’. Welsh’s novels might be full of death, but in person she is full of life. Short, round-faced and sunny in her demeanour, she talked with an uncanny sense of optimism, even when discussing violence, murder, and mass death.
Scottish Review of Books: No Dominion is the final book of your Plague Times trilogy. Did you know it was going to be a trilogy from the start?
It was always conceived of as a trilogy. I wanted to think about the start of that pandemic and the idea of [societal] change. We are in this age of technological wonder. I know there have been many other ages of wonder but it feels like this one is quite exceptional, like we’re living with magic. I wanted to go very quickly to the opposite. The final book surprised me the most. I wanted to set it seven years after [the pandemic] and I wanted it to be about a regeneration that’s interrupted, but it ended up being about structures of organisation and ways of being. What do we want? Do we want democracy? Do we want an autocracy? Would we prefer anarchy? Or, is there something else?
Why did you want to write trilogy?
It was exciting to have a bigger canvas. Every book is a challenge to yourself and some way to push your ideas forward, but also [a challenge for] your structural skills. I wanted three narratives that could contribute to one narrative. The intention [across the three books] is that you see a changing landscape, and that you see a change in Stevie and Magnus, and that you see them more clearly in the final book. I wanted to start in the heart of capitalism, in a big world city, so I chose London, and that enabled me to move away up to Scotland and go to Orkney and back to a city – Glasgow. I thought a lot about Edwin Muir and his journey around Scotland. Muir says Orkney is the best place to live. I wanted to write about an island I knew reasonably well, and an island that has an infrastructure. I was always looking at different structures. The first book is about the world of medicine, and selling swag we don’t need. The second book looks at the criminal justice system and the role of religion. But each novel is an adventure story at heart.
During and after the pandemic, characters erase their past and revert to ground zero in their minds, which often means falling back on their basest instincts.
Or their best instincts. We all have a choice but some people have good choices and some people have shitty choices. But what do you choose to do? Do you act for good or bad? Sometimes people act badly because they don’t quite understand what they are doing at the time.
In No Dominion, there is a conversation about survival. The narrator says: ‘it was something they did not talk about on the islands; the things they had done to stay alive.’ Sometimes a person’s choice will always be the wrong one.
The idea of being a survivor is an uncomfortable one. There is a concept of survivor’s guilt [in the book] – they [the survivors] have to do things that are morally wrong. But to think about it in terms of the crime genre: what is the place of violent death in the genre? Should we try to feel something even when someone horrible dies. That’s something for the writer to ponder.
That’s often the best kind of crime novel. The ones which explore the psychological state of the killer.
That’s the sort of crime book I enjoy. I’m not a fan of books that suggest that people kill because they are mad, which I find quite offensive.
Thinking of death in general, have you always been interested in disease and the extinction of the human species?
I’ve always wanted to write something about a big pandemic. I grew up in the shadow of the bomb. But as you do grow up you realise that, if there was a nuclear war, our problems would be over. I studied history at university and I loved the medieval period. The tenth century was an age of extremes and I was interested in the changes that the Black Plague brought into the world. Art and literature changed, and people lived with death at their elbow. For some people, it was a time to make merry; for others, it was the opposite. In the afterword to the first book I write about Barry Hines’ Threads and Terry Nation’s Survivors and Wyndham’s Day of the Triffids – those were all big influences.
You write a lot about sex and violence as well.
Yes, there’s always sex and violence [laughs]. I was worried about any glorification [in No Dominion]. I tried to make the violence uncomfortable. Humour is important when you have that kind of violence. But you have to be careful. Everybody has their standards and morals and things they won’t do, but I think when somebody dies in a book you should notice it and feel uncomfortable. You can only write the books that you can…it would be nice to write an intense philosophical European book. This is the most violent book I’ve written, partly because it has guns in it. Stevie behaves in the way she does at one point because she has a gun. In some books, you want a hero who isn’t awed, like Caithness in The Hunger Games. She behaves nobly all the time. My characters tend to be a little less noble.
You don’t think of writing as an apolitical exercise or one that disregards morality?
Morality is a very personal thing. There are certain things we all agree on and there are natural laws we don’t break, but I think everything we do is political. [I think] books are underpinned by politics and an idea of kindness and fairness. I don’t think anybody reaches the ideal of that in these books. Like all of us, the characters aim and fail.
One of the paradoxes of the pandemic is that, although it results in a lot of death, it makes people doubt who they are, which we could say is quite a healthy psychological state.
People often say to Stevie, ‘this has been the making of you’. Before the pandemic she’s a TV channel salesperson. Her life is perhaps frivolous. But then young people should be allowed frivolity. Your life should just be about sex, clothes, money and going out. I guess maybe nobody knows who they are. Perhaps it’s decadent to think about who we are? I think for Stevie it’s an uncomfortable truth that this terrible event has had a positive effect on her life.
You’ve written a lot of gothic novels. Central to the gothic tradition is the idea of doubles, or the past coming back to haunt the present. Are you aware of this constant revisiting of death in your work?
Why am I so morbid? I don’t know. It seems to make me cheerful in real life. I love the gothic. I find it fascinating. The gothic is an overwrought genre. I don’t like the idea of being overly manipulative but it’s a fun genre that doesn’t take itself too seriously – yet art is deadly serious. I always feel that at heart I’m a storyteller and that narrative is hardwired into us. I don’t think you can have a plotless novel. Even if you could, the reader would impose a plot upon it. That’s true in other forms, [like] conceptual art and music.
Who are your favourite gothic writers?
I love Stevenson and the Brontë sisters. You won’t find a Scottish writer who doesn’t like Hogg.
Last year you presented a Radio 4 Book Club on Kidnapped. Why did you pick that book?
I first read Kidnapped when I was very young, and the idea of a chase that takes place across a landscape of Scotland is very appealing. Years before he wrote Kidnapped, Stevenson wrote an essay where he says, ‘particular places call out for murder… The Hawe’s Inn in Queensferry is one such. One day a boat will sail into the harbour with a strange cargo.’ So, he has stored up this place in his mind. He was fascinated by the Appin Murder all his life, and that was central to Kidnapped.
One of the places you’ve obviously stored up in your mind is Berlin, the setting of The Girl on the Stairs and The Bullet Trick. Why do you keep returning there?
When my books first came out I spent a lot of time doing book tours in Germany. For both those books I wanted the characters to be in a place that was quite similar to Britain. It’s not so physically or culturally different, but the similarity can make you feel like you are at home when you’re not. The Bullet Trick is set in the world of cabaret. I had done an article for the Observer for the anniversary of Bob Fosse’s Cabaret so I had been to as many cabarets as I could in Berlin. I think that’s where that book started. I was also thinking about a movie called Pandora’s Box by GW Pabst, which has Louise Brooks in it. It’s a great silent film about this glorious young woman who’s a dancer who sleeps with men and women – I think it has the first lesbian scene in cinematic history. She then shoots somebody and ends up in foggy London where she’s killed by Jack the Ripper. It seems ridiculous but it works. I wanted to rewrite the ending because that’s the typical moral ending for a woman in that kind of story.
Going further back into your past: were you born in Scotland?
I was born in London and spent one year there. My dad was in the RAF. I do think they should have come back over the border but I won’t give them a bad time about it. He was posted to various places so we moved around.
From what age did you want to be a writer?
I don’t know. I was always a big reader. Every child that likes reading wants to make books, whether that’s drawing pictures or writing a text.
Do you remember the first time you put pen to paper?
No. I just always have. From about 16 to 20 I didn’t write much because I was out having fun. When I was a student I didn’t write much creatively. I wrote a lot essays, obviously.
Did you open a second-hand book shop straight after leaving Glasgow University?
Pretty much. Within a few months. I worked as an assistant in a shop selling second-hand clothes. There was a little bit of space that came up and I started selling second-hand books. My capital was £300.
Can you make a living selling old books?
It’s never easy to make a living. How do you make a living out of writing? You really slog. We had a mixed portfolio. We were very close to the university so we sold student books, and we had an antiquarian stock that we built up. I had to live simply. That’s still good advice for a writer. Don’t have a habit which means you need a Jaguar or something. Once a week we had a stall at the university and did book fairs. I worked before and after the shop hours. Quite naturally, when you go into a bookshop it seems tranquil, but there’s a lot of work going on behind the scenes.
Did you have much time for reading when you owned your bookshop?
I wouldn’t do anything that would stop me reading. It was a really good education because I had my own library. I found lots of writers and illustrators I wouldn’t have known about. But the main thing I miss is that the door was open all the time and people just came in and chatted. A lot of the people who came in had huge expertise about all sorts of things. You learnt a lot about stuff you didn’t even know existed or you were interested in. The main reason I stopped is because I couldn’t do it and write. It was too time-consuming.
What year did you make the transition to being a full-time writer?
It was basically when I was writing The Cutting Room, so about the middle of 2000 then into 2001. I really burnt my bridges. It was not a wise decision. It was a total gamble, but there are points in your life that if you don’t do something you won’t.
Was it easy to get published, or were you surprised?
Both. Well, to keep body and soul together I started to do some temping work, which I hated. You had to go in at the same time every day and they don’t let you leave, you know [laughs]? But I was temping in a nice office and the day I got my book deal I handed in my notice.
Did you have an agent?
Yeah, I managed to get an agent because I’d done an MLitt in Creative Writing at Glasgow and Strathclyde and that was a huge help with those kinds of things. I don’t think you need to do a course to get published, but for me it was helpful because I didn’t have any connections in publishing.
And you’re now a Professor of Creative Writing at Glasgow University?
I’m the shortest professor in the university…I’m not sure if that’s actually true. I love it. I met so many friends through the Masters. I had a wonderful mentor, Zoe Wicomb, who’s a South African novelist. It upped my game and made me take writing more seriously. I didn’t go into it thinking that I would get a book published and become a professional writer. I didn’t have a game plan. But I did know what happened to a lot of first time novelists, because you saw their books coming into the bookshop and not selling, so I had a very pragmatic view of it. I work on a postgraduate course now so you get writers at the start of their writing life and people who are quite advanced. You get all these textured lives and backgrounds. I love the work the students do. There are writers working in prisons. We have a student working with Tanzanian farmers.
Are creative writing courses necessary? They seem a way for universities to make a quick buck from something that doesn’t need to be taught.
You don’t have to do a creative writing course to be a writer. James Hogg didn’t need it. There are many routes into the arts. In the same way, you don’t have to go to art school to be a great artist. But I think many writers want to be part of a community of writers and have that mentorship. Do I think universities do this just to make money? I guess there might be someone up in admin thinking that. But I think the writer’s relationship with the institution is a similar one that the visual or sound or film artist has with their institution.
Thinking about your own writing life. Do you have a routine for writing?
When my days are 9 to 5, I just shuffle into my desk and write. But I always have a side project that I work on at the same time. What I think of as my night-time job, to keep me out of trouble. I tend to plan a week. I know when I’m writing and I try not to deviate from that. But, the sitting at the desk is the worst part – Robert Louis Stevenson said that. I think writing is injurious to the health. I am only just beginning to realise that. The other day Hilary Mantel in her Reith Lectures was talking about the tension between the body and the mind. It’s a theme people come back to over and over again. I have just finished reading this biography of Rimbaud and he says something like, ‘the artist has to decide whether they are for art or for life.’
I suppose that’s what happens in The Picture of Dorian Gray. Art is in a battle with life, and life wins. People forget how physically demanding writing is, even if you don’t have to drag around a typewriter anymore.
Me and Zoë [Strachan] just co-authored an essay for our friend John Water who’s doing an exhibition on chunkiness at the Haywood Gallery. We put chunkiness into the essay by using a typewriter and it was great fun. When you work with actors, they don’t just start their rehearsal. They come and do a warm-up. They stretch first. I do fifteen minute stretches in the morning and at night. Recently, I have noticed writers doing yoga. I got in to this business because I thought I could just go to the pub and have interesting conversations. I didn’t really think, I want to do some yogic breathing!
Do you do any research for your novels?
I tend to dive in and get started. I often find I’m researching a topic when I’m working on a previous book, so I do a lot of reading at night. With this new book, I’ll be doing a fair bit of travelling and I know what I’ll be reading [on the road]. I find that quite useful. I enjoy research but I think once you begin writing you know what it really is you need to look for.
You live with another writer. Writers don’t have a good record of living well together. How do you cope?
Oh, it’s hell. Absolute hell [laughs]. Zoë has been away for a month at a writing retreat so it’s the wrong time to ask. We’ve been together for fifteen years. Like any other relationship you try to help each other out. Zoë’s my first reader and a good one, and I’m her first reader. What we usually do is read each other’s work, but we don’t do it at home. We go out and have a glass of wine and we chat about it. I guess when we first got together I had in mind all those creative partnerships where somebody gives up the work, like Dylan [Thomas] and Caitlin [MacNamara] – she had to give up dancing. There are many creative partnerships that go that way, and we made the decision that we wouldn’t do that.
Are there any difficulties in being a homosexual artist in Scotland? It’s obviously getting easier than it used to be.
Clearly, it’s getting easier and there’s a move towards equality. I’ve just written an essay on the painters Colquhoun and MacBryde for Radio 3. They moved to London, of course, partly because that’s the centre of the art world, but I wondered if they went there because it was easier for them – it was a more bohemian place. I think that was a journey a lot of people made back then. If anyone tells you Scotland is a laid back, socialist country…well, we’re not. But not to be legal until 1980? It’s quite crazy. And then there was the ‘Keep the Clause’ campaign, which was still going on the year The Cutting Room came out.
Does your personal life inform what you write?
It must do. But you don’t really know what’s affecting it. When you sit down to write you’re trying to do that magical thing of inhabiting the body and mind of somebody else. But the author’s always there. That’s why each writer has a distinct voice. So, it must do, but I don’t know how. And it’s not useful for me to think of how.
Do you consider yourself a genre writer as distinct from a literary writer?
When I sit down to write, I don’t think about that. I think my books are cross-genre. The gothic clearly is something I embrace. But I’m also interested in crime and horror.
Do genre writers sacrifice style for convention?
No. Why would it be necessary? There’s good writing and bad writing. I just read a book by Hilary Mantel called A Different Climate. I finished it this morning, and it was like I had been listening to a big crashing symphony, and then I got to the end and there was this silence. It was quite a visceral experience. This was a contemporary book and she’s often thought of as a genre writer – historical fiction. I don’t think you need to sacrifice style just because you have a plot. Like I was saying, it’s hard to be completely plotless because everything you do is a collaboration with a reader.
So, do you think about readers when you’re writing?
They are too diverse. How could I? I do think about leaving space for the reader to dream themselves on to the page. I think that’s what makes reading quite a unique experience. So much is demanded of you. That’s why it can be so immersive. I know theatre, music, and movies are immersive but when it is working well these black and white marks take you somewhere else, and that can be the most immersive experience of all.
How long does it take you to hone your writing style?
It takes ages. Then sometimes it doesn’t. When I was very young I saw a news report of a lady who would compose. She said, ‘I don’t compose, it is Bach. He comes and inhabits my body.’ She called it automatic writing. Sometimes it is like that – it doesn’t feel like me – but usually that comes after a period of really hard work. Of course, after you write you edit and edit and edit. But I’m never satisfied with my work.
You’ve written libretto for an opera – The Devil Inside – that toured last year. Have you ever done that before?
That was my third opera. I love it. It’s a completely different discipline. It’s collaborative. I have to think about a different structure. It’s hugely demanding. I’m writing a fourth one with the same composer, Stuart MacRae. I am working on the second act just now. Everybody’s had their gin and tonic and they’ve all come back, or at least I hope they have.
Is it more difficult than writing novels because you have to imagine someone performing what you write down?
Not necessarily. It’s just a different medium. I have different visions in my head. I see it like I see a novel. I see how it would be staged, which is quite a practical vision. You have to think about space differently. You have to think about what kind of voice each singer has because each voice is connected to the personality of the characters on stage. Then you have the narrative and the orchestra to think about. There’s also the pace, the rhythm, and the themes to think about.
Do you know who the actors will be before you write their parts?
No, but I know the voice types. I know this character will be a tenor, this one will be a baritone, this one will be a soprano. With smaller operas, I know what the orchestra will be. Stuart is the person who decides all that – who he wants to work with and the voices, and that’s part of the palette I have in my mind. The composer is king, although he’d hate me saying that. But it’s a great privilege. I sit down with Stuart and we talk about the story the characters and we both have to completely own it.
Going back to No Dominion, Magnus is a stand-up comedian and Stevie is a saleswoman. Why did you want to make both main characters performers?
I’m interested in what people do in their work life. I’ve always found the idea of sales interesting. My dad was a sales rep after he came out of the RAF. I think there’s a particular psychology to selling things – you have to have a real belief in what you’re selling. I find what it takes to go up on stage so interesting. The world of stand-up comedy is a brutal one, partly because the stakes are so high. And now you could really be a massive success, which means you could always be a failure.
Modern writers have to be performers. Do you enjoy that side of your job?
Yeah, I like meeting people. I like travelling. Except, well, who likes sitting around in train stations or airports? I like the interaction with readers. I practise a lot to be a good reader. I would never have thought I would have to do that. I never went on a stage before I started writing books. But we get to go to nice places and meet amazing people so I don’t think writers should ever moan about it.