Louise Welsh dips a spoon into her soup bowl, pausing between sips while she rolls the notion of “sensationalism” around. “It sounds such a bad word, doesn’t it?” she says. “But there has to be something going on, some kind of excitement.”
The spoon now halfway to her mouth, she stops again. Yes, she says, “I do think I write sensationalist fiction, I do want people to feel things when they are reading it — thrilled, appalled, sick, happy.”
Miss Marple would have loved this: murder over the soup tureen. No one could be more charming than Welsh, the most acclaimed of literary thriller-writers, and her surroundings are delightful. Here in the top-floor Victorian tenement flat that she shares in the West End of Glasgow with her partner, Zoe Strachan, there are all the marks of domestic happiness: the bulging bookcases, the sunlit dining table, the Sunday china and the pretty milk jug. “Would you mind?” she asks, too small to reach up and pluck it from the shelf.
Inevitably, when the conversation turns to the author’s fictional world, things become darker. From the city beyond her window, the seemingly demure Welsh conjured a tale of pornography, abuse and murder for her 2002 debut The Cutting Room, which won a Crime Writers’ Association award. She returns to Glasgow again for Naming the Bones, her fourth novel, pulling Murray Watson, a prudish academic, out of his comfortable university office in pursuit of Archie Lunan, a dead poet of the 1970s. As he seeks to disinter the life of his hero, the hapless Murray encounters an increasingly chaotic world — drugs, infanticide, swinging and death — before he is finally thrust into a storm, on a remote island, for the book’s Gothic conclusion.
“Did you follow it? Oh, good,” Welsh says brightly from over the dinner table. “I spent ages on that. It’s quite quiet at the beginning. Hopefully you pull people along until, at the end, they are so much in the world that it all seems credible. Of course, if you started with all that” — “all that” being excess in almost every form — “it wouldn’t make much sense. It has to become sensational.”
The novel’s darkest moments are played out on the real island of Lismore, a short sail from Oban. Events become so extreme that Welsh felt obliged to write an apology to its residents on the final page. “Lismore is a beautiful island rich in wild life and archaeology situated in Loch Linnhe on the West Coast of Scotland,” it reads. “The islanders are friendly. The B&B is well kept and welcoming.” She chuckles at these words, but somehow her creative impulse always leads to a dark place. Welsh loves horror movies and reckons that a well-written thriller can bring on an endorphin rush in the reader. She adores Stephen King. Typically, when she embarked recently on the libretto for Remembrance Day, one of five 15-minute works commissioned by Scottish Opera, she “couldn’t help twisting the story” that Stuart MacRae, the composer, had suggested. So Welsh put in “something awful and disgusting”, to whit: a student whose heart is full of hope is murdered by an apparently senile old couple, after accidently rekindling their past as serial killers. The reviews were ecstatic.
All these dark imaginings bring to mind the furore surrounding remarks by Ian Rankin, who noted during an Edinburgh book festival the “interesting” tendency among some women writers to accentuate violence, reported in this paper under the headline “Revenge of the bloodthirsty lesbians”. She ran into Rankin (“a nice guy”) the next day and made a pretence of stabbing him while he pleaded for mercy.
Welsh laughs at the memory but appends a serious point. “We know women get relatively higher sentences than men for violent crime because women are not expected to do anything like that at all,” she says. “Women’s books seem more violent than the men’s because we are not expected to put anything like that in. In actuality, I’m not sure that they are more violent at all.”
Her own informal audit tells her that women in literature are patronised in other ways. They write as many books as men, form more than half the readership, yet only a third of the articles in The Times Literary Supplement are written by or about women. “That does cheese me off,” she says. “That is reflective of the rest of society — women still don’t hold the same positions as men, and anyone who doubts that simply has to look at their own institution, academic or business. How many men bosses are there, and how many women? Not many. When people say it’s because women take time out to have children, well don’t any of these men have children or families?”
None of these sentiments is delivered with anything like campaigning zeal. Indeed, in her soft voice, Welsh quickly shifts conversation on, puzzled, apparently, by aspects of her own work. It’s odd that women characters have often remained in the background in her books. Each of the first three novels is narrated in the first person by a male, but if Naming the Bones is in the third person its central character is still a bloke, Murray, who busies himself unearthing the remains of another man.
At its core, like so much of her work, is the notion of obsession. Welsh, 45, once ran a second-hand bookshop in Glasgow. She still loves the trade, and the passions of the readers and buyers as they chase down long-dead poets, or whatever secret urges drive them on. And from up here, over the teacups, she seems able to untangle all their lives. “It’s like the foxes in the back garden. Sometimes you look out and there is a whole world going on, a whole ecosystem — birds and foxes and cats. Everyone has their own world and sometimes we know nothing about it. Even the kinky stuff. It’s just a different way of being from us, a different type of hobby, I suppose.”
There is a pause. “All these parallel lives going on,” she sighs. “Would you like another slice of bread?”
Naming the Bones by Louise Welsh is published by Canongate, £12.99