Standing on the doorstep of Will Self’s London home ahead of this interview, last August, I was quite terrified. I had spent the previous 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 bridled madness of many of his writings. Here was the writer who, over the years, had invented:
- a man who wakes up with a vagina behind his left knee and has an affair with his (male) GP (Bull: A Farce);
- a parallel Earth, populated by hypersexual and exhibitionist apes, seen through the eyes of its most prominent experimental psychiatrists (Great Apes);
- 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 foetuses and old neuroses, and living out the rest of infinity in dire office jobs (How the Dead Live);
- a post-apocalyptic London governed by a religion based on a cab driver named Dave’s rage-filled 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 famously little tolerance for fools. By the time I rang on the doorbell, Will Self had, to my mind, transmogrified into The Fat Controller – the Mephistophelian anti-hero in My Idea of Fun – ready to tear me limb from limb for my idiotic questions and inadequate readings.
My fears were unwarranted, of course. Upon arrival, he made me a cup of tea and ushered me past Manglorian – a yap-happy Jack Russell – up the stairs into a study filled top to bottom with books, hundreds of post-it notes affixed to the walls in grid formation and a prominently placed photograph of Francis Bacon. Languorously smoking a single roll-up in a cigarette holder, my host answered the questions put to him with wit and eloquence.
QThe White Review — Was there a moment or an author that impelled you to write?
AWill Self — So many authors impelled me in that direction – it was a cumulative cascade game in the penny arcade. I don’t think there is any education for a writer but reading – and life. Reading for an aspirant writer is like an autodidact’s course in mechanics. But there were a couple of writers in my mid- to late twenties who did it for me: Céline for style and Ballard for world view. Both of them seemed to say to me that certain things can be done in prose fiction. Anything else that went before, which is more or less what everybody else has read, was like banking up behind a dam.
QThe White Review — What about Céline captivated you?
AWill Self — It was really just the leader dots, the broken down parenthetic style, the anger, the sense of comedic rage about his writing… It’s unusually funny for a French writer. Maybe that’s why he was persecuted. I can’t think of any other novels in French that are that funny. Proust is kind of funny, but not that funny. It was like a tocsin waking me up.
QThe White Review — You said a few years ago that you were ‘overawed by the canon’ as a teenager, and that it drove you away from studying English at university.
AWill Self — When I was at school I had a very gifted teacher who started us on critical theory. It was in the late Seventies, around the time when Colin McCabe was refused tenure at Cambridge for being a deconstructionist. I ended up having this very strong sense that modish critical theory was an excuse for philosophy. I saw this developing not so much with structuralism but with deconstruction, in the absence of certainty or the absence of an effective object for metaphysical enquiry. I guess I had some kind of suspicion that the Western metaphysical tradition had run into the escape lane and gone into the sand up to its axles, but I didn’t know it for certain.
But, really, critical writing doesn’t have anything to do with writing fiction. Someone who is interested in writing fiction studying critical theory would be like trying to become a builder by studying architectural history. What you really need to do is put one book on top of another. I have to say though I don’t think it ever occurred to me to read English. I was interested in philosophy therefore I studied Philosophy.
England, for a culture that isn’t overly keen on its fiction writers, nonetheless has a cult of pseudo-professionalism about it. When I started out, I can remember reviews or critiques that took as their starting point the fact that I didn’t have an English degree. How strange is that?
QThe White Review — Were you writing anything at that early stage?
AWill Self — I was piddling about but I didn’t start writing seriously until I was 26. Most people who are that age don’t have an awful lot to say, particularly those people who are from plush, velvet-rutty Western European contexts. There’s not a great deal to be said about it and I think that, unlike other art forms, prose fiction particularly depends on a kind of authenticity of voice that is slightly inimical to that period of life. I think you are trying on different guises and attitudinising in various ways on a psychological level and it’s not until you have gotten through it that you can start to find out what your voice would be.
QThe White Review — What did you do after leaving university?
AWill Self — I left university when I was 20 and within the year I had two regular commissions as a cartoonist, one with The New Statesman and one in City Limits, which was the publication launched by the people who left Time Out to start an alternative city listings magazine in the early 1980s.
It wasn’t until I was 25 that 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 catalysed 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.
QThe White Review — Was that The Quantity Theory of Insanity?
AWill Self — 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.
QThe White Review — Do you mean stories you told people in the flesh?
AWill Self — 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.
QThe White Review — 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?
AWill Self — 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 sleight 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 satirising the social sciences.’ I definitely was interested in satirising 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.
QThe White Review — Has the practical way in which you write changed since that book?
AWill Self — I probably do write in the same way. When I wrote The Quantity Theory of Insanity I literally would not look back. I would look at the last sentence I’d written and I would carry on, and I accepted that if there were mistakes in continuity I’d deal with them in the edit. I was so appalled by the idea that I was even daring to do this shit. That kind of cosmic disgust at the pretentiousness of trying to write in that way has remained with me.
I’ve written quite a lot of books now and at the end of a day or the end of a week I will have a glance back and look at this or look at that. I’ve never been somebody who constantly reworks stuff as I’m working on it. I really want to get through a draft and then I’ll rewrite it.
QThe White Review — How many drafts does it take you to finish a book?
AWill Self — Three to four, typically.
QThe White Review — Do you write by hand or by computer?
AWill Self — 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 and 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 6.30am 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.
QThe White Review — To get away from the internet?
AWill Self — To get away from the internet and from the sub-sonic 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 key strokes. I mean, that’s not good, is it? It’s not helpful.
QThe White Review — In your books, one gets the sense that you try to stretch language to its limits. What drives this interest in language?
AWill Self — I see it as connected to driving the prose fiction form to its limits. It’s made of language so if you want to extend the possibilities of what you can do with prose fiction then obviously you’re going to have to mess around with language. I often say this in connection with sex and violence as well – I don’t think my books are particularly adventurous in terms of language, it’s just that other books are piteously unadventurous.
I don’t think I’m doing anything particularly radical – I’m just doing what the form demands. Unless you want to write novels that stand in relation to other novels as tables do to other tables then you’ve got to approach each book de novo. You’ve got to think what language is fit for a particular kind of text. That’s all there is to it, it’s not a wilful language obsession. It’s much more connected to what’s fit for purpose.
QThe White Review — Does the language you use shape the books? With, say, The Book of Dave or Great Apes, where you are inventing languages or cultures, how does that process come about? Did you sit down and write a lexicon?
AWill Self — Did I? Yes, I think I did. I tend to view The Book of Dave on the language front as -well, I wimped out on it. I initially thought of writing it like Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker, completely in the invented language. I wish I had in a way, it would have been much more interesting. I was amazed when it came out and people said ‘Oh, it’s not a patch on Riddley Walker.’ I mean, Riddley Walker’s an acknowledged classic but nobody’s ever fucking read it. It’s a really difficult book.
It is written completely in this broken down language, in this cracked and spalled English, and what Hoban does in that is much more sophisticated than what I do in The Book of Dave. It’s brilliant. In The Book of Dave, Mokni is nothing but a phonetic transliteration of hard cockney with a few numbers thrown in, text-speak chucked in and a few accents to indicate stresses. It’s got contemporary rhyming slang in there and contemporary argot that’s also phonetically transliterated so it looks quite dense on the page. It’s actually a bit more like Irvine Welsh’s prose in Trainspotting where, if you’ve got an ear for Leith working class speech, you can catch it pretty quickly.
QThe White Review — But the word formations on the page are still difficult to read because they look so unfamiliar…
AWill Self — Once you start hearing it, it gets much faster. Even that was interesting to me and I’m not a Burgessian language nut at all. He was a linguist and I’m not. Even with my limited language skills I was amazed how just applying those few simple rules to demotic English did create something that seemed quite radically different which began to evolve its own metaphoric capabilities and its own colour. Mokni seemed to me very Chaucerian, very like Middle English. The immediate thing you lose when you go into demotic English are the Latinisms. You’re left with a much more stripped down version of Anglo-Saxon English. That was interesting and an unforeseen consequence.
With the apes it was more playing with characteristics. They didn’t speak: they spoke English sign language. That was all to do with issues of suspension of disbelief. I was quite clear early on when writing Great Apes that the apes couldn’t speak because chimpanzees can’t speak and I wanted it to be believable in a perverse way for the reader. I’m always pleased when people have read Great Apes and say things like ‘I was on the Tube the other day and I got completely freaked out because I looked around and all these people were hanging on the straps and I thought they were apes.’ I think, ‘Well, yeah, they are, that’s the whole point.’ You don’t see people grooming or fucking on the Tube but I think those are minor differences. Along with civilisation.
But I never start with language, at all. Language is just a component. I unashamedly start with ideas. I am a novelist of ideas and for me prose fiction is a way of conveying ideas. I was trained as a philosopher so that’s how I approach fiction I suppose.
QThe White Review — If you’re trying to stretch the boundaries and extend the form, do you feel the weight of the canon behind you? And are you placing yourself firmly within an avant-garde tradition?
AWill Self — Ooh, no, I don’t think so. Well, yes, slightly. Maybe a bit. I’m not a realist. And in some ways I think I’m more of a realist than people who you would think of as realists. I think realism is a highly artificial convention, a kind of Kulturkampf that dominates peoples’ thinking. It’s partly connected to the fact that most novels are written by people who read too many novels – it’s like a worm eating itself. There are certain ways that people write novels that are meant to be realist that are so ingrained that they can’t see them for how artificial they are. I think I’ve been engaged in my career in a kind of permanent revolution and I’m more and more interested in getting beyond those kinds of ideologies of how we can conceive of novels and how we conceive of prose fiction. I look back on my earlier work and it seems stiflingly conventional to me.
QThe White Review — Well The Quantity Theory of Insanity is among the most conventionally ‘realist’ books you’ve written…
AWill Self — I don’t know, maybe. I think I would loosely ally myself with modernism rather than with various classicisms. I’d loosely ally myself with the Virginia Woolf of Mrs Dalloway on, with Joyce, with Beckett, or with Céline. Kafka is another. Also the magical realists, Bulgakov…
QThe White Review — Surely My Idea of Fun is inspired by The Master and Margarita?
AWill Self — Yes, that’s very influenced by Bulgakov. The scene where the devil arrives in Moscow is absolutely what I wanted to do for London. There’s a scene in the book where The Fat Controller arrives at Heathrow which is very much modelled on that scene in The Master and Margarita.
I’m more interested though in the way writers like that interpenetrate what we think of as the commonsensical world, and what we think of as a fantastical world. Around the time I wrote My Idea of Fun, I coined the expression ‘Dirty Magical Realism’ because there was a vogue for Raymond Carver and a group of writers known as ‘Dirty Realist’ writers. I was trying to have both quotidian details that were sharply edged and very dirty-real and these more high-flown fantastic things.
On another level there was a more evolved philosophic idea lying behind what I was trying to do. Philosophically I’m much more of a transcendental idealist than is probably fashionable nowadays and my aim is that my alternative fiction worlds cohere. In my oeuvre things will recur and come back and refer between different narratives and you then hopefully develop an evolved set of parallel worlds. And that’s what I think reality is –an evolved series of interconnected parallel worlds. That’s why I say I think of myself as a deeply realist writer after all.
QThe White Review — It’s striking how much you’ve written about sanity, or the way it’s categorised and medicated.
AWill Self — I’m totally obsessed by it. Totally obsessed. I’m writing another huge book about it at the moment.
QThe White Review — Did you read too much Foucault in your twenties?
AWill Self — 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 ‘psy’ professionals as well. My oldest friend is a psychiatrist and I always got a lot of stories
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 socio-culturally 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 psy 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.
QThe White Review — Do you still believe that sanity is a socio-cultural construct?
AWill Self — 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 thinks, ‘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.’
QThe White Review — 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 labelled 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?
AWill Self — 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.
QThe White Review — When Liver was released, you said it talked of the ‘slapstick of addiction’. What is it about addiction that you find comic?
AWill Self — Well I don’t really find addiction that funny, do you? It’s not that funny. It’s like watching those shows on TV where there are clips of the family pet falling over into the swimming pool. I was using ‘slapstick’ in that phrase to express the idea that it’s not funny.
What the trope sets up immediately is this idea of witnessing it from the outside rather than from the inside, and the most salient thing about people who are intoxicated is that they are clumsy. They are not just physically clumsy, they are emotionally and intellectually clumsy as well, so they are engaged in slapstick. It’s part of the reason why people with addictive illnesses are perennial media fodder. Amy Winehouse falling over on stage, that is slapstick, isn’t it? Why put a clip of her on YouTube or a photo of her doing it in a newspaper or on a website? It’s because it’s the same thing as watching Buster Keaton falling over his big shoes or Charlie Chaplin. It’s very animal, very basic.
QThe White Review — Do you think that the satirical trope is a more effective way of writing fiction that criticises contemporary society than conventionally realist fiction?
AWill Self — I don’t know. I never set out thinking of myself as a satirist. I’m never particularly conscious of being a satirist. The extent to which I’ve been aware of it has been more at the gag level than the overall conception of things. My instinct to expose social hypocrisy comes from this deep level of cultural and moral relativism, essentially, so that’s a given.
I think that satire exists between the oneliner and the overall critique. I’ve said it many times – I take the aim of journalism to be to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted and I think that is as good a way of defining satire as much as anything else and the way in which you comfort the afflicted is by exposing to them their alleged betters. Those who hold power over them have feet of clay. I’m always engaged to some extent in exposing the follies of power and hierarchies and only sometimes do I think I’m actually tickling people at the same time. I also think that my fiction is often doing other things as well. The satirist label is one that’s tended to be ascribed to me.
QThe White Review — In France there is a perception that you are a descendent of Montaigne and the French moralists and that your work has a moralising intent. Do you think that’s fair?
AWill Self — Mmmm, yeah, I think that’s true, I think it does have a moralising intent. Jonathan Swift was writing in a Judeo-Christian environment and he was a priest. He knew that his readers had a unified conception of what was good and what was bad. We don’t have that now. There are people within a hundred yards of my house who think it is absolutely the right thing to do to cover their faces in public and that’s a major difference. We live in Central London where twenty-five per cent – and more in some districts – are ethnic and cultural minority people, so there’s a very different feel around today. It’s not so much that my work overtly says whether something is right or wrong, but I think you can decode it and what I’m really asking people to do is to think. I’m calling for pause for thought.
QThe White Review — 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 humours. Is this something you are conscious of, this fascination with the body?
AWill Self — 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.
QThe White Review — Well, in a sense, you are very much a ‘realist’ then.
AWill Self — I think I am but I would dissent from what I would call conventional realism which I think is highly unreal and not an adequate picture. A novel like Great Apes addresses that question full on. We are all animals.
QThe White Review — Your involvement in psychogeography also ties in to this idea of disembodiment in our culture and appears frequently in your fiction, where you’ve built up a personality around London. How do you define psychogeography as compared to Iain Sinclair or Peter Ackroyd?
AWill Self — I’m closer to Guy Debord and the Situationists than either of them, actually. Iain is off with the fairies. He’s a mystic who doesn’t believe in transcendentalism, so that places him in a bogus position. His work seems to imply that there is an ulterior or a different level of magical operations that determines the fate of the city. I’ve stood with Iain by Greenwich Observatory and seen him point at Canary Wharf and say, ‘This has destroyed the city by interrupting its magical feng shui…’.
Since he isn’t a mystic, it all rather collapses for me. If he said, ‘I really, really believe there is a crystal sphere that is determining the city,’ I’d be fine with that. I might not agree with it, but I’d get it. But I always have a difficulty with his work because I always think he wants to have his mystical cake and his realist entrée and eat them both at the same time. Ackroyd’s work is more a phrenology of the city. For him, psychogeography is that the city has a psyche, that it’s an individual. London: The Biography, that’s obviously what that’s about.
My psychogeography in as much as it is that is, again, like most of the things that I do, something that I arrived at quite haphazardly and tactically – not as a theoretical construct – and also as a result of having stopped taking drugs and having a lot more energy and getting out more. It also grew out of my growing alienation from the constant society of the spectacle and my alienation from the man-machine matrix, as I call it.
I’ve done a whole series of airport walks over the last decade or so which are very consciously subversive of the way in which we are expected to encounter the world and the way in which we are meant to travel. They were quite clearly satirical walks which were subversive of the alleged ease of international air travel and against air transit as a luxury good and democratic necessity. They were also subversive of the way that place itself has become commodified. It’s become something that people buy and sell and people go to places as if they are acquiring a flat-screen TV.
These were very personal strategies for dealing with an increasing sense of alienation on my own part. They started back in the 1980s when I realised that I’d never seen the mouth of the Thames even though I’d lived in the city all my life. That was an actual revelation of the way that human geography completely cancelled out the physicality of where I lived and really everything I’ve done since has been a personal attempt to recapture a sense of physicality of place, to live in London as a river valley surrounded by hills.
QThe White Review — Does your sense of psychogeography play into your fiction? In The Quantity Theory of Insanity, ‘Waiting’ is all about the city and that was very early on.
AWill Self — Yes! It’s all about that! It’s all about that! And I wrote that back in the late 1980s, early 1990s. Oh definitely, definitely. It’s very much in The Book of Dave in the long walk that Dave takes out of London. It’s obviously there in Walking to Hollywood which is almost an apotheosis of this interest.
I also did that column for The Independent for about five years and I wrote some longer non-fiction essays around the topic and it gained a greater salience. Then I published a collection of those pieces and dared to use the term ‘psychogeography’ which outrages purists who are all about walking Florence using a map of Split.
Once I decided to walk from Pearson Airport outside Toronto just for the hell of it and I contacted some Canadian psychogeographers and asked, ‘How do you walk into Toronto from the airport?’ It looked like quite a tricky walk and none of them had done it, of course. In my opinion, the airport walk is clearly the most subversive thing to do because nobody does it and it’s destructive of the aim of the man-machine matrix, which is to deny locale.
What you buy in the air experience is being trajected instantly into another place. You’ve bought that other place, so to spend by far longer – it’s eighteen miles from Pearson into the centre of Toronto – to spend a long day after you’ve had a flight taking half that time is utterly subversive. But anyway none of the Canadians had done it and none of them had a fucking clue about how they should do it either.
QThe White Review — Just a thought – in The Book of Dave, you founded a whole religion on ‘Knowledge’ of London and, in a sense, proclaimed yourself as its God.
AWill Self — I don’t know London that well. I am quite a nerd in an anorak, but I haven’t indulged it to an extreme level because the great advantage of being a writer and particularly being a creative writer is that you tend to look at things in terms of what’s good for material so there’s always a synergy between doing something like that and writing about it.
If you are a writer, the way you walk instantly becomes a narrative because of your capacity to interpret it – it becomes the picaresque, it becomes some kind of narrative. I know that saves me from being a complete anorak. Having said that, it’s not as present in the book I’m working on at the moment, Umbrella.
QThe White Review — What’s this latest novel about?
AWill Self — Have you ever read Oliver Sacks’ 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 coma 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 hypothesise 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.