The Dark Heart of Glasgow: Interview with Louise Welsh
by Anna Battista
The bus number 44 runs and rattles along Glasgow's streets. It crosses the city going from the west to the south, rushing from the trendy West End, through the chaotic city centre, to the quieter south. Along its route through the West End, the bus passes through Hyndland Road. If you're a lucky voyeur, you'll then be able to look inside the windows of the various sand coloured buildings divided in expensive apartments. Look! There's a red painted room, that looks sexy, there's a white one, that looks dreadful and boring. There's a vase of flowers here and three rows of darkened windows there. I wonder if this is what Rilke saw. The bus jerks, the driver noisily brakes, I wake up from my slumber. After a few minutes, the bus starts moving towards busy Byres Road.
"It was raining. A faint drizzle that was almost a mist. The pavements were shiny with rain and the reflected orange glow of the street lamps. I trudged solidly on, putting the cod respectability of Hyndland further behind me with every step." Louise Welsh, The Cutting Room
"I set the book in Glasgow because this is where I've lived for a long time, for fifteen years," Louise Welsh, author of The Cutting Room (Canongate), explains. We are sitting outside the Tinderbox café in Byres Road. It's a wonderful afternoon, cold, but sunny. "I do know the city and I like it a lot," Louise continues, "For example, when I describe Kelvin Way, I try to recreate it through my imagination because it's a street I know well since I walk up and down it quite a lot. I think the story grew in my head in this city, but cities are very much the same. I've been in London recently and I feel that the book could actually be in London as well. When I had it in my head I visualised Glasgow. I think people might visualise their own city while reading the book. Glasgow in the book is just a place where Rilke moves very well." The Cutting Room was released in Great Britain at the end of last year and it won Louise raving reviews on many newspapers and magazines. The novel also won the Saltire Scottish Book of the Year Award, the British Crime Dagger Award and was nominated for Best First Book from the newspaper The Guardian and for the 2003 Orange Prize alongside Donna Tartt and Zadie Smith.
Set in Glasgow, this sort of crime-gothic novel is the story of Rilke, a gay auctioneer who comes upon a collection of graphically violent photographs and tries to find more about the owner and the supposed victim. In his search, Rilke meets policemen and pornographers, book collectors and auctioneers, transvestites and erotica experts, and makes a discovery journey to planet human nature.
Rilke's adventure starts in a sort of secret room of a house located in a Glasgow area called Hyndland. Here he finds shelves and shelves of assorted erotic novels, mostly books published by Parisian Olympia Press, funded in the '50s by maverick editor Maurice Girodias. Before turning into a brilliant writer, Louise worked as a second-hand book dealer and she seems to know a lot about people's tastes in books. "I started a second-hand bookshop with a friend when I left university," Louise recollects, "We rented a little bit of space and then a little bit more and we bought a lot of novels. The shop was in Glasgow, just off Byres Road, it was a really lovely shop and a good experience for me. We used to sell almost anything: we stocked a lot of specialist Scottish books, art books, some antiquarian books and current novels as well. We mainly sold a lot of literature. We also had a lot of Olympia Press books. From time to time they would turn up, though never the very rare ones. I think the Olympia Press books are quite well known now, relatively known I mean, so the ones everybody were looking for became rare. I also think they had small print runs so there wouldn't be any of them to begin with and they were kind of disposable too at the time, so a lot of them would have got lost, thrown away because they were paperbacks and relatively cheap at that point."
I wonder if, while working at the bookshop, Louise had to find a weird book for an eccentric client, "Oh gosh!" Louise exclaims, concentrating to find that odd title in her memories, "I can't think of anything now. They would always seem quite strange at the time and now I can't remember any! But you would find odd books in people's collections." Perhaps the inspiration to write a novel came to Louise by being in constant contact with all these books. "I did read a lot," Louise nods, "I have always read since I was a child. I read constantly and used the library a lot. We didn't have a lot of books in the house because my dad was in the forces and we often had to move, but we used to go to the library and, when I had the bookshop, I just read, read read! It was great! I think reading does improve your writing, it really does. I love Robert Louis Stevenson, he is definitely one of my favourite writers, but I really like William Burroughs, Muriel Sparks, Raymond Chandler and lots of other authors. Sometimes your favourite author is just who you're reading at the time. There are so many fantastic books out there and there is so much coming out in twenty years' time, think about how many books there will be then! If I had to recommend someone an author to read, I'd recommend Stevenson because, next to Shakespare, he is the writer in which there is more truth and I think that is something that would appeal to everybody. I would recommend something like Treasure Island 'cos I think everybody could read that book and everybody could enjoy it, it has got adventurous parts and sad parts, there's a lot of hope in it and it says a lot about human nature, so I think everybody could enjoy that book. I don't like books such as Bridget Jones's Diary, but I can see why people might love it and even with books I don't like, I tend to think 'Probably they've got some merit…' so I would say that as long as people read something I'm quite happy!"
"I scanned through the novels. Yes, here it was, the first edition of Burroughs' The Naked Lunch in its slip case. I had never handled it before. All the Henry Miller was here, too. The Olympia novels were just a start." Louise Welsh, The Cutting Room
"I was writing in my own time, but I was also working," Louise tells me how she started writing, "Then I got a couple of things published in a small magazine and I thought 'I'm quite good at this!' So I wrote a lot more and nothing really got published, but I had a portfolio. While I was a second-hand bookseller, I also did articles for bookselling magazines. One of my friends and I used to go to creative writing classes together. It was then that I read about the creative writing course starting at Strathclyde University in Glasgow and my friend said 'You MUST join, you MUST!' and she really made me join it! Without her help, I wouldn't have done it. I really enjoyed the course, as it helped me writing more seriously. It's true that you can't teach people what to write. You see, people have to be able to write already to do a creative writing course, but such a course can give you more confidence, it can put you in an environment where you meet lots of other writers and it can give you a lot of support because, even if you can write to an extent, there will still be things that you will be doing in the wrong way and can be improved."
"I personally got a lot of support during the creative writing course I followed. Someone came to review my work every fortnight, she was very talented and took my work so seriously that I really had to do well. I felt I had to please her, because she was taking the time to read my stuff and that was a privilege and encouraged me to keep on writing. It took me probably about 18 months to get a rough draft for The Cutting Room, then another additional six months for editing it. All in all it took me probably about two years. I usually write in complete silence if can. I've got a very small flat, the kitchen or the bedroom are quite quiet but if it's noisy, as sometimes there are children playing in the back courtyard, I put on some music, something slow and classical probably. I think that writing is so hard that if there is any distraction you start to go towards the distraction. I often wrote The Cutting Room in the morning. Once I started really getting into it, when I got a grant and later the contract, I just worked all the time, so sometimes I would be writing at night. I get tired quite easily, so I can't write much beyond ten o'clock at night, but I can get up at five in the morning and work. There are times when you just have to carry on writing during the night because you feel you're enjoying it, you feel like you're getting somewhere. "
"Bits of the novel came really quickly and other bits were just quite slow as for part of the time I was writing and working at various jobs as well. I can't remember the specific bits where I got stuck, but there were certainly points, the parts where your character has got to make a choice and you don't know what he or she is going to do and you really almost have to wait for the characters to tell you what they are going to do. So, when I didn't know what would happen, I had to go away and think, even stop writing for a few days. You see, sometimes, while writing, I get anxious and think 'Am I going to be able to do this?' and then I happen to dream the answers! It's just really strange but that's what happens. I don't think it's unusual, it happens to a lot of writers. A mathematician once told me that she dreamt and solved equations! I think it's just because you think about it so much that the solutions to your problems are in your head and when you relax and let go, they all come out. It happens with musician as well: they wake up and they know what to do with the score. I didn't really know what was going to happen to the characters while writing. I had an idea for the first few chapters and the next episode would come as I was writing another chapter. For example, as I was writing chapter three, I got an idea to write chapter five and it went on like that. A lot of the time I was wondering what would happen, which is good because, hopefully, the readers will wonder what will happen as they go along as well."
"I'm twenty-five years at the auction house, forty-three years of age. They call me Rilke to my face, behind my back the Cadaver, Corpse, Walking Dead. Aye, well, I may be gaunt of face and long of limb but I don't smell and I never expect anything." Louise Welsh, The Cutting Room
The auctioneer Rilke is the hero of Louise's story. He's a deranged but positive character. "I really like him!" Louise proclaims, "It's very strange 'cos a lot of people don't. I can't imagine not liking him, but I read a review and this woman said 'despite the revulsion you feel for him, you can't help feeling sympathetic'. I was at a party one evening when a woman said 'your character is horrible, what a horrible man he is' and I asked what she didn't like about him. She said 'It's not because I'm homophobic…' and I thought 'Oh, I bet it is, I bet!'" Louise laughs and continues, "I really like Rilke, I'm fond of him and I'm pleased with him. I would actually like to revisit him at some point and do something else with him, somewhere along the line, it would be good."
After reading Louise's novel, you might convene that the characters who deserve being hated are probably the antiquarians with their greedy manners and their scheming plots rather than the main hero. Chapters such as the ninth, "Caveat Emptor", give a good insight into the world of bidding and auctions. "I was very lucky because I worked in that world while I was dealing in the second hand bookshop, so I did know a lot about it," Louise explains, "But there were specific things that, once you sat down and thought about them, you didn't know in as much depth as you needed to know so I went to speak to an auctioneer and to other people in the trade. People are very generous with their knowledge sometimes, so I was very lucky. I would say that I did a research while writing the novel, but my research wasn't based on books, but on talking to people. I didn't model my characters on people I know, though I think that aspects of them are embedded in the characters. You couldn't really model a character on anyone in particular because, in a way, you couldn't know a person that well to get in their skin, to get to know what their hopes and dreams are in the way you get to know the hopes and dreams of a character you're writing about."
"The staircase was practically perpendicular. As I climbed, gravity seemed to increase, pressing firm and insistent against the lid of my skull. With every step, the pressure grew. And it seemed that the rungs beneath my feet began to take on an elastic quality, shifting with my tread. As the ground moved further away, my body began to sway." Louise Welsh, The Cutting Room
Halfway through the novel, the reader will be confronted by an unexpected sex scene, but also by one of the most tense moments of the whole story. Rilke finds himself following bookseller Steenie through the maze of his very gothic bookshop basement. While describing the characters climbing staircases and ladders, Louise has recreated the suspense you could find in a Robert Louis Stevenson novel. "At a certain point of Kidnapped, the main character is asked by his uncle who wants him to die to go up a long staircase," Louise explains, "There is a lot of suspense involved in the scene, it is a very frightening moment. Suddenly, there is a flash of lightening and the boy realises that there are no other steps there. I have always admired that part of the book, so I tried to recreate the atmosphere, although the scene in my book is very different. Robert Louis Stevenson is masterful and it would be impossible to compare yourself with him, but I wanted to try to get the atmosphere he got in his novel."
Perhaps it was the suspense in that part of the book that convinced Scotland based publisher Canongate to buy the title, or perhaps it was the story itself or the main characters. "Canongate is an Edinburgh-based publisher. I was at a Canongate party with another Glasgow-based writer, Zoe Strachan, when I asked a woman from the publishing house if she would have been interested in looking at the book," Louise remembers, "She said yes, so I sent her the first ten thousand words, and they requested more and then they requested another lot, I think they requested about thirty thousand words in all. They bought the book on the basis of that. That was great! That was ideal because it just made writing the novel like a proper job, I had to sit down and do it because people were waiting. I was really surprised by the success the book got. The week the book came out I felt really tense, really worried. I hadn't actually worried until then. I was probably more worried about finishing it, as it seemed such a huge task. The idea of getting published was just too bizarre, very remote. So when the book came out, I sort of decided that it would probably disappear because a lot of first novels, even if they get good reviews, don't necessarily get a lot of commercial success and when the second book comes out, and that's more promoted, then the first one can sell again. It was very exciting for me getting all that attention, all the big newspapers in Britain wrote about the book, The Guardian, The Telegraph, The Times, The Independent, it was really fantastic, they all gave me good reviews. Then lots of little newspapers followed. I've been lucky, very lucky. I think I got all that good feedback because The Cutting Room was picked up by The Guardian before it came out and they did a big feature on their Saturday magazine about it. My dad is now the keeper of my unofficial archive: he goes through the Internet practically every day. He puts my name into the search engine and sees what comes up. That's very nice!"
The Cutting Room is now being translated into eight languages. "I'm really really pleased about this, " Louise enthuses, "I thought perhaps the sexual content would restrict it, but it doesn't seem to have, so that's good! When I think about my book, I also think about another book, The Confederacy of Dunces. That's a very good book but its author, John Kennedy Toole, worked for ten years on it and, in the end, I don't know if it was because the book didn't get published, but presumably other things happened as well, he killed himself. His mother campaigned for another fifteen years and eventually his book got published and it was a huge hit. So, even if I have one success ever, well, I won't care because I had a good time. At the moment I don't even consider myself a novelist! It's very strange, but I consider myself as someone who's written one book and needs to write another. When we were doing the creative writing course we used to ask ourselves 'do you consider yourself a writer?' I cannot even be sure that I can make a claim to that. As long as I manage to do another book, then I don't mind what genre my book is put into. I definitely love the crime genre and I love gothic books, so I would be happy to be included in any of them really."
"I had an idea of what I was going to do next. My game is knowledge and contacts." Louise Welsh, The Cutting Room
At present Louise is busy writing but also teaching creative writing: "I teach a class for visually impaired people and I teach an evening class with writer Zoe Strachan at Glasgow University. It's not really like real teaching, it's more facilitating and making everything easy for people who want to write, giving feedback on their work. But you must make sure that teaching doesn't impact too much on your work. If you teach too much you can't write because teaching takes a lot of time. For the time being I probably want to keep it on that level, but there is always the financial struggle. So, it's OK at the moment but, then, a couple of years down the line, you might have to do it as a job."
A new novel is already in the works for Louise: "I'm hoping, I'm really hoping, to finish the first draft by October. This book is going to be different from the last one and that is just the way that it is because writers must be true to what they have to write. You just have to write what you can write and my publisher is fine, they don't say 'Please write something that was the same as the last one.' Perhaps they will look at the new novel and say, 'Well, we don't want it,' but you must try not to twist yourself into a commercial writer. You have to keep some integrity. I'll work on the book in France. I'm going there for two months, March and April, as I've been given a grant from the Robert Louis Stevenson Memorial Award to go and stay on my own at the house where Stevenson met his wife. Every year a writer is sent to this place in France. I couldn't have afforded it myself, so I think it's just fantastic! It's a privilege and it's really lovely, but it's scary as well. So, I MUST work on my book while I'm there and finish it. You see, I got a grant from the Arts Council when I was writing the first book, and then I felt that it wasn't just me, but also other people who were expecting the book from me and I couldn't let them down."
There are no plans for a collection of short stories, but they aren't excluded from Louise's agenda: "At present I have a couple of short stories sitting there. Short stories are difficult because it's like trying to write the depth of a novel in such a short area. I never feel my short stories are as good as I want them to be. I had bits and pieces published in magazines but I think I would go over them again and really edit them. For the most part my stories were published on small magazines or journals. Some stuff was published for example on Cutting Teeth, a story was also featured in the Sunday Times at Christmas time, which was fun because it was a thriller ghost story. I would love to collaborate to an anthology, I think it would be good fun." There might be also a movie taken from her first novel in Louise's future. "The book has been optioned," she reveals, "But 90% of the films that get optioned never get made, so I'm keeping this in my head and think they haven't actually started to make the film yet. But if it goes ahead, it should be directed by a Scottish guy and Robert Carlyle will play Rilke."
"It was an envelope. Just a buff-coloured, thick-papered, document envelope. Straight away I knew it held photographs. I could feel them, the weight, the uniform size, photos not good enough for an album. Two thick rubber bands secured the folds, one pink, one blue. Pink for a girl. Blue for a boy. I pulled the bands off, slipping them tight around my wrist, they caught in the hairs of my arm, swift visions of mad nights. I kept them there, a taut reminder, and slid the photographs into my hand."
An ambulance rushes along Byres Road, its siren deafening the passers-by. People rush here and there under a rare and beautiful Glasgow sun. A 44 bus collects people at a bus shelter not far from where Louise and I were sitting. I jump on the bus. I sit upstairs, fantasising in my mind of meeting Rilke on this bus. I turn around and scan the other passengers. A father and a child, a student, a young man in a smart suit. None of them looks like the image of Rilke I have now formed in my mind. I open Louise's book at the first chapter and start to reread the novel. Chapter one: NEVER EXPECT ANYTHING. By the time I have read the first page, the bus has reached Hyndland Road and I'm still dreaming of being able to meet Rilke and to help him in his quest.
Special thanks to Louise Welsh for her patience in answering all my questions!