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
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