With his ex-wife shar­ing de­tails of the fall-out from their split on so­cial me­dia, the nov­el­ist and jour­nal­ist speaks to about ad­dic­tion, am­bi­tion and his an­nus hor­ri­bilis

Belfast Telegraph - Weekend - - INTERVIEW -

It’s al­most a Will Self in­ter­view­ing trope to men­tion how in­tim­i­dat­ing the prospect of speak­ing to him is. From Russell Brand to The Guardian to The Times, in­ter­view­ers have won­dered if they will be able to keep in­tel­lec­tual pace with this ti­tan of English lit­er­a­ture and his daunt­ingly or­nate vo­cab­u­lary.

In fact, my adren­a­line was wasted: the real Self is warm, gen­er­ous and self-ef­fac­ing, with a glo­ri­ously honk­ing laugh. He never con­de­scends and han­dles even the most im­per­ti­nent of queries with thought­ful pa­tience.

He’s res­o­lutely pes­simistic, but even his dark­est fore­bod­ings on life and lit­er­a­ture are in­fused with a sort of gal­lows hu­mour.

His chip­per mood is all the more im­pres­sive be­cause it’s been a fairly wear­ing time for him lately. When I ask him what kind of a year he’s had he be­gins: “I don’t re­ally know how to an­swer that. For per­sonal rea­sons it’s been re­ally bad.”

That might be some­thing of an un­der­state­ment. Over the last few weeks, his ex-wife, some­time Guardian colum­nist Deborah Orr, has been tweet­ing some toe-curl­ing de­tails of their di­vorce, from her per­spec­tive. “My ex wants to di­vide up the con­tents of the for­mer mar­i­tal home by com­ing round, when I’m not there, putting a red dot on ab­so­lutely any­thing he wants, then get­ting me to or­gan­ise it all into a place where he can have it picked up. Any­one else had this?” she wrote in one of the more ex­co­ri­at­ing posts, be­fore go­ing on to ac­cuse him of men­tal cru­elty.

Thou­sands of peo­ple chimed in on Twit­ter with mes­sages of sup­port for her and the story was picked up in a few of the na­tional pa­pers. Orr even poked fun at his pen­chant for big words — “co-op­er­a­tion is not a word long enough for my ex to have any truck with”.

Ac­cord­ing to a let­ter which Orr re­leased, Self thinks she is “hav­ing a pro­tracted men­tal break­down”, but pub­licly he is keeping a dig­ni­fied si­lence on events. While Orr nurses her wrath on so­cial me­dia, he’s moved on, he tells me, and he’s in a happy new re­la­tion­ship. “My sec­ond mar­riage split up two or three years ago and there is some­one else in my life, so that’s nice.”

Orr was not the only per­son throw­ing back the cur­tain of Self ’s life in a self-serv­ing way. Ear­lier this year writer Matthew De Abaitua re­called his “eerie work place­ment” with Self to The Sun­day Times and wrote a slightly Adrian Mole-ish mem­oir about their time to­gether in which he claimed he was Self ’s skivvy.

“Is that what he said?” Self be­gins. “Bless. He wasn’t my skivvy. He sent it to me in ad­vance of pub­li­ca­tion. I felt it would have been churl­ish to pre­vent pub­li­ca­tion. I feel far past the point where some­thing like that boosts my ego. I think that any­one who reaches their fifties still search­ing ex­ter­nally for re­as­sur­ance about their place in the world is fairly lost.”

If 2018 has been a try­ing year in terms of his per­sonal life, it has also rep­re­sented a ca­reer cross­roads for Self. He fin­ished his tril­ogy of nov­els, which broadly deal with the in­ter­play be­tween minds, mad­ness and tech­nol­ogy, but was left slightly with the feel­ing of some­one drop­ping stones down a well.

“It was no re­lief to have the tril­ogy fin­ished. It was a re­minder of all my neg­a­tive feel­ings about what’s go­ing on in con­tem­po­rary cul­ture,” he says. “I’m not English enough to be a hyp­ocrite or lie, but this is the truth: the first book (of the tril­ogy) was nom­i­nated for the Booker Prize, and partly be­cause of the so-called Booker Bounce it sold around 50,000 copies, but the fol­low­ing two books sold al­most noth­ing; no­body’s read them, no­body gives a fly­ing f ***.”

If there is cold com­fort, it’s that he is not alone: sta­tis­ti­cally, al­most no­body reads se­ri­ous lit­er­a­ture any more.

“The novel is fin­ished as a form that is cen­tral to our cul­ture and I think that ev­ery­thing that’s go­ing on abun­dantly bears that out,” he tells me. “As we’ve seen from this year’s Booker, hardly any of the nom­i­nees have sold any­thing. And what a sur­prise the win­ner is linked to cur­rent po­lit­i­cal con­cerns; the #MeToo move­ment. Beyond the fact that it’s there­fore al­ready en­ter­ing into a dis­cus­sion that is ca­cophonous, will it be the ve­hi­cle for dis­cus­sion and deeper think­ing about sex­ual ha­rass­ment? I very much doubt it.”

But what about the gen­er­a­tion of Harry Pot­ter and Twi­light fans who, we were breath­lessly as­sured, would be a new and im­proved gen­er­a­tion of vo­ra­cious read­ers?

“Oh they’re still there,” he be­gins lugubri­ously, “but they’re just still read­ing ex­actly that kind of s***. They never grew up. The kidult read­ing they be­gan with turns out to have been their ap­pren­tice­ship for a life­time of be­ing kidults.”

In a sense Self was al­ways go­ing to be a lit­tle out of reach for the kidults. His es­o­teric fab­u­lism (over the years he has writ­ten, var­i­ously, of a par­al­lel Earth pop­u­lated by hy­per­sex­ual and ex­hi­bi­tion­ist apes and a Lon­don full of sense­less, chain-smok­ing dead peo­ple) made him some­thing of an ac­quired lit­er­ary taste — Lynn Bar­ber once ac­cused him of writ­ing to im­press rather than writ­ing for the reader.

To the great Bri­tish pub­lic he is prob­a­bly bet­ter known as a tele­vi­sion per­son­al­ity than as a nov­el­ist; he gives fre­quent and thought-pro­vok­ing con­tri­bu­tions to the likes of the BBC’s Ques­tion Time and writes for The Guardian and other pub­li­ca­tions.

He con­cedes that there is a huge el­e­ment of per­for­mance to his ca­reer. “I did stand-up be­fore I started pub­lish­ing and I’ve con­tin­ued with a lot of per­for­mance. I came of age as a writer when there was a much greater em­pha­sis on pub­lic read­ings, so I put a lot of my frus­tra­tions as a per­former into per­form­ing my own work. I’ve calmed down now, but for a while I did 40 or 50 read­ings a year.”

It is wrong to claim he writes pri­mar­ily for him­self, how­ever. “My am­bi­tion comes from lov­ing books. I was quite a soli­tary and mis­fit­ting boy who felt an in­cred­i­ble con­nec­tion to lit­er­a­ture and felt it would be mag­i­cal to do for oth­ers what had been done for me.

“It was quite se­ri­ous. It wasn’t just about mak­ing a splash, it was about be­ing a re­ally good writer. I couldn’t have writ­ten 25 books un­less I felt that way. I wouldn’t deny I wanted to be known, and that as­pect of me cer­tainly led me to other per­for­mances of one form or an­other, but that never re­ally de­tracted from the brute se­ri­ous­ness of be­ing in a room day af­ter day, week af­ter week, year af­ter year, iso­lated with a key­board.”

He’s cur­rently writ­ing a book about ad­dic­tion, which has been a ma­jor theme in his life. Even as a child he strug­gled with sub­stance prob­lems.

The “soli­tary and mis­fit­ting boy” started

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