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'Skagboys': Heroin Highs In 'Trainspotting' Prequel

The boys are back — Mark Renton, Sick Boy, Spud, Begbie and other memorable characters from Irvine Welsh's 1994 novel, Trainspotting, come back to life in Welsh's new book, Skagboys.

Trainspotting depicted life among a group of guys struggling to survive a grim existence on heroin in late-1980s Edinburgh — which Welsh knew about from his own history of addiction. Those characters also starred in the subsequent Danny Boyle film, and a sequel written by Welsh, called Porno.

Now Welsh has tried to fill in the lives of Rent, Spud and Sick Boy before we met them. Skagboys, filled with twists, turns, heroin highs and lows and Scottish vernacular, is a prequel to Trainspotting.

NPR's Scott Simon speaks with Welsh about addiction, class and why Welsh just can't let these characters go.

Interview Highlights

On why he decided to bring back the characters from Trainspotting in his new novel

"Yeah, I kind of did miss them, and I had original material from Trainspotting that I didn't use, and ... I sort of rediscovered that material and kind of went through it, and by going through it, I got back into the characters. And it's more of a 'why' book ... it's why did they get into heroin? Why did they fall into this subculture? And it's investigating the characters, the relationships between them, but also the bigger society [and the] ... kind of changes in that society."

On whether the current political climate influenced his renewed interest in these characters

"It's tempting to say so. I mean ... on one level, you have a conservative government again, which is cutting a lot of services, and, you know, unemployment's rising — very much the same landscape to the Thatcher era. But you're seeing some more of the same things that happened in that era: ... You had the riots last summer in London, which very much evoked the '80s."

On why Mark Renton, one of the characters from the novel, gets into drugs

When there's no employment and education and opportunities, it's almost like drugs win by default. There is, literally, nothing else.

"He's naturally a very curious person. But ... one of the main reasons I think is [the] symbiotic relationship with some of the other characters in the book, particularly Sick Boy's character. I don't think Renton or Sick Boy would have been junkies if they hadn't met each other. It's a kind of folly-of-youth thing that they have. They get introduced to sort of a small heroin subculture, and that becomes part of their life. And then what happens is this small subculture becomes a mass culture as the city becomes flooded with heroin, and everyone suddenly becomes into it, because it feeds off the kind of despair of mass unemployment and lack of social mobility in general. It's a kind of no-brainer, because when there's no employment and education and opportunities, it's almost like drugs win by default. There is, literally, nothing else."

On the link between socioeconomics and the drive to succeed, as reflected by his novel's job-shunning characters

"That's another kind of element of the waste in poorer communities — the way that people's expectations are so proscribed. There are so many people who could do great things, but all that energy is kind of pushed into the only thing they know ... scamming and hustling. And if that energy was transferred into other entrepreneurial activity, it would just be a powerhouse for the economy.

Irvine Welsh is the author of <em>Trainspotting</em> and <em>Filth</em>. Apart from his novels, Welsh also writes screenplays and produces films.
Jeffrey Delannoy / W. W. Norton & Company
W. W. Norton & Company
Irvine Welsh is the author of Trainspotting and Filth. Apart from his novels, Welsh also writes screenplays and produces films.

On why he chose to set his novels in Edinburgh, Scotland

"I think as a writer, you want to write about where you come from, and the first instance is write about what you know. I didn't see it as a kind of big sort of social/political mission that I had to kind of validate my own community or my own kind of sort of culture. [But] when you start to use vernacular language you do get into this thing where ... it somehow becomes politicized in the whole sort of Western English-speaking paradigm. It's like, in our culture, in the U.K. and America, there is very much a kind of argument against difference — it's like a kind of upper-class, kind of metropolitan sensibility."

On how he was able to leave behind a life of heroin and addiction

"For me ... I wouldn't say it was a very easy thing to do, but it was something that I just felt had run its course, and it wasn't kind of offering me anything or showing me anything. It was just an inconvenience. And there was ... nothing kind of driving it. It's not so much how you get off; I think it's how you stay on is an important thing. I think there has to be kind of driving, compelling reasons to actually stay on drugs. And I think again, that comes down to sort of class and opportunity and poverty. ... Anybody can get addicted to heroin, but if you don't have any opportunities or anything going for you, it's much harder to get off it."

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NPR Staff