Chris Hall serves up a slice of Will Self with the publication of his second collection of journalism, Feeding Frenzy
Chris Hall: First off, congratulations on the birth of your new son, Luther.
Will Self: Yeah, little baby Luther. He was born on August 8, so he’s a couple of months old now.
CH: So I suppose you’ve had people pointing out the Superman connection with your other son Alexis (i.e. Lex Luther)?
WS: Yes… It just arose. In my experience with names, they just arise. I was always quite keen on Dmitri because Alexis and Ivan so with the third one you could have the Brothers Karamazov. But Deborah didn’t think that was funny.
CH: So how do you find the time for all this writing then?
WS: Well, I have cycled back quite a lot this year in that I resigned from the Independent before Luther was born, so it’s the first time in more or less 10 years when I haven’t had an ongoing newspaper contract. So, I took fairly extensive paternity leave. But, you know now it’s building back up again.
CH: No plans for a regular column again?
WS: I don’t think I’m going to take another weekly contract of any kind in the foreseeable future. I’ve got this floating series of interviews with women that I was doing for the Sindie [Independent on Sunday], none of which are in Feeding Frenzy [Amazon] but which will get a book of their own. I must of done 20 to 25 women over the last two to three years but I wanna do about another ten before I pick my best women to put in the book. But, I haven’t found a home for my women yet. I mean, the Independent were happy for me to do them freelance but to be frank I just wasn’t interested.
CH: Why did you only interview women?
WS: I like women! Dammit, I like women!
CH: You gave Margaret Beckett the full treatment didn’t you?
WS: I was very mean to her. And of course you always regret it because I think in interviewing there’s a real sense of ‘did I have a successful bowel movement that morning’ kind of feeling about it isn’t there? You go in to interview someone and you’re constipated and you think they’re the worst person you’ve met and you go in to see them another day when your stomach is full of gaily coloured butterflies and you think they’re the best thing since sliced bread so you grow weary of that as an interviewer if you’ve got any wisdom – but at the same time if dyspepsia collides with something you perceive in the other person you just let rip.
The problem with interviewing, which is an aspect of our culture, is that there seems to be a licence to be psychically ruthless. It’s almost encumbent upon an interviewer to allow themselves the full traverse of the psychic rifle.
CH: And Tracey Emin, who you said was a termagant?
WS: Yeah…you know I kind of resent it when people interview me and assume that, because I’ve been well-known for a fair amount of time, that it’s kind of open season, but the truth of the matter is that Tracey really liked that piece. You have to ask yourself why is that and quite frankly when it comes to Tracey, although one or two of her pieces have a certain odd, jejune quality, her art work is essentially a peg on which she hangs her media persona which is her main work.
So she didn’t mind that piece and I think that that’s what you’re up against with a certain kind of interview subject. Now with Beckett I’m perfectly confident that she really hated and was upset by that piece and I noticed that after it she started to make some very sour comments on the media publicly for quite a while. But you know, she’s a politician, you have to reckon that someone’s going to take down verbatim what you’re saying. Why wouldn’t they?
CH: Do you normally use a tape machine?
WS: Well, I think that’s why the Beckett interview was such a devastating piece because I just transcribed answers to questions. Because she talked such complete bollocks. You know, why bother?
CH: Is one of the attractions to journalism the lack of needing to suspend your disbelief so much?
WS: I think it’s an opportunity to get you out and about. It gets you interacting with the world in all sorts of different ways. It also gives you the opportunity, funnily enough, to suspend disbelief more readily because you’re presented with an area of fact that you can then instantly turn into an area of fiction or at any rate embellish in some way. I’m not making great claims for my journalism but I think that what I do that gives me cachet and makes editors want to employ me is really colour writing, it’s really lifting what otherwise might be fairly dry into something that is quite outlandish sometimes. I suppose I am in some ways a practitioner of gonzo/new journalism in that I am prepared to inject my own warped sensibilities into a piece.
CH: You say that you read very little fiction now, a problem with suspension of disbelief, but do you just mean new fiction or do you really not read the classics?
WS: No, I don’t read classic fiction either.
CH: I was thinking of the Amis line about disparaging your youngers but exalting your elders…
WS: What you mean so you don’t see us nipping at your heels? No, I don’t think that’s the way I think about it, but unlike Martin, I’ve never been a sort of fiction-open person. Martin exists in a perpetual competition of some sort, whereas I’m absolutely convinced that only pets win prizes and I don’t think that literary art is a competition of any sort.
CH: Don’t suppose you saw the Booker prize the other day then?
WS: No. I mean what could you possibly win, apart from cash and the kind of frankly transitory and ephemeral applause of certain kinds?
CH: I suppose there is the argument of reaching out to a wider audience…
WS: You could say that the whole kind of prize giving and the whole Lit Crit newspaper based establishment represents a kind of infotainment service for fiction in that way, and beyond a certain point it doesn’t make a work a great work – it doesn’t really change someone’s life or supply that missing X factor that makes them exponentially increase their involvement with the world or with literature. Those things are not what make a work last. The only thing that makes a work last is lasting. And that again you cannot tell. You can look at countless examples of that, of books that have lasted that you wouldn’t have reckoned on lasting.
I’ve just finished writing a long introductory essay for the Penguin Modern Classics of Junky [Amazon]. I mean who would have thought that Junky, published back in 1953 as a paperback bound back to back with Maurice Helbrant’s Narcotic Agent for 35 cents, a penny dreadful shocker, would become probably the greatest confessional novel about heroin addiction written in the 20th century – and I think undoubtedly so.
CH: That must have something to do with his subsequent notoriety though.
WS: Oh no, I think that even if he’d written nothing else it would still stand.
CH: Junky‘s very hard-boiled isn’t it?
WS: It is, in fact he took Hammett as his model for it.
CH: He wrote that as William Lee didn’t he?
WS: Yes, for a Burroughsian it’s got a lot of sign posts towards later theories and fictional methods that he then took up and practiced through Naked Lunch, etc, but actually it’s a really good book. I make the argument in my essay that it’s one of the great existentialist novels, that it’s on a par with Nausea [Amazon] or The Fall [Amazon].
War and pacifism
CH: Someone was interested in a recent Today essay that defined the boundaries of your pacifism. They wanted to know why this position is marginalised by the media?
WS: Well, I think States depend upon a component of armed force – they depend upon the notion of coercion at some level and it’s very hard to find a state that hasn’t had a standing army or militia of some kind. So I think the notion of armed force and violence is integral to the kind of command-based hierarchies that states have. To paraphrase Dubya, “anyone who isn’t with us is against us”, so if you’re against all armed force you’re going to be necessarily squeezed out of the discourse. It won’t even be conscious, there will be people who simply cannot hear what you’re saying because it’s so inimical to their idea of state authority.
I think this war has rather crystallised my pacifism. I think in the past I was like a lot of people who said I’ve got pacifistic inclination but I’m not a pacifist because what I couldn’t find in my own mind was the answer to that perennial question: ‘Ah, yes, but what would you have done when the Nazis were coming?’ And as someone with Jewish blood I’ve always found that difficult to answer, but the thing with this war which makes it so wrong in so many different ways is.that it exposes that argument about the Nazis as a specious argument, in that it assumes a conditional assumption i.e. that you are in 1939, because it can be answered with a similar kind of conditional question: ‘But hang on a minute, if everyone had been a pacifist in 1914 then the Nazis would never have come to power.’
So that to me pushes up the argument to let’s just be pacifists now. Maybe that’s the adequate moral response to the phenomenon of violence in all the forms – I get really angry in the street like we all do. I’ve now taken to bicycling, so I get cut up on my bicycle and I get absolutely furious because it’s so dangerous. I’m a big guy and I’m a very aggressive guy and I feel tempted to rip open cars doors and pull people out and beat them to a bloody pulp but, hey, I don’t do it. It seems to me that there comes a point in your life as a moral being in society where you decide that violence is not the solution to car incidents so there can be the same kind of decision at a macro level.
CH: But it’s still your first response though; you’re not claiming to not have those thoughts?
WS: Well I think that people who say they don’t even think like that anymore are probably self-deceiving. I think it says somewhere in How The Dead Live [Amazon] that there’s no one as angry as an Occidental Buddhist and there’s nobody less forgiving than a fundamentalist born-again Christian. You have to acknowledge the impulse to violence, to say that it’s completely gone is a dangerous thing.
CH: What would you do with the World Trade Centre site?
WS: Mmm.. I’d be leery of venturing an opinion on that. It seems to me that’s something for the people of Manhattan to decide. It’s a grotesque singularity, the snuffing out of that many lives in one place… it also seems to me that it’s going to be an inevitable equivocation between civic pride and something to do with the symbolism of what has occurred.
CH: Is it true about you doing the new series of Shooting Stars with Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer?
WS: Yes, that is true. I’ve replaced Mark Lamarr.
CH: Given that Lamaar became the greasy Fifties throwback, what have they got in store for you?
WS: I can assure people that that has not been my fate. In fact, au contraire, I have become a sinister kind of John Dee-type figure who controls Vic’s mind by use of instantiated eye beams which fiddle with his mind.
CH: This just developed organically?
WS: Yes, it developed organically over the show that Vic, Jim Moir, became convinced that I was controlling his mind. I think I’ve claimed the upper hand there actually… It was a fun show to do not least because it’s pretty good not to take yourself too seriously, and to get paid well for not taking yourself too seriously is a real bonus. I’m not sure how good I’m going to be on it because it’s not quite my humour, it’s not verbally based, it’s very visual humour – they are rubber-legged funny men. I hope it works for their sake, after all it’s not my main gig but it is theirs.
Water, water everywhere
CH: You’ve written of the benefits to the imagination of living near a large body of water. Could this be why you live so close to the Thames, albeit unconsciously?
WS: Mmm, I think with the Thames… Mmm, yeah I suppose that it does help. I hadn’t really considered that aspect of it: it is tidal, it does move. With the Thames I always think that because it’s such a conspicuous piece of physical geography going right through the heart of something that is oppressively human in that way that it annuls or at any rate vitiates the oppressive sense of human geography and provides you with a sense of topography really, because you know you’re next to a river, you know you’re in a river valley, you know you’re on a planet that has natural features whereas if you’re just in the middle of Acton then it’s rather difficult to hang on to -
CH: You’ve got it in for Acton haven’t you?
WS: I’m thinking of moving to Acton actually. That’s why it comes to mind. I concede that the river may have been why I chose to live in Vauxhall. In fact, I was looking at renting as an office, a very unusual house-boaty thing that’s down by Cringle Dock waste disposal station in the lea of Battersea Power Station, which is this weird thing on two great pontoons built by a load of Finnish architectural students. But I just wouldn’t spend enough time on it to make it practical, but the idea of writing on top of a body of water was enormously appealing.
CH: On the South Bank Show a few years back you said that a psychologist had put “schizoid personality” on your case notes. Now, this might sound like a conceit from your own fiction, but I got the impression that you might have interpreted this as meaning that you were schizophrenic, but diagnostically it means a personality disorder characterised by “extreme shyness and oversensitivity to others”.
WS: I did know that, but the same diagnosis had borderline personality written down as well which would be another form of that. But, increasingly I’ve come to view addiction itself as a mimetic illness in that way – it mimics other psychopathologies. People who essentially have addictive personalities are diagnosed as manic depressive or schizophrenic or certainly depressive. What they really are is addicts. The addiction decides, if you think of it as an autonomous thing, to pretends to be another pathology because the addict finds it bizzarely more comfortable to think of themselves as schizophrenic or manic depressive or whatever, rather than confront the fact that they are an addict which of course means that they’re going to have to stop doing what they want to do above all.
CH: So are you shy and sensitive?
WS: I think I am still quite shy. A lot of the extroversion or flamboyance is always a compensation. It’s better to tough it out rather than sit there cowering.
CH: Did you retreat from the limelight after being found snorting heroin aboard John Major’s plane during the 1997 election?
WS: No, not at all. Two things happened on that front. One was that I didn’t go to ground which was useful. In fact, I counter-attacked. I rolled with the punch in the initial aftermath. Doing Have I Got News For You was quite frankly a calculated thing to defuse criticism. I think that there’s a certain level at which English or British society operates as a kind of particularly beastly lower sixth form common room. If I’d gone to ground at that point I think I would have been in trouble. And it did serve to defuse interest in it.
The other thing is cleaning up from drugs. It made me less interesting to people in that kind of prurient way. And there’s always that level in the media and society as a whole just as the papers are full of stories about illicit drugs and strange sexual practices so that was the basic voyeuristic level of interest in me as someone who got completely fucked up on drugs and booze. And if you’re not doing that anymore then you’re not vulnerable in that way.
CH: Have you read your brother Jonathan’s book, Self Abuse [Amazon], which is partly about growing up in what he sees as a dysfunctional family. Can you comment?
WS: Well, I can’t. I have read it, but I made a pact with myself not to comment on it publicly because I just don’t do that stuff. What I can say in answer to the question is that there are a lot of factual inaccuracies in it.
CH: The introduction to Feeding Frenzy refers to a cabal of restaurateurs who wanted shot of you saying you’d tried to buy drugs off the doorman of his restaurant…
WS: That was before [the Major incident] of course. That was actually a malevolent restaurateur rather than the tabloids themselves. He was someone who didn’t like the reviews I’d been giving his restaurants.
CH: So there genuinely was this plan to get rid of you?
WS: Oh yeah, that’s true.
CH: A cabal?
WS: Yeah, as far as I know is true as well. That’s not just rhetorical rubbish.
CH: That’s a bit weird isn’t it?
WS: No, it’s not weird. I mean I don’t think it was said with any great seriousness. What I think is, you know what these guys are like, they all sit around getting drunk and think ‘Wouldn’t it be great if we could bump off Will Self?’. I don’t think they were serious but it does show you the level of naffness and the extent to which criticism can bite. I remember Deborah pointed out when I said ‘I don’t know why these fucking celebrity egg flippers get so upset about these reviews, you know they go on parceling up three bits of raddicio for £45, why are they bothered?’ and she said ‘Well, some of them really do regard what they do as an art form’
CH: You often just criticised the interior design of the restaurant rather than the food…
WS: Well, these guys, and I do know some of them, aren’t stupid, what they realise is that by concentrating on the restaurant you’re completely dissing the food and the whole culture that they represent in which it’s really important to drizzle olive oil in a particular way. You’re saying that ‘Hang on, this isn’t important’. Not only is it not important it’s a kind of grotesque moral singularity: You’re sitting around thinking about adding huge amounts of monetary value to ingredients that would barely keep a starving Somalian alive for a day. If you start criticising the food you start to take it on its own terms. You can’t allow it that much credence. You’ve suspended disbelief in what’s being done. Whereas my approach was to say ‘I just don’t buy any of this shit’ you know.
CH: I liked the long ‘travel’ piece you wrote in Australia. You’re very much a spiritual person aren’t you?
WS: Yes, when I went to see the whirling dervishes. Yes, I think so. Middle-age tends to afflict us in this way doesn’t it? And I think that cleaning up from drugs necessarily entails a revaluation of the spiritual facet of yourself. In order to shut off an entirely self-destructive way of life you have to look for a positive direction. But I think for people viewing my fictional work it’s always been there. I think that, this is a broad brush, but people tend to mistake me for a nihilist but I’m not really like this at all.
CH: Ballard gets misunderstood in that way too.
WS: Yes, I don’t think people really get what he’s up to in that respect. I think people who do understand, really understand, and people who don’t understand just don’t understand it. I’m unashamed of saying that: that I am more interested in spiritual questions. I’m looking at writing a novel about revealed religion at the moment.
CH: What about the other novel you were writing on ‘land use’?
WS: Yeah, if only I’d written it before foot and mouth. No, I mean what I wanted to do was set something in a rural context and that’s what I will do with this book on revealed religion. It’s not about the farm industry. I’m engaged in rather an odd thing which is that I’m going to turn a screenplay of Dorian Gray that I’ve been writing for about three years back into a novel.
So, I’m basically going to rewrite Oscar Wilde [Amazon], which is something I would have never done off my own back, but having been commissioned to write a screenplay and realising the very strong likelihood that it will never get made, I wanted to make something out of the material I already had.
I’ve transposed Dorian to the gay scene of the 1980s and 90s, into the epicentre of the Aids epidemic and I think it’s an interesting treatment of it and it’ll make an interesting novella. So that’s going to be the next fictional project. The fascinating thing about Dorian is that – I’ll probably get hung, drawn and quartered for this – it’s not actually that great a novel. What it is is an incredibly powerful cultural idea.
Just like the idea that Dorian himself is impervious to time, so the text itself has been impervious to time because in many ways it, rather like a Ballard book – you know he’s one of the very few writers to have been able to foretell the cultural future in that way. Wilde foretold the probable shape of a kind of aggressively “out” gay culture in the 20th century. I think that’s what’s fascinating about Dorian and the way in which gay culture in the late 20th century has become a synechdoche of the narcissism, and media obsession of western culture as a novel, and that’s where I pick up on it today.
CH: So it’s nearing completion?
WS: Err, no. But I would like it to be published some time next year, but when I really get my teeth into something it comes fairly quickly, and it is all there. It just says “Interior. Night. Scene 82. A bar in Greenwich Village.” I have to knock all those out and put it into prose and I’ve got a book hopefully.
CH: Have you been approached by any filmmakers regarding adaptations of your stories?
WS: An amateur made an amateur film of Cock And Bull [Amazon], which he wanted to push commercially, but after seeing it I confess I denied permission for this. In truth, I never would’ve allowed the amateur production to go ahead had he not come on with a sad story about already having spent aeons working on the screenplay. Cock has also been optioned for film twice by the producer Christine Vachon (‘Boys Don’t Cry’) but nothing has come of it, despite my seeing one excellent screenplay written by a guy called Nix (I kid you not). Otherwise, not a single one of the other narratives has been optioned.
CH: Would you be amenable to films made of your work, or do think it might be disastrous?
WS: I think for a writer it’s an almost always an artistic lose-lose scenario. Either you take the money and abrogate all responsibility for the finished article (which then, in all likelihood, ill serves the original), or else you take less money and become creatively involved (if they’ll have you), in which case, in all probability, your participation will be vitiated to the point where it makes no difference anyway. I know several of my peers who have spent years working on film adaptations of their work, only for them either to come out badly, or else not come out at all. Martin Amis has it about right when he says: ‘Don’t believe they’ve made a movie of your book until you rent the video.’ In part, I feel obscurely satisfied that there have been no film adaptations. To my mind it proves that I’m doing something which can only be done in the form of prose fiction. Mind you, the bank manager might well have a different take on this.
CH: Which stories would you be interested in seeing adapted?
WS: I’ve always felt that ‘Tough Tough Toys for Tough Tough Boys’ (the story) would make a great British road movie. The problem with road movies in Britain is that there isn’t usually enough road, but by starting in Caithness, on the north coast of Scotland, and having scenes the entire way to London, I think this story avoids the usual pitfalls. I’ve even gone so far as to rough out a scene plan for it, but because of all the problems mentioned above, I’ve never gone any further. I also think ‘The Rock of Crack as Big as the Ritz’ together with its sequel ‘The Nonce Prize’ would make a good movie. As for the novels, well, Cock would be good (no sight of the genitals – just reaction shots); and Great Apes [Amazon], I feel, could be made quite easily and effectively, by simply having humans play chimpanzees, without any makeup, just half-naked, copulating freely, grooming etc.. And with subtitles (they would sign as in the book).
CH: Which filmmakers would you trust with your work?
WS: Completely trust? Well, Cronenberg for Cock, Gilliam for My Idea of Fun [Amazon] or How the Dead Live.
CH: And finally, what question would you ask yourself?
WS: Erm, I think the question I ask myself most is, and this comes up particularly in relation to this anti-war stuff which is the first public political thing that I’ve put my head above the parapet for kind of ever. So I’d be inclined to ask myself: do you really believe that your work as a writer represents a significant or a meaningful contribution to political and social debate or do you think there’s something more you should be doing? So that’s the kind of question I tend to ask myself most.