In Discussion with...
Interview for Crime Time with Louise Welsh
Antihero as hero – is this something you set out
to do in The Cutting Room?
Rilke was influenced by a long line of literary antiheros from
Caleb Williams to Philip Marlowe. I think it’s often the central
character’s flaws that help the reader relate to him/her.
On the whole though I consider Rilke to be a fine man and was quite
surprised when some reviewers said they liked him in spite of themselves.
What’s not to like? He’s hard working, brave, amusing,
loyal, compassionate and wants to find love. Okay he drinks too
much and resorts to violence a little too readily, but he’s
under a lot of stress. I couldn’t help wondering if some reader’s
reservations were due to his sexuality.
There are references to Keats, Verlaine, Blake, Poe, Rimbaud
(the poet, not the testosterone inflated film character) – even
the hero’s name is that of a poet. What’s the deal?
What can I say? I’m a poetry junky.
The Cutting Room has garnered a lot of literary
praise – as well as a hatful of literary awards. Were you
prepared for all this?
When I started writing TCR I had no confidence that it would get
published. Even after I’d received an advance from Canongate
based on the first 30 thousand words I thought they might ask for
the money back once they saw the completed draft. So no, I wasn’t
prepared for it, but the literary praise and prizes have been a
wonderful surprise. In fact the whole thing has been a life changing
Life changing how?
I live in the same tiny flat and have the same friends as I did
before TCR was released, but I can now write full time, something
I used to dream of!
Did you set out to write a crime novel?
I’m definitely influenced by crime writers – especially
Chandler. I didn’t set out to write a crime novel though and
it has been brilliant bonus to be welcomed so wholeheartedly by
the crime writing fraternity. I did self-consciously reference gothic
convention, however. For example the large house where Rilke begins
his quest is a constant in the gothic - think Bates Motel or the
House of Usher. My aim was to try and create that delicious feeling
of hesitation between the real and the unreal. I want to mess with
Do you think about the audience you’re writing for?
Readers are such a diverse bunch it would be impossible to imagine
a general audience. But writers are attempting to create a credible
world around a story, so I guess I do consider the reader because
I want them to understand and enjoy the book. I don’t visualise
them though. They’re just a hazy grey person, like someone
in a sexual fantasy . . .
The aspect of The Cutting Room that has proved
most controversial is the sex . . . Readers' responses have been
vehement – both in criticism and in praise of its honesty
and relevance to the development of Rilke’s character. What’s
At the core of the book is a selection of horrifying photographs,
which may depict the sexual murder of a young girl. The close description
of these photographs is at least as detailed as Rilke’s sexual
encounters. No one has expressed shock or disgust over them. I think
sex is important in novels as in life. Rilke is an out and about
gay man who has consensual safe sex with men over the age of twenty-one.
It’s hard for me to see any great controversy there. If people
don’t like it they can skip a paragraph or two.
Is there anything you won’t write about?
Writers have an obligation to the characters in their books, especially
their victims. I disapprove of including images of sexual violence
just to give the reader a quick thrill or liven the plot. I’m
very impressed by Alice Seabold’s Lovely Bones, where
the victim of a sexual murder narrates the novel from her vantage
point in heaven.
I’d also have a problem with using a recent actual crime as the basis
of a plot.
Give us a breakdown of your working day.
I like to get to my desk by 9am at the latest and spend at least
five hours working on fiction whether it’s going well or not.
I’m quite a slow worker. I use an old lap-top, edit as I go
along, talk to myself and drink at least 550 cups of tea a day.
I live alone so sometimes I go and work in Glasgow University library
for a change of scene. If I’m still working in the evening
I open a bottle of wine about six o’clock. Usually I only
have a couple of glasses, but it really helps.
The vignettes in the auction room on sale day give a portrait
of the antiques trade that is sharp and affectionate, and exposes
both the tawdry and the heroic aspects of it. Was this research
or do you have links with the trade?
I worked as a second hand book dealer for around ten years and
visited several auctions a week. It was great fun and I suppose
I was doing research without knowing it. There’s a great tolerance
of individualism in the second hand trade and most people are extremely
honourable. Indeed they depend on their honour, it’s a small
world and anyone dodgy will soon be excluded.
What are you working on now?
I have a couple of projects on the go. A novelette working title AKA
Xtopher, based around the murder of 16thc playwright Christopher
Marlowe which will hopefully be published by Canongate in 2004.
And two half hour programmes A Gothic Quest for Radio
4, which will be broadcast this November. In the Autumn I’m
going to return to a full-length novel Torchlight set
around an art deco cinema.