Irvine Welsh on Sex, Politics, and, of Course, Scotland

Credit: Portrait by Jeffrey Delannoy

Scottish author Irvine Welsh first came to the attention of readers with Trainspotting, his darkly comic 1993 novel about heroin addicts in the Leith district of Edinburgh. The book spawned a movie that launched the career of Ewan McGregor, as well as a million baby-walking-on-the-ceiling nightmares. He's since gained critical acclaim for his gritty, fearless novels such as Filth, Porno, and The Sex Lives of Siamese Twins.


Welsh's latest book, A Decent Ride, follows Terry "Juice" Lawson, who he first introduced in the novel Glue. A Decent Ride finds Juice, a drug-dealing, porn-loving cabbie, faced with a dilemma: Though he loves nothing more than sex, he’s diagnosed with a medical condition that means he has to put his Lothario days behind him. It’s a hilarious, gleefully offensive book, featuring necrophilia, incest, and a character named Ronald Checker, a rich reality TV host who might remind readers of a certain Republican presidential candidate.

Welsh spoke to Men's Journal by telephone from his home in Chicago.

You wrote about Juice in Glue, and this isn't the first time that you've brought a character back from a previous book. When you're first writing about a character, do you know that you're going to revisit him later in another book?
Not really. I think every time you [create] a character, it's like forging your own tool. And when you look at what you're going to do with your next book, you think, "I want to tell this story; who can I use?" Sometimes you're very conscious of it; other times, you just start writing and you realize that the character you're writing is actually an older character who's going to gate-crash his way back into the book. That happened when I wrote Porno. The character wasn't supposed to be Sick Boy originally, but I realized it was just him. Certain kinds of themes and stories suggest certain kinds of characters. Sometimes you have to bring new tools, other times you can use old tools from the toolbox. It's also good to catch up with characters and see how they've changed.

Juice seems a lot more mature, in certain ways, in this book. Was it difficult writing a more mature version of Juice than there was in Glue?
He is older, but he's that kind of guy who very much knows what he wants and what he likes. I'd written Glue in America; I wanted to write something about Scotland again. I went back over; the country was changing quite dramatically. The independence debate is going to be the catalyst for a lot of change, a lot of modernization. So I wanted to try to make sense of that, coming back as an outsider. And I thought he would be a good character, because he's very concerned about change in general, I think. His needs are quite simple. So rather than talk about the referendum in Scotland, I wanted to talk about the source of the turbulence.

He's such an interesting character in a way, because he has kind of a more enlightened view of women than maybe some of his peers do. Would you consider him a feminist in any way?
I think so. He does genuinely — he's a hypersexualist, he believes everybody's interested in sex. He basically believes that we're all obsessed with sex. He's not sexist in that sense, he believes [women] are very sexual as well, and that's the basis on which he connects with them. He doesn't regard them as inferior or superior; he's just governed so much by sexuality, by the sexuality he sees in other people. He's a bit limited in his thinking; he's one-dimensional, but he's certainly not sexist. And I think when he has the crisis, and he can't get involved in sex, he has to find other things that interest him.

And in a way, he's also kind of old-fashioned. He hates Internet pornography, for example. Do you think that the rise of what some people might call "porn culture" is dangerous at all?
I think so. I think that what happens now with the Internet is that it doesn't really let people get into [sexuality] at their own speed, basically. It forces kids to be sexualized more quickly, without developing the social skills and emotional resonance they need to take care of themselves. 

It seems like a lot of the book is this kind of critique of hypermasculinity. 
Yeah, I think misogyny's a lot like a drug, a kind of a trigger for a lot of angry men. We're in transition — some men feel more and more angry, the economy is slipping away from them, and there's a greater movement toward social equality. So that kind of thing is very ubiquitous across Western culture. It's an interesting time to live in. Women and minorities — there's a backlash against them, against social progress, because social progress undermines the patriarchy.


At one point in the book, Juice goes to a meeting for sex addicts. Do you think sex addiction is a real thing?
We live in a kind of strange zoo, basically, we're obsessive-compulsive about everything. And [sex] is one of the things that we do get obsessed about. Whether it's addictive — to be honest, I think the dangerous thing with sex addicts is that they're not just addicted to the physical sensation of sex. I think sex addicts are addicted to love, to the kind of feeling when you fall in love with someone. There's all these chemicals and endorphins being released in your body, pretty much like taking Ecstasy at a rave, you know. I think people are addicted to that kind of buzz, [the feeling] that nothing else is important.

There are some rape and incest scenes in the book that are obviously very shocking. Is writing about that kind of taboo subject — and I know you've done it for a long time — is that always difficult?
Yeah. I think it depends on what angle you approach it from. The wee guy, Jonty, the scene where he's shagging the corpse of his girlfriend — it seems very sordid, but to me, that's one of the most poignant scenes in the book, because it's not really about sex. He's lost her, he's trying to find her, he's trying to connect. And it's very sad. But anything you do like that, it has to be something you can imagine the character doing. And it has to be saying something else. So even the scene where Maurice kind of seduces Jonty — Maurice is a kind of lonely, tough guy, and Jonty's a very vulnerable kind of man in a lot of ways. His social skills are a bit lacking. So it also challenges these models of masculinity when you have something like that, it shows a lot of the fear behind the manly chest-beating. You have to make — you can't just make it a slapsticky "Let's laugh at this" kind of thing, it has to be saying things about people. It's not the act that shocks, it's the context in which the act takes place, I think. 

Ronald Checker is such a great character in this book, and I think I'm basically legally obligated to ask you about Donald Trump. As someone who's not a U.S. native, what do you think of the race that he's been running?
I see Checker not so much as Trump, [but] as a generic kind of demagogue. I think Trump is kind of interesting. I think since he lost Iowa, he's become more interesting. He's like some kind of game show participant; he understands that kind of game show mentality. It's pretty fascinating what he's doing. I think the limits of it will be exposed, though. In some ways, he's very, very smart, because you don't actually know what he believes. You know that Cruz [actually] believes all this weird fucking Taliban/ISIS kind of stuff that he comes out with. He genuinely believes that. Trump probably doesn't; he's playing games. But he'll go farther out than Cruz; he'll go farther out than anybody to gain that constituency. The evangelicals have kind of humbled him [in Iowa], so I think he'll find it a bit tougher from here on in.