Interview with Louise Welsh
How/why did The Bullet Trick story come about?
The genesis of The Bullet Trick came to me in a recurring dream, a nightmare really. A man and a woman face each other across an empty warehouse, the man raises his arm, points a gun at the woman and fires. I’d wake up wanting to know why they were there and what happened next. I went up to Achiltibuie near the Summer Isles to start writing and just worked my way into it. Although his act is a little hackneyed in places, the novel’s narrator, William Wilson, is actually quite a good conjurer, his difficulties are in performing as a person. The world of theatre and cabaret does draw me. I guess I’ve also seen backstage in a lot of venues over the years while I’ve been travelling around doing readings. I’m not a performer, but perhaps the process gives me an insight into actors’ nerves and environment.
Berlin in the story seems a hyper-real place; is it a place where you have spent a lot of time and (if so) how much of its vibrancy is to do with its strangeness to William, and how much is your own reaction to the city?
I wouldn’t make any claims to knowing Berlin well. I haven’t ever lived there (though I’m hoping to do so for six months when I finish my residency in Bamberg). It is a city that I’ve visited many times now though, at least once a year over the last four years or five. For me it’s one of the great cities of the west, up there with London and New York. I love its multiculturalism; its busyness, its architectural diversity, the sense that anything can happen. It’s also true that I wanted to send William somewhere where he couldn’t quite get his bearings, and yet wasn’t overwhelmed by the exotic. German culture is in many ways similar to ours, and yet there are many differences – the language being an obvious example.
All of the characters in The Bullet Trick seem to have onstage and offstage personas: this is obviously a convenient dramatic device in a crime novel, but is it also a comment on human nature in general?
Not on human nature, no. I think we all recognise that we’re slightly different people in professional and private contexts. It’s a necessity, whether you’re a bank manager, a teacher, a writer or a waiter. The need for a persona is, of course, greater for anyone going on the stage.
I read an interview with you where you said you found it fascinating how often the dead female body is served up as entertainment in popular culture. The Bullet Trick takes this to its literal extreme. Was it your intention to shock people into realising how close this sick extreme is to the more prevalent and widely accepted ‘raunch’ culture?
As Louis B Meyer said, ‘If you want to send a message call Western Union.’ The Bullet Trick isn’t a ‘message book’ and it certainly isn’t an attempt to deliberately shock readers, but it does explore the exploitation of women’s bodies in entertainment and the sex industry. William enters the world of burlesque, cabaret and lap dancing. The level of nudity in these worlds may be the same, but is the distribution of power the same? For me the answer has to be no. Of course many intelligent and talented women work in lap-dancing clubs, many of them would insist that they are the ones exploiting the punters who pay to see them strut their stuff, and I certainly wouldn’t condemn anyone for working in that environment, but I still believe that lap dancing and its like objectify women. It reduces women to simple, uncomplicated sex objects and in turn makes it difficult for us to be taken seriously in other arenas. I’m unhappy that a woman (or young man) can be regarded in the same way as a cigarette or a drink, a commodity. It makes me sad that in the 21st century many people consider a work’s night out to a lap-dancing club an acceptable ‘fun’ way to spend time. We also have to recognise that some male dominated workplaces choose these particular clubs to ‘bond’ in as a very convenient way of excluding their female colleagues. Would I ban such clubs? No, of course not. Would I recommend young women to seek work in them? No, of course not. But if a friend were to tell me, ‘I’ve been taking trapeze lessons and have decided to join the circus.’ I’d applaud her. Cabaret and burlesque celebrate women’s bodies. There is nothing passive about Dita Von Teese for example.
Is the Glasgow of The Bullet Trick your Glasgow, or is it just William’s experience of the city?
I’ve lived in Glasgow for twenty-one years, longer than I’ve lived anywhere else, and so perhaps it is inevitable that my relationship with the city creeps into my work. Some of the places that William finds himself in are actual locations; others are amalgams of places. Everything in the novel is seen from William’s perspective and this is true of the city as well. I personally feel much friendlier towards Glasgow than William does, but then he has chosen to leave it for London, while I have chosen to make it my home.
How are you enjoying living and working in Germany at the moment? Does this constant switching of setting in the book reflect, in some way, your own movements in recent times?
I’m on a one-year residency in Bamberg, a small city in Bavaria about forty-five miles from Nuremberg. So far it’s been a great experience. I’m here with five other Scots: the writer Kevin McNeil, composers Stuart McCrae and Alwynne Pritchard and visual artists Luke Sutherland and David Sherry. We all have our own apartments so it isn’t the artistic equivalent of Big Brother. The Bullet Trick was finished well before I was invited to apply for the residency, so this move didn’t have any effect on the book. The switch in time, place, and locations that structure the book are due to the necessities of the plot, and a need to dislocate William from his usual surroundings. It’s always tempting to search for the autobiography within the novel, but it’s not relevant in this case.
Some of the characters and incidents seem so real that they read like first-hand experiences; the old man in the bus station in Glasgow for instance. Are there any specific characters or incidents in The Bullet Trick that have been grafted straight from your experience?
That’s a very nice compliment, but, no, as I said above, there is really no element of autobiography in any of my novels. Like any big modern city Glasgow has a large number of homeless people. One of the themes of this novel is homelessness and dislocation and it features at least three homeless people. In the Glasgow strand William is heading towards rock bottom. He’s saved partly by his own ingenuity, but also partly because he has friends and family – not everyone is as lucky.
I have read that The Cutting Room is currently being developed for the big screen. Do you have any such plans for The Bullet Trick Yet? Would you like to see it in the theatre as a stage show perhaps?
The Bullet Trick has been optioned for the screen by Kudos productions, producers of Hustle, Life on Mars and Spooks. Both The Cutting Room and Tamburlaine Must Die were adapted into plays and it was a great experience to see the characters I’d dreamt up acting out on the stage. My experiences with the other two productions have been so positive that I guess if an offer came along from a company who wanted to bring The Bullet Trick to the stage I’d happily consider it, it’s not something I would be interested in (or capable of) doing myself though. I am, however, currently writing a stage play commissioned by Alison Peebles’ Theatre company V.amp, which if all goes well will appear next year.
Where did you find out about the various magic tricks in the book and have you got into trouble with the Magic Circle for divulging trade secrets?
The Bullet Trick probably provided me with the most entertaining research experience of my life so far. The obvious thing to do was to begin by going to see some conjurers perform. Of course, as William says, ‘No one over the age of ten believes in magic.’ But watching the professionals I often found it impossible to work out what they were doing, and as a member of the audience I didn’t really care. I was happy to sit back and be astounded. Perhaps this is the similarity between my trade and William’s. We both ask the audience/reader to enter into our illusion, to meet us halfway and prepare to be entertained. As well visiting cabarets and magic shows in Britain and Berlin I attended some trade fairs where conjuring paraphernalia was for sale and got in touch with a friendly conjurer who tried to teach me some simple tricks. I also read a lot of conjuring manuals and researched the history of conjuring a little. The magic circle has nothing to fear from me though. I don’t have the patience or dexterity to be a conjurer. In the end I gave all my conjuring tricks to my twelve-year-old nephew who is proving to be much better at sleight of hand than I could ever be.
Louise Welsh, thank you.
- Add to BasketThe Bullet Trick - Paperback
When conjurer William Wilson gets booked for a string of cabaret gigs in Berlin, he's hoping his luck's on the turn - there were certain spectators from his last show who he'd rather forget. But secrets have a habit of catching up with him, and the line between what's an act and what's real starts to blur.