Glasgow’s Aye Write literary festival - Louise Welsh interview
Ahead of her appearance at Glasgow’s Aye Write! literary festival, crime fiction master Louise Welsh tells Claire Sawers about the dark side of the English Lit department in her latest novel
‘The funny thing is, often when you’re at home you’re thinking about being away. Anywhere, just away. It’s like, “How can I get out of this hellhole?”’ Louise Welsh takes a sip of herbal tea before she carries on.
‘Then you go away, and suddenly you’re thinking about home. I started writing this novel when I was in Berlin. It was born out of a little bit of homesickness. That irritates me so much!’ Welsh stops to laugh at herself, hands raised in the air in mock annoyance. ‘What’s the point of that? You’re somewhere beautiful and you’re thinking I wish I could go down to the pub!’
And so, Welsh’s trip to Germany inspired a novel set back home in her beloved Scotland. But it’s not the cliché-riddled reverie of an expat, looking back through tartan-tinted glasses. Her latest novel, Naming the Bones meanders between divey Edinburgh boozers and muddy Highland burial grounds, via the odd dogging episode in a carpark, or drunken punch-up in the street.
‘I think actually most Scottish readers would be irritated if they saw Scotland evoked as this heather-covered glen,’ explains the Glasgow-based author. She is in reflective mood after spending a morning in Polmont Young Offenders Institute trying to encourage some of the inmates into creative writing.
‘Most Scottish people see their country pretty clearly. That’s part of the attraction – it’s not always an easy place to live: the weather’s bad; there’s lots of things we’d love to change. But it’s also a great place, and I’ll die here.’
Welsh’s 2002 debut, The Cutting Room, was set in a grim and foreboding Glasgow. A literary thriller, it dealt, amongst other things, with snuff porn. Hailed as a modern gothic classic, the novel won several awards and set the tone for Welsh’s storytelling – dark, atmospheric, occasionally very funny, and generally laced with danger. After a detour to Berlin for novel number two, The Bullet Trick, set amongst the seedy glamour of the city’s underground burlesque scene, her focus returns to Scotland.
Welsh paints her charismatic tale of black magic onto a wallpaper of academia, setting it amongst library reading rooms and the corridors of Glasgow University’s English Literature department. In it, Murray Watson is researching the life of a dead poet, Archie Lunan, who died mysteriously at 25. Watson is desperate to bring the overlooked writer back to the public’s attention, and his research draws him into the murky world of suicidology and the occult.
‘I liked the idea of academia, and how it differs from the world of the artist,’ explains Welsh. ‘I enjoy that particularity of vision that people have to have. You get something akin to an obsession; people who know an awful lot, about a tiny subject. I really admire that.’
Unfolding like a sophisticated whodunit, full of her trademark dour wit, Welsh peels back the rarefied veneers of academic life to expose something rotten beneath.
‘I just have this thing, when someone tells you they’re respectable, you mistrust that,’ she says with a twinkling eye. Although the ‘fur coat and nae knickers’ theme often crops up in Scottish literature, Welsh doesn’t believe it’s a uniquely Scottish phenomenon. She believes Scots, like everyone else, have their flaws.
‘Of course, I quite like a bit of repression,’ she adds with a fast chuckle. ‘I think people could be too open. I don’t like people kissing in the street. In fact, I’d quite like them to bring back those “No Petting” signs they used to have in swimming pools.’
Naming the Bones is out now, published by Canongate. Louise Welsh will be appearing at the Mitchell Library, Glasgow on Wed 10 Mar to launch her new novel, as part of Aye Write! She will also be talking about the ‘Gorbals Vampires’ on BBC Radio 4, Tue 30 Mar, 11pm.