Yesterday, the author of Trainspotting (1996) and Skagboys (2012) stopped by the Booklist booth at ALA’s Midwinter Meeting to talk about his latest novel, The Sex Lives of Siamese Twins. He also discussed the difference between Miami and Chicago, why he likes Twitter, and how he found refuge in a library growing up. Our conversation has been edited for length.
What is your new book about?
It’s about people becoming whole, basically. In the world we live in, you either become the nerdy, artsy person or you become the jock-y, sports-y person. And I hate that dichotomy. I think it’s a way of disintegrating us and keeping us apart from ourselves, because I think we’re all sorts of these things, you know. And I saw these archetypes, these characters, being in this quest for integration and finding that in each other. So the twins metaphor came from that. It’s basically about two women who are trying to find their way in life. And they do that through meeting somebody who seems to be the exact opposite.
The flap copy on the book says that you “come at last to America”—but you have written about America before.
I wrote a book called Crime (2008) that was set in Miami, with a Scottish protagonist from a previous book who was on holiday there. He was very much a stranger in a strange land, and you’re looking at it from his point of view, as an alien place. [This time] I wanted to do a book that was basically American and about American characters and very much about this place as I’ve come to try and understand it as an immigrant. So I think it is properly my first American book.
I described Crime in my review as “Lolita in reverse,” because instead of taking the girl on the road to have her to himself, he takes a girl on the road to protect her.
Nabokov’s obviously a great writer but now, just the way people understand the impact of sexual abuse on people, it’s very difficult to see how that book could’ve got any traction over the years. I was writing against that, really.
What do the books have in common, besides the setting?
I think the setting is used in very different ways. In Crime, Miami seems like a very exotic place and there’s a lot of description in it. I’m not a writer who likes a lot of descriptions. I like to get on with a story and let the readers compose their own film in their heads. I cut back a lot of the description in Siamese Twins because I realized I was getting too much into the Crime thing and seeing through the eyes of an outsider. I talked to a lot of Americans in their late 20s and early 30s about the programs they watched and how they understood them, to get a familiarity with the context and the culture. It wasn’t just that I was writing an American voice and writing a female voice, I was writing a younger voice as well. So there’s three things that I had to try to get right. And I concentrated on those and tried to make it much more of an insider’s book than an outsider’s book.
Why did you choose to settle in Chicago?
My wife’s from here, and that was the initial reason we came back. I wanted to give America a shot, but I wasn’t that keen on moving to L.A. or New York. This time of the year gets me down a bit, this kind of weather and all that, but I feel that if I move somewhere warmer, if I move to California or Florida, I’m kind of getting further and further away from the UK and it’s not easy to get back. I’ve still got family and a lot of business over there, so I’ve still got to keep kind of involved.
Miami definitely seems to provoke your imagination. Has Chicago done that at all?
If you come from the UK, Chicago, Boston, and Detroit feel much more familiar to you because they’re older cities. But Miami’s the polar opposite to Scotland, culturally. Because Scotland’s a very old culture, you know, all that Celtic storytelling and culture’s so big. Whereas Miami’s a very visual culture, it’s about artists and photographers and models and the body beautiful and all that beach culture. What fascinates me about it is the complete difference. In Chicago, you’re conscious of a big literary tradition: Nelson Algren, Studs Terkel, Sherwood Anderson. And there are so many really good contemporary novelists in Chicago, like Don DeGrazia and Joe Meno, that know the pulse of the city better than I do. In Miami, where it’s kind of emerging as a city before your eyes, I feel my view is as good as anybody else’s that’s jumped off the boat.
When you’re not reading something,
you don’t feel properly replenished.
You are very active on Twitter. As a writer, what attracts you to Twitter, or does it have anything to do with writing?
As a writer, it kind of takes the place of coffee breaks and cigarette breaks. And I don’t smoke, and I don’t drink coffee now, so a Twitter break has become kind of the thing. For me, it’s great because most of the people I talk to are friends back in the UK. It’s a great way of keeping in with what they’re doing. It makes the burden of exile a lot easier.
Have you been to ALA conferences before?
I’ve not. The scale of it surprised me.
And the midwinter ones are the small ones! Have you ever had a librarian character in your fiction?
I don’t think so, no. But when I was a kid, I lived in this housing project called Muirhouse, northwest of Edinburgh, and there were no social amenities at all: no shops, not even a pub at the time. It was just apartment blocks, tower blocks and flats. And they built this library, a one-floor prefabricated place, and that was such an amazing refuge for me. Because you’re in this cold, gray place, there’s not a lot to do except kick a ball around. And when you get fed up with that, you’re able to go somewhere you can sit down and open something from the shelf, and bang, you’re in another world. So it was very, very important for me.
What are you currently reading?
I’ve just finished a book by Andrew O’Hagan called Illuminations, which is very very good. And a new Alan Warner book called Their Lips Talk of Mischief, which is very good. They’re two Scottish writers. One of the best things I’ve read lately is a book called A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James—amazing stuff. I’ve been doing so much writing that I haven’t read as much as I should. When you’re not reading something, you don’t feel properly replenished. Once I finish this screenplay I’m writing, I’m just going to sit on the beach in Miami and read and read and read.