Malta Book Festival: A pint with Irvine Welsh

Irvine Welsh, the international guest of the 2021 Malta Book Festival, will sit down for an extended interview with writers Wayne Flask, and again with Immanuel Mifsud in an exchange moderated by Mark Vella

Irvine Welsh
Irvine Welsh

Irvine Welsh is the international guest of the 2021 Malta Book Festival. He’ll be sitting down for an extended interview on his life and works with Wayne Flask, and again with Immanuel Mifsud in an exchange moderated by Mark Vella to discuss the generation-defining influence of the Scottish writer’s works.

Ahead of the Festival, the National Book Council spoke to the moderators and fellow writers who will be appearing on stage with Irvine Welsh at this year’s Book Festival.

Mark Vella is a writer, editor, translator, and the founder and former director of early-noughties publishing house Minima Publishers

Nearly a decade after the publication of Trainspotting in 1993, Minima was publishing daring fiction by a new generation of up-and-coming Maltese authors which have drawn comparisons to works by Irvine Welsh – what were you responding to with those publications?

We were mostly picking up on developments going on in the 90s in the UK, from Britpop and Cool Brittania to works like Irvine’s, especially right after watching the Trainspotting movie, or Niall Griffiths’, and seminal events such as the Young British Artists exhibition. All this signalled a certain way of interpreting our social realities by going against what we considered our stuffy literary and cultural forefathers  – I guess that Ġużè Stagno and Immanuel Mifsud are the two salient moments of this period – together with a yet unheard of, tongue-in-cheek approach to the general concept of the writer and literature and its promotion.

What was your reaction to the announcement of this year’s international guest at the Malta Book Festival? Did it bring back memories from Minima’s heyday?

It must be that so many years and lives seem to have passed, so the official news really hit me and took me back to a time that seems so distant now, but that really set the foundations, in its quirky and random way, for the current book scene – which thrives despite all that’s thrown against it.

Obviously, having Irvine Welsh here this year can be viewed as somewhat crowning the Minima legacy. Having read and watched Trainspotting, and then becoming a fan and follower of Irvine’s work, meant that his novels were, so to say, a reference point for a particular publishing and authorial ethos.

Immanuel Mifsud is a National Book Prize winning author and a lecturer at the University of Malta, where he teaches Maltese literature

For some time you’ve been introducing your students to Welsh’s books to speak of literary influence and place Malta’s literature in an international context. What did you make of the reviews of L-Istejjer Strambi ta’ Sara Sue Sammut (Minima, 2002) that commented on the influence of fiction concerned with drug habits and subcultures then associated with Irvine Welsh?

Quite honestly I don’t remember what the reviews were, although I do remember that Irvine Welsh was referred to quite a lot in the 90s here. And if I’m not mistaken that was even before the film version of Trainspotting came out. Those were the times when local newspapers were full of news and features about underground and unlicensed rave parties, ecstasy use, and the new craze with house, techno or whatever that senseless noise was called. We saw “sex, drugs and rock and roll” shift to “drugs and e” (not sure about the sex part despite all the bunk with love drugs and Sex Is Natural (SIN) parties). In spite of the similarities between what we were writing then and Welsh’s novels (and let us not forget my good friend Niall Griffiths too), there was one very important difference: unlike Welsh, we were not ravers ourselves. Or at least I wasn’t. I actually abhorred rave music and all that went with it. At one point, then, Mark Vella of Minima Publishers, told me there were too many junkies and dropouts, and too much drugs and sex in my books; so I wrote In the Name of the Father, where there are no drugs, but there were still a little sex and rock and roll.

Which of your books would you recommend to Irvine Welsh?

I don’t know what he likes reading. I could offer him to read Happy Weekend, which is a compilation of stories I had written in the 90s, but also The Best of Times which has just been translated into English and awaiting publication. For contrast, he could also read In the Name of the Father, published in the UK last year.

Wayne Flask is the author of the satiric works exposing Malta’s political class Kapitali (Merlin Publishers, 2017), and the play Sibna ż-Żejt. He is an activist in Moviment Graffiti.

You’ve made it no secret that the works of Irvine Welsh have been a source of inspiration for your own writing. Which elements in particular do you feel have shaped your work and sensibilities?

I think my biggest fascination with Welsh is the way he lived, absorbed and documented a whole underworld: from the drug culture and the club scene, to the social realities of Scotland under Thatcher, including the miners’ strikes and the HIV pandemic.

There are gritty depictions of working-class Edinburgh throughout his novels, built through characters who orbit in a parallel universe and who sometimes cross each other – be it within the club scene or on the football terraces.

Welsh and John Niven (also Scottish) are probably the first two authors who struck me from the get-go. Black humour’s got something to do with it, but their raw, aggressive writing has definitely chimed with me. Can’t really say Kapitali bears much of an inspiration from Welsh, though.

A few years ago you said in an interview you wouldn’t mind a pint with Welsh – what’s the first thing you’d like to discuss?

I’d like to know more about how the Scottish see their being colonised by the English.

There are some similarities between us and Scotland – apart from the coloniser, Maltese society is also highly polarised and divided in two on pretty much everything. Considering the surprising independence referendum vote a few years back, it’ll probably go down to more than one pint.