Inverness Book Festival: Louise Welsh
by Margaret Chrystall
FROM early on in the session with LOUISE WELSH, her own quiet, precisely-enunciated reading of the three crazy killing sprees that open her latest book had you hooked.
Following Doug Johnstone who had performed three songs at the end of his event, Louise joked with interviewer Lesley McDowall that they didn’t think the Inverness audience was ready to hear them sing.
Louise got ready to read us the opening of A Lovely Way To Burn, but having spotted the mike, said with some relish: "I’ll just stand up and read it – I can’t resist a nice stand up mike!"
The book is the first in what will be her Plague Times pandemic thriller trilogy.
So Louise – working on book two – is in the middle of steering her TV shopping channel presenter heroine Stevie towards survival from a killer virus bringing the UK to its knees.
though Louise started her writing career with crime novel The Cutting Room, as interviewer Lesley quickly pointed out, the books that followed have all been very different from each other as Louise continues to experiment with forms, themes and genres of fiction.
Lesley had spotted that Louise’s latest book links back to her second, Tamburlaine Must Die, set in 17th century London and the sudden death of playwright Christopher Marlowe.
In the reading, Deptford is mentioned in an overheard quote on the street by heroine Stevie.
And Louise explained: "The mention of Deptford is quite a personal one. For those of you who don’t know about Marlowe – the poet, playwright, spy – he died after being stabbed in the eye on a pub crawl in Deptford.
"I wrote the book Tamburlaine Must Die about Marlowe’s final days.
"When I had just finished this book, I was in London and as I walked down the streets of Soho one night, there was just nobody there, just this weirdly empty street. A young couple came towards me hand in hand and as they passed me, he said ‘That’s me done in Deptford’.
"And I thought that’s me done in Deptford, as well.
"You don’t want to be too self-indulgent but there are just little clues to other books. And of course Marlowe is stabbed through the eye and it was the first day of summer and he’d been drinking all day, it was a row over the bill … and it’s a death that could still happen anywhere in London, Glasgow and no doubt Inverness as well."
But for those who fell for Louise’s writing with her first book, The Cutting Room – and still hanker for a return of lead character Rilke – the hope is faint, but may be rewarded.
Louise explained she hadn’t wanted to write a follow-up straight after the original just for the only reason that it would be a good idea commercially.
"I was told we could get all these foreign sales and it would be a commercial proposition to do it, but nobody ever put me under any pressure to do that.
"I was very lucky, the second book that I did was completely different.
"I’ve left it long enough now that it wouldn’t be a big commercial proposition, so I ve got that freedom.
"You do the book that you want to do,
"He’s changed and I’ve changed," she said of Rilke.
"If you don’t feel it and you write it then I don’t think it would be very good. And I think that would be a disappointment. But you woudn’t do it unless you felt it.
"I’ve had ideas for a book with him.
"But I feel I only have so many books in me and I have to write those books.
"I had thought perhaps that in 10 years time or something I might use the Patricia Highsmith model – every 10 years she wrote a Ripley book – but 10 years have been and gone and I didn’t feel it.
"But I never say never."
Asked about inspiration for her Plague Times trilogy with its killer disease "The Sweats", the Glasgow writer mentioned earlier sci fi TV dramas Threads by Barry Hines and Survivors by Terry Nation that had made an impact on her as a youngster.
"And I do love things like the John Wyndham books where extraordinary things are happening in landscapes that we recognise. British sci fi does that rather well," said Louise.
She revealed that she plans to move the plague book North from London to the countryside for the follow-up where the impact of thousands dying is "harvests are rotting in the fields". The trilogy will end in Orkney.
Louise revealed that a way into a character she likes to use is looking at their job – and she is enjoying exploring the psychology of salespeople through Stevie.
The writer revealed her dad was a salesman and she did a lot of sales work herself when she was younger.
Her own role as a writer also includes defender, Louise said she feels the need to defend her characters.
"I always like all my characters, I’m protective of them. When one was criticised in a review, I felt as if it was one of my friends being attacked."
She explained how she coped with writing ‘baddies’.
"In real life, no-one will ever tell you they are a bad person.
"For negative characters, I imagine them telling me their justification for doing the bad thing they’ve done."
Though writing is a sit-down job, Louise said: "I’ve found I really like fighting, shooting, running – I enjoy writing this very active adventure novel.
"I began with reading things like Treasure Island and Robert Louis Stevenson and all those active books where people in high jeopardy get out of tremendous danger – and Kidnapped is a brilliant book where they are on the run the whole time. "I feel as if I’ve had a workout, though I’ve been sitting there the whole time!"
"I guess I hope that when the reader sits down to read the book they imagine me writing it. My sister asked me if I wrote the book faster as I got closer to the end because she reads it faster.
"But it’s all torture!"
Experimenting with different kinds of fiction is almost a mission, Louise revealed.
"New writers are energetic and raw and in any job, putting yourself in different realms, is an attempt to do that, to always be pushing yourself in some way."
"Survivors are not always likeable, they need to do things to survive.
"But Stevie is someone who runs into the fire.
"You don’t know what kind of person you are till disaster happens," said Louise, recalling seeing footage from the tsunami of a woman who was the only one running towards the sea as every one fled the beach, because her children were in the water.
"And they did survive," said Louise, as if musing on the idea that who dares wins.
And she revealed the bad news for those already showing signs of the onset of Plague Times fever – they will have to wait till March next year for the antidote, the second in the series.
"For me, writing it, I feel it has to take the time it takes," Louise said.
A Lovely Way To Burn by Louise Welsh is out now. Her website: www.louisewelsh.com