Ever since her widely acclaimed début The Cutting Room (2002), winner of the Crime Writers' Association John Creasey Memorial Dagger (awarded to first-time novelists of crime fiction), Louise Welsh has been firmly established as a shining light in literary crime.
But Welsh could just as easily be shelved under general fiction—her books have certainly encompassed crimes, but much else besides and all venture into dark and unsettling places. As she says when we meet at her new publisher's offices: "I'm really happy to be in the crime fraternity as long as it's not limiting. If somebody said you can't do this because you're crime and this is what crime means then that would be a problem."
Of her fifth novel, The Girl on the Stairs, her first for John Murray (after moving from Canongate), she says: "I don't know if you would call it a crime book; I'm never quite sure what to call things! Although there's no supernatural element at all I was thinking about horror conventions. Genres are very elastic aren't they? Horror, crime, suspense, thriller, we use a lot of the same conventions."
The Girl on the Stairs is a short novel, only 214 pages, and a masterclass in sustained tension and hold-your-breath suspense. At the beginning of the book heavily pregnant Jane—Welsh's first female protagonist—has just arrived in Berlin to join her long-term partner Petra in a beautiful apartment in the city centre. They are having a baby together and everything should be rosy, but very quickly Jane starts to feel a deep, unshakeable unease.
Behind their chic apartment is a creepy, derelict backhouse which Jane finds unsettling, but of more immediate concern are the next-door neighbours; Alban Mann, a gynaecologist who lives with his daughter Anna. Hearing shouting late at night and meeting a bruised Anna on the stairs, Jane starts to think that 13-year-old Anna is being abused. As her suspicions deepen into obsession she starts to take risks in order to discover what is happening behind closed doors.
Welsh explains she was influenced by films like "Rosemary's Baby" and "Don't Look Now" (which is echoed in the book jacket with its striking image of a child in a bright red duffle coat). The sorts of films "where you're not sure about somebody's sanity; where somebody believes something very deeply, but you don't know if you should follow their belief, so not really an unreliable narrator in the classical sense."
"Do we trust Jane less because she's female; are females more emotional? Or do we trust her less because she's a lesbian; it's often portrayed as being an untrustworthy guise. Or do we trust her less because she's pregnant? Or do we trust her because she seems like a sensible, down-to-earth person?"
Determined to find out what is really going on next door, Jane's actions start to border on the self-destructive—"I'm very interested in Poe and this idea of the 'imp of the perverse', where you do things that are not in your own interests and you know that they're not" she says—and there are subtle, chilling intimations throughout the novel that something may have happened in Jane's past which makes her feel a connection with the troubled Anna.
But Welsh is not the sort of writer who spells everything out.
"I know precisely what's happened in Jane's past but I feel that, for the reader, it's not like there's only one possibility of what would have happened. [So I'm] leaving that space for people to make their own decision. But hopefully because I know, they'll be a consistency there, even if we come to different conclusions."
Welsh has described all her novels as featuring a quest: "There's always something active at the core, some kind of search." In The Girl on the Stairs: "Jane is looking to try and find out—on a very basic level—if Anna is okay. She doesn't want to betray her. That idea of when do you close your eyes, when do you look away?" she says. "Jane doesn't want to look away if something is happening. But for us the question is; is it [real]—or not?"
John Murray will support with a "huge run" of proof copies and a pre-publication literary salon for trade and press at the end of May. The consumer marketing campaign will launch with an intriguing-sounding "high-profile publicity stunt bringing to life the idea of what's real and what's not" and thousands of samplers will be placed in key arts venues and cafes around the country.
The Girl on the Stairs takes place over a bleak Berlin winter. In 2007, Welsh spent six months in the city in an apartment with its very own derelict backhouse like the one in the novel. "I would have these repeated nightmares where I would think I could hear somebody at the door, or on the stairs" she says, anxieties which form the only autobiographical elements in the novel. She made a few research trips back, walking around and tuning into the city. "I find I'm getting more and more audio conscious; sounds seem to be important to me right now."
Welsh wrote The Girl on the Stairs mostly in Glasgow, her home since she studied for a MA in History at Glasgow University. Soon after graduating she set up and ran her own second-hand bookshop in the West End of the city with an initial investment of £300. It sounds very entrepreneurial, although she says not, and the business flourished. Perhaps most importantly for a future novelist it enabled her to read all the time, "like having your own library". Interestingly though she didn't start writing until a friend convinced her to apply to the MLitt Creative Writing course, also at Glasgow University.
Her connection with the university remains very strong today. She's currently writer-in-residence there and at Glasgow School of Art, a role that requires that she spend one day a week in. There's no official teaching commitment but her time is spent primarily in one to ones with staff and students who "use text in their creative work". She relishes the opportunity to get "out and about" she says, "and to pretend that I've got a proper job". Working with a diverse range of people, from engineers to architects, has provided Welsh with "that extra stimulation that a writer needs".
Her next novel is already under way. It will be set in another city, contemporary London this time, and will again feature a female protagonist who, while not a doctor, has a certain reason to go into hospitals. And of course, as befits a Louise Welsh novel, it will delve, darkly, into "those places that we're scared of".
1965 born in Edinburgh
1986–90 MA History, Glasgow University
1992–2000 set up and ran Dowanside Books, Glasgow
1998–2000 MLitt in Creative Writing, Glasgow
2002 The Cutting Room (Canongate) which won the CWA John Creasey Memorial Dagger and the Saltire First Book Award. Chosen as one of Britain's Best First Novelists by the Guardian
2010–present, writer-in-residence for Glasgow University and Glasgow School of Art
Louise Welsh's backlist
The Cutting Room
A dissolute auctioneer is drawn into Glasgow's seedy underworld after discovering a collection of violent and disturbing photographs.
Books sold: 101,000 since 2002
The Bullet Trick
A luckless Glaswegian conjuror escapes to Berlin for a series of cabaret gigs, but his secretive past catches up with him.
Books sold: 18,000 since 2006
Tamburlaine Must Die
Sentenced to death, Christopher Marlowe must hunt for the murderous "Tamburlaine" who appears to have escaped from the pages of his most violent play.
Books sold: 17,000 since 2004
Naming the Bones
A literature professor visits a remote Scottish island in the hunt for clues surrounding a poet's mysterious death.
Books sold: 9,000 since 2010
Photo credit: Steve Lindbridge
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