Will Self is a prolific writer of both fiction and journalism. His most recent publication, Psycho Too, is a collection of the ‘Psychogeography’ columns he wrote for several years in The Independent, accompanied by drawings by Ralph Steadman.
Self has a daunting public persona, as his varied appearances on television and radio indicate. For this reason I was somewhat nervous on approaching his London home and made even more so at his startled, staring reaction on discovering that I don’t take sugar in my tea. However, once ensconced in his writing room for the interview Self became interested and encouraging, talking openly about humour, negativity and long, long walks in the desert.
Interview by Christine Fears
The Literateur: My first question is about your work so far. You often tend towards comic modes. Is there a particular reason for this?
Will Self: It was just the way I came into writing. Before I wrote fiction seriously, if you can be serious about writing comic fiction, I did other things. I was a newspaper cartoonist for a while so I was used to thinking in terms of structuring gags. I did, and still do some stand up comedy so it came naturally to me, the idea of trying to make people laugh in that way. And I suppose that’s how the stories in The Quantity Theory of Insanity, my first book, came to me. They were riffs to begin with, they were things that I would entertain people with – these preposterous stories. So it was a natural outgrowth of the sort of things I’d done before. Turning them into more serious fiction. It’s interesting to me that for a long time I was was so welded into a comic mode that I couldn’t really understand writing that didn’t at least have some jokes in it. I mean, Tolstoy’s got jokes. Proust has lots of jokes. You know, for some there does seem to be a kind of fetish around the idea that the less jokes you have in something ipso facto the more serious it is, and I never really quite understood that. It seems to me that jokes are just one of the modes of experiencing the world. But it has to be said that in recent years I’ve written quite a lot of less funny stuff, and now I do see that comedy is a mode that I moved into because of this pre-existing sensibility.
TL: What made you shift away from it more recently?
WS: I just don’t find things as funny any more really [pause] I also don’t think anything is funny twice. When I worked as a cartoonist I really felt I’d exhausted the medium by the time I was twenty-five. I drew professionally for about three or four years and by then I felt I’d drawn all the cartoons that I was going to. But certainly I think there’s something very interesting in spot gags. They’re kind of like ideograms, they’re like Chinese characters, they have a symmetry about them and an expressiveness, but I felt that (and I wasn’t a particularly good cartoonist) but I still felt that I’d exhausted it as a genre quite early. It was done, and maybe I feel something like that about comic effects in writing as well. I mean, it’s a combination of that and that nothing’s really funny twice. I don’t think. I raised this question the other day with a table-load of very eminent writers and they all started telling jokes that they still thought were funny, but actually they weren’t funny to them. They were maybe funny to the people listening because it was they first time we’d heard them, so what they were really getting off on was our experience of the humour for the first time. But actually nothing’s funny twice. Even in literature which is a very, very broad thing and there lots of possible comic modes within it, once you’ve done them you’ve kind of done them [laughs and shrugs]
TL: Moving on, I read that you once said ‘a lifetime of idleness in academia would have really suited me’ which strikes me as a rather amusingly backhanded compliment. What value do you think there is (if any) in the academic approach to literature?
WS: For whom?
TL: For contemporary and working writers, rather than the classics?
WS: Well, I realised by the time I was about seventeen that studying literature was a bad way to go for a creative writer. You study it in the sense that you read and you understand the mechanics of how books work and that is the only education for a writer. But studying it formally and academically, and certainly theoretically, is I think the kiss of death because it starts becoming artifactual rather than art at that level. I did an English S level – this is back in the seventies obviously – and deconstruction was just coming in and I started getting acquainted with things like that when I was in my teens, and thought ‘woo, no’ for all sorts of reasons. Partly because critical theory is just a sort of refuge for philosophy rather than being anything in its own right, and particularly with deconstruction. But also because it’s deadly for your perception of literature I think, if you’re a creative writer. Every field now has its spurious professionalism, and in the last ten years we’ve got double the number of university students in this country than there were previously, and double the amount of graduate unemployment [laughs]. But there’s always been this sort of attitude. I remember when I first started publishing, and it occasionally resurfaces, there’s this idea that you can’t be a proper writer if you haven’t got a degree in English Literature. It’s like you’re a plumber or something and you haven’t got your Corgi Gas Installation Qualification [laughs].
I find it kind of laughable actually myself. It’s faintly ludicrous. But as regards Lit Crit approaches to my own work, I don’t really have an opinion. The beauty for me of being a writer is that you put it out there and how people choose to approach it is absolutely their own affair. I’m stunned by the number of young people who…well, not that many, but the few and increasing numbers who approach me when they have a thesis to do on my work and say ‘Will I help them with their thesis?’ I always write back and say, ‘Look, you’re the critic. There’s the work. Your job is to actually respond to it, not get me to help you respond to it.’
TL: You use the phrase in Psychogeography and elsewhere, ‘the modern sublime’. I wondered how you characterise this against traditional ideas of the sublime?
WS: Well, it’s man-made in essence. I suppose if you wanted to stretch the parallel… Well, I think people do experience it as sublime, is the thing. They don’t experience it as sublime, they experience it as quotidian in fact, because they can’t allow themselves to experience it as sublime, because to experience it as sublime is to acknowledge all sorts of things about humanity. One: we’re animals. Two: we’re part of the natural world. Three: there is something kind of monstrous and frightening about us. The key experience of the modern sublime for me is standing in a wood outside O’Hare airport in Chicago while looking into the face of a startled deer. While a Boeing 757 jet screams overhead. That’s the modern sublime. It’s the juxtaposition of the natural world with the man-made/natural, uber-natural or meta-natural world. Which is terrifying, but as I say people don’t experience it as terror because to do so is too upsetting. It undermines too much. I mean, flying is the thing that really strikes me as this strange sublime. The most radical experience, physical experience, that any of us will have, apart from surgery, childbirth and death, in our lives. And yet it gets drowned by a kind of incredible panoply of boredom and things to damp it down and make it, you know, ‘nine pound ninety-nine one way to the canary islands with Easyjet’. The whole iconography, the semiotics of it is designed to lull you into accepting it as an integral part of [shrugs] you know. Whereas, we’re on a flightpath here. If one of, just one of, these jets came down in central London, you’d be back in the sublime.
TL: Do you not think that people, after the airport experience, when they’ve actually got on the plane, feel fear then?
WS: For a moment their guard will drop, or if something goes wrong – there’s a glitch during take-off and then they’ll be open to the sublimity of it, the experience. But that window closes very quickly and there is plenty of stuff lain on them to dampen it down again so they forget about it, yeah.
TL: I’m always surprised when people choose to close the windows. Why would you want to when you’re above a cloud? That’s when I feel the sublime – seeing a sight humans aren’t designed to see.
WS: That’s right, but you know, you get on a flight and you’re maybe particularly labile that day and you may get up there and think ‘This is astonishing. This is a kind of god-like perspective three hundred miles across these enormous cumuli clouds’ or whatever it is you’re seeing. And then your eyes will stray to the John Grisham novel being read by the person next to you, and then you’ll think about the beef stroganoff that’s arriving in a plastic tray and before you know it you’ve forgotten all about it. It kind of works all of that.
TL: You’ve spent a lot of time in the Orkney islands, where a lot of my family are from, so I’m interested…
WS: Oh OK! Do you know it well?
TL: I know it…I wouldn’t say well. I haven’t been for a long time, but I loved it up there. So I was wondering what it was about Orkney which draws you, when your natural habitat seems to be London?
WS: Well, sadly the friend whose house I stayed in a lot and wrote in a for a decade died a few years ago so my tap-root into it has somewhat gone. So I haven’t in fact been back since, well for the past three years. Well, I think – without being overly romantic about it – I think places choose you. I mean, I didn’t choose to go to Orkney, I had this friend who had a house up there and he encouraged me to go up. The first time I went I didn’t like it particularly. Then, in the early nineties I needed a bolthole from London and I went up and lived there for four or five months over the winter, and that’s when it really bit into me. I think with Orkney in particular it’s the sheer density of the Neolithic romance and the fact that it’s… Well, islands I think are enormously appealing to novelists because they’re fully apprehensible. You know, a book is a synecdoche, its kind of part of the world, but the whole of the world and a whole which is itself part of the world. And that’s what islands are like as well. And in Orkney in particular there’s this very, very strong Neolithic presence in Skara Brae, Maeshowe, Midhowe. The island that I used to stay on, Rousay, has…did you know it’s called Little Egypt by archaeologists? It has the highest density of Neolithic remains I think anywhere in the world, certainly in Europe. So that sense of the island as not only a synecdoche but also a palimpsest. It was overpowering. The house I used to stay in had a broch right next to it and almost certainly was a Neolithic living site as well. You know, in London we pride ourselves on having a two millennium old city, but it’s really bullshit, it’s a Victorian city. So it’s that sense of the enormous weight of the past, and yet in a comparatively deserted and natural setting.
All of those things made it very appealing to me. I like the fact that unlike the Western Isles there had never been, or there’d been relatively little, landlordism. There’d only been one clearance in Orkney so the pattern of land-tenure and the independence of the place has in a way been maintained. I liked the fact that it wasn’t Scotland, that it was a place apart and that separated it from the rest of Britain. So all of those things.
TL: So, now to move onto Psycho Too, and also walking, because I enjoy walking myself. You say in one of your articles that ‘it is the curse of the speculative writer to see his fictional creations cancelled out by the prosaic march of time.’ But have any of these fictional creations gradually turned out to be true or realised?
WS: Well, yeah. Quite a lot [laughs]. It sounds faintly immodest…I mean, the big ones that haven’t happened yet are the extinction of the anthropoid apes in the wild, which underpins the whole schema of Great Apes. But it will happen, within the next twenty or thirty years. It sounds like I want to be around to see it, but of course I don’t. If you go back to Quantum Theory, which was written in 1990, so nearly twenty years ago, it said that all that would characterise the millennium were some rather dull television retrospectives [laughs]. I was bang on there. The increasing preoccupation with traffic in London, which was bad then, but the pathological obsession with the car and traffic becoming almost the governing or organising principle of society in some bizarre way, I think that’s there as well. The rise of the mobile phone – there’s a story in that collection called ‘Mono-Cellular’. It’s about the coming age of the mobile phone. I think that was relatively prescient for the 1990s. So, you know, quite a few things. But I don’t think of myself as being…well, it’s one of those odd things. I think if you try to write speculative fiction you’re probably not going to hit it are you? It tends to be a kind of serendipity in that way.
TL: Psycho Too is at times quite touching, when you talk about time spent with your children for example. This is quite a different experience for a reader, compared with How the Dead Live or Great Apes. Do you think your well-documented change in lifestyle and young children has changed the way you write and the way you think about the world?
WS: Well, yeah, sure. I’m certainly a lot more domesticated [laughs]. Inevitably. I mean, my older children who are now nearly grown-up, I didn’t live with them so much as I have with the younger ones, so I didn’t have that kind of domestic scene. The pieces in Psycho Too are of course newspaper journalism primarily, so they’re much more ephemeral. So it only seems right to have them kinda integrated with life in that way. I mean, it’s strange: the book I’m writing at the moment is a pseudo-memoir, but there’s not a lot of family in it, or it’s enormously distorted in that way, and certainly not particularly touching [laughs]. But you get older, I mean, nihilism doesn’t look good once you hit middle age, because if you’re that nihilistic why aren’t you dead? Nor does existentialism. My favourite catchphrase is ‘You never saw Simone de Beauvoir pushing a Maclaren buggy along the Rive Gauche’. It just doesn’t…you know, you have kids, then you have to at some level broker an accommodation with the world as it is because that’s the world that you are bringing them up in. Therefore at all kinds of levels you have to broker an accommodation with it. Or else it’s just unsustainable, you can’t look after them, it can’t be done.
TL: Your opening essay ‘Walking to The World’ tracks a walk from J. G. Ballard’s house to The World archipelago in the United Arab Emirates. I wondered why you chose this particular method of commemorating Ballard? When reading the book I could understand why you were doing it for your own state of mind; it almost seems like a rite of passage from your description of it. I wondered why was it appropriate to commemorate him in this way?
WS: I think it was what Dubai represented as a very Ballardian place. It seemed to encompass so much of his thought and his speculative fiction, you know, this kind of…this vast city of unbecoming that’s doomed to be an enormous ruin in half a century’s time. It’s so like the places he describes in collections like Terminal Beach, that idea of the dated quality of futurity. It’s very him. And then just the sort of conceits, like The World itself, or the Burj Dubai, the highest building in the world. That seemed right and proper. I mean, I have to say, there was an element of conceit about it. I was looking for somewhere to go. I had a commission and originally I had intended to walk across Tehran, which I thought would be very interesting (from the airport obviously) but it was looking increasingly difficult to get a working visa, a journalist’s visa, so I shifted to Dubai. But I’d been talking to Jim a lot, relatively speaking, in the last few months before he died and so it was obviously very clear in my mind – him and his thought.
TL: Do you think a city like Dubai, which expanded massively as the result of a financial boom, is almost like a contemporary dystopia which could have been predicted from knowledge of prior expansion and industrialisation in a country like the UK? Could this have been part of the draw to it for you?
WS: Well, it’s entirely predicated on oil. I think Thesiger understood what would happen with oil. Or certainly in between when he crossed the Empty Quarter and when he went back to Dubai, or to the gulf, I think in the sixties or even the early seventies. Of course, then these cities were nothing like they are now. But he could see it coming at that point. I mean, they are essentially monocultures, the real estate is. There’s no reason for it there at all. It’s all on the oil. When the oil is gone there’ll be nothing. Why would you want to have an office in the Gulf? It’s not even near anything else.
TL: Were you drawn to the surrealism of The Palm and The World?
WS: Oh, yeah.
TL: I found them fascinating, strange ideas.
WS: Yeah, they are strange aren’t they? They are strange. They’re really odd. They’re really odd, and it is kind of…obviously I’m not setting myself up as a student of the evolving Arab world view, but there did seem to be something odd going on there and… well, I write about it a lot in the piece. I’m not clear about whether it’s a Potemkin village of some kind or whether it’s actually a weird monumental calligraphy, or what it is. These pictograms of land mass, its very, very strange [laughs]. Of course, it was the surrealism that drew me there. I have to say, as I say in the piece, I found it, because there is this helot class who are building it, I found it repellent actually to be there. It made me feel ill. It’s the sort of place where I couldn’t relax for a second. Maybe that’s a sort of fastidiousness, because the reality is that a lot of our lifestyle here has been off the back of a helot class that have been spread somewhere else.
TL: Some of the description of it in Psycho Too did remind me of the literature of this country during the industrial revolution. The view of the vast divisions in living standards and the images of dirt and suffering are modernised, but essentially describe the same phenomena.
WS: Yeah. Of course, when Blake’s dark satanic mills were in Farringdon, you only had to walk a mile or two down the road to see it. And in a sense the underclass is right over there, it’s across the road from here [gestures out of window to the estate opposite his house]. It’s not that it’s not present, it’s just not as raw as that. It’s not people working in hundred-degree heat for less than five dollars a day with no medical cover. That’s pretty raw.
TL: Thinking about comparing Dubai to London many years ago, and London now as you said, I was wondered what the palimpsest of time-frames which exist in a cities like London or Dubai tell us about ourselves and our past?
WS: I think the interesting thing about London – and this is part of the next novel I’m going to write actually – is that London’s Modernist moment was about 1900, and that actually it’s a city that’s been decaying for 100 years but people don’t grasp it for all sorts of reasons. Not to be too Hegelian about it, but I think the world spirit moved on a while ago. Think about London in 1900. You had stock market prices from the Bourse in Paris and from Wall Street instantly accessible by telegraph. You had a deep-level tube system and you had the phone. That was it really. It was the most modern city in the world. And in a way nothing that has followed afterwards has really…the only substantial technological innovantions that have come, transatlantic air travel and the internet, de-centre the importance of the city rather than re-centering it. So then Britain which is no longer an industrial power in that way, nevermind the trading power it was, is de-centred and so London is. And the great temptation for people is always to believe that the future is ‘futuristic’, but what I cleave to is the idea that it’s dated in some sense. You know, a city like Dubai is a non-city. There’s no reason for it to be there at all. It isn’t a city: it’s a set. I think that that explains a lot about British, or English, society’s confusion about what it is. England seems to bask in the dream of its own imagined futurology still, with no apparent reason. But that’s me [laughs].
TL: What evidence of this decline do you see in London and the rest of Britain?
WS: Well, there’s no public building of confidence, or style, or wit, or sophistication in this city at all, is there? What you have is a sort of modernist desktop ornament like these, don’t you? [shows me some small wooden replicas of the Millennium Wheel, Gherkin and other buildings from the London skyline] Like the Wheel, and the Gherkin. But they’re not part of a Nash style imagining of a London cityscape. They’re plumped down in the Victorian city. They’re not part of the unified conception of the built environment or urban space in that way. I mean in a way that’s what’s charming about London.
TL: I think that is what’s charming about London. You go along a street and there’s so many different styles.
WS: Yeah, it’s a very anarchic city. You know, that’s kind of charming, but…it’s charming [shrugs]. Where does that get you? It doesn’t take you forward really, does it? The only new building that has had swagger has been dealing rooms, for the fraudulent policy scheme that was the financial world in the past ten or fifteen years.
TL: So, hypothetically, could you suggest how you think the ideal city should be architecturally? Or do you have a favoured city?
WS: Oh, I don’t know. You have to deal with what you’ve got don’t you? I’m not a kind of gourmand when it comes to anything. It’s like when people call me up saying ‘What’s your favourite X, Y or Z?’, I can never really answer. I don’t really think in those terms. The things I like, are not the things I think are good. I like L.A. a lot, I’m writing about Los Angeles at the moment, I’ve always liked Los Angeles. It doesn’t mean I think it’s a good city. Quite clearly it’s fucking dreadful. But I find it really interesting. Maybe it’s so interesting that that’s a form of good, but I doubt it. I think it’s perversity in me that makes it interesting to me.
If I look at a kind of alternative, parallel life for myself, one in which I am not as I am, but perhaps saner, better adjusted, happier, then I certainly think you should be able to walk out of a city in the morning. So quite clearly all of these cities are way too big, they lack a human scale. I mean I don’t think a city has to be tiny, but – I think it’s Cyril Connolly who said that a city should be no bigger than it takes a man to walk out of in the morning, or a woman for that matter. And I think that is true. They’re too big. I think a city ought to have a kind of harmony to its parts. It ought to have a kind of a good weight between its different components, and it should certainly have a sense of equality about it rather than being dominated by expressions of inequality. Whatever they are, hierarchical divisions of where people live, great pomp and great misery in that way. These things may be pleasing in a dilettantish way, but I don’t think they’re great for the people who have to live on the bottom of the pile. I often idly think, just on the size issue and the accessibility issue, that I wish I’d lived in the North. Leeds, Sheffield, Manchester: they all have terrible disadvantages, but they all have that advantage of being accessible to an interesting interlay. You can get out of them in that way. Not true here. It takes a full day to walk out from here to green fields, and a long day. I speak as probably one of the very few people who’s done it.
TL: Do you have any particular way of exploring new areas when you walk to them? And do you have a specific aim, or do you just wander?
WS: No, I have to have an aim. That’s why all of them have been animated by an aim in that way. I’m not a good sight-seer, and I’m not good at being aimless at all. I’m rather driven. So most of these journeys, as you see in the assembled literature, have been animated by these ideas of the modern sublime, and the juxtaposition of walking and mass transit systems. Attacking mass transit systems, if you like. Exposing and satirising these systems by doing these airport walks or walking to meetings with people, so you’ve got a kind of Austenian timeline juxtaposed with a contemporary one. I’ve always had to do things like that. The truth to tell is I got rather fed up with it [laughs]
TL: I noticed that in your opening essay. You seem to get fed up of the idea of the walk when you’re in the middle of it.
WS: Ah, I did get fed up with it. Very fed up with it. But that’s good. That’s kinda good. It’s honest. It has an honesty about it. I got fed up with myself. It’s quite lonely, a lot of that. The thing is that writing is a solitary occupation anyway. It’s a busman’s holiday – there you are, on your own in another environment, which you’re then going to write about. It feels like some sort of awful auto-cannibalism that you’re involved in. And this book I’m writing at the moment, which is called Walking to Hollywood, which is about a 120 mile long circumambulation of Los Angeles, which I fictionalise. I got terribly fed up with that as well [laughs].
TL: How often are you tempted to jump in a cab instead?
WS: Twice in Dubai. Once when I was walking out along the Sheikh Zayed Road and I thought: this is just ridiculous. The story here is the people. I think I mention Johann Hari’s very fine long piece in The Independent where he did that. He spoke to the people. A very different kind of piece, but I almost had an intimation of that kind of alternative bit of reportage that I would have been more interested in writing, rather than a piece which of its nature was theoretical. And then out in the desert purely because I was getting heatstroke and it was really quite tough. It was the second day’s walk and it was physically very, very tough.
TL: It’s quite dangerous, I’d imagine, in the extreme heat and cold of the desert?
WS: Yeah, well, not super-dangerous. It’s not like being Ben Fogle and dragging your sleigh across the Antarctic, but by the standards of a largely sedentary middle-aged man it was fairly dangerous. But that’s alright. It’s all good, but I’m slightly…you know. I’m going to finish this Hollywood book and I don’t do the Psychogeography column in The Independent any more and I haven’t got the pretext. It was kind of a bit of a phase. I love that about being a writer. I love the way in which you can move through phases and say I’ve done that, I can do something else.
TL: Is it like the comedy? Do you think you’ve exhausted it?
WS: No, no. Well, I mean, with exhausting the comedy I mean I just wanted to write some things which weren’t so funny. I was very shocked when The Butt won the Wodehouse Comic Fiction award. There’s not a joke in it, it’s a story of unconcern. It’s what psychologists call the halo effect: people think you’re funny, so then they pick up anything you write and start giving out rich belly laughs because they assume it must be funny. But I still do some stand up stuff and I still do some comedy. With the walks, there is another long walk I want to do that I’ve promised myself, from here to Orkney. I love John Hillaby’s book Journey Through Britain which is probably the best account of the Land’s End to John O’Groats walk, but Hillaby did it in the late 60s. It’s a very moving book if you get a chance to read it, I don’t know if it’s still in print. But he avoided the cities. I think it’d be fascinating, and I haven’t read an account of somebody who walked through the cities. So I’d love to do that, and I promised myself I’d do that for my fiftieth birthday as a present to myself. But the publishers are a bit fed up with it all. And they’ve said that they’re not really interested. I don’t know whether I’ll find the wherewithal to do it on the basis that my publishers don’t really want me to write it up.
TL: You mentioned a moment ago that it’s the individuals you meet that interest you. I noticed that throughout Psychogeography you write about an area, but focus in on an individual like Peter Buxton or Ivan Bustamante. What about the individual suggests something about the place you’re in?
WS: Well, they’re going to be indicative of the place, aren’t they? And I think the worst kind of travel writing is to imagine that your perception…I mean, most travel writers are tourists with typewriters. And that’s a terrible thing to be isn’t it? I mean, tourism is a dreadful thing. It’s really awful, it narrows the mind, and then narrows the mind of the people who read it, if you’re a tourist writer. But, I mean, I’m not overly confident that a lot of my stuff isn’t like that anyway. But try and at least get the perspective of somebody who’s there. The best kind of writing about place is by the people who spend a long time there, not by people who aren’t parked there but just sort of blow through. In my defence, the amount of offers I get to go to Turkmenistan or to visit the Ituri Pygmies, I couldn’t even shake a stick at them, and I do turn 99.9% of them down. But it’s not much of a defence.
TL: I don’t know, I think you go into different places from other travel writers I’ve read. You look at interspaces and the forgotten things.
WS: Yeah, absolutely, that’s all I’m really interested in. I think established destinations are within the man-machine matrix. They’re just part of it, so you can’t learn anything from them really.
TL: Do you think you escape the man-machine matrix on your unusual walks outside the system?
WS: Not really, ultimately, no.
TL: Do you think it’s possible to escape it?
WS: I think you’ve got to stop flying. I think you’ve got to stop flying for all sorts of reasons. I think you’ve got to stop flying because you’d impose these localisms on your perspective. You’d stop thinking ‘I understand China because I can get a plane there’ and you start realising you know fuck-all about China. So it places the world back in scale. I think you’ve got to stop flying because it’s killing the fucking planet in all sorts of ways. And it’s not so much that by stopping flying you’ll be able to save the planet, because I very much doubt that that’s the case, it’s really that you’ll save yourself. There’s something vulgar about it. It’s an aesthetic thing for me. I think it’s very vulgar when people say to me ‘I’ve just been here and I’ve just been there, I’ve got a jacuzzi and a Bentley.’. But they don’t understand it as being like that any more. It’s the vulgarity of the rich.
TL: Would you suggest travelling any other way, or sticking where you can access by foot or car?
WS: Trains are good, for all sorts of reasons. I don’t know, it’s early days, but I’m on course for a year without flying which will probably be the first year without flying for a long time. Because I’m quite a mercurial person I’m worried that it may bite. I can see already that it’s a problem for me. Like most people I have family in the States. I’m a dual citizen, I have lots of reasons to go to America. So if I actually decided that I can’t go to America any more it would be quite a thing, but who knows, it may happen.
TL: Throughout your work you’re very open about your influences and the traditions you’re writing in. Are you aware of writing in a tradition, or making a contribution to one, or is it where you’d be writing naturally if you didn’t read and enjoy other books?
WS: I don’t know, am I any more up-front about it that anybody else?
TL: I’d say, for example, in the essay at the front of Psycho Too you’re writing directly in homage to J. G. Ballard, and we’ve already discussed the Ballardian feel of Dubai. I’m sure other writers talk about their influences in interviews, but not everybody might foreground it so boldly in their work.
WS: He is the only one though. There isn’t anybody else. When I got rid of Burroughs about ten years ago, I wrote a long essay on him that sort of pushed him away. I summed up and apotheosised the extent to which I was influenced by him and moved beyond it and by extension the whole beat thing, and by extension really around that time I accepted the death of the avant garde. For writers like me, if there are writers like me…yeah, writers like me. It’s this label of ‘cult fiction’ or you know, it’s what the avant garde used to be isn’t it? I think anybody smart realises there can’t be anything like the avant garde any more because there isn’t any taboo to be broken. So how can you have an avant garde? You can write anything you want. The avant garde of necessity represented the people who were prepared to write down the things that people commonly thought but were unable to express because of all sorts of taboos. It no longer exists any more and hasn’t since, it’s hard to say, probably since 1980. It’s an arbitrary point, OK? So then it becomes cult fiction which is like the identity politics of literature, it’s like having sections of a bookshop like ‘troubled lives’, ‘feminism’. So I think I kind of moved away from that association. I suppose I did feel as I set out to write, actually, even in the late 80s, that while there was a discourse within which you could say the things I wanted to say it wasn’t coextensive with what people thought of literary fiction still. And that still seems to be the case. I think a lot of literary fiction, what is perceived as being the significant contemporary literary fiction still seems incredibly recondite. Well, not recondite. Incredibly reactionary to me. It’s like Modernism never happened a lot of the time, isn’t it? They’ll write three-decker kind of Victorian novels, A. S. Byatt or Ian McEwan. They seem very recherché to me and also what’s permissible within them still seems very toned down. That being said, there’s still no avant garde. It’s not about taboos. So do I feel influenced. Well, I feel influenced by everything I’ve ever read. Which is a lot, as you’d imagine. It’s interesting. It’s nice being middle aged. It’s quite exciting, because you get to re-read stuff that was very formative in your late teens early twenties. Increasingly, I write introductions and things like that. I look at texts again, and that’s interesting because then you see what the ambit of that influence is. Do I feel I’m contributing to anything? I just don’t know, I don’t know. I get very pessimistic about this because of this salad bar. I think when the avant-garde existed you could feel you’d done a good job just by writing the word fuck. You know, there seems to be so much literature, to me. Doesn’t there seem an awful lot published to you?
TL: Yes, there does. And when you look back at previous periods in which there has been an awful lot published, and out of all of this writing only a comparatively few writers last over time in any significant way, because they were perceived as doing something new. It’s struck me how hard it is to navigate contemporary writing sometimes as there’s so much, it’s difficult to find the things which are really appealing.
WS: Absolutely. I think a lot of writers and people feel ‘let time do the job’. So you don’t tend to read the contemporary stuff, you read something which has lasted. But even stuff which has lasted, it may not have lasted consistently. It may chime in with the current era for some reason and swim back up into popular esteem in that way. I’m very wary of all senses of the canon, there’s a lot of instability around the idea there are some things that are inescapable and quite clearly there. But I suppose, maybe surprisingly, I just don’t think I’m that good to be honest.
WS: It never even occurs to me actually [laughs]. Less and less.
TL: You’re one of the contemporary writers I’ve come across who I really enjoy, if that’s not too sycophantic…
WS: Enjoy is good. It’s better than don’t enjoy. I mistrust, well, maybe it’s a kind of magical thinking – maybe I secretly hope that there’s something canonical there. But I think that by consciously thinking that I’m rooting myself out. I’m big on magical thought, you know. I still don’t tread on the cracks. Yes there are some writers who have a late surge but on the whole, you tend to do your best work in your thirties and forties, and I’m nearly out of that. One of the problems with writing professionally for a living is that you get very aware of stratigraphy and layering, you get acutely sensitive to it in your own life and in culture, and you begin to live in it, where you’ve got an awful vision of it and you see all of that stuff. I’m very aware of it. Also I think, there’s no doubt in my mind, that there are lots of middle age writers who get badly affected by posterity disease. You can see it growing on them like mildew, and it takes the form of imagining that they’ve made it. They’ve taught on a university course, they’ve received the right kind of accolades, they’re consistently printed, they’re everywhere and they think they’re one of the immortals. And I’ve no doubt that, as you say, for the vast majority of them it’s an absolute illusion. And it must do nothing but poisonous things to their inability to be fresh with what they’re doing. So maybe in a way it is prophylaxis to try and keep…you know , for me to get up in the morning and write a book as if you were making a table, it would be terrible. I cannot be bothered unless I feel driven to do it. There’s an urgency. There has to be an urgency at a formal level about what one is doing. You have to try and think to yourself not ‘I’m going to make a table’, but ‘I’m going to try and make a new surface for people to eat from’. There’s got to be a new way with this whole table thing. And if you don’t really feel that way about it why would one bother? You’d just become a hack at that level.
TL: What is it that makes you continue writing, despite the doubts you’ve just talked about?
WS: I keep having ideas. I can’t help it. I mean, I keep having ideas, and it’s how I earn my living. The other thing is, and you’ll have experienced this if you’ve embarked on a writing career of some sort, I don’t teach creative writing because I think it’s a fatuous thing to do, but if anybody young asks me for advice, what I say to them is: ‘Do you, when you look back at a page of your work get inflicted with a dreadful sense futility and a sense that it’s cardboard, and it’s meaningless and that it doesn’t express an iota of what you wanted to say, and that it’s hackneyed, and it’s clichéd?’, and they go: ‘Yeah’, you go: ‘Right, you’re always going to feel like that. Accept it. It doesn’t matter how many languages you’re translated into, or how many awards you win or accolades you receive, you will still feel that way about what you do’. That is not all art, that is the virtuality of being a writer. So given that that’s true, how do I know that my negativity is built in? If anything I have grown more negative, it’s true. But that’s good [laughs]. Negativity is good.
TL: [laughs] Negativity is good?
WS: It is. Because it’s critical. It means you’ve maintained your critical edge towards what you’re doing. You’re not resting on it in any way [pause] I think.
TL: When you first started writing you said that you were ‘overawed by the canon’, and that it stifled you…
WS: Yeah, I stopped reading.
TL: That’s how you got beyond that point?
WS: I found that I was one of those writers who couldn’t read fiction while writing my own, and I’ve been very fortunate to be prolific, so I’ve never had a long hiatus. I mean, you know, I’ll read 2, 3, 4, 5, novels a year, half of which will be classics, and that’ll be about it. So newspapers and magazines always ask me ‘What do you think is happening in contemporary British literature?’, and I’ve more idea about what’s happening in military history in Poland. I just have no idea at all, which I feel slightly guilty about. But you know, as we were saying, there is this astonishing amount published and you think ‘Well, I can’t navigate this. That’s somebody else’s job’.
TL: Well, instead of asking about what you think is happening, where do you think you can go as a writer bearing in mind there is no taboo? A lot of fiction centres on the tension between what can be said and what can’t, and new ways of saying things. If there’s no limitation on what you can say, where does fiction go from there?
WS: I was terribly interested – well, I wasn’t that interested because it was terribly boring, but you know – when Hilary Mantel won the Booker this year. I like Hilary; she’s a nice woman, not that I know her that well, but I’ve met her a few times. She came out with this old crappy canard, some journo asked her ‘Why do you write these historical novels?’ and she said, ‘Because I’m not a journalist’. They said ‘Is there not anything to write about now?’. And she said, ‘I think you have to let events settle down: I’m not writing journalism here’. But while it’s true that there is a type of fiction which is reportage masquerading as something invented… there is fiction to be written about now and it’s important that it’s written now. If it’s not written now, it’s like when you see a film of The Great Gatsby that was made in the seventies: it looks like the seventies. That’s always going to be the case; there’s always going to be that built-in obsolescent decadence about it. It’s important that writers who can write, write about now. Maybe the death of the avant garde is just a punch you’ve got to roll with. Whichever way it falls, you’ve got to accept that. I mean, the book I’m working on at the moment is about film, which I think has died as the dominant narrative medium now. And while it’s something that’s recognised, this new shoot ‘em up video game which came out last week which is the highest grossing entertainment, so it’s kind of recognised as such. So for example, the novel was always pitted against film. Why is that? The novel is its own form, but you have John Dos Passos, writing USA back in the 1940s, trying to write a novel like a movie, or even something like Burroughs’ Naked Lunch which is like a series of film routines. So the novel in some way measured itself as a narrative form that can grasp the zeitgeist in contradistinction to the film. Now, arguably, the relationship between the novel and the film has been like the relationship between the West and Soviet Communism. It needed it. The novel kind of needed film to say what it was not. We’re not like those fucking Soviets with their awful Gulag, we’re not like movies. So how is the novel going to respond to the pre-eminence of video games (which is, after all, totally unlike either the novel or film, in that the audience grabs control of the role of the writer to a limited extent, operates as a sort of pseudo-creator within the defined parameters of the new environment)? How’s that going to affect the novel? I don’t know, but those are some of the things I’ve been interested in, trying to respond to that and to write something about that relationship between the novel and film and the coming, emergent narrative technology. I think that’s interesting.
TL: A lot of your work is also associated with visual culture and particularly modern art, partially because of your association with Ralph Steadman and the contemporary art on the covers of some editions of your novels. How would you describe your relationship with this form?
WS: Friendly. Just by sort of accident of proximity I was around all of those people like Hirst, and Mark Quinn and Tracy Emin when they were starting out in the early nineties. I knew them personally, and was interested in their work. Ballard said, I think I quote him somewhere in the Dubai piece, that Hirst was basically a novelist who wrote very short books. There was a literalism to their work that is not a literary quality, but I think that made them appealing. Their conceptual artwork is obviously much closer in spirit to writing than it is to the plastic arts, so I think that’s something to do with it. But beyond that it was just propinquity and kinda the thing of belonging to the same generation as that group of artists which came along. There was nothing comparable in literature. It wasn’t like I felt any great affinity with my literary peers. In fact I don’t have any literary peers that I feel…well, Brett Ellis in the States to some extent, and there are kind of isolated writers, but still, he’s different to me. I feel more of an affinity with his work than, than…I mean, I can’t think of anyone else. I’ve got lots of friends who are writers but I don’t feel any creative affinity with them. I shouldn’t. I can’t think of anybody who is really mining in a shaft near mine. I haven’t felt that in my career, but I did feel with those visual artists that there was a bit more. Also they threw way better parties.
TL: I imagine so!
WS: Way better. Just stratospherically better at every level. Artists as a rule are much more gregarious people, they’re much more convivial. They can work with people around them: they’re not isolated.
TL: A lot of the contemporary novels I’ve read, seem to talk about the modern world through dystopian worlds connected with this one or partial fantasy versions of this world, for example Margaret Atwood or Salman Rushdie. Do you think that’s true of your fiction, which often uses other worlds to explore this one?
WS: I don’t think that’s true of my work. I think I’ve got different levels. The mistrust of naturalism is a huge contention like any other and I think that the absorption into naturalism betrays a very narrow conception of what the world is: it’s basically a non-mysterious place, the literary naturalistic world. And it has its own deep psychology anyway. For example, contemporary naturalistic novels have a kind of – it’s wrong to call it a depth psychology, it’s more a shallow psychology, it’s normally just second-hand Freud of some kind or another. They read these books and set them recognisably in our world and people kind of watch GMTV…and lo and behold it turns out they’re really animated by a sexual motive they’re not aware of or something. Do you know what I mean? It’s all kind of quite fucking obvious in one way or another. I did a lecture on literary naturalism for Radio 3 this time last year in which I picked apart the strands. Now, I can’t speak for Rushdie or Atwood; I mean I have read a Rushdie novel more recently than I’ve read an Atwood one, and I don’t know what’s going on with him. I mean, to me it reads like a cod 1001 nights; it’s always this Scheherazade-schtick of some kind. But I do think… I mean, maybe they both feel as I do that naturalism is a convention anyway so you may as well be more expansive. That being said, there are passages and there are things I do write which veer very close to being naturalism. I mean in Liver the novella ‘Leberknödel’, or the contemporary sections of The Book of Dave which are in many ways naturalistic. So it’s more that they shade into other forms and ways of describing the world.
I mean, I’m a transcendental idealist. I just don’t believe in the common sense external world myself so why would I write books that supported that idea? For me it’s a kind of ideology. I read naturalistic novels and they seem to me to be written by people who read too many naturalistic novels. They just seem to be full of convention, that’s all. But I’ve always felt that way, I’ve never bought it. The writers who I loved when I was becoming conscientised were Kafka or Bulgakov, they were never stern. I think what people think of when they think of the archetypal novel in this country is Austen or George Eliot. What’s that about? And even when you get to Dickens, actually, Dickens is not a naturalistic writer.
TL: No, he’s got a lot of fantasy and surrealism.
WS: He’s got postmodernism. Look at the opening of The Tale of Two Cities. That’s what gives the lie to naturalism as an ideology because it seeks to knock off all those corners and impose a coherent vision onto what isn’t actually that coherent.
TL: I wanted to ask you about your work with Ralph Steadman and the interaction between his columns and your art. How does that work, first of all?
WS: Well, it’s really pretty simple. Sometimes I send him a bit of writing and he responds to it, and sometimes he sends me a picture and I write to that.
TL: It’s a two-way thing?
WS: Yeah, it’s always been like that. I started off writing in response to his pictures rather than him illustrating me, so we’ve always kept that kind of discourse going. It’s interesting actually because people come and say ‘What is it between you and Ralph, and what’s going on there?’ And in a way I always sit here and think, ‘What’re you on about? There’s nothing there. There’s nothing to it; either he sends me a picture or I send him a bit of writing’. But actually of course it is a sort of relationship, but it so much happens at the level of product that I don’t have to think about it at all.
TL: Which of the columns in Psycho Too would be you responding to Ralph Steadman?
WS: It’s hard to know because these would have been selected and I’ve given them all new titles. The one called ‘The Sordid Act of Union’ was, I think, one of me responding to him. ‘The Carpet Moves’ was, I think, me responding to him. ‘The Green Zone’ was me writing in response to him.
TL: Oh really? For some reason, possibly the article’s specific involvement with the moment, I would have assumed he responded to you.
WS: No, he was doing those pictures. ‘Mad Masterchef’s Tea Party’ is his picture and my response. Even the last piece, ‘Against the Dying of the Light’ is my response to his picture. ‘Grisly, Man’ was my response to his picture, so it’s not as much as fifty-fifty I would say, but certainly sixty-forty. Forty percent of them are Ralph’s drawings or pictures that I would respond to.
TL: What is it about his pictures in particular that have meant you’ve formed a partnership which has gone back such a long time?
WS: It’s only ten years. We started together in ’97 – oh, twelve years, yeah, on the 1997 election. I mean, I loved his drawings when I grew up in the 70s: it was love at first sight. He was what I wanted to be as a cartoonist. It’s one of those great things when you’ve really admired somebody when you’re young and you get to work with them. Maybe that’s it. I’m a fan.
——————————————————————————– Sir Wilfred Patrick Thesiger. A travel writer and explorer who (amongst his travels) first explored the Empty Quarter of the UAE between 1945 and 1950; he wrote Arabian Sands, his most famous book, about the experience.