Recent Events

Saturday 3 October 2015

Louise Welsh


Lynne Patrick talks with Louise Welsh

Louise Welsh is one of those names that lingers in the background of crime writing, but a name we can expect to hear a lot more as her work grows in popularity and critical acclaim. She has won numerous awards for her work, including the John Creasey Memorial Dagger for her first novel, The Cutting Room.
Before her latest and most ambitious project, the Plague Times trilogy, set in an
uncertain near-future in the wake of a devastating global pandemic which has wiped out nine-tenths of the population she was already the author of a handful of the kind of books that can’t quite be classified but invariably contain a strong element of crime and mystery. She is also regarded with great respect by the Scottish literary establishment, to the extent that she recently became a professor at a leading
Intrigued? So was I...

Lynne:  Your books have been described as ‘straddling the line between literary and crime fiction’, and you’ve won awards on both sides of the line. Is that how you see your work?
Louise:  My books tend to have strong narratives, a fast pace and involve quests – characteristics typical of the crime genre. I engage with other genres too, notably gothic, horror and as the Plague Times series progresses, the realm of speculative fiction. I don’t think too much about where my work lies in terms of classification when I am writing – I do not want to be inhibited by ideas of what ‘fits’.

Lynne:  Do you think that line really exists in any meaningful way, outside the perception of booksellers who feel a need to categorize a particular author’s work?
Louise:  Booksellers are often influenced by publishers when deciding where to place particular novels on the shelf. Publishers and booksellers obviously need to sell books and it can be helpful for readers to know what kind of book they are buying. Does the line exist? I see it more as a Venn diagram with fuzzy edges. 

Lynne:  Assuming it does exist, which side of it would you prefer to be on?
At the risk of sounding like a copout, I don’t feel a need to take sides – but if anyone denigrates crime fiction I will fight them to the death!

Lynne:  Clearly a woman after my own heart! You were recently appointed professor of creative writing at Glasgow University. But still assuming the line exists, which side of it would you advise your students to aim for?
Louise:  It doesn’t work like that. A writing mentor’s role is not to tell other writers what to do, but to help enable them to find their voice. Someone may set out wanting to write solid, commercial fiction and discover they are a completely different type of writer. Conversely there have been some very unlikely top sellers. I would advise students to write the books that they want to write and not to try and second-guess the market. If your book does not do well commercially you will at least have the satisfaction of knowing you were true to your vision.

Lynne:  As a teacher of creative writing at a relatively high level, what will you look for in a student to render him or her qualified to pursue a degree level (or higher) course?
Louise:  Talent, energy and the potential and ambition to improve their writing.

Lynne:  Do you think it’s possible to teach someone to write, or is it the kind of innate talent which can’t be taught or acquired?
Louise:  No one can teach talent, but it is possible to support and mentor writers, in the same way that it is possible to work with artists in other disciplines. It is also useful for emerging (and established) writers to be part of an artistic community.   

Lynne:  Teaching must absorb a lot of both time and energy; and writers have to work hard these days to promote each book as it comes out. Do you find you have to set time aside for writing, consciously and deliberately?
Louise:  I am very lucky to have been appointed to a 0.2 professorship (one day a week). I treat writing as a job and have always set writing hours. Inspiration is very much a part of the process, but if I waited to be inspired I might never finish a book.

Lynne:  What brought you to fiction? Have you always been a writer of stories?
Louise:  Like most writers I have always been a reader. Stories are part of the way in which I understand the world.

Lynne:  If you had to choose, which would you prefer – big sales figures, or a prestigious award for your work?
Louise:  The two can be intimately connected – prizes can result in bigger sales figures. I’m lucky enough to have earned my living from writing for over a decade, but there are no guarantees and for most writers no safety net. I’ve been poor enough to know that poverty is not glamorous and I would prefer not to end my days in penury, but if my books stopped selling tomorrow I would keep on writing. It’s a compulsion.

Lynne:  Moving on to your recent and current work, the Plague Times trilogy: you started on the project long before the Ebola crisis made headlines, but the real-life scenario made your fictional one even scarier. What triggered the concept? A devastated world in the aftermath of a pandemic of holocaust proportions isn’t the stuff of everyday fiction.
Louise:  I was brought up during the cold war; it was a period when Armageddon seemed a distinct possibility. I also studied medieval history at university and became fascinated by the devastation wrought by the Black Death. The plague wiped out much of the population of Europe. It changed politics, art and the structure of society. I wondered how it might be were a similar event to happen in the twenty-first century.

Lynne:  Your scenario is a great deal darker and more horrific than, say, Terry Nation’s 1970s drama Survivors and its reworking a few years ago. Do you think it would be possible to turn your books into TV or film, or would they have to be so watered-down that the impact would be lost?
Louise:  Plague Times is partly inspired by television (including Survivors, and Barry Hines’s Threads). It would be pleasing to have the series re-infect TV or movie screens. I would only option the books to people I thought would do a good job – after that it would be up to them!  

Lynne:  How much of the trilogy is coming out of your imagination, and how much from research? How do you go about researching something so far outside most people’s experience?
Louise:  I spent time walking the places that I feature in the Plague Times series, looking at the buildings and landscapes, trying to imagine how they might be post-pandemic. I also read a great deal and interviewed historians and virologists. As the book progresses it becomes increasingly difficult to know where imagination and research intersect.

Lynne:  Who do you feel you are writing for? Is there a reader in your mind when you begin to write any new novel?
Louise:  I don’t have a specific reader in mind. I guess I write for the book and the characters that inhabit it.

Lynne:  The first two books in the Plague Times trilogy, A Lovely Way to Burn and Death is a Welcome Guest, contain ‘language which may offend some readers’, and a lot of graphic violence and descriptions of the appalling consequences of the Sweats, the disease which ravages the world. Is there anything you wouldn’t write, any line you wouldn’t cross?
Louise:  People sometimes get hot under the collar about swearing, but there is a sense of realism within my books which requires characters to use language that people use in real life. There are also scenes of sex and violence in my novels, but I am careful not to use gratuitous violence simply to turn the page. Like everyone else there are lines that I will not cross – but of course we all put our line in different places.

Lynne:  And finally – is there a project in your mind, waiting its turn after the Plague Times trilogy?
Louise:  I’ve always got lots of ideas – but knowing which one will stick is difficult!

A Lovely Way to Burn, the first volume of the Plague Times trilogy, was published last year.
The second,
Death Is a Welcome Guest,  is out now. The third and final volume is scheduled for 2016.
Louise Welsh’s earlier books are :The Cutting Room, Tamburlaine Must Die, The Bullet Trick, Naming the Bones and The Girl on the Stairs.

Lynne Patrick has been a writer ever since she could pick up a pen, and has enjoyed success with short stories, reviews and feature journalism, but never, alas, with a novel. She crossed to the dark side to become a publisher for a few years, and is proud to have launched several careers which are now burgeoning. She lives on the edge of rural Derbyshire in a house groaning with books, about half of them crime fiction.

No comments:

Post a Comment