Edinburgh International Book Festival author Louise Welsh: ‘It was fun to write and has lots of jokes!’

Praised for her unflinching portrayals of Glasgow’s underbelly, the best-selling author of The Cutting Room waited two decades before writing a sequel. She talks to Susan Mansfield about crime, precarious rights, and chatting with the First Minister

I’ve parked next to the murder victim’s flat, Louise Welsh tells me when I turn up on her doorstep in Glasgow’s Charing Cross. This is the murder victim in her latest novel, The Second Cut, the long-awaited sequel to The Cutting Room. And it’s a novel of Glasgow – real Glasgow, her Glasgow, Rilke’s Glasgow.

Twenty years after her best-selling first novel, she decided to return to Rilke, her gay auctioneer anti-hero, and give him another mystery to solve. “A writer friend asked: ‘So, did you tap him on the shoulder, or did he tap you on the shoulder?’ and I thought that was a really good way of putting it because I’d often thought about it. It was like seeing your friend in the street, but they don’t meet your eye and you know it isn’t the right time. And then it was the right time.”

When she wrote The Cutting Room, she had a Masters in Creative Writing and was eking out a living selling second-hand books. She thought it “might appeal to some gay Glaswegians”. In fact, it won the Saltire Society First Book Award and went on to be translated into more than 20 languages (recently, it was voted the Most Inspiring Saltire First Book by readers). That was another reason she felt nervous about the sequel: “That book changed my life, and I didn’t want to foul it up!”

On Monday 15 August, she will be on the Edinburgh International Book Festival’s new main stage at Central Hall talking about The Second Cut with First Minister Nicola Surgeon. “I’m wondering if I can get a new dress!” she laughs. “I’m glad we have a First Minister who likes reading and respects reading and promotes reading. She’s very knowledgeable. That’s the fear – that she’ll mention books I haven’t read!”

The Second Cut begins with the death of the unfortunate Jojo, whose flat I’ve parked beside. A tricky character who lives his life on the edge, he’s little mourned, and his suspicious death gets little police time, something that angers both Rilke and Welsh: “The way in which some deaths are considered more tragic than others; the idea that sometimes we don’t have an advocate so things slip between the cracks.”

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This sense of principle drives the book. While Rilke still follows his own code as regards his own behaviour (and now he’s on Grindr too), he has an unmistakable sense of morality. His is a city where the homeless, the drug-users and the closeted men who go to violent orgies all have a place. Meanwhile, a silent, illegally trafficked workforce melts into the crowd. Welsh looks nervous for a moment: “But it was fun to write and has lots of jokes in it!” she adds.

The book was also a chance to take stock of how much has changed in two decades for the LGBTQ+ community. The Cutting Room was written during the Section 28 campaign which attempted to ban the discussion of homosexuality in schools, and was fuelled by anger at how the gay community was being portrayed. Now, gay people have access to equal marriage and hate-crime legislation; The Second Cut begins at a gay wedding. Queer stories are now finding space across the arts in a way hard to imagine in 2002.

Louise Welsh PIC: Steve Lindridge

There is also a (very funny) scene in which Rilke and his friend Les, a small-time drug dealer who likes to wear a dress, find themselves at a no-platforming rally in a crowd of young gay, trans and non-binary people. “You can’t write a book about contemporary queerness without acknowledging that – what might you call it – gender politics? Rilke and Les are guys who have lived a queer life for a long time. They’re not shocked by the younger kids, but they find some of the language funny, and I think they object to the fact that the kids think they are a bit past it. People have always been looking at the previous generation and thinking, ‘I’ll never get as old and ugly as you.’ You don’t have to be queer for that to happen!

“It feels precarious sometimes, these changes that would have been unimaginable at the point of writing The Cutting Room. This is the 30th anniversary of Pride, and for every step we take, someone has taken a step before us that enables us to do that. But I heard recently that a Tory MP was talking about why we should renew Section 28. We know that freedoms are hard won and easily lost, so we can’t be complacent.”

The novel was finished during lockdown, in which Welsh and her partner, writer Zoe Strachan, explored much of the city on foot. She had already imagined a global pandemic for her Plague Times trilogy (albeit with a more destructive virus than Covid-19). What was it like to find herself, suddenly, living through the real thing?

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“I was no better prepared than anyone else. These things are out there – the Black Death has never gone away, but we have this international joined-up world, and virologists are very good at speaking to each other and spotting these patterns. I hadn’t thought this would happen at some point in my lifetime. I did the same things as everybody else – I made bread!”

And she continued teaching at Glasgow University, where she is Professor of Creative Writing; she is proud that they didn’t miss a class. “But it wasn’t good for writing. People kept saying: ‘It must give you so much more time!’ For the first fortnight, I couldn’t even read. It was very useful for me that I had a deadline – and a mortgage!”

She has been teaching a module on crime fiction, the place in literature where she feels most at home. Between the two Rilke books are highly regarded stand-alone novels including Tamburlaine Must Die, The Bullet Trick and The Girl on the Stairs, all with a crime element. “I’d like to write something serious and East European, but then someone gets shot, someone else takes their clothes off, somebody’s drunk in the corner!” she laughs. “I guess, like a lot of people who work in this genre, I like stories. I think I understand the world through stories.

“Sometimes people feel the crime genre is denigrated, and they get very angry about it. I can see where that anger comes from, but I also think: who do you want to be with? Don’t you want to be in the genre that everyone feels they can read? Remember those paperback carousels you used to get? I’d like to be on the carousel. I’d like to have a dog-eared copy in Bobby’s Book Exchange.”

Louise Welsh is in conversation with Nicola Sturgeon at Central Hall, 15 August, 5.30pm, www.edbookfest.co.uk. The Second Cut is published by Canongate.