Will Self Interview

Will Self in New York City

by Alexander Laurence

Hadn't seen the tall English dude for three years or so, and it was surprising to see him at Coffee Shop at Union Square hunched over the bar ordering a drink and hitting on the waitress. Some people really go for that English accent. What are you saying, mate? Speak English. Get that tongue out of yer mouth. I had been hanging out at Coffee Shop, trying to turn it into a literary hangout. I don't know if it's working? Mr Self go into the back where it's quiet. The place is packed (what a cliché?). What would Mr Self say? I don't know. He's a prolific writer. A number of books about several things: Cock & Bull, about waking up with the opposite sex as your own, My Idea of Fun, an American Psycho, as if written by an Oxbridge Celine, Grey Areas and The Quantity Theory of Insanity, two collections of short stories, Junk Mail, a collection of non-fiction, and now Great Apes, a novelisation of The Planet of the Apes or just another mindgame? Take your pick. With a lot of self-importance, more than needed, Mr Self sat in the booth and started throwing down a few bloody mary's and devoring some oysters. Married life has been good to Mr Self. He doesn't look like he has been getting much sleep lately. Maybe it's because of the new baby. Will Self had too much to say and I listened, and I must admit, Will Self is being very "Will Self" today!!!

AL: What was it like for Will Self today?

WS: It was kind of odd. Huh! My infant son is here from London so we were up quite a bit during the night as you are with babies. We watched the stock markets tumble. I don't follow it at the level in investing in it, but I certainly follow it at the level as seeing it as an example of the extraordinary popular delusions of madness of crowds. The way people behave like animals in mass context in flock-type behavior. It's fascinating. It's also nice to see how provincial London is regarded in New York.

AL: How did you start writing Great Apes? Can you explain to us how you were seized in a room and had a vision of this book then began to write it?

WS: The idea was actually provoked by a British actor, Jim Broadbent, who's in a lot of Mike Leigh films. I came up with the elements of the guy waking up in bed with his girlfriend having turned into a chimpanzee during the night. Then being carried off by a chimpanzee crash team, having been considered mad. But the inspiration for it was like a flash when I realized that I knew very little about chimpanzees. I found the notion of being with a feral male adult chimpanzee in an enclosed space to be deeply worrying and upsetting. I set out to find out if I was right, and I was. That's what the engine of the book is predicated on and got it going. I knew that they are our closest living relatives. I knew that they shared an enormous amount of essential material. We all know the baisc facts about chimpanzees. And yet, I felt within myself a real basic desire not to know about them. That they did represent some indefineable and sinister other, and to look into it was going to be dangerous.

AL: There are certain theories of Darwin about relationships and survival that interest us all . What do you think about those sorts of models?

WS: I suppose that I do manage to tackle an aspect of Darwinian thought by creating a chimpanzee world. This is a world where chimpanzees are evolutionarily successful because of the same reasons which Social Darwinians say about our world. That we like to regard things through the lens of scientific enquiry as instinctive animal behavior. That's not a meaningful way of looking at it. Many of our forms of our social behavior remain highly instinctive. I suppose that there's satire in the book of course that's aimed at precisely pinpointing that, in saying that people compete for sex in the way that chimpanzees do, that people compete for status the way the chimpanzees do, people resolve conflicts within certain situations in the same way. I think that our professed ideologies of monogomy are in fact are far from it. They are practically paradoxical in the male aim for constructing most Western human relationships, where it uses monogomy where hardly anyone is monogomous. All these things are quite satrical points that you can make in the chimp world.

AL: I felt that with Cock & Bull, and in a few of your stories, that you flip-flopped all the assumptions, and in the new book, Great Apes, there's also the tendency to turn things upside down and look at the world through that lens. Could you comment on that?

WS: Yeah. I suppose that this is the most complete comedy of reversal that I have done in this sense, a full world reversal. The others have been parallel worlds that walked or mutated out of our own. This is as well but it's meant to be comprehensively flipped over. At its most elevated level, it's a means of commenting on what our most basic ideas of reality really are. The novel itself is this sort of ontologically dangerous form in that way. It presents a reality that may not correspond to our own. Even in the most naturalistic book has features that are quite clearly not like the way the word is. It is not clear whether the world derives from the novel, or the novel derives from the world. And I suppose at its most exalted level it's an attempt to comment on that very fact. I rather dislike loose labels like "Post-Modern" or anything like that but I do suppose that I come of generation who had an innate suspicion about the conventions of orthodox narrative, and one who thought it was very difficult to believe in character and orderly narrative in that way. My parallel and mutated worlds are in part a response to those difficulties.

AL: Has the interest in the novel and the readership of the novel is growing or dwindling?

WS: Who could say? It's hard to know. Of some of the magazines we talked about earlier, it would hard to judge what the RPC, the readers per copy, is. It's difficult to get an RPC on books. You can notionally create one. I don't know. What do you think? It comes in waxes and wanes, that one.

AL: Well, you see the sort of books that are constantly being published, from the books by celebrities to the "My father abused me, now I'm writing about it" sort. The serious book, or the more literary ones, gets lost in the shuffle....

WS: Yes. There's an enormous mass. I suppose that some people feel that literary fiction may have been slightly knocked off the pedestal just by the sheer mass by whatever, general fiction titles, to diet books, or books by Princess Diana that are being published. Britain is a big publishing country. The total amount of books published and the various titles published constantly rises. My perception is that there is a decline in sales and readership or literary fiction.

AL: I wanted to ask about comic writing and also satirical writing and those modes were still valid forms to comment on current events?

WS: The problem is that, as the critic Adams Phillips pointed out, satrical temperments are inherantly unstable insofar in relation to the work. There's a tendency to either view the world highly idealistically and therefore to want to present this corrective, but that has to be reined in by a conscious desire not to appear serious because the satire will be ruined. In good satirical writing I think that you have to cultivate an absolutely high degree of facetiousness. People really have to be in doubt as to whether you are remotely serious about at all. That sits ill with wanting to present anything earnest or genuinously purposeful. You have to be constantly drawing back. The aim is to constantly agitate the reader to make them think morally for themselves, but indeed even that cannot be publicly stated as an aim or can be included in any sense in the text. That would be disastrous. So it's a very funny business. I think that some of my books really aren't satires in some ways. A friend of mine thinks that Apes is much more of a distopian/utopian novel like Huxley's Island, that it's actually a perverse utopian book in order to comment philosophically on our society rather than a straightforward satire.

AL: You wrote a few pieces on William Burroughs in your book of Non-fiction, Junk Mail. Did you have any thoughts about him since he died a few months ago?

WS: I had wanted to meet him. There is a sort of genuis' touch among writers. There's an idea of.... You want to press the flesh but you don't neccessarily want to talk to them, or anything. You feel like any other sort of fan. I finally received this summons that I could go to meet him this year on this book tour. I was going out to the Midwest, and the old fucker died. Screwed that up! I'm not particularly sad about it. Without speaking unnessarily ill of the dead, the nice thing about them is that's precisely what you can do. Burroughs never struck me as being a particularly nice man.

AL: What is your working schedule like?

WS: When I'm working the aim is to do first drafts fairly early in the morning, and then revisions after lunch. I never aim to do more than four good hours a day. But the practice is that I can't maintain a discipline and then it gets closer and closer to deadlines, and then I find myself engaged in orgies of writing, which I quite like. I get really mad working 16 hours a day. You have the advantage of working like that because you really do have the whole book in your mind very comprehensively. I find it very difficult to do over two years.

Favorite Book: The phone book
Recent Book: A Biography of Augustus John by Michael Holroid
Coffee: Drinks a little coffee, hardly any tea
Has an espresso machine at home and present makes two a day
Quote: All rituals are unfortunately pretty bloody important in writing. It's a highly ritualized activity because you have to develop a structure for something completely by itself. The best way to do that is by rituals of all sorts, coffee drinking, smoking, whatever, gets bound into it intrinsically.