Reading and writing

Louise Welsh: “It was like driving with the headlights off” | Detective novels

Lthe intensely atmospheric debut novel by ouise Welsh, The cutting room, won awards and plaudits when it was published in 2002. Its protagonist is Rilke, a gay auctioneer and accidental detective who stumbles upon a disturbing cache of photographs. Now, 20 years later, comes an equally compelling sequel, The second cut, in which Rilke must navigate Grindr, queerwashing and Covid restrictions, as well as murky events at a crumbling mansion and the sudden death of an old friend. Welsh, born in 1965, is a creative writing teacher and former old bookseller. Like Rilke, she lives in Glasgow with her partner, writer Zoë Strachan.

Why did you wait so long to write a sequel?
You have to have the right story, and I guess I didn’t really feel like I had anything to add. The cutting room changed my life, so I didn’t want to do anything lame.

What made you feel differently?
I think that’s changed enough now. I wrote that first book with hysterical laughter and a lot of anger during the campaign to defeat Term 28. Now we’ve had equal marriage for a long time, hate laws… A lot has changed in the auction world too. Plus, Something Good Happened: The Saltire First Book Prize Awarded Best 30-Year-Old Winner [the Most Inspiring Saltire First Book award]and the public voted for The cutting room. It was just another little scramble.

What was it like finding Rilke?
It was really great fun. I haven’t gone back to read the previous book – you don’t want to ventriloquize something you did earlier – but we share some memories, Rilke and I, about the history of this town. Another treat was that I got permission to think about the fabric of things, because Rilke is an auctioneer [both novels involve him being called to do a house clearance]. When he picks up something, he knows where it came from, and there’s some detective work in there.

Do you and Rilke share any characteristics?
He’s tall, he’s thin, he’s a man – my physical opposite. And I think he’s better than me: he sees something wrong and goes to fix it. We share a sense of humor.

Did you plot a lot before you started writing?
It was like driving with the lights off – you have scenes in your head but there’s a lot of instinct. I knew I wanted to start with the wedding of the two Bobbys [Rilke’s friends have the same name]. People still have ideas that queer lives are a bit transitory; they confuse this with simply being completely sexual – chance would be a beautiful thing! And so I wanted this image of a lasting relationship, because Rilke won’t have that. To some extent, the genre demands this; if he settles, it’s a different book.

To doDoes being described as a mystery writer make you feel locked away?
It’s an extremely large church so I’m happy. Along with love stories and ghost stories, detective writing is an essential part of life. Love, fear, justice – it’s always been there. I guess the fact that it has sometimes been kind of denigrated means the person on the street is empowered to pick it up, and that makes it a great political tool. Each writer also decides their own ethics, so my books don’t contain a lot of murder, and they tend not to have the naked, tortured female body.

Do you worry about the impact of such images?
It’s not my favorite image. At the same time, we know that women are murdered, so how do we represent the world if we don’t represent this torture, which we know some people enjoy and find energizing for some reason? I think Denise Mina is really good at addressing the misogynistic aspects of society. You can feel the political commitment and yet she expresses it in a story that people will want to read. This is good advocacy work.

How integral is Scottishness to your writing?
Identity is funny because you don’t go to your office thinking Here I am, a Scottish lesbian novelist, writing at the beginning of the 21st century… But I inhabit this landscape and it is the language on which I draw .

You have a wall of books behind you (we are on Zoom). How do you organize them?
It’s very willy-nilly, like a reflection of my brain. You can’t find anything. We’re moving into the downstairs apartment and maybe we’ll crack this time.

As a former bookseller, are you good at wrapping books?
The thing is, you get distracted, because you think, I remember reading that. Fortunately, I have a very strong friend who will help me. I won’t be able to watch because he’s running with the boxes and I’m catastrophizing – I see accidents everywhere.

What’s the last really great book you read?
I really liked Pat Barker The Women of Troy. The things he tells you about war and the consistency of how women in particular are treated – she’s an amazing writer. I also thought of Ai Weiwei 1000 years of joys and sorrows was great.

Did any of your childhood readings stand out to you?
All of Robert Louis Stevenson – I think because it was read to me. I used to pull a bunch of Alfred Hitchcock ghost stories out of the library with very spooky covers, and I still remember some of them. Maybe that’s why I write the kind of stuff I do. What do I associate reading with? Adventure, being afraid or being sad – an emotional response, anything that makes the blood flow faster.

What’s the last book you put down without finishing?
I’m not finished Thousand and one Night again. I started it because I was interested in the story of the Three Apples, which is about a woman whose body is dismembered, so it’s a very early iteration of that image we were talking about.

Do you have a favorite literary hero?
I love Sarah Waters’ books and her female characters – there’s always someone heroic, admirable, and flawed enough for you to love her. I also thought of Rebecca recently – which in my opinion isn’t the best book in the world, but who wouldn’t want a friend like Mrs. Danvers? She is so loyal and passionate.

The second cut by Louise Welsh is published by Canongate (£14.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at Delivery charges may apply

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Margarita W. Wilson

The author Margarita W. Wilson