Louise Welsh’s life of crime - the academic and author on her latest thriller and heading to Granite Noir

From The Cutting Room to her new darkly comic, gritty novel, To The Dogs, Glasgow looms large in the author’s work
Louise Welst at the University of Glasgow. Pic: John DevlinLouise Welst at the University of Glasgow. Pic: John Devlin
Louise Welst at the University of Glasgow. Pic: John Devlin

What would you do to save the person that you love?

This is the central question at the heart of multi-award winning Scottish writer Louise Welsh’s new book, To the Dogs.

Her 10th novel, it’s a gritty, darkly comic tale of crime, corruption and compromise, academia and achievement, love and loss, set in Glasgow about which fellow crime writer Val McDermid says: ‘I doubt I’ll read a better book this year’.

Antuhro, Louise Welsh at Glasgow University. Pic: John DevlinAntuhro, Louise Welsh at Glasgow University. Pic: John Devlin
Antuhro, Louise Welsh at Glasgow University. Pic: John Devlin

We meet outside Welsh’s office at Glasgow University where she is a professor and teaches creative writing two days a week. In the gothic surroundings she cuts a dramatic figure, her red lipstick matching red leather gloves that pop out from a black puffer jacket, a killer smile warming up the bitterly cold winter’s day. Inside, while she busies herself making reviving cups of ginger tea a quick glance around her cosy office reveals books and more books, on shelves, stacked on sidetables, fiction and fact, old and new, with multiple post-it notes poking up from spines. She grabs a book from a shelf, a vintage copy of Three Women and a Car, and uses it to prop open the window.

“That poor book’s been abused very badly because it’s always in there,” she says, moving aside a rolled up Robert Louis Stevenson poster awaiting a frame. “I don’t always treat books with respect,” she says and laughs.

That’s not something you can say about Welsh’s books which have won a stack of awards, including the Crime Writers' Association John Creasey Memorial Dagger, the Saltire Society Scottish First Book of the Year Award, the Robert Louis Stevenson Memorial Award and 2004 Scotland on Sunday/Glenfiddich Spirit of Scotland Award.

Her latest, To the Dogs, is no exception, winning a Times new crime fiction title. Was she pleased with how it turned out?

Crime thriller writer Louise Welsh will appear at Granite Noir, Aberdeen's crime writing festival. Pic: ContributedCrime thriller writer Louise Welsh will appear at Granite Noir, Aberdeen's crime writing festival. Pic: Contributed
Crime thriller writer Louise Welsh will appear at Granite Noir, Aberdeen's crime writing festival. Pic: Contributed

“Always pleased to get one off the books,” she says. “But I don’t know if anyone’s ever pleased with their work. If you’re in America or London you have to say ‘ yes, its brilliant!” but here it sounds… I really worked hard on it and I really hope it’s good. I think that’s as far as us Scottish people can go. I hope people enjoy it. And I hope it gives people a laugh, because it’s meant to have a comic aspect.

“It starts with a guy called Jim Brennan who is a professor at a Central Belt university in Scotland and everything is going brilliant for him. Jim comes from a working class background but has risen to the top of the tree. He is vice chancellor and may be in line for the very top job as principal and he’s got a lovely wife, nice house, two children and this is where the problem comes in, because his son Elliot is arrested on drugs charges. He breaks his bail conditions and ends up in prison and out of the woodwork come all of these people Jim thought he had left behind. And the question at the centre of the book is ‘what would you do to save the person that you love?’ It turns out that JIm will go a really long way. But it turns out also that the things that make him a very effective academic also help him out in gangster land.”

Brennan was raised by a hard man who was a big fish in a small, violent pond and while he has escaped into academia, when his world and family are threatened, it seems he is more like his father than he thought.

“Jim believes he’s stepped out of his shadow but it’s like a horror movie. Just when he thinks he’s got away, out comes the hand and tries to pull him back. Jim’s travelled a long way in terms of opportunities but geographically he’s not moved far and I think that’s true of a lot of cities. Maybe especially Glasgow where geographically things sit very close and yet some people are in one world and other people are in another.”

Scottish writer Louise Welsh's latest book, To the Dogs, is set in Glasgow and published by Canongate. Pic: Julie BroadfootScottish writer Louise Welsh's latest book, To the Dogs, is set in Glasgow and published by Canongate. Pic: Julie Broadfoot
Scottish writer Louise Welsh's latest book, To the Dogs, is set in Glasgow and published by Canongate. Pic: Julie Broadfoot

“Edwin Muir, I think in the 1930s, said the thing about Glasgow is you can’t go far without seeing a slum - and he uses the word slum - and says this is good because when we have slums everybody should walk through them, and I think that idea of the doughnut town where deprivation is on the outside is even more obnoxious. We would prefer not to have deprivation and in a country like Scotland it seems bizarre that we have homelessness, but if we have it we should see it.

To the Dogs takes the reader from the gleaming spires of the university on the hill to the grimy underworld of the city and back again and it’s easy to see where she got her inspiration.

When you think of any of these big institutions, universities, the church, politics, it is like a microcosm of the world. They need to respond with the world and innovate, and there are a lot of different personalities who have to get along but don’t always.

“I think people still have an idea of universities as being very tweedy places where men do things in smoky rooms and the modern university isn’t like that. It has a lot of people like me who were the first in my extended family to go to university, so there isn’t that idea of you inherit this. There’s a concern most of us feel that the doors we walked through are closing and I think Jim [Brennan] is a decent bloke who’s really had to push his way in, but he’s also active in closing the doors. He’s the guy that would say, let’s knock down adult education, let’s sell off all the student accommodation, and I don’t think he realises that’s what he’s doing.

Louise Welsh, whose new book To The Dogs is out now. Pic: John DevlinLouise Welsh, whose new book To The Dogs is out now. Pic: John Devlin
Louise Welsh, whose new book To The Dogs is out now. Pic: John Devlin

Everyone should be aware of how increasingly difficult it is to come from backgrounds that don’t traditionally go to university and then how difficult it is to stay, because it’s not just arriving, it’s staying. And if you’re having to do a full-time job and a full-time degree, it’s not tenable. It’s not just in academia, but in the arts too. We want to hear stories from everybody, we want everybody’s life to be represent in the arts, and yet it’s getting to a point where we’re going to just hear middle class and upper class stories and the rest will be taken away.”

Like the university building around us, the Gothic cloisters alongside shiny new tower blocks, the fabric of the city looms large in Welsh’s writing.

“I love Glasgow. I came here to university in 1985 and with a few diversions have been here more or less ever since. I like when you’ve lived in a city for longer and see different layers, remember what was there before and see what’s there now and know more about the history. My friend Jude and I did The Empire Cafe [an event dedicated to discussing Scotland’s links with transatlantic slavery during the 2014 Commonwealth Games, which she conceived and co-created with Jude Barber of Collective Architecture] and we’re working on a podcast, Who Owned the Clyde? It’s history informing the present and about who owns the water, the bed, the banks. Why doesn’t it operate in our city like it does in many modern cities? We’re hoping it will come out this year.”

In the immediate future Welsh will be appearing at Granite Noir, Aberdeen's crime writing festival this week, at an event with fellow writers Denise Mina and Charles Cumming, hosted by Brian Burnett.

“It will be really great. Like all of Scotland’s cities, Aberdeen is a really literate city, it’s a city with beautiful architecture and it’s a city where you can have a lot of fun.”

Despite her long career, she still gets nervous about public events, launches and tours.

Louise Welsh at Glasgow University. Pic: John DevlinLouise Welsh at Glasgow University. Pic: John Devlin
Louise Welsh at Glasgow University. Pic: John Devlin

“I worry a lot in advance and then usually have a really good time. Being worried is an energy and you can use it, try and channel it. As you get older you realise I’m still going to have this feeling, I just have to learn how to harness it and make it into something better. But I’m going to be on with Denise and Charles Cumming and Brian Burnett is hosting - I’m probably a little bit shy of him ‘cos I listen to his Get It On show and always have a good suggestion and never phone in. Maybe I’ll do it before we meet.”

It’s surprising to hear that Welsh is still anxious about public events, given that her debut novel was such a runaway success. How did it feel to arrive on the literary scene to such a fanfare in 2002?

“It felt amazing. Because I’d been a second hand bookseller, I knew what happened to a lot of first novels so I was very surprised and really cheered up. Also because of the subject matter - this was the Keep the Clause campaign period and a tough time to be LGBQ+ and the hostility was palpable - and then people were so positive about this book. I had some really nice experiences like this guy came running out of a cafe and said ‘stop, stop, I just have to shake your hand, thank you’ and someone passing on a bicycle shouted ‘well done!’. It was really lovely. And it meant I could write another book.”

She wrote several other books, now totalling ten novels, along with four operas, short stories and has edited anthologies of prose and poetry. But why did it take her more than 20 years to do a follow up to The Cutting Room, with 2022’s The Second Cut?

“I just didn’t feel it and I had other things I wanted to do. Then the Saltire Society did a public vote for the 30th anniversary of their First Book award [in 2018] and it came up with The Cutting Room, and I was just amazed and very touched and very, very pleased.

“So I was thinking about that world again, and things have changed, notably equal marriage, which at the point of writing it you would have laughed. Who thought that would ever happen?

Certainly not Welsh, who was delighted to marry her partner, the writer Zoe Strachan, who has also published multiple novels and journalism and also lectures at the university, at the end of lockdown.

Is it helpful to have a partner who is also a writer?

“I couldn’t have a better partner really, whether Zoe was a writer or not, she’d always be a really good support. But ultimately yes. Sometimes with two writers somebody has to give up their craft for the other one, especially in male/female couples, and we made a conscious decision that wouldn’t happen. We swap work but we’re always mindful of the other person’s deadline. I’m really lucky, I’ve got a really thoughtful partner and we’ve a lot of shared interests, but then a lot of things she knows more about than me.”

As well as the moral and cultural landscape, the city of Glasgow has changed too and Welsh dug out the Cutting Room notebook she had kept over the years.

“The antiques world has changed too, and the city, with a lot of things that were there transformed or gone, and I felt I could write something new. I just thought ‘och I’ll try and if it doesn’t work it doesn’t work, just have a shot’. And it all just kind of stepped in.”

Growing up in Edinburgh, 59-year-old Welsh came from a home full of stories, whether it was in the books she was read as a child such as Robert Louis Stevenson, or the ones she borrowed from the city’s libraries and which sparked the idea of becoming a writer. There was also lots of family chat from a mum who worked in a wire factory and a dad who was a beer, wine and spirits sales rep.

“He was a great talker and latterly his area was Leith so he would be in all the pubs on Leith Walk and it was great because my dad wasn’t really a drinker - he was a glass of wine on a Saturday night with my mum kind of person - but every pub they’d say ‘would you like a coffee’, and you would hear bits and pieces. Things are always happening aren’t they? If you’re out and about, you see things.”

Being out and about and observing may be part of what makes Welsh’s characters, for all their unique eccentricities, authentic and believable. How does she achieve this effect?

“I think you have to spend a lot of time on it, thinking about it and watching people, how things are. If you’re writing about contemporary life, observe contemporary life, for example don’t think about when you were a child, but what is it like now. Listen to people. I always say to students ‘take your headphones off if you’re on the bus and listen’. I definitely do people watch, but hopefully not in a creepy way. And I love seeing what people are wearing.”

Spoken like a woman who used to work in a vintage clothes shop, an interest that shines through in her novels, such as The Cutting Room’s Rilke in his classic suits and Rose’s silk blouses and pencil skirts.

“I love her clothes,” says Welsh. “She wears all the things I can’t,” but I point out she’s wearing a silky black pussy bow blouse right now.

“Yes. Marks and Spencers. But watching, listening, being enquiring, watching television, reading newspapers as much as you can.”

What genre would Welsh say her novels fall into?

“I think I dip into different genres: crime, gothic, gothic crime thriller, that kind of thing. I really enjoy crime novels, I really enjoy gothic novels, I enjoy a really good ghost story.”

And what does she think makes a great story?

“I like jeopardy and some kind of political underpinning while not making it a manifesto, and characters you have some emotional investment in, whether you don’t like them, or are rooting for them even when they’re doing things they shouldn’t. I guess that’s why I like the word thriller because I want something that gets my blood moving. I like that at the theater as well, something where you hold your breath. Maybe that’s part of the reason I like opera too.”

She’s currently working on her fourth opera with composer Stuart MacRae for Scottish Opera, Anthropocene, a thriller set in an icy Arctic world transformed by climate change, which will be performed at Salzburg.

“Because even when you’ve seen something several times, you’re like ‘please let it work out differently this time.”

“With this book I think I was thinking about dread, because Jim, unlike most of my characters, has a life a lot of us would aspire to. The dread is how far is he going to go and how low will it take him, and you know because of the genre, something bad is going to happen.”

Welsh is also working on the third and final part of The Cutting Room story and will be taking the advice she gives to other aspiring writers:

“Sit down and do it. Don’t talk about it, sit down and do it. Because there’s a lot of fear of going to the desk. My way of dealing with it is to set myself a time so I will start work at 9am, but recognise that life does get in the way, so be kind to yourself. And read, just read, read, read, read, read.

“Sometimes people get macho about how many words a day, but however many you do, that’s how many you did. I have a terrible day sometimes, when you’ve put the hours in and come up with very little but that’s part of the process.

“You just have to keep on applying the seat to the chair and eventually something will come. We all see things we wish we could relate. And I guess I like telling stories. At a very simple level, I just like making up stories.”

To The Dogs, by Louise Welsh is published by Canongate, hardback, £16.99

Granite Noir 2024: Hidden Darkness with Denise Mina, Charles Cumming and Louise Welsh, Friday 23 February, 2024, 8pm, Music Hall, Aberdeen. For all Granite Noir events and tickets see aberdeenperformingarts.com/granite-noir