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Will Self

15 October 14 words: James Walker
The brainiest of braniacs lets us inside his bonce ahead of his talk for Festival of Words 2014
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Illustration: James Hemington

What’s it like being that clever?
What a bizarre question – how could I possibly know? After all, I have no direct experience of any other given level of intellect, expertise or talent. What I can tell you is that I know what it’s like to be stupid – Dr Johnson said that to be unable to work with your hands is a form of stupidity, and I’m so cack-handed that it once took me a fortnight to put up a toilet roll holder. I had to draw diagrams before I dared use the drill, inserting the Rawlplugs took me about a week, and when the job was done my wife returned from abroad and told me I’d got it the wrong way round. I felt powerless, nervous, and ultimately humiliated. I suppose I should take a course in being handy, but somehow this pesky writing business keeps getting in the way.

People may be surprised to learn that you graduated with a third class degree from Oxford. What went wrong? Or right?
I sat my finals while on bail for drugs charges (including possession of marijuana), which was a bit of a distraction. I was then given an open viva (an oral exam because they couldn’t decide what degree to award me). I could’ve been awarded a first, but unfortunately the first question completely stumped me, “What was the influence of Montesquieu on eighteenth century political thought?” From there on it was downhill.

In 1997 you were caught taking heroin on the Prime Minister’s jet and dismissed this as, “I’m a hack who gets hired because I do drugs”. What do you think people employ you for now?
As a writer because I’m well-established enough to have name-recognition, and because I’m completely professional: I deliver readable copy, to the right length, on time. They employ me as a teacher because I love teaching, and I try very hard to make my sessions engaging for my students. They employ me as a public speaker because I also know how to engage, amuse and inform an audience.

Having started smoking marijuana at twelve, do you think it should be legalised?
I think most intoxicants should be legalised.

Independent bookshops dropped below 1,000 for the first time in February. Is this a sign of the death of the physical book or can digital and print live together?
It is indeed a sign of the death of the physical book. The physical book will live on as a luxury item – beaux livres – or as picture books of various kinds. No superior form of technology (and the digital text is undoubtedly a superior form of technology to the printed codex) leaves an inferior form unchanged – and usually it destroys it altogether. The really interesting thing is what the changes in human neurology/psychology will be once we’ve moved fully from the Gutenberg mind to the bi-directional digital mind. I suspect that people will no longer read long-form prose texts apart from genre fiction which supplies its readers with motivation in the form of suspense, sex and violence, or all three.

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Illustration: Raphael Achache

Similarly, libraries have faced severe cuts and closures. Could libraries become a focal point of the community again?
No. It’s over for libraries – without physical codices there is no rationale for a physical location. Communities should look for a focus that enables them to enact true autonomy and exercise political power over their own jurisdiction.

You were one of the first commissioned artists for experimental BBC/Arts Council multimedia platform The Space. How did you find the experience and do you think it achieved its aims?
I wrote an ordinary literary essay and added some other content – images, videos, music etc... As the possessor of a Gutenberg mind, I’m not particularly interested in bi-directional media (I write fiction on a manual typewriter, for Christ’s sake!), but I think the web offers a possible rubric for a new form of collaboration. I wanted to submit a draft of the essay, have people respond to it, and then incorporate their responses into it in a sort of ‘rolling collaboration’. Unfortunately, time constraints meant we were unable to put this rubric in place, but I certainly think someone else should investigate its potential.

You also wrote a digital essay called Kafka’s Wound for them - why is Kafka such an important writer.
He’s one of the most studied of twentieth century writers; his work, which is often gnomic, provides second-rate literary critics and scholars with almost limitless opportunities for ‘analysis’ and ‘scholarship’. Usually their efforts are still more impenetrable than the original. I wanted to burst this bubble of piffle by writing about a story – A Country Doctor – that I felt was a response on Kafka’s part not to some universal and metaphysical question, but to an immediate and proximate circumstance: the impact of the First World War on him, his family, and Prague. As to why Kafka is an important writer… just read him.

Your short story Flytopia was turned into a film by directors Karni and Saul. Any plans on future collaborations in this medium?
They did all the work, so it was hardly collaboration. I don’t tend to collaborate much, which is why I haven’t really troubled with film. The thought of labouring for months on a script, only to have it rejected by someone whose principal qualification is in accountancy, is too heart-shrinking to be borne.

You were a voracious reader from an early age. What kind of books got you interested in reading?
Children’s books, duh.

You drew cartoons for the New Statesman for a while. Is this something you would return to and what function did it play in your development as a writer?
I did it because I wanted to write but felt too intimidated to actually do it. I liked cartooning, but I’m not a great draftsman and it took me ages to express my ideas in that way: the captions got longer, the drawings grew more schematic, and eventually I just concentrated on the writing. I don’t think I’d ever return to it – it’s biblical, really: ‘When I came to be a man I put away childish things…’

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In December 2006 you trotted 26 miles from your home in south London to Heathrow Airport and then, on arrival at Kennedy Airport, walked twenty miles to Manhattan. What was the rationale behind this?
I’d been doing a column for the British Airways in-flight magazine where I flew in the morning to a part of Britain, took a long walk, then flew back to London in the evening and wrote about the experience. After a year of this I decided to ring the changes and simply walk to Heathrow. I found it entrancing – especially the epiphany I had when I realised I was probably the first person to have undertaken such a walk since the Industrial Revolution, and that therefore this was a meaningful form of exploration. The walk-flight-walk was a logical extension of this idea, but what I was amazed to discover was that when I finally reached Manhattan, it felt as if I’d walked the whole way, and that New York and London must be part of the same landmass. I’ve repeated the walk-flight-walk numerous times since then, and it works every time, making our globalised world a sort of psychological Pangaea.

As a psychogeographer and flâneur, what are your impressions of Nottingham?
To my shame, Nottingham is a city I really don’t know – I shall have to rectify this ignorance.

Tell us about your new book Shark.
There’s a marvellous scene in Martin Amis’s The Information where Richard Tull, a writer of torturously difficult modernist novels is asked on a US radio show to summarise his latest book in a few words. He points out that since the novel is 150,000 words long, and none of them are superfluous, it would take him that many words to summarise it. I hope this answers your question.

You once described book tours as, “I’ve been trundling to Bristol, Bath, Brighton and Birmingham year in, year out for almost two decades now, so that these journeys have the quality of an annual progress by some cut-rate monarch viewing his papery pop-up dominions.” Give us a tale from life on the road.
Oh, there have been many strange experiences along the way. In Seattle in 1993 I visited the apartment of a man who came to one of my readings, and discovered that he was a fugitive from the FBI with a closet full of automatic firearms. At the time I thought I should probably get out less…

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Nottingham Festival of Words 2014

Umbrella is an uncompromising read with a complex narrative structure - no chapters, few paragraph breaks, and different timelines - yet it’s so very much in the present you can feel it breathing down your neck as you read. Why did you chose this approach, and was it more difficult than using a more traditional narrative?
The approach chose me! I could no longer believe in the impersonal omniscient narrator used in most prose fiction – who is he or she, surely only a stand-in for the absent deity? Nor could I believe any longer in the simple he-said, she-said past – my life takes place in a continuous present; nor is my life divided into chapters. Although it’s essentially an illusory goal, I adopted these techniques in search of a more convincing naturalism.

If Nick Clegg “is the verruca of British Politics”, what’s Nigel Farage?
An angry red carbuncle swelling out from between the fat buttocks of the supine British electorate.

Other than asking a man on a train to bare his breasts for £35, what other ways do you cope with “a deep, gnawing, existential kind of boredom”?
If that’s a quote from me I don’t recognise it – as far as I’m concerned the greatest thing about getting older is that I no longer experience any kind of boredom at all, gnawing, existential, or otherwise. There simply isn’t enough time left to waste on being bored.

Tell us about a recent dream…
No, you’re not my lover.

You can invite any four literary figures to dinner, past or present. Who would you invite and why?
Well, I’ll only invite one – my friend and mentor, the late JG Ballard. He hasn’t been dead for that long, so it wouldn’t be too shocking for either him or me. After people have been dead for a while they become anachronistic and irrelevant – resurrecting them in that state would be cruel, surely?

Will Self in conversation with Georgina Lock, Newton Building, Lecture Theatre 2, Nottingham Trent University on Saturday 18 October at 7.30pm for £7/£10, or free for NTU students.

Will Self website

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