Ever since the publication of his first collection of stories, The Quantity Theory of Insanity, twenty years ago, Will Self has blazed an entertainingly wayward trail across the British literary scene by satirizing cultural mores, institutional prolixity, and political hypocrisy alike. His novels, How the Dead Live and The Book of Dave, ingeniously remapped London from the respective viewpoints of the deceased and a postapocalyptic puritanical cult. In his latest book of nonfiction, Walking to Hollywood, Self takes us on three ambitious walks, including a traversal of the fast-eroding East Yorkshire coast and an “airport walk” from his home in Stockwell, South London, to Hollywood, all the while trailing his and our sense of reality a long way behind. I met Will at his home on an overcast spring afternoon. He proved a generous host and entertaining company. Before we could start, I had to suppress my lifelong phobia of dogs and win over Maglorian, the tiny hero of this splendid vignette, who remained sweetly indifferent to my anxiety while listening in on our chat.
Why did you start these walking tours?
I think it was to do with stuff in my own life—with not drinking and consciously wanting to exercise more. My father was an academic who specialized in urban and regional development, so I grew up with somebody who talked about cities. Back in 1999, I was writing a column for the British Airways flight magazine and conceived of this incredibly environmentally incorrect idea that I would fly somewhere in Britain every morning from Heathrow, or one of the London airports, then take a long country walk, then fly back in the same day, and write about that. In the last one, even with my malformed environmental consciousness, I began thinking, “This is wrong, it’s not right on all sorts of levels!” So instead, I decided to walk to Heathrow. It occurred to me when I set out to do it that this was an adventure—it really was terra incognita, probably nobody had done it since the pre-industrial era. There was something profoundly strange about this. After that, it occurred to me that I didn’t know anybody who had walked from Central London to the countryside, and I began to conceive of these ex-urban walks as a way of curing myself of the sense of dislocation that had come over me in my adult life. I’d ended up not knowing where I was in a very profound sense.
Were you drawing on a tradition of writing about the city which has been brought up to date by the psychogeographers—people like Peter Ackroyd and Iain Sinclair?
There are all sorts of proto-psychogeographers, from Blake to De Quincey to Dickens even, people who’ve all been walkers in the city, so I think that there is a big tradition of walking and writing about it. For Ackroyd and Sinclair, it’s the city that has the psyche. It becomes kind of mystical; it becomes the idea of the city as a person. So psychogeography becomes a kind of psychoanalysis of the person that is the place.
But you also reach beyond London, especially in “Spurn Head,” where you walk up and down the Holderness coastline. What was the inspiration for that?
It struck me as surpassingly strange. My father terrorised me as a small child with a tale of digging up a skull on Dunwich and putting it on the bed of a friend of his. That was my first intimation of death, and so I’ve grown up with that idea of the land being inundated, and of things being washed away. So when I heard about the Holderness Coast, which was this isolated memory of Nationwide as a child and then going up to Hull for literary readings and gradually piecing together in my mind that that was where it was, it just became an irresistible fictive trope for investigating all sorts of things.
By opening up London to New York—which you do in your essay “Walking to New York” from Psycho Geography—or to Los Angeles, as you do in the second section of Walking to Hollywood, are you trying to find another way of escaping the city and of viewing globalization? Perhaps not in a political way …
But it is political, it’s become political. The walks were about trying to deal with my own existential problems of feeling dislocated, of feeling increasingly that things like international travel struck me as incredibly dislocating; I mean I began to feel at a quite visceral level that I’d been beamed down inadequately from the Starship Enterprise when I arrived in places and I couldn’t understand why other people didn’t seem to feel it quite as acutely as me. So these were kind of practical methodologies for dealing with these kinds of personal problems. But of course they became political, you know, and they couldn’t help but start to become political. The whole way in which air travel is organized is to deny to people the reality of what it is that they’re doing—both to deny the majesty and the sublimity of the experience and to deny the very kind of mundane and prosaic despoliation that’s implicated in it at the same time.
You also claim that “to depart on a journey is to simplify your identity, you must present a successful persona to strangers, shorn of ambiguities, be just X or Y or possibly J.” Was that a difficult act to sustain?
I go on to say that the real adventure is to strike out for the known. It’s really an articulation of a very profound level of alienation. Most of life is concerned with being who people expect us to be in all sorts of ways, and perhaps we comfort ourselves erroneously with travel. If you look at travel literature, travelers—at least when the world wasn’t used up the way it is now—had the idea that they could reinvent themselves in a different place; I suppose what that trope is wearily signalling now is that that’s no longer possible.
The conceit of that part of the book is that you travel to Hollywood to find out who has killed the movies—did you?
I think what I found out was that the movies had killed me. All I was ever likely to find out was how comprehensively I’d been winnowed out by film culture and how whole swathes of my own kind of attitudinizing and my own kind of posturing were, of course, already deeply artificial and the sign of an incredible falsity of consciousness. That’s the denouement.
So you don’t necessarily feel that film has declined as an art form?
It’s over, film. It’s over. I believe that completely. I interviewed David Lynch a few years ago and he said the same thing: the communal experience of watching film in isolation from other media has gone. As Paul Fussell says in The Great War and Modern Memory—there’s this guy in the dugout on the Front and he’s reading Lord Jim and he looks around the rest of the dugout and everybody is reading Conrad. It’s an amazing book. Film’s alive but there’s no point where everybody in the dugout is going to be reading Conrad. It’s not like that now. And that’s the sense in which film has died. I mean, how old are you?
If you look in the mirror, do you think of a movie star?
Hah! But you know what I mean? Do you look at your life in terms of filmic moments? Is that your touchstone of cultural comparison? Do you have a personal lexicon of movie moments?
Yeah, I suppose I have experienced some tension between the allure of film and TV and trying to wilfully immerse myself in the printed word.
Film is where all of that happened. Not for my generation, but certainly for the generations that preceded it.
In some ways the book anticipates the biggest commercial hit of recent years, Avatar. There are references to out-of-body experiences and to swapping gender and race. You also talk about Scientology—
It’s designed to satirize the ephemerality of film, of course, because all of the out-of-body and psychotic experiences that afflict the protagonist in the course of the walk are drawn from the films that were opening that week. Scientology is a movie religion; that’s what it is. It’s a religion that’s confected out of sci-fi. L. Ron Hubbard desperately wanted to be a movie director and ended up squandering a lot of his ill-gotten gains shooting these dreadful films. And yeah, I did really end up with the Kids Against Scientology on Hollywood Boulevard. I went for a Personality Test, yet again, when I was walking through …
You’d done that before?
Oh yeah, I do it every few years.
Like a physical check-up?
I wouldn’t be without it. I did a particularly good one in Hollywood when I was on the walk because I did the test and I was in a kind of buoyant mood—I did it quite honestly—and the guy came back and said, “You’re fine, we don’t want you to join.” So I started getting to work on him and said, “Why are you a Scientologist?” I was talking him down, deprogramming him. I think it was going fairly well actually.
The Struldbruggs from Gulliver’s Travels make an appearance on the Holderness coast …
Yeah, it was nice to see them again.
Well, theoretically, of course, they never go away. What sort of influence does Jonathan Swift have on you?
I think he is absolutely fucking timeless. Whether it’s that he’s so deeply encoded in the culture, or whether it’s just that he got it all right. When the Irish banks collapsed, they’re still collapsed, I was thinking it would be quite amusing to write something for Ireland and I was looking at A Modest Proposal and thought about updating it. Rewrite it for the current Irish imbroglio. But then I read it again and realized it was completely up to date, there’s absolutely nothing to do to it for it to apply seamlessly to the current situation. Satire is always about assaulting hierarchies; it’s always about—adapting Mencken’s phrase about journalism—afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted, and if it doesn’t do that, it’s not satire. And he got all the fundamental ways of doing that sorted out a long time ago. I think that satire is much more metrical than other literary forms. It’s quite precise. It’s no surprise in a way that it could be formulated in relation to hierarchy quite early on. I’m not constantly reading Swift, or constantly going back to him, but he’s the Shakespeare of satirists in that way.