Larger Than Life: An Interview with Will Self


At Work

Last August, I interviewed Will Self—whose latest novel Umbrella has just been long-listed for the prestigious Man Booker Prize—in his London home. I had been given two weeks to prepare and I was quite terrified. My terror was warranted; I had spent the last ten days immersed in his hallucinatory fictional worlds, composed of seven novels, three novellas, and countless short stories. Through these parallel and often overlapping fictions, Self has constructed a relentless critique of our institutional failings, hypocritical cultural mores, and political inadequacies. My fears, notwithstanding being intellectually dwarfed, were largely to do with the sheer madness of many of his writings. Here was the writer who, over the years, had invented:

1. A man who wakes up with a vagina behind his left knee and has an affair with his (male) GP (Bull: A Farce);

2. A parallel Earth populated by nymphomaniacal and exhibitionist apes seen through the eyes of its most prominent experimental psychiatrists (Great Apes);

3. The afterlife taking place in the purgatorial London district of “Dulston,” a suburb populated uniquely by senseless, chain-smoking dead people, haunted by their aborted fetuses and old neuroses, and living out the rest of infinity in dire office jobs (How the Dead Live);

4. A postapocalyptic London governed by a religion based on a cab driver named Dave’s insane writings to his estranged son in the 2000s (The Book of Dave).

And then there was the public figure—an acerbic satirist of towering intellect, a giant man of letters with a rhetorical bite strong enough to tear a lesser being apart. By the time I rang on the doorbell, Will Self had, to my mind, transmogrified into The Fat Controller—the Mephistophelian antihero in his My Idea of Fun—ready to shred me from limb to limb for my idiotic questions and inadequate readings.

I was silly, of course: He was very accommodating, and the interview went adequately, not to say well. Upon arrival, he made me a cup of tea and ushered me past Manglorian—an astonishingly yappy Jack Russell—up the stairs into a study filled from top to bottom with books, Post-it notes in grid formation, and a prominently placed photograph of Francis Bacon. Languorously smoking a single roll-up in a cigarette holder, my host answered a series of (idiotic) questions with wit and eloquence for the best part of two hours.

When did you start writing?

When I was twenty-five I got a job through a series of accidents running a small corporate publishing company. Around that time the first Mac desktop computers were coming in so I saw the tail end of marking up galleys and getting scans done and saw the beginnings of the modern production process. The physical praxis of making magazines catalyzed me and got me going, and also trained me as a writer, funnily enough. It was just writing who, what, when, where, and why, writing to length, writing to order—that helped me to discipline myself to write the first book.

Was that The Quantity Theory of Insanity?

Yes. I started it when my then-wife was pregnant and wrote it over that year. I think it started life as a series of riffs or gags that I would tell people. And then I started putting them together to see how they linked up to some extent.

Do you mean stories you told people in the flesh?

Yes, kind of. I’ve always enjoyed bullshitting people. I still enjoy it. Saying something like, “They’ve done a study recently that proves that actually there is only a fixed amount of sanity to go around in any given society or indeed sub-societal group,” is the kind of thing that I would say as dinner-party conversation, and then I would embroider it and see if I could get people to believe it.

Quite early on I got the idea that the stories were going to be interlinked in various ways. In some ways the story cycle was a strategy for not attempting a novel, but it was also a genuine belief in a kind of fictional load, that there were things you could do with this kind of—dare I say it—partially deconstructed form of narrative fiction that you couldn’t do with a conventional novel.

It’s striking that you seemed to base each story in that first collection on a strand of the social and medical sciences. Was that a conscious decision?

Somebody said all male writers’ first books are acts of parricide and that book is a satire on academia and the social sciences among other things. My father was a political scientist and it was clearly an act of parricide. It takes the piss out of my father and his friends and their irrelevance as I saw it and the perniciousness of their discourse and the way in which people believed it.

It was done with a slight of mind though. I almost managed to hide it from myself. I still write things now that are very obviously attacking people, sometimes people I know, and then I’ll be slightly appalled that they’ll be terribly pissed off and angry about it because I can’t see it.

But The Quantity Theory of Insanity wasn’t done highly consciously—I didn’t sit down and think, “I’m going to write a book satirizing the social sciences.” I definitely was interested in satirizing and taking on psychoanalysis, psychotherapy, and psychiatry—the “psy” professions and the body of theory that lay behind them. That was much more conscious. The wider academic stuff was part of the atmosphere.

Do you write by hand or by computer?

I’ve done everything over the years. My mum died in 1988 and left me an Amstrad PCW 9512, which was a very primitive word processor. It probably had as much memory as my ten-year-old mobile phone. I wrote The Quantity Theory of Insanity partly on an office computer and partly on that Amstrad. We had an office on Southwark Street in a building called the Hop Exchange. It was the old dealing room for hops, a rather beautiful building just by Borough Market. I used to try to be in there by 6:30 A.M. and attempt to write for a couple of hours before the rest of the staff came in, and that’s how I wrote that book.

I’d write on screen, print it out, correct the type, rekey it, and then do it again after that. I was primarily writing on a word processor, but then bigger, faster computers came in, the internet arrived in about 1995–96, and I began to get slightly technophobic. I wasn’t enjoying the technology much, having been quite enthusiastic when I was running this business and adopting all of these machines. I didn’t go completely luddite for a while though. Dr Mukti was the first book I wrote on a typewriter in around 2003. I’ve written all of my books since on a manual typewriter.

To get away from the Internet?

To get away from the Internet and from the subsonic sound of a computer. I come in to my study every morning and I write first drafts on the manual and I don’t even turn the computer on until after lunch. I don’t like having the machine on in the room. I find it very weird and oppressive. The whole aesthetics of computers very much feeds into my OCD. They fill my head with obsessionalities and my actions become very repetitive. It seems quite inimical to the dreamy state out of which fiction comes which seems so much less causally repetitive than the way one works on computers.

I know other people aren’t like that and don’t have that problem, but I sure as shit do. And the real sea change was of course broadband—the fact that you can be seriously trying to write something and you can click a few buttons and watch somebody being anally penetrated with a Lewis gun, it’s incredibly distracting isn’t it? Or you can buy some shit you really don’t need with a few keystrokes. I mean, that’s not good, is it? It’s not helpful.

What’s your latest novel, Umbrella, about?

Have you ever read Oliver Sacks’s Awakenings? After the First World War there was an epidemic of a disease called encephalitis lethargica, which is a brain fever. Of the people afflicted with it, a third of them died, a third of them completely recovered, and a third of them developed a post-encephalitic syndrome where they subsided into weird comas. They remained frozen in these comas for years and years and years until this drug called L-dopa was synthesised. It was a dopamine drug that awoke them.

My character is a woman who develops encephalitis lethargica after the First World War and goes into a comma for fifty years until being awoken in 1971, but she really personifies the technological mania of the twentieth century because the symptomology of the illness is ticcing, spasming, repetitiveness, myloclonic jerks—it’s very strange.

It struck me that it was like having a body that was regimented rather than having a fluid machine, and I thought it was interesting to hypothesize that there was some strange relationship between the pathology and technology itself. That kind of scenario, I suppose, shows you in a nutshell what’s different about the way I approach books compared to more conventional writers. I can’t imagine anybody else who would dream of writing about that.

It’s striking how much you’ve written about sanity, or about the way it’s categorized and medicated.

I’m totally obsessed by it. Totally obsessed.

Did you read too much Foucault in your twenties?

I read a bit of Foucault; I didn’t read a huge amount of Foucault. I read a bit of R. D. Laing; I didn’t read a huge amount of R. D. Laing. I think in part my own experience of addictive illness is why I write about it because it’s a type of mental illness or mental malaise. It very much put me in touch with insanity on a personal level. I ended up being with quite a lot of people with what would be loosely defined as the major mental pathologies—schizophrenia, manic depression—and I ended up also being around a lot of “psych” professionals as well. My oldest friend is a psychiatrist and I always got a lot of stories off him.

In terms of theorists I was more influenced by Thomas Szasz’s The Myth of Mental Illness and his concept of the therapeutic state. When I was a very disturbed young man I felt my sanity under threat and picked up on Szasz’s thinking and started to think as Laing did, that sanity was—a bit like the realist novel—a socioculturally determined construct.

This may sound rather like a feeble answer, but I’m always amazed that other people don’t write about these things because they seem to me so obviously fascinating. If you look at our society since Freud and later Foucault, and you look at the influence of the psych professions, it’s just grown and grown and grown and grown and grown to the point at which therapy and the discourse of therapy is present in all media all the time. Are the looters and rioters mad or are they bad? It’s everywhere. All of these things have interested and preoccupied me because of personal experience and because I think that they are linked to the way the world has evolved in my lifetime.

Do you still believe that sanity is a sociocultural construct?

Umm, yes. That doesn’t mean that it’s not also an illness, but I also think there are ways of behaving that are perfectly acceptable in our culture that could easily be seen as pathologies by other cultures. I think one should be mindful about that. Absolutely.

Martin Amis said that one way to distinguish a novelist is that a novelist gets up in the morning and “Why cars? Why huts with wheels at the corners? Why escalators? Why toothbrushes?” There’s that Martian perspective and it’s easy to see it in terms of the material world, a kind of inability to suspend disbelief in it, but you’ve got to apply that persistently Martian perspective to the world of ideas and social mores as well.

I think that’s what draws me back to psychosis, which is the biggest and most obvious refusal to suspend disbelief in society and culture as it is presented to us. It’s a refusenik posture. Over the years I’ve been stalked and followed by a number of psychotic people, and one of the most recent ones was absolutely convinced that she’d come back from the future to warn me that the machines had taken over and that I was one of the only people—she’d read my work—who could stand out against them. When I tried to say to her, “Actually, you’re schizophrenic, and I’m calling the police now to have you sectioned,” she said, “Ah, yes, you see, that proves that the machines have got to you already.” At that point I think, Well, you might have a point actually. Maybe the machines have got to me.

When writing about these types of insanity, when writing about dreams, hallucinations, or visions as in My Idea of Fun, you often, if not always, delve into the realm of the fantastic. A lot of writers that could be labeled realist have also treated madness, like Dostoevsky with Crime and Punishment. Do you feel that using the fantastic trope is the best way of getting at these subconscious workings of the mind?

I’m not really interested in depth psychology per se. It’s not that I’m trying to say, “What is going on here?,” because that presupposes a naturalistic world that is a given. I don’t think all of Dostoevsky’s work even does that. If you think of Notes from the Underground, that’s kind of a mad book. I’m not attempting to say things about individual psychopathology; I’m attempting to say something about social psychopathology. It’s not that I’m trying to investigate through creating characters or even through mixing fantasy and reality; I’m not trying to say anything about where one ends and the other begins, even. It’s much more that I’m interested in saying something more oblique about the kind of society in which we do live, or seem to live.

You write about the body a lot. Liver is a good example—there are frequent descriptions of the body and its functions that are almost Elizabethan, as if you were trying to revive the concept of the four humors. Is this something you are conscious of, this fascination with the body?

I just don’t understand why other people aren’t preoccupied by the body. I just don’t understand it. You can read novels—and I don’t read a great deal of novels—that never consider the body. In a way, it’s just as simple as nobody ever having a shit in a book whereas it seems to me that the condition of somebody’s digestion is of almost paramount importance to their mental state. So much fiction seems disembodied to me, and so connected with a kind of cultural and political establishment, in whose interest it is that we be disembodied—particularly in Anglo-Saxon culture which is so antipathetic to sexuality, sensuality, and bodily experience.

If you write a novel in which nobody has a shit, nobody pisses, farts, cuts themselves, nobody has an awful fugue where they are aware of their blood circulation or their swollen liver or the wheeze in their lungs or the spot on the line of their jaw—what are you saying about the world at that point? You’re saying that the important thing is nothing to do with embodiment. You’re saying that the important thing is that we’re not like animals, whereas of course we are animals.

Again it’s not something I do with great consciousness but I can see —I’m not a fool—that objectively that’s clearly what I’m doing. I’m absolutely assaulting the disembodiment of a lot of our culture. In orthodox realist fiction people often sit down to eat a meal and all exchanges of conversation are clearly audible and succeed one another. Nobody talks over each other—how do you express that in a novel?—and the meal usually lasts about half a page.

An extended version of this interview was originally published in print in The White Review, a London-based arts and literature quarterly cofounded and edited by Jacques Testard and Benjamin Eastham.