Will Self interview

Book and Magazine Collector, June 2006

The disparity between a writer’s home and his or her literary style can often be alarming. Not so in the case of Will Self, whose South London house is furnished with the same idiosyncratic elegance that distinguishes his prose. Wearing a dark, well-cut suit and an open-necked shirt, he greeted me in the hallway, his manner relaxed and amiable. He then ushered me up to his top-floor study where we sat down amid a jumble of books, manuscripts and computers. Once he had brewed some coffee on a tiny, portable stove and lit up a fat cigar, I asked him about the role that books had played in his upbringing. 

I grew up in a raggle-taggle household of books. There had been an unholy miscegenation between my parents’ libraries. They’d married relatively late in life and had their own collections, which included lots of Penguins and Pelicans. At the moment I’m enacting a purge of these.

Don’t you find that a painful process? 

Yes, incredibly painful, but they’ve got to go. They’ve passed the point when a paperback dies, when you open it and it falls apart. I suppose my ideal is to replace cherished paperbacks with handbacks. In the age of the internet, you can get a secondhand hardback that’ll last the rest of your lifetime for a reasonable price.

Are you a fan of secondhand bookshops? 

I’m tormented by the multiplicity of choice in bookshops. Of course this is obvious in respect to current books, where there’s a plethora of titles being released. But it’s even worse with the midden of literary history represented in secondhand stores. 

If I hadn’t been a writer, I’d have loved to have been a reader who had no ambitions to write. The upside of being part of the literary world is that you’re sent a lot of books which is immensely gratifying, even if you don’t read them. That reminds me of one of the most exciting literary moments of my childhood. It was when I was allowed to add my comic to the family newspaper order. I must’ve been very young — about six or seven — when I succeeded in getting my Beezer delivered with the paper in the morning. I just thought that was awesome. I don’t think I’ve ever got over it.

Would you describe yourself as a book collector?

Not really. I’m a book amasser. Collecting isn’t something that animates me. Having said that, I very nearly bought an expensive edition of De Quincey’s collected works when I was once passing through Milwaukee. 

I tend to think of books as things to be used. I have very few valuable books that I’ve deliberately acquired. I’ve got a handful of first editions. I really regret that I wasn’t one of those assiduous, trainspottery types who, whenever he meets an illustrious writer, gets a book signed. I think it’s a lovely thing to do. I have writer friends who’ve accumulated fantastic libraries of modern firsts. 

I’ve got a handful of nice little first editions of novels such as Junkie, Cain’s Book and Lolita. My first edition of Junkie is an Ace original paperback in pristine condition, which wife bought for me. I wrote about that edition in my introduction to the Penguin Modern Classics reprint of the book. I was struck by its publishing history, by the way that it had started life as a mass market shocker and become this avant-garde literary classic, selling only a handful of copies.

You mentioned the American books that your mum owned. Did you like the distinctive way they were designed? 

Yes. She had an edition of Salinger’s For Esmé, With Love and Squalor which I really liked. It had a double-fronted cover. I guess that format was a hangover from the vogue for two-books-in-one. I remember liking the cover of a sci-fi novel that she also had — The Twisted Men by A.E. Van Vogt. They were so unlike the paperbacks being produced in Britain at the time.

Were you a fan of the early Picador paperbacks?

When those came in — the Robert Brautigans, the Robert Musils, Elias Canetti’s Auto da Fé — they were the hippest of the hip. But that was a bit later than the period I’m talking about. That was during my adolescent, young adult phase. I could go into the room next-door and find a few of those even now. I suppose they’re just reaching the end of their viable lifetimes.

Talking — as we were — of dustjacket designs, your own books are always strikingly designed. 

I’ve put a lot of energy into the dustjackets of my books. The latest paperback editions of my novels all use details from photos of the Oxfordshire model village where one of the stories in Grey Area is set. It was my idea to use images by modern British artists such as Damien Hirst and Marc Quinn on the covers of the previous paperback editions. My new novel features endpapers by Martin Rowson and a line-drawing of me in place of the usual author photo.

Was there a book that marked the significant point when you shifted from reading children’s literature to reading something more adult?

Probably The Idiot by Dostoevsky. Other books that I remember reading at that age are Gogol’s Dead Souls and Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons, both in that distinctive black-covered Penguin Classics series. For some reason the nineteenth-century Russians provided my portal into adult literature. Before that, I recall poring over my mother’s American edition of Alice in Wonderland, which I found really astonishing. It was a beautiful, immaculate edition with full-colour Tenniel illustrations, each protected by a sheet of tissue-paper. A while back, Bloomsbury brought out an edition of Alice in Wonderland with Mervyn Peake’s illustrations. I provided a preface to it, but Peake was far too whimsical for the subject matter. Tenniel captures the sinister quality of Lewis Carroll’s book.

Was there a particular writer whose work inspired you to try your hand at writing? 

It was texts rather than particular writers. I’ve never been a writer obsessive. When I was young, I read and re-read Catch-22 many times. It’s one of the great manuals of how to write satire. For a while I was quite obsessed by it.

Did you also like Heller’s second novel, Something Happened

I read it in my late teens, but it made me realise that Heller was probably a one book writer. Wasn’t it Evelyn Waugh who said that most writers only have one or, at most, two books inside them which they keep rewriting?

Don’t you find that a depressing idea? 

No, I think it’s okay… Going back to what we were talking about, I read Kafka’s Metamorphosis and The Trial when I was young. I also read Hesse’s Steppenwolff, the cover of which was embellished by a sexy still from the 1970s film adaptation, starring Max von Sydow or someone of that ilk. As a writer, I suppose you remember the books that made an impression on you because you’ve incorporated them into the way you think about writing.

Do you see yourself working in a European literary tradition? 

Not really. The writers who I most obviously have something in common with — Borges, Brautigan, Burroughs, Bulgakov, just to name the Bs — come from all over the place.

D’you think that the mystique of Burroughs and other drug-taking writers encouraged your own drug problems? 

I did find that stuff very alluring. My Lower Sixth Form Prize was a copy of The Naked Lunch. If you’re a drug-impelled person who has a taste for books, you’re going to delve into that end of literature. I’m certainly not as interested in it now. I’ve been clean for some years. I went through a period of revulsion from it. If you’d been obsessed with chives for twenty-five years and you were suddenly delivered from your chive obsession, the last thing you’d want to read about would be chives.

Who are the other writers who’ve influenced you? 

Among the strongest influences are De Quincey and Céline. I’ve just been writing about Céline for The New York Times Book Review because New Directions has just reissued Journey to the End of the Night with a new cover image that’s replaced the previous film noir-style cover. 

Perhaps the distinguishing feature of me as a writer — and this is by no means confined to me — is that I didn’t read English Literature at university.

Are you glad that you made that choice? 

Delighted, though there are drawbacks. I think that one’s assimilation into the Academy is bound to be a lot easier if one’s literary consciousness is shaped by the cannon, and mine wasn’t. I read very widely, but never read the cannon. For example, I still haven’t read Lark Rise To Candleford.

Earlier you mentioned the film noir cover of Journey to the End of the Night. D’you see any connection between the book and American noir fiction? 

I don’t really know an awful lot about that genre. My parents were both really into thrillers. We had a lot of Simenon and Ross MacDonald, who seems to be the logical heir to Chandler. The MacDonald novels were in those great Fontana editions: photo-real covers that shaped my conception of what a book jacket should be like. Black Money had a full colour cover depicting a fist with a knuckleduster on it. There was a dollar sign imprinted on the knuckleduster.

As a youngster, was your parents’ fondness for thrillers offputting? 

No, I’ve never disliked that genre. I still have bouts of reading thrillers. I had a Simenon bout recently because Penguin have reissued a lot of them. They’ve been reprinting about five or six a year.

Do you regard thrillers as a guilty pleasure?

They’re a bit like chocolate: I go on a binge, but I’ve soon had enough.

Is there another literary genre that you read more consistently? 

I love biography above all other genres. It’s writers’ porn.

D’you have any particular favourites among the biographies you’ve read recently? 

I like Roy Jenkins’s books. I read his life of Gladstone this year and the one about Churchill last year. I’m belatedly reading Ellmann’s book on Joyce. I hadn’t read it before because I felt that I hadn’t covered enough of Joyce’s work to appreciate it. Until this year, I’d never finished Ulysses, so I made an effort to read all of Joyce — apart from Finnegan’s Wake — before reading Ellmann. Once I’ve finished Ellmann, I think I’ll read Finnegan’s Wake. 

Very late in life, I’ve become a committed Joycean. He’s one of those writers whose undisputed pre-eminence makes him curiously invisible.

Are you keen on the work of well-known literary biographers such as Michael Holroyd and Richard Holmes? 

I’ve read Holmes’s Coleridge which is superb, though the second volume slightly suffers from his lack of understanding of narcotic addiction. Ted Morgan’s biography of Burroughs, The Literary Outlaw, is a great book, too. The other Ellmann book — about Oscar Wilde — is wonderful. I also like the Andrew Robb book about Rimbaud that came out not long ago.

Most writers cherish some out of print book that they’d love to rescue from obscurity. D’you have one? 

Mine would be Lost London, this astonishing and beautiful early 1970s collection of photos of buildings that have been demolished. 

Of contemporary British writers, I think the most under-valued one is Alastair Gray. I consider Lanark to be the greatest experimental British novel of the last forty years.

Moving on to your own work, at what age did you start writing seriously? 

I starting trying to do it when I was about twenty-four, but I didn’t buckle down until I was twenty-eight.

Did you send your first stories to little magazines? 

No, I just wrote a book and I got it published. My Struggle wouldn’t be a suitable title for my literary autobiography. The lure of print was always part of my life. My mother worked in publishing: she was a production assistant at Duckworth’s, so I’d been around writers a lot. 

When I left university at the age of twenty, I started doing cartoons for The New Statesman and City Limits, the now defunct listings magazine. I’d done tiny bits of literary journalism and I’d written reports for publishers on manuscripts that they’d been sent. In addition I’d been involved in ghost-writing some joke-books for comedians. 

My earliest serious attempts at writing coincided with my first suit and tie job. I ran a little business magazine, based in Southwark. There I taught myself how to do old style printing: marking up copy, getting galley proofs set, doing cut and paste. I also taught myself the new technology. I was very much involved in the process of making words into artefacts, and that really inspired me and helped to focus my mind on what I wanted to do. The fact that my first wife was expecting a child had a big impact on me as well, because it made me feel that life was passing me by. 

All those things came together and prompted me to write The Quantity Theory of Insanity, which I’d been rehearsing in conversational form for a couple of years. Writing it took me no more than about a couple of hours each morning for around a year.

I presume that your mother’s death must’ve inspired the opening story, The North London Book of the Dead

Absolutely. It’s the first serious story I wrote. People often say to me that it’s the story of mine that they like best. That does make you slightly despairing. It’s eighteen pages long, yet I might as well have packed in writing in early 1989 and not bothered with the other umpteen million words.

I gather that The Quantity Theory of Insanity is already very collectible. 

That’s because it had a small print-run. It was a paperback original edition of about 5,000. The book-snob in me was disappointed that there wasn’t a hardback edition of it.

Like many fiction writers, d’you find that re-reading your old work is an uncomfortable experience? 

Inevitably, but in middle age I think that you have to bite the bullet and accept it. I once heard that Nicholson Baker re-read all his old material in parallel with his new material in order to check that he hadn’t replicated any metaphors, tropes or even adjectival combinations. I’ve always tended more to the J.G. Ballard school of thinking that says that repetition is inevitable. 

I’ve just adapted one of my old stories — from Grey Area — for the stage. That was quite an interesting experience because I had to break the story down and look at it as a dramatic form. Doing this partially cured my problem with never looking back.

Scriptwriters frequently talk about the brutal compression that’s necessary for a prose work to be transformed into an effective screenplay. Were you particularly brutal when you adapted your story? 

I was fairly literal. Besides, I needed to add stuff, because the original story was only twelve or thirteen thousand words, and I had to sustain a two or three hour drama.

Which story were you adapting? 

Scale — the one about the deranged junkie who lives in a model village. When Scale was written during the early 1990s, I was living in Thame in Oxfordshire, and the second section of the M40 had just been completed. Here was an 84-mile long motorway with no service stations on it. Of course I knew that there would be service stations eventually, but I thought this was an odd item of ephemera, around which I could build a story.

Is scriptwritng something you’ve done before? 

My novel, Dorian, began as a film adaptation of The Picture of Dorian Gray, but I ended up turning it back into narrative prose. I’d be really excited to write another script and to work collaboratively. Over the years, though, my whole methodology as a writer has become focused on narrative prose

Have your working methods changed a lot in that time? 

They were always fetishised, but now they’re becoming baroque. When you write for a living, you turn into a company of one, so you develop a company culture. 

These days I no longer write fiction on a computer. I don’t like anything about them. My fiction is written on an old Olivetti 22. I’m obsessed by manual typewriters. I love the look of them and the look of the typescript they produce. I also love the fact that, like the bicycle, they’re a perfect bit of kinetic equipment. Energy is directly transformed into an artefact. 

I’ve developed another fetish which involves that system of Post-It notes you can see on the wall opposite. I use them because I have such a poor memory. I’m like the guy in the film, Memento. I start off by writing things in little notebooks, then the notes are transferred onto the Post-Its, then the Post-Its gravitate into chapter-specific notebooks. From there, the ideas find their way into my novels.

There’s something comforting about having a rigid writing process, isn’t there? 

Yes. The next novel — which, I think, is in many ways my most ambitious — feels easier to approach because I have this method.

I know that you’re about to start promoting your new novel, The Book of Dave. Is that side of literary life something you relish? 

I enjoy it a lot less than I used to.

D’you remember your first public reading? 

It was at an event in Manchester, which also featured Rupert Thomson. The audience included the usual quota of two orthodontically-challenged undergraduates. Since then, I’ve done a lot of readings. At least five or six times I’ve done tours of America, the first of which involved about twenty-one cities. That was gruelling. You’d be too exhausted to explore the places you were visiting. Actually I’m giving a reading in Kingston tonight. I have to go to my daughter’s parents’ evening first. I’m cycling there, then on to Kingston, so I’m afraid we’re going to have to wrap up the interview.

Reproduced by kind permission of Warners Group Publications.

Using Format