Back in 2002, the Glaswegian noir novel The Cutting Room introduced writer Louise Welsh to the world. It was a groundbreaking novel which made its mark, winning the Saltire Society First Book Award among other accolades. At its heart was the unforgettable central character of Rilke, a man inexorably drawn to the darker corners of the city – places few writers had explored before. 20 years on, The Cutting Room remains one of the great Glasgow novels.
Welsh has gone on to write some of the most interesting and arresting novels of the 21st century, including the portentous Plague Times trilogy, but she has now revisited arguably her greatest literary creation and reunited with Rilke in her latest novel, The Second Cut. SNACK caught up with Louise Welsh to find out more.
How was it to revisit the people and places of The Cutting Room after such a long time?
Hooking up with Rilke and his merry bunch of pranksters was a treat. I have tapped him on the shoulder a few times in the twenty years since I wrote The Cutting Room and asked if he’d like to go on another adventure, but he always ignored me. This time he turned around and looked at me and we were off.
It’s wonderful to see that the central character of Rilke (sometimes referred to by others as ‘Cadaver’ and ‘Corpse’ in The Cutting Room) is still with us, as the life he led was one which embraced all sort of dangers. Did you have to consider his life between novels?
Rilke has been busy in the interim since we last met. He’s aware of the changes in the city and in society generally. Despite this he has only aged three years in the twenty-year gap.
The Second Cut brings us right up to date. It’s one of the few novels I’ve read to mention COVID – why did you want it to be so contemporary?
Part of the appeal of crime fiction for me lies in its reflection of contemporary politics and society. I couldn’t ignore the pandemic. COVID has affected the economic and physical landscape Rilke inhabits. Bowery Auctions’ finances have been hit, like many small businesses. This ups the ante and makes Rilke more inclined to take risks. After saying that, the pandemic is only mentioned a couple of times in the book. I’m as sick of it as everyone else!
Looking back, why do you think The Cutting Room made such an impact on readers?
Perhaps it was part of a zeitgeist. The Cutting Room was written during a time of open and institutional hostility against LGBTQ+ people, during the Keep the Clause campaign. Every day I walked past billboards which openly equated being queer with being a paedophile. I wrote The Cutting Room out of anger. Perhaps other people were angry too and found it refreshing to encounter an openly queer man who was the driving force of a novel.
Rilke is such a strong character. How do you approach creating a supporting cast who also leave their mark?
Like many hardboiled detective antiheroes, Rilke is his own man. He’s comfortable traversing the city alone and has his own set of values which don’t always align with wider society’s. The unifying factor between Rilke and his friends Rose and Les is a scabrous sense of humour, a precarious income stream, good clothes, and a willingness to put two fingers up to society
Glasgow is almost a character in its own right in both books. How do you view it as a city?
I have lived in Glasgow for most of my life. Like all cities, it is more than one place. You can probably find what you want here. I’m fascinated by the city’s architecture, traces that the past has left behind and how earlier periods impact on the present. I have questions such as: why can’t I walk the full length of the city section of the Clyde? Who owns the fenced-off land on its banks? I like looking at old maps and photos of Glasgow, especially the Charing Cross section where I live. The old streets have been obliterated to the extent that it is challenging to rebuild them in your mind.
Do you think we will meet Rilke again?
Perhaps we will meet again, but who knows? I will have to see if he is up for another escapade. I hope so. He’s fun to write and three is a magic number.
The Second Cut is out now, published by Canongate Books