Louise Welsh in conversation with Jenny Niven


Witness the meeting of two Scottish literary minds in this evening of discussion and reflection between Louise Welsh and Jenny Niven.

Delve into Scotland’s rich literary world as two iconic women come together to share insights, anecdotes, and revelations about their creative journeys. They will explore the nuances of genre, the intricacies of the creative process, and the profound influence of Scottish culture on their work. Professor Louise Welsh FRSE, acclaimed for her bold stylistic choices and cross-genre flexibility, debuted in 2002 with The Cutting Room, garnering critical acclaim. A member of the Royal Society of Literature since 2018, Welsh now teaches Creative Writing at the University of Glasgow. Cultural producer and director Jenny Niven has spearheaded various influential literary festivals, including the award-winning Push the Boat Out. She was named in The List’s ‘Hot 100’ people influencing Scotland’s arts and cultural landscape in 2022.


This transcript has been processed automatically, so may feature errors.

Jenny Niven 00:12

Louise Welsh everybody and Jenny Niven Hello, thank you so much everybody for coming out in such a beautiful evening, we will make sure that you made the right choice. But it is really lovely to see you all. And I believe that there’s some folks joining us from home as well, which is really lovely. Louise, this is an absolute gift, it’s so nice to be able to just have some time to sit down with you and catch up on all the amazing things that you’ve been doing, to talk about your new book ‘To the dogs’. And I think some of the sort of conversation prompts that the RSE trails that they’ve left for us is going to prove to be good fruitful for us this evening. So thanks so much.

Louise Welsh 01:02

Thank you. And I’m hoping we’re going to talk a bit about book festivals and the importance of libraries, which we all love and gateways to culture as well. How did how did we end up and how do they the audience as well? How did we end up being engaged with culture and thinking that it’s an important thing? The visual arts, the written arts and everything in between? Absolutely.

Jenny Niven 01:29

So for those of you that don’t know me, my name is Jenny Niven. I’m the Director of the Edinburgh International Book Festival. It’s nice to see some audience members and friends of the festival here this evening. I’ve had the privilege of knowing Louise for a long time. And we’ve had there was a sort of creative adventures thread in the blurb for this evening’s event. And we’ve been on some quite good creative adventures, which we will probably get into. But Louise, you will probably know as the author of nine novels. now. that’s right.

Louise Welsh 01:42

I think it might even be the 10. But I’m working on a new one. So I think I keep on adding that so it’s not finished

Jenny Niven 02:10

But also all sorts of short stories and libretta and an enormous inspiration to a whole generation actually of Scottish writers who have come up through the University of Glasgow Creative Writing programmes. She’s internationally translated, I believe the Cutting Room which came out in 2002. It won the Best of the Saltire fiction winners 30 years of the Saltire prize, which gives you a really good sense of the not just the kind of how well loved Louise’s books are, but for how long they’ve been sort of part of the literary landscape and the story of literary Scotland, at least the entire time that I’ve been working on I am and it’s really It’s really such an achievement. And I know so many writers whose work has been influenced by you and the work that you’ve done. Louisa, as you said a minute ago about around opening doors to culture, another something that you’ve been kind of really passionate about through everything you’ve done.

Louise Welsh 03:06

Yeah, and I guess I guess I feel if you manage to hang on, you know, if you managed to keep on working and keep on making work, and you know, we talk about monkeys with typewriters. And I think actually, when I think about writers, I think we’re all like these monkeys just trying to pull in you try and pull other monkeys up with you, as you crawl along these typewriter keys. And I guess, you know, like, like me, I didn’t come from a I came from a background where everybody read, you read, we went to the library, and this was hugely, hugely, hugely important. And we didn’t go to opera or the theatre very often. We had the television, and I was thinking I went to see Scottish operas, La Traviata the other night. And it was amazing. It was absolutely amazing. And I was thinking when did I first see La Traviata? And I know exactly where I first saw it. I saw it on Channel Four, I think when I was probably docking school that was very sad to go and watch that later, but that those how to doors get open to things like opera and the importance of things like Channel Four in my life. Huge, huge, huge, huge, and that idea that you might enjoy this thing, this high art and then might become part of your life, you know, the life enhancing element within your life. So yeah,

Jenny Niven 04:40

I’d like to dive into ‘To the dogs’ because it’s just launched. But actually, given the we’re kind of talking about creative journeys. Can you just highlight as you say there, Louise that is obviously a kind of foundational one the first time that you’ve seen an opera but what were some of the other very early doors to kind of bits and pieces of culture and or particular books or things that got but just planted the seed right at the beginning that this is maybe the life for me.

Louise Welsh 05:04

Yeah, well, definitely the library, you know, the free books, getting an adult ticket as a young child, because my dad was like, we can police, it’s fine. And then they didn’t police at all it just read whatever you wanted. That, you know, I have a visceral memory of thinking, what will happen when I’ve read all the books in the library? Will I will I manage. So that and I guess being read to as well, you know, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, oh, I still go back to that book, you know, the imaginative life that that gave you. And then being when I was older, because I was brought up in Edinburgh, getting on the bus and coming into the centre of the city, and going to places that I’d probably been taken as a child, so I knew that they existed. So going to the Fruitmarket Gallery, which I just loved, and still love and seeing are things that blew your mind, you’d have no idea what you were looking at, but it made somehow it excited, excited you Chamber Street, you know, the National Museum of Scotland, which is still a place that I go to, and find inspiration. And I think still, in these days that were run by, you know, the custodians would be elderly men, who’d fought in the Second World War, and really told you to shift yourself, you know, it wasn’t always the warm welcome that we get nowadays, and National Portrait Gallery, all of these places that you can go in for free, that the doors are open. And if you able to walk through them, something awaits you there, you know, and I think that’s part of fair, what we need to fight to keep open and keep those doors wide, you know, in terms of we’re very sad this year that the IWrite Literary Festival, you know, I think a very small number of events are going ahead. But really with the IWrite festival, not being on through lack of funding, the children’s festival is not on so the Weewrite, and you think there’s this moment when you can get children into libraries, into into see this books to see living authors, and to bring them to that space, which belongs to them. It belongs to us. So, so there’s, you feel this through huge frustration, that that wasn’t considered, you know, worthy of the funding a small amount of extra funding the gap there, and there will be children that don’t walk through that space. And they’re, you know, that that moment is lost, maybe some of them will find it by themselves. And I also feel that the children bring the parents as well, you know, because there are places parents will go to support their children, but they might not go for themselves. And there’s something waiting for them there too. So yeah, so in terms of the, the university, the work we do, part of that is still because universities, of course, are in the sense elitist, you know, you can only go if you’ve got this qualification or that qualification. The campus that we have in Glasgow, it’s an open campus, anybody can walk across it. And that’s also true of the new buildings, there’s new site lines that were opened up. And during the semester, every Monday, one o’clock, we have an event within the chapel, which is welcome to everybody. You can bring, you can bring your baby, you can bring, you know, anybody can come. You don’t have to bring your dogs, which I think is a shame. But they can wait outside. So yeah, it’s just anybody can come. And hopefully they do. It’s also online. It’s been going for six years, and we’ve been online from the beginning. So you can you can watch a creative conversations as they’re called. But just the idea that this belongs to us. And we should all feel free to come in and partake.

Jenny Niven 09:15

Speaking of the university, your new book To the dogs, is that in the university, isn’t it? Can you give us a bit of a sort of just an introduction to the book and the world of to the dorms? Yeah.

Louise Welsh 09:26

So it’s, I’m hugely honoured to work at the University of Glasgow. I’m a professor there and Creative Writing, um, two, two days a week, which I think is the perfect amount for a writer, you know, and also, if I did three days, then they’d make me convene something. And that wouldn’t be a disaster. That would really be a disaster because I’m not very good with spreadsheets and numbers and I’d get a real frankel and everything would fall apart. So two days is very good for me. And I love campus novels. I did my I did my inaugural lecture, I did it on campus novels. So I think they’re a very good sort of, they talk a lot about the world taught me and what’s going on, you know, Malcolm Bradbury is the history man seems to really show how awful and horrible it must have been in the 1970s. And a lot of red brick University. It’d be fantastic as well, you know, there’s the energy I live in that book, Philip Roth, the Human Stain, you know, that thing, something else, isn’t it man it’s plays, so to the dogs is a crime fiction novel set and a central belt University, which bears some resemblance to Edinburgh, some to Glasgow, it’s got a tower, that I put a clock on the tower, and the hope that it would throw people off this end. And it’s loosely inspired by CP Snows the Masters, which is a fantastic novel, if any of you know this novel, and then CP Snows the masters at Cambridge College, the master himself is sadly dying, and science and art are having a fight about who’s going to be the next master. And at the same time, they’re building a fantastic, they’re trying to get money for a fantastic building. Because universities since the beginning of time, have always been entranced by fantastic buildings. And they call it edifice complex. But so what we know, you know, this is written post war, but is set in the period, just prior to the Second World War. So there’s also discussions about fascism. And some people are really for, you know, they’re like, this is fantastic. Fantastic what Hitler’s doing in Germany, and other people are against it. And like this is, this is awful, this is real. But what we know, of course, as we read this novel, and we see the academics fighting, is that many of the students who are crossing the quads in a few years time, will, some of them will be dead. And some of the restaurant have gone through horrendous experiences. So we’ve got this juxtaposition, and are the readers forknowledge as well. So this book is perhaps not as they’re not as well crafted as that this is a crime novel. And I wanted to think of it as an exercise and dread. I wanted the reader to know, you know, that something bad is going to happen. And I wanted them to be a part of this world, and not really know, who’s the awful thing going to happen to, and when will it happen? And at the centre is just

Jenny Niven 10:41

Can I just stop you there? Why would you do that to your reader? What is that impulse,?

Louise Welsh 12:53

Partly because I love the novels of Ruth Rendell? Right. I think Ruth Rendell is great in this exercise in dread, she sets up a fantastic world, and we invest in the world. But we know because of their, where the book is on the shelf, and what the cover of the book is like, and because of her back catalogue, we know something bad is gonna happen. And so we wait for it. We wait for it with sort of an uneasy pleasure to help me remember some kind of catharsis awaiting? Yeah, so at the centre is a guy called Jim Brennan he is a professor, he comes from a working class background, his father was a low level enforcer. So, uh, not very successful gangster, what we would call a hard man, you know, very, very violent. And Jim has managed to move from this background into the University where he is possibly going to be the man at the top of the tower. He may be the next principal. But before he can do that he’s got so is that everything and it was, it’s interesting for me to write somebody who doesn’t have an economic imperative. You know, he has a beautiful house. He has, he drives an Audi and his wife Dreiser, drives a Range Rover, his wife is an architect, they’ve got two lovely children, Sasha, who’s 11 and Elliot, who’s just about, you know, his early 20s. And Elliot, unfortunately, is rather than trans by the idea of the gangster life, and Elliot gets caught for drug dealing, and it all begins to unravel a little bit. I suppose part of the question is, what will Jim do for the people that he loves? And this idea of jeopardy, entering the house and entering the the rather beautiful architect designed middle class space, and everything that he’s built?

Jenny Niven 14:47

The tension, I think between sort of the legacy of the dad and the father, the hard man on the back end, and how he infuses the character. It’s so fascinating because you’ve got this total tension between the sort of, you know, the presentation of Jim and to his university colleagues. And he’s obviously quite ruthless and his ambition. But there’s another sort of ruthlessness that’s going on in the background when it’s all he’s proving that he’s not like his father. And then somehow, just as exactly like his father in a strange way, and then how that plays out in his own relationship with his son. So you’re thinking constantly about the apple and the tree? And yeah, so how did you kind of when you were conceiving of that, that’s my reading of it anyway. You might think something different. But when you were thinking about that third kind of three generations of men, what were you thinking about in terms of their relationships and the cycles of family?

Louise Welsh 15:44

Yeah, just really exploring that. And I guess the idea of the gym being within this middle class space, and how secure is he, you know, he doesn’t have the, he doesn’t have a safety net, he doesn’t have the backup. His backup really is his wife, who, you know, there’s, they’re really solid relationship, and she’s a little bit ahead of him in that in those social things, you know, and he, he just thinks she’s amazing. She’s got amazing taste. She, you know, all of all of this stuff. And but I guess, the things that make Jim able to operate in the gangster world, he turns out his rather effective because he is rather ruthless, also enable him within the academic world. And it’s obviously it’s a, it’s a, it’s a crime novel, but also, I hope it’s got a lot of humour in it. So that idea, you know, there’s a farcical element to that, I suppose. And I’m interested in that combination within the crime genre of their extreme social realism, which is also combined with absurdity. Because I think there’s something always absurd about the crime novel or the crime genre. And I love people like Chester Himes, I think, takes that to the, you know, to the furthest degree, he really the the politics of offence, as I think of it with Chester Himes. So there’s a lot of fun to be had with that and balancing. I don’t know, if you’re, if you’re having violence, you have to also have this light touch as well, to make it all tolerable. Yeah, and thinking about other things to do with universities with the funding with theirwhat would you call it sort of academic washing, you know, Jim is not above taking money from wherever he thinks they could get money for these new buildings. He thinks some of his colleagues are rather naive, some of the principles that they have. And then there’s also a plot involving China and involving connections with universities there as well. And yeah, so there’s, there’s a lot of there’s a lot going on. Text, and a lot of fun, hopefully, to be had as well.

Jenny Niven 18:07

You’ve described the sort of psychological thriller and crime genre as a useful political tool. How would you see that sort of plays out in this novel?

Louise Welsh 18:18

Yeah, when I when I think of it as a political tool, I guess, ultimately, something like a crime novel has to be entertaining. It has to be absorbing and hopefully transporting, you know, I think these are novels that do have strong plot lines, that do you engage with Jeopardy and, you know, other other enjoyable things. But perhaps it’s to do with the the idea of social realism that I mentioned, as well, if you’re describing society, that will necessarily be a political aspect to that I think Jim is a guy who walked through, you know, doors opened for him through hard work and intelligence, you know, really is a real grafter is a grafter not a grifter. And there’s a big difference isn’t there. So he’s somebody that’s grafted really hard is got to where he’s got. And he’s also closing the doors behind him, you know, he’s not doing that thing of pulling somebody up with him is shutting those doors. So Jim is the guy who’s like, yeah, you know what, I think we should close all the halls of residence. Let’s do that. Here’s the guy that’s not really thinking about how do we get the next generation of people that are rather like him? How do you support that? And I think those are choices that we have. Jim is someone that’s very he can read a spreadsheet. Thank God he can read a spreadsheet upside down. But it’s also he’s not a horrible person. You know, he’s and I think this is something

Jenny Niven 19:58

It’s very well done. He’s likeable.

Louise Welsh 20:02

You know, this is what we find in the world of work and within sort of life as well, that we have conversations with people that we, you know, we disagree with. And nevertheless, we can get on and we can disagree and have, you know, hard conversations, and sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. And, you know, I felt a little bit like that with Jim as well.

Jenny Niven 20:26

I think part of the kind of political aspect of it isn’t that as well though, this whole social mobility question that how far you know where he’s coming from, and really is going, and then what happens with the son. And it seems to me that some of the frustration directed at the son was like, I’ve done all that stuff, laid it all out for you, but you you’re going straight back into, and maybe the son not really realising the consequences, because if he’s had that slight court and ruling over the middle class academic family that actually once you’re in prison, you’re in prison that is not going to protect you. And here’s kind of frustrations around that as well. And I quit, I felt I don’t want to give any spoilers, but I feel quite sorry for the daughter, the 11 year old woman who’s sort of cocooned and has no idea venue is in front of her. And I want to know what she does with all of that stuff. Background.

Louise Welsh 21:15

It was sort of fun to write family life and to have an element of the the domestic world within that, which makes everything much more jeopardised because nurse Jim and his wife are people that have something to lose. And it’s not just money that they have to lose, you know, they’ve got a family who they love, and that is hugely important. So that sort of UPS ups the jeopardy as well in in, I guess it’s something even if you don’t, I don’t have children, but we’ve all got people that we care about, and that idea that how far would you go? What would you do? You know? So, yeah, so it’s very, very good, fun to write.

Jenny Niven 22:00

And fun to read enormously.

Louise Welsh 22:02

Also I guess, thinking about architecture, that built environment. And because I love the new buildings, that Glasgow you know, when we saw them going up, you’re like, gosh, you know, this looks like a lot of money. I love them, I love them, I love the disabled access, I love the people can get in because the building that I work in, which I also really like, you know, but my office is at the top of a very precipitous staircase, you know, three floors up. Sometimes I have to arrange to meet people elsewhere, because they’re not going to be able to make the stairs. And I think these buildings, the new ones that people can walk through, there’s a cafe that anybody can use, you can walk in, you can miss the glass sides, you know, that you can see in so you can see it’s not scary. And again, that idea that it belongs to everybody. And okay, you’re not going to get to go up to the, you know, unless you make an arrangement or something. But this is part of the city. And this is, you know, the citizens can go in.

Jenny Niven 23:09

That’s one of the great things if I might just plug it for one second, that Edinburgh Book Festival is moving into the Edinburgh Futures Institute this year. And one of the great things there is it’s not perfect, but the access is really great. And you have got these bolts because it used to be the hospital, there’s these huge, wide long corridors. And this sort of sense of history and story in that building is really, really powerful. But it’s still and I think about that all the time. You know, if you’ve not come up through university background, are you looking at a building like that? There’s still a huge question: is that for me? I’m not allowed through those doors. And I think it’s part of our job to open those doors and the Yes, yes, it absolutely is. But yeah, do you I mean, I suppose that’s a question. You’ve been at so many festivals and things over time. Louise, do you feel like we are opening those doors as widely as we might be?

Louise Welsh 24:02

It’s really difficult, isn’t it? Because so much share so many things are being cut. You know, there are things that I mentioned the iIWrite festival. Arts need funding, and we’re constantly sort of defending the need for funding, aren’t we constantly saying things like, oh, but people come to the city, they get a taxi, they pay for a room they, you know, they pay for meals, they’re gonna see multiple things, they’ll spend money within the city is really hard to quantify. All of that is true, you know, the culture, the culture sector, makes money for everything else, you know, and somehow needs money put into it so that these ancillary things, but not just for that, it needs it because it’s great. It is great. Culture makes our life better reading, looking at paintings, watching television, and even like the clothes that we wear, you know, it’s it’s art somebody designed these somebody came up, you know, and then allow us this element of self expression that a lot of us enjoy

Jenny Niven 25:22

Empathy, understanding, wellbeing

Louise Welsh 25:25

Yeah all of these things and we’ve always had that desire to, to make art and to make stories, you know, if we were allowed to go now to Chamber Street and go into the museum, we see the earliest artefacts are decorated, because it’s not entirely about utility. It’s we need things of beauty, or we need things to, we need ugly things. You know, I was listening to a programme on Maria Callas before I came out. And she said that my voice is not always beautiful. It’s true, you know, sometimes it’s not beautiful, because the thing you’re feeling is not beautiful, or the thing you’re expressing is not beautiful, that prompts other thoughts and makes the world better. So I guess, I guess I feel very worried about things slipping away. And I think once they’ve gone, it’s really, really, really difficult to get them back, you know, to rebuild, I think is difficult. And so we can, we can take it for granted. But and I’m sure people will always make stories and tell stories. And but yeah, we’ll reach everybody, you know, the idea of libraries closing is really worrying, you know, in social centres, theatres, you know, present in Glasgow, we’re struggling to the citizens theatre is being rebuilt, you know, we’re struggling to, to fund that. Is that something else that we’re going to let go, we can say that. We don’t need theatre. We don’t need. We don’t need poetry. Oh, it’s we’re not gonna make any money. I said that to one of my friends. Was that in poets don’t make any money. They need support. And he said, I just don’t think we can afford poetry in Scotland. But, yeah, so

Jenny Niven 27:27

Can we talk a little bit about Scottish literary tradition, though, because there’s a few kind of giants of Scottish literature that have influenced and informed both your sort of writing but your kind of academic interests and things as well. And you and I are working on quite an interesting Hogg project at the moment.


Yeah, I was walking past past the Scott monument on the way here and I thought I should cross the road and go and look at Hogg there because hogs faces on the Scott monument as well.

Jenny Niven 27:57

Is he?

Louise Welsh 27:57

Yeah, yes. Is there we can all go on our way home. It’s a Hogg’s big birthdays.

Jenny Niven 28:06

It is yes. 200 years this year was since a memoirs, private memoirs and Confessions of a justified sinner was published, which lots of you will have read such a fantastic book. It’s a mix of the psychological and the supernatural. And it’s a perfect Edinburgh novel. I can’t think of the word harr without thinking of that book. But it is just a really fascinating look at Calvinism and about the elect and its characters. You I mean, you will do a better job of describing it.

Louise Welsh 28:41

I think it’s a really perplexing book. And I’ve got my, I’ve got my copy with me and my bag, and I showed it to Jenny and it’s completely covered in sticky notes and little writings on it. It’s really hard to work everything out within this text. And

Jenny Niven 28:58

We’ve given you a possible task though. So as part of the celebrationof 200 years of Hogg, which we will be announcing in a couple of weeks. So we’re doing kind of five different creative reinterpretations of the novel in different ways. And one of them is a bonkers project with Ben Harrison from gridiron theatre company who’s going to take five, six little scenes from key kind of pivotal scenes from the book. And we’re creating we’re working with a company called Ray interactive to create a geo located walking tour of the scenes. So you walk around the old town and as you arrive in a place where one of these scenes has happened, you’ll be able to watch on your phone, a vignette, a little miniature screenplay, six of them have these key scenes in the novel. And Louise has got the unbelievably difficult task of writing a sort of narrative that links them that makes sense if you’ve not read the story before or if you know it, let the back of your hand and linking those those scenes together so that as you You’ll hear Louise and your headphones as you walk around being our guide through the city for that, and it’s going to be spectacular. I think it’s such a,

Louise Welsh 30:08

I’ve just said, I’m hoping that we’ll get someone else to record it. I’m thinking and thinking we should get somebody. I’ve Got someone in mind.

Jenny Niven 30:17

Maybe we can do two, because I want to listen to yours.

Louise Welsh 30:21

you know, in the, I want this to be options as well. Do you listen to the editors account? Or do you listen to the scenarios account? Because they’re not necessarily the same. And they’re written the books. I’ve read the book so many times, and I’m reading it with this narrative in mind. There was something I hadn’t really thought of that connection between the justified sinner and Frankenstein, I think there’s a real connection there. There’s a moment when there, for those of you that don’t know the book, Robert Ringham, pursues his brother, George, and George is never away from Georgia, that sort of magical, it’s like a magical pursuit. And then in his account, the centre says, for all of that month, I kept to my room. And I thought was rather than like, yeah, Frankenstein, whatever the creature does something dreadful. Frankenstein isn’t a few are sleeping or unwell. And this idea that your other self is abroad and the world doing terrible things, while you’re in your bed is is nightmarish, isn’t it? The worst black, however, you can move. But I’m really excited about it. I think there’s going to be a score as well, but and I went a couple of years ago, I can’t remember just towards the end of the lockdown. So I’m not exactly sure when that would be a few on actually did a great walking tour called ghosts in Glasgow as well. But we used our phones and really, really interesting and people go at their own pace. And I think this will also be online. So people were able to access it from, I don’t know, New Zealand, yeah, and other places.


And I think to be able to put it within a kind of suite of different creative projects with different writers and theatre makers and musicians are looking at this text from all these different, it feels like a bit of a gift to be able to kind of unpack it in that way at this moment. Because I think that’s part of the story that when we’re talking about the value of arts culture, as well, it’s about talking about what has come before us as well. And it’s sort of astonishes me that that novel, you know, like the kind of how well it’s known and understood by some quarters, and then no elsewhere at all. And there’s parts of Europe where it’s absolutely revered. Yeah. Nope. Didn’t England’s ever read, do, you know, strange sort of thinking about what to do the Scottish literary tradition and where we speak about ourselves and we don’t. And

Louise Welsh 32:49

in France, you know, I think it was the Aakash who? I can’t remember who rekeyed who kind of brought it to popular attention. No, it’s amazing. And I think there’s been many, many attempts to do a screenplay for it and nobody’s quite managed. And I think I’m really glad that you’ve got Stuart Lang doing another iteration, because I thought anyone that saw Paul brights justified Centre, which was on a few years ago, I think in Glasgow at the tramway and then an Edinburgh up the gosh, I saw it in both places. Queen’s Hall, Queen’s Hall. Yeah. So it was really fantastic care. Embracing that idea of sit down, I’m going to tell you a true story. This is the true story. But you’re not real, Gothic, embracing affair, what’s reality, what’s not reality. And we’ve all been trying to make our own block inspectors as well using chi headlamps and all sorts of things to try and try and get that effect. Because that is part of my heart’s desire is to see a broken Spectre. I would like I’d like that to happen before I die. Oh,

Jenny Niven 34:03

did you see the Northern Lights last week?

Louise Welsh 34:06

I didn’t see the northern lights. They may be tonight again. So I’m gonna go out into the darkness with the bats in the park.

Jenny Niven 34:16

We’re gonna go for questions in a minute. But I was also thinking again about just about dinner this weekend. And this is a bit of our kind of left field one, so forgive me. But I did want to ask you. I was at the Dublin Book Festival this weekend, and heard Marilyn Robinson speak, which was just amazing. She was she was just so kind of. It was the first time in a really long time that I’d heard somebody speak about religion in the way that she did. So her latest novel, she wrote the Gilead and all sorts of she’s just amazing. And she has written a new novel or a new book that looks at Genesis and goes back to the sort of story of Genesis and looks at it really literally, in a strange way but also kind of asks these really big questions about the role of religion in an age where we think We can solve everything and we have all the data and we have all the information. She sort of sees that as the ultimate kind of hubris. How much are we not looking at what is kind of behind the curtain that we’re just squeezing out at the moment. And I just wanted to haven’t spoken to, or listen to another amazing literary hero, I wanted to see what you thought of that Louise and her in such a secular kind of society that we’re in at the moment. And in this kind of, sort of amazing monument to science and to thinking into rationality and the enlightenment, and all of that, where do you sit on that kind of discussion of religion and the role of all of that related to this divide. So

Louise Welsh 35:42

I was I was brought up outside of any religious belief, and my dad was actually quite anti religious, you know, so and didn’t, didn’t perceive it as a appoint for good. But, you know, we’re here at the university. Because we hold our events in the chaplain in the chapel, which is an interfaith space. I’ve got to know the chaplains there. Stuart McQuarrie, who sadly died very suddenly. And just what a fantastic there are people of faith that you can work with really well and who do a lot of good within the world and they’re sincere within their faith. And perhaps, we don’t meet these people, often enough. So I think, again, working with people, opens your mind, you know, and yes, I always enjoyed working with Stuart, and who was not who was not above a swear digit do this to him as well. But yeah, he was a fantastic person, he’ll be really, really, really missed and did so much. So yeah, so I don’t I don’t go to church. I like a lot of the music. And I do I do, like a lot of the church music I really like enjoy a lot of masses. But yeah, when I, when I go, I don’t want a religious service. And you know, that stuff. So

Jenny Niven 37:28

we’ll go to questions in a minute. But I wanted to ask you about maybe another creative journey. Before we wrap up? Is that another creative journey you would like to share with us? Or if not, if I could also talk to you? Well,

Louise Welsh 37:41

I guess it sounds a little bit like untighten for business, and I don’t, I don’t have to talk for business because our programme is is oversubscribed, actually, every every year we have to either put people on the waiting list or turn people down who we would like to take. But I think the creative journey that I’ve had, working with colleagues at the University of Glasgow, has been absolutely huge, you know, and that idea that that we discuss with students about craft about you know, the I have to read so much more widely than I would if I was on left to my own devices. I just been reading Ruth Rendell really and, and Chester Himes. So these, you know, things, these stores that are open. And I guess the idea of you know, we’re working in a place that’s dedicated to interdisciplinary studies, as well as working with people in other disciplines. So working with my friend, Jude Barber, who’s the author, Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, we’ve been working together for over a decade, and Dutson architect, and we’re working together on a project just now called who owns the client, which you think would be a simple answer to that question? Not at all. So on June the seventh, we’re doing an event in the morning at Glasgow University, and the ark building, and then the afternoon, we’re going over to the client side to the wall of death, which even if you don’t want to see us, you want to see the wall of death, which is a revelator, which is there where you can motorcycle around.

Jenny Niven 39:28

So will you be doing that yourself,

Louise Welsh 39:30

I will not be doing that myself. But will be it’s a fantastic event space. So we’re doing that as part of the festival of rejects, and that is people that applied to be ngi and got turned down, which is us as well. And also, you know, I’ve had this fantastic creative journey with my friend and colleague, Stuart McRae, Stewart as a composer. And now we’ve made it in a decade with Made for operas together with the support of Scottish opera, starting with a little one that was 15 minutes long. And then you know, finally full working up to full length. And that is going to have its third new production that’s going to be on in Salzburg, as premiering on Sunday, if any of you would like to jump on a plane, and come with me to the home of Mozart, and the home of what’s the other film, The Sound of Music?

Jenny Niven 40:32

What will your group consist of when you’re there? Can you just go in glory in it? Or do you have to do anything when you’re there this weekend? Or do you have a ribbon or how does when

Louise Welsh 40:40

it ends when it ends? And hopefully people don’t, wow, I have to run and they always pick me up in a circle or something, and somebody comes and gets you. And you have to run. And you have to get behind stage. And then they take you and you go up onto the stage. And you take a bail, and everybody looks into. Yeah, so it’s very, oh, that would be wonderful. I mean, this is a journey that I never ever thought I would be on. And just sometimes, you know, I’d met years ago, and he had read my books. And when he got invited to make an opera, he asked if I would do the words, right up front libretto, oh, my goodness, you don’t get many words, let’s just say that wasn’t

Jenny Niven 41:32

the lantern or about the, you know, the justified Senator project is like, it’s the skill of being able to, you know, really refine a really cut back and write in such a talk. And a specific is a very similar discipline, isn’t it? You’re

Louise Welsh 41:45

like, how many? How many minutes do I have, and you also have to think about the form of the words. So like, a long, multi syllable, syllable word can be really fast. And oh, can go on forever. So you have to really, you know, and, and not lead to the music not be too rhythmic, not be too rhymey. Think about what the scene is at that point. But also, you’re making the characters making the shape of the story, which Stewart is a great storyteller. So we do you know, a lot of those discussions and discussions about politics, discussions about faith, you know, really thinking about character as well. And how people act

Jenny Niven 42:30

sounds much more complicated than spreadsheets, you say you can’t do

Louise Welsh 42:35

it. It’s a different skill, isn’t it? different bits of the brain. Okay,

Jenny Niven 42:39

I’ve already hugged too much of the time, and we’ve got 10 or 15 minutes left for some questions from you folks on hands up straight away. There’s one here and one as I make right behind you.


Thanks so much to both of you. That was a really great discussion. I have a question for you both, if that’s okay. So I run boom saloon, which is a global movement to democratise creativity for good. And we use media and publishing to try and shape a better future for everyone. And I’m really, really proud to do that from Scotland. But also to further conversation has been started, I do feel increasingly desperate about our cultural and creative landscape at the moment. And I don’t want to flog a dead horse, because I have a lot of the same discussions around this. And I imagine a lot of people in the room will probably be on the same page. So we did a lot of solutions journalism. And I wanted to task both of you with that, and ask, Is there anywhere in the world that you feel is really successfully supporting their creative industries? And reaping the benefits of that? And what would you like to see Scotland learn from that?

Jenny Niven 43:47

Well? No, I mean, I’ve been talking a lot to cultured Ireland of late, they’ve just got the data in for their first round of universal basic income trials. That’s where I personally would go. I mean, I think it’s huge. And the fact that they actually now have data to support that rebut some of the economic arguments against UBI, which I think will hopefully be able to play a role in these discussions going forward. But on a more can a literature focused sort of way, Ireland has been supporting this literature in a really clear, sustained way for decades. And then we all go away. Do they keep winning the Booker Prize and how come they’ve got millions of writers and it’s the it’s consistency. Do you know? But yeah, I think that yeah, otherwise Norway, I think, do an amazing job of supporting the arts and literature. It’s not without complication. But yeah, I think that our I think that’s the thing. I think that our places out there. I do think, though, that we’re stuck in this terrible political short termism about things and I’d is a bit of a hobby, so I’ll not go into too much. But just you maybe even people in the room had this as well. But over the last few months, last six months, every single organisation of scale in Scotland, we’ve gotten through the ringer of applying for multi year funding directly to Scotland. And I used to work for creative Scotland and I have a huge amount of sympathy for the challenge there. However, putting the entire cultural sector through that process at the same time, the number of times has wanted to bang my head off the wall, the amount of last time the work, that we’re not making the way that we’re not support. And it just seems to show many bits of the system that are not working properly at the moment. And I would like us to see just a bit more kind of ambition and creativity about seeing we have to do things quite differently, not just by the edges, but quite differently. I don’t know, I don’t know how optimistic I am about whether the next government will do that or not. Yeah. So I think there’s so much to do there. And I don’t think that’s without the dire models. I think that but some of them are not that complicated.

Louise Welsh 46:11

Yeah, I’ve really endorsed what, what Jenny’s saying, really, I feel that I have to be optimistic, because if I’m not, then I just stop. So while seeing the the horrible difficulties, I wonder about the work that’s not getting made, do you know, the people that aren’t managing to make work, people that are leaving? So yeah, but I have to be optimistic, I have to believe that work will continue and that rope can change, and that the new generation, keep on pushing and pushing and pushing, I had an Arts Council, a Scottish Arts Council grant, when I was writing my very first book, I got a grant of 6000 pounds. I’ve never had a grant since because I haven’t needed to have a grant. But that money enabled me to finish. And it was just so it enabled me to finish. And it also gave me this huge feeling of obligation that I wanted to finish because people had supported me. And if I you know, somebody else could have got that funding. If I you know, there is that idea that, you know, not simply Oh, thank you entitlement note, thank you. And I’m going to, I’m going to show that this works. But I know that the work that I’ve done has had lots of support and other ways, you know, translators have been paid all sorts of things that sometimes you’re not aware of. Whereas doing it well, I almost feel when I go to Germany that the arts look well funded there. And I’ve done quite a few residences in Germany. And I don’t know the ins and outs of it. But Canada seems to do a lot of good stuff as well.

Jenny Niven 48:05

As also the I think there’s a question, what is resilience? And we mentioned Ira earlier, and I think that was a case in point of where lots of places are one funding application away from dinner. And there wasn’t any credit as previously, perhaps, you know, there is the element, it’s not a lottery, but you know, you there was always, or sometimes there would be a Plan B, there’d be another way of doing things you could hold out until the next application, but I think that has been through COVID and other things as well, that’s just been eroded. So when things don’t happen, they really don’t happen. And that’s where the real risk I think comes in. And we’re, I mean, places like Birmingham, which just wiped out the entire cultural infrastructure, and yet we’re going Oh,

Louise Welsh 48:51

yeah. And I know, we’ve got another second question. But I think also the, you know, when we talk about subsidies in the arts, the arts are subsidised to a great extent by artists themselves. And when I think of I write, I know the librarians at the Mitchell and they worked over time, endless overtime to support this a lot of broken heart.


Conversation, generally, you at least know me by sight. You know, how much the Edinburgh International Book Facebook means to me. And I’ll just plug it for a second before as but as such other way for people who have disabilities that have bought otherwise, to have a place to be. And I think that’s what these spaces provide. But the question is this, how do we shift necessarily, we now have a bit moan how do we shift the political narrative from people with of diverse groups being the problem as to as opposed to be part of the solution because people with disabilities and otherwise Amido to be the problem, and the incoming Labour government, UK Government, are doing most of that day by day. And that frustrates me. So I just want to thank you both, because people like you, that gives me hope that not everybody shares that view. But that’s what people like me battle all the time. So it’s more of a comment than a question. But how can we shift, then Naza to help us all work together to find solutions and not me one group to be the problem or another minority to be the problem. We seem to be othering people all the time. And it frightens me. And that’s dangerous.

Louise Welsh 50:57

Yeah, I think I think visibility is very important, isn’t it, and discussion and interaction. And when I’ve worked with writers with their various disabilities, the amount of talent and verb an experienced and I think writing and work by people with disabilities can do a huge amount to just open those doors and open the experiential doors, as well. And, yeah, just we need to have those doors open really, when less than

Jenny Niven 51:35

nothing, because well, we’ve just had a chap join our board, who is deaf, he works within Scottish Government. And he, I’m learning so much from him contributing to discussions not just on access, but on all kinds of things. And I think it’s part people being in the conversation and influencing the decision making as well. And it’s such a critical part of things. And also was sort of taken quite seriously what adjustments you do need to make to do everything a bit differently to include, you know, voices, folks who, who need other things to be able to fully participate and having to change their own way of working. And then, and he’s quite explicit, you know, he wants by the time he sort of concluded on the board, whenever that might be the it should be even better for people who share his challenges to come to the festival. And he’s put that as a challenge to us. And yeah, I’m up for that. Because we’ve not got everything right. Yeah. But yeah, trying to learn as much as

Louise Welsh 52:34

I also, I also think we should have a level of outrage about some of the things that are happening as well. So the scandal around carers allowance and people who have gone tiny a penny a pound, you know, small amounts of money, who are now having to pay back 1000s and 1000s and 1000s. It’s utterly shameful. So I think a level of anger and outrage is appropriate.

Jenny Niven 53:03

got time for one more of this another.

Louise Welsh 53:09

Didn’t net send on anger and outrage.


Hi, there. Thank you both for the conversation. It’s been so insightful. My questions for you, Louise. I was just wondering, how do you have a sort of creative project? Creative process? Sorry, when you sit down to write and has that changed throughout the years? And

Louise Welsh 53:32

I think yeah, it’s a good question, because I think it changes with different projects sometimes. But it’s mainly just sitting down and doing it. You know, and when when you talk about what what would you gift writers, the library card, going to the library and reading and reading and reading. It’s amazing. Sometimes you say to someone, what do you like to read when you want to be a writer? What do you like to read? I don’t really read that much. Well, you have to read, but also just to sit at the desk, but I think what changes is where my desk is. So I work a lot at home, but I’ll work in their various Sooners, sometimes at the desk, sometimes at the window. And sometimes in the library. I’m a real fan of the Mitchell library. And they’ve got a great reading room there. So think I think getting outside is really important because if you’re working on your own, you can do that thing where you just you don’t go out. So you mustn’t stay indoors for three days. That’s really unhealthy. So yeah, but I think my main process is just treating it like a job and whether you feel it or not. You have to sit down and do it. And some days you come up with very, very little, and someday should come up with more and to avoid despair. Really because there’s there’s days when your work doesn’t work, and you can feel really low about it. But you have to remember that there’s going to be another day tomorrow. And your work will hopefully be better tomorrow. So yeah, that’s the optimism comes in that didn’t because I guess I’ve been doing this for 20 years now. And I don’t think it necessarily gets any easier. But what is easier is that you know, you’ve had bumps before, and that you managed to get over the bump before and just to keep on going.

Jenny Niven 55:27

But what you’ve achieved already, Louise is just phenomenal. And I’ll be so kind of written at this thinking of you on that stage and Salzburg receiving all the accolades. That’s a really lovely, well deserved with with everybody saying.

Louise Welsh 55:45

It’s very nerve wracking because the the librettist the liberators. Yeah. Because the etiquette is that the librettist goes on before the composer. So there’s a moment when you just have to cross the stage on your own and you can’t see anything. And there are all these beautiful, beautiful people in costume that you have to go and join. The soprano comes and catch and welcomes you in and you just have to do it solo. And then Stuart comes on. You’ve got your pal again.


We’ll enjoy every minute of it, Louise. Yeah. And I’m saying please, you’re speaking to you tonight. Thank you so much.


Thank you very much. And thanks for coming. Thank you, Jenny.


Thank you to the staff and the team here at RSE. Thank you so much for having us. And thanks so much for giving up your evening we will release you back into the sunshine but please check out the remaining bit of the programme a

Louise Welsh 56:47

apparently the Aurora may be back with us this evening. So that would be brilliant. So brilliant. Thank you. Thank you. Thanks, everybody.


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