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Will Self

Will Self

Will Self is the author of three short-story collections, The Quantity Theory of Insanity (winner of the 1992 Geoffrey Faber award), Grey Area and Tough Tough Toys for Touch Tough Boys; a dyad of novellas, Cock and Bull, and a third novella, The Sweet Smell of Psychosis; and four novels, My Idea of Fun, Great Apes, How the Dead Live (shortlisted for the Whitbread Novel of the Year 2000) and The Book of Dave.

Together with the photographer David Gamble, he produced Perfidious Man, a sideways look at contemporary masculinity. There have been three collections of journalism, Junk Mail, Sore Sites and Feeding Frenzy. Will Self has written for a plethora of publications over the years and is a regular broadcaster on television and radio. His latest work is a collection of pieces entitled Liver: A Fictional Organ with a Surface Anatomy of Four Lobes.

To celebrate the paperback release of How the Dead Live, Will Self's inventive, savage meditation on life after death, Penguin have rejacketed several of Will's books with stunning new artwork from some of Britain's foremost contemporary artists.

In an exclusive interview, we asked Will his thoughts on everything from drug addiction and Jewishness to the disintegration of the soul.

You're involved with many things; journalism, short-stories, novels. Do you regard these as being quite different activities?
I've always thought of myself as a writer first and foremost, the whole business of my work is to mediate the world through language, whatever form that language takes. However, that being said, my heart lies in a particular kind of fiction, fiction of the alternative world. The great liberty of the fictional writer is to let the imagination out of the traces and see it gallop off over the horizon.

You display an interest in science fiction, and in the writing of J G Ballard. Was this your childhood reading?
As a child I absolutely gorged myself on sci-fi, I'd eat it in great truckles and sort of chewed it up, I could not get my hands on enough of the stuff. There are certain writers who are kind of science fiction, but something more, like J G Ballard, arguably even somebody like Robert Heinlein and Philip K Dick. I ate these along with the whole mush and brew.

You're often called a satirist. Do you accept that description?
I think that there are strong satirical elements in the kind of writing that I do. I always accept and reiterate Mencken's formulation of what a satirist is, or should be; 'the aim of satire should be to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted'. I take that role very seriously in my writing. There are elements in my writing that sit uneasily with the idea of satire, and they are kind of emotional, almost hallucinogenic elements. Elements that are in a sense almost too fantastical for satire, but the satire is there nonetheless. The fictional work is a kind of actor that wears a satirical garb but can put on other costumes as well.

Do you have a sense of who your readers are?
When it comes to considering the question of who one's writing is aimed at, and this really goes for journalism and for the fiction, I really stand by the idea that I don't write for any defined group of people or any particular kind of reader at all. I write for the reader who is absolutely the right reader for what I'm writing. If you get what I'm saying, then you're the sort of person who gets what I'm saying. The marvellous thing about writing, whether it be fiction or journalism, is that it is simultaneously the most intimate and the most anonymous of meetings between people. It is profoundly intimate in reaching into the psyche of another, at the same time as being devoid of social characteristics, cultural characteristics, economic characteristics. You meet on an entirely level, and to some extent barren, playing field and exchange your goods in that way. I really never had an idea of who the Will Self reader is.

How did you feel when you were voted 'favourite novelist' by Oxford students?
I'm interested in any reader at all, and I'm trying to appeal to any reader who is prepared to put the work into understanding the text. I've never claimed that my texts are not necessarily quite difficult for an ordinary reader to come to grips with. I'm not trying to limit their appeal though by making them difficult, I'm trying to make them in some sense aspirational texts. They're texts that people will want to decipher and want to understand the meaning of. If any particular kind of group like my work, I'm delighted.

You don't belong to any one school, who do you read or admire?
I do have some very defined and precise influences on my work and on how I see my work as a writer. Of the post-war writers, I stand most in thrall to J G Ballard, to his vision of an apocalyptic world. A world in which effect and in which feeling is to some extent deadened or even destroyed by alienation and by technology. I think the big difference between me and Ballard is that there are no jokes in his books at all, or at least not intentionally any jokes.

Another writer that I identify with is Alasdair Gray, the Scottish writer. Books like Lanark and Poor Things, Janine and Something Leather are books that have some affinity with mine. They are over-imagined, they're defiantly non-naturalistic. They're very much concerned with these possibilist worlds and they have elements of science fiction, fantasy, and satire.

I have some strong affinities with another mentor-like figure, Martin Amis. I think that, like Amis, a part of my project has been to apply Mandarin language, the language of the intellectual classes, to demotic and popular culture subjects and conversely to apply demotic language and popular language to some of the concerns and ideas of the intellectual Mandarin classes. There's that kind of miscegenation, a kind of rubbing up against the traditional categories of English literary concern.

Do you still think that the novel is a supreme form? If so, do you see the short story as a lesser form?
I've only written three novels, but with each of them I've had this fascinating experience that I get at the 80,000th word level. The book starts telling me what it wants to do and how it wants to finish itself and what it's really about. That is not the same as the experience you get with a short story. A short story is a shard, a sliver, a vignette. It's a biopsy on the human condition but it doesn't have this capacity to think autonomously for itself.

Your new novel How the Dead Live seems to owe something to one of your short-stories, The North London Book of the Dead. Does it?
There is a distinct affinity between the short story The North London Book of the Dead and the novel How the Dead Live. I think it was Nick Hornby who described my work as not so much stories as a series of feature articles on an alternative world. I'm very pleased with that kind of definition because the impression I'm trying to give the reader with the entire spread of my work is that this is a world of absolute bizarreness but coherence; that its plausibility rests in its coherence and that's some of the reasons for re-working the themes of The North London Book of the Dead in How the Dead Live. However, The North London Book of the Dead is essentially a story about a young man's bereavement told from his point of view. It has a very strong non-naturalistic element because, of course, he finds his dead mother and she's alive. Essentially it's a very emotional story about loss, about sadness.

In How the Dead Live there's been a kind of hypertrophy, there's been a massive exaggeration of all of these aspects. Instead we're looking at it from the point of view of the dead person, we're looking at what's happened to that dead psyche. In the earlier short story, the absurdist proposition is that all dead people go and live in the suburbs if they've lived in London and they live in particularly dull suburbs. At the time I wrote the story that was typified for me by Crouch End, but that's perhaps a very unfair slur on Crouch End. When we get to the novel How the Dead Live we're looking at things at a far far more metaphorical level. We're looking at what happens to a materialist with no concept of transcendence, what happens to their psyche if it turns out that some of the propositions of Buddhism with regards to the soul complex are in fact true?

So, does Lily's progression from dying to death to deader mirror Buddhist teachings?
The structure of How the Dead Live does not slavishly adhere to any given Buddhist text, but it is a recapitulation for the Western materialist of the philosophy embodied in the Tibetan Book of The Dead. Lily's experiences in the book, dying then dead, and then in this strange place called being deader really do mirror what The Tibetan Book of the Dead tells us about the voyage of the soul after death. What actually happens at that point is a kind of frightening disintegration of the psyche. The psyche is plagued by these personifications and projections of its own fears and anxieties about itself in the world. Everything that happens to Lily in the book after death is a projection of her own disintegrating mind.

There is a sense of realism in this novel (How the Dead Live), in that the portrait of Lily and her two children is very affecting and very emotional. Do you think it's different from your other two novels in that respect?
How the Dead Live is different from my other work, more emotional, in that I've tried to centre it on a recognisable character, someone you might know. I've tried to write about interpersonal relationships in a way that I perhaps haven't done before. The way in which I think it's similar to my other books is that it's neither fish nor fowl. It's a kind of unpleasant chimera; it's a chicken with fins instead of wings. I'm using the same vehicle to enact a very savage and critical satire on contemporary living, and also to say something about these wider metaphysical questions. That's something that people don't often try and do with satirical writing, they don't really want to.

Do you think How the Dead Live paints a very bleak picture of families?
Larkin's idea that your parents fuck you up, and that you in turn fuck up your children, is the message of the book. It's actually not descriptive of that so much as a warning of that. The fact that Lily reappears in this reincarnated form that emphasises how disasterous these family relationships have been is not so much to say well, this is inevitably going to happen to all of us, as to call our attention to the fact that this is what we muck around with. We muck around with karma when we involve ourselves negatively in damaging relationships within a family.

What about the Jewishness in the book, the anti-semitism? Why is it important? Where does it come from?
The Jewish anti-semitism in the book comes from several different sources, both personal and political. I'm half Jewish, my mother was Jewish my father wasn't; there was not so much overt as covert conflict between them over that. I don't know that I could go so far as to say that my mother was herself a Jewish antisemite but she certainly had elements of that in her character. Jewish antisemitism is a real phenomenon, it really exists and therefore it is a legitimate thing to embody in a character, particularly characters of the age of Lily Bloom. She comes from a generation where the issues of assimilation for Jews to the wider society were much more fraught. At a political level it became important for me because the idea that this most persecuted of groups, the Jews in the 20th century, should themselves become consumed by this kind of self-loathing was an astonishing image of bigotry run riot. I wanted Lily Bloom to be a kind of everywoman and therefore to make her a Jewish antisemite was to embody those negative attributes of the progress, or the non-progress, of the 20th century in terms of the human spirit.

Why are you so interested in death? Is it related to your past drug addiction?
We can see the drug addict as a kind of harbinger of death, I've never really been blind to that even in active addiction. Certainly, in the process of recovering from that, I've looked afresh at what's involved in those sort of behaviours and it certainly influenced me to look into my own psyche and see a capacity for self-destruction; a monsterous and frightening form, so there is that.

On a much more personal level I've seen my parents die. I think that's a profound experience for anyone and it leads you into close contemplation of what it is that you're about, what it is that mortality means. I think that anybody who experiences a parent's death, or the death of somebody who's very close to them, is forced back onto these issues, it's the really big question to write about.

Why are you so interested in death? Is it related to your past drug addiction?
We can see the drug addict as a kind of harbinger of death, I've never really been blind to that even in active addiction. Certainly, in the process of recovering from that, I've looked afresh at what's involved in those sort of behaviours and it certainly influenced me to look into my own psyche and see a capacity for self-destruction; a monsterous and frightening form, so there is that.

On a much more personal level I've seen my parents die. I think that's a profound experience for anyone and it leads you into close contemplation of what it is that you're about, what it is that mortality means. I think that anybody who experiences a parent's death, or the death of somebody who's very close to them, is forced back onto these issues, it's the really big question to write about.

If someone was starting to read your books, what would you recommend?
I can only really say, with all reasonableness, start at the beginning, start with The Quantity Theory of Insanity, start with the short story of The North London Book of the Dead. In a way, the way in which I deal with language, the way in which I try and mess up these categories of proper language and slang, all of the ideas of alternative worlds, all of the ideas of these preoccupations with the dark side, or at any rate with what shadows the light, they're all there in that opening story and in that opening collection.

We gave you the chance to query Will Self on all things literary. Here, Will answers your questions...

In the past, you have often given interviews saying that you are more interested in exploring ideas in your novels than plot or characters. My question is this, do you ever think that you might drop fiction in favour of non-fiction?
Tobias De Lytton

I think any novel, seriously undertaken, allows far more ambit for the development of original ideas on a whole plethora of subjects, including philosophy.

I read once that you studied philosophy at university partly because you quietly believed it would give you an interesting angle when you became a writer of fiction. I wanted to ask whether you've been influenced, in the same sort of way, by much social anthropology. A number of American authors seem to draw on anthropology, Bellow and Vonnegut both have Bas, and it is detectable in their writing. Would you say that anthropological thought has contributed to modern fiction in any important sense?
Piers Laingbuisson

No, that's not quite right. I've only ever said, to my knowledge, that I didn't study literature (English or otherwise), because I felt reasonably certain that a knowledge of critical theory (in particular), would add nothing to my ability to write fiction (which is what I knew I already wanted to do). I also have my doubts that a formal, schooled reading of literature adds anything to fiction writing either (cf. my introductory essay to Feeding Frenzy itself). I read philosophy because I was genuinely interested in it, not for any career-move reasons. In truth, I think it's just as useful for a proto-novelist to read anything, from home economics to econometrics. The aim, I would say, is to be either broadly shallow, as well as narrowly deep.

As for anthropology, I've read it sporadically, in bits and pieces. Quite a bit of Levi-Strauss (you may note him being name-checked in 'Apes' and 'Dead' and 'Quantity Theory'), Von Strehlow because of the time I spent in Outback Australia, Malinowski etc.. I think it adds the Martian perspective to the novelist's collection of descriptive lenses, allowing social and cultural forms to be observed (whether fraudulently or not), from the perspective of a visitor from another culture who is charged with some kind of scientific, or quasi-scientific, analysis of its mores. I can certainly see the usefulness of this perspective (and those of contemporary ethnology and primatology for that matter) in my particular kind of fiction, which is non-naturalistic, and involves a perception of alternative, parallel worlds. And, of course, I can see the dissemination of social anthropological thinking in general into the realm of fiction as just another aspect of the post-metaphysical era.

Assuming you watched BBC2's Viewers Booker 'art programme' can you enlighten us as to how BBC's coverage of literature can get any dumber?
AP McGee

Assume nothing. I'd rather watch a bowls championship in Bournemouth. No, I didn't watch it. I watched it last year, and it was pretty dumb. I like to think it's my own acts of literary-critical terrorism that have forced these poodles into mounting such a dog show. But in fairness to them, you have to concede that it does, in its way, match some of the rubric of the prize itself; which, in electing relatively second-rate literary-critical and other figures to comprise its jury, and hamstringing them with (an unacknowledged) rule that no novel can be proffered for the shortlist by a judge, unless she genuinely believes it's in with a chance of winning, has produced a prize which is awarded to a novel that they both think is of merit and believe the public will bear (hence no Ballard, no Gray etc). 'Nuff said.

I'd like to know whether you've read much by Science Fiction writers Barry Malzberg and Barrington Bayley. You seem to share their internalized, humorous and often dark view of the world, and Malzberg especially shares Ballard's surrealist yet visionary and usually accurate view of how the 20th century panned out, and the fact that the future has, by and large, already happened. Any thoughts?
Fergus Day

No, I've never read these writers, they sound interesting. It's not so much that the future has already happened (although as a metaphysical beleiver in full temporal simultaneity I do think it has in some sense), as that the future appears incredibly dated to me. The locus classicus for the fictionalised depiction of modernity was Kubrick's 2001 which still looks like a better vision of the future than any other. The locu classicus of post modernity was Bladerunner, which depicted a future in which technology was discontinuous rather than monolithic, and grunge and AI existed steel cheek-by-stubble.

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