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A Pulpy Eyeless Balaclava: Will Self Interviewed

Interview by Jamie Kenny.


We were supposed to meet at Wigan Wallgate Railway station: just like Brief Encounter. But that didn’t happen.

Sitting in a cave under Southport Arts Centre, Will Self began to talk book design.

“The original cover had a photograph of a whole liver, in close up, in a surgical dish, with a small artistic trail of blood…but”

An expressive wave of the hands: “marketing.”

You have to sympathise with the marketing boys and girls. A book called Liver – a story cycle called Liver – doesn’t exactly promise sales. In fact it threatens them, in a muffled way, from behind a pulpy eyeless balaclava. You can hear the conversations: Can’t we get him to call it Heart? No, think yourself lucky he didn’t come into the office and throw Anus on the desk.

So Liver it was. “Both my mother and father died of liver cancer; and then last year my father in law died of liver cancer. It had been on my mind a lot.”

Liver cancer is the subject of the main story of the collection, a novella in which a terminal sufferer goes to Zurich to take advantage of the local facilities for assisted suicide, only to be immersed in a kind of living death. Elsewhere in the collection, a private drinking club turns out to be a front for an alien project to harvest the congealed livers of alcoholic bohemians, an advertising genius seals the deal with the aid of a vulture that eats his liver three times a day, and a convocation of hopeless junkies is evoked from the perspective of the Hepatitis C virus present in their…well, you know where.

It’s all good fun, in the style of Self. It fits in neatly with the literary genealogy: the smoking ban as enforced in post apocalyptic Iraq (The Butt), the ravings of a misogynistic taxi driver taken as holy writ in a half drowned London (The Book of Dave), a vast council estate of the dead in which nothing much happens (How the Dead Live).


And then there’s the book tour, the Self Live Liver Tour. Soon, the man himself was to appear onstage like the original Lovecraftian colour out of space, tearing off bloody strips of the offending organ and throwing them to members of the weeping, hugging crowd. Questions and answers followed, members of the audience picked out by means of a baby’s head on a stick. At length, a chariot pulled by giant bats flew the author to the next transfixed and trembling assemblage of provincial literati.

Yet if the books have a continuity of theme – making unusual sense of the grotesque, the fantastic, the sordid, the depraved, the ill-matched and the banal – the man himself has gone through changes. And in Southport his audience, a considerable gathering of the Self-ish, were solid provincial book lovers. The readings themselves may have involved sex, violence and incurable disease marinated in apocalyptic swearing, but the listening-reading public took it all and chuckled heartily. After the break, Will handed round sandwiches. And when the gig was over he took out his foldaway bike and headed for a nearby Bed and Breakfast.

It all showed disturbing signs of a work ethic, or at least of a man getting on his bike and looking for sales. What happened to the Will Self once caught sniffing heroin on the Prime Minister’s private plane? What happened to bohemia?

“Well the avant garde in Britain is just dead to the extent that it ever existed. But if you look at the Colony Club (the Soho drinking club which appears as the Plantation in Liver) at the time it was founded in the 1940’s you had a kind of time capsule of the future: it facilitated all day drinking, there was open display and acceptance of homosexuality, there was no taboo at all about swearing.

“None of this is transgressive anymore. It’s just modern life in Britain. And while things like homosexual liberation were needed and very much worth having, the same can’t really be said for saying ‘fuck’ in public or drinking all day.”

Will Self was once quoted in an interview saying that he didn’t want to be seen as some sort of literary craftsman, who viewed his day’s work as though it was sanding down a table. That fitted in with a persona that at times seemed to include the writing as part of a general display of multimedia fancy goods. He was always popping up on things. But now the journalism is regular and the books emerge at a solid rhythm. Is he turning into a kind of literary artisan?


“It was always about writing: a writer was always what I wanted to be. But there is this danger, this lure of branding. It’s the effect of television really. No matter what you are known for, if you’re known at all you’ll eventually get someone calling you up and asking you to go and talk about underpants on the Five O Clock show. You really have to say to yourself: this is nothing to do with the work.

“But, a literary artisan? Well, it doesn’t feel as bad as I thought it would. It just feels like life. And when you’ve been writing for a while you learn how to do it, how to write and assemble a book. When you’re a tyro it’s like assembling a hang-glider in mid-air.

“A novelist is naturally an autodidact. I don’t understand all of these creative writing programmes. It seems to me that if you’re going to do it with any originality you’re going to teach yourself, on the job. And that wasn’t as bad as I thought. And of course there were all the drugs and the nihilism. Now I’m not stoned and I’m not a nihilist any more.”

What Will Self is, when he isn’t a writer, is a walker: a psychogeographer, no less, according to his weekly column in the Independent. At its most simple, psychogeography is simply walking without an end point in mind, soaking up the territory between departure and destination. At its most exotic it can become a strange marriage between Marxism and Mysticism, an analysis of the terrain that criticises capitalism for depriving the working classes of ley lines and places of pagan child sacrifice. Will Self’s approach is closer to the original ramblers, to the men and women who stormed Kinderscout in the 1930’s.

“I think that is apposite. It is important to walk: otherwise you’re just beamed up at your starting point and beamed down at your destination. Conventional travel is a means of removing people from their environment, and I think that the human environment should be reclaimed.

But I don’t go to look at beauty spots. They’re just visual bonbons: walking in that sense is just consumerism for pedestrians. If I was walking into Manchester I’d take the train to Runcorn and walk into the city along the ship canal. These sorts of places are human creations and have been let slip into neglect for no other reason than that they are on the way to somewhere. Remember the feminists marching to reclaim the night in the seventies? It’s the same thing.”

This sounds like a manifesto. But what would actually improve if everyone were to reclaim the airport slip road and the turnoff to the business park?

A deep breath: “Localism, in a word. More conversations between strangers. Less aggression. More knowledge of who your neighbours are. The development of genuine communities…of course, my wife says I just want to go out for a walk and I’m being pretentious about it.”

There may be more going on here than a change of lifestyle or a renewed dedication to work. Consider the posture. Will Self tends to business in a comfortable batcave on the publisher’s midlist. From time to time he emerges to sniff the air. There’s a hunkering-down here, combined with reconnaissance. And that’s a posture more generally shared in the age of exploding people and imploding banks, when the most obviously sensible course of action is to keep your head, mind your business and gird yourself for what happens next, whatever that may be. Perhaps surprisingly for a self-described pessimist, Will Self sees some hope emerging from the financial rubble.

“I think we may be nearing the end of something” says Self. “The Big Issue, for instance, exists because there’s a general toleration of gross inequality – you didn’t see homeless people on the streets back in the seventies – and the payoff for that was this gross accumulation of wealth. But the collapse of the US banking sector has put an end to that model. Governments are now intervening in the banks in a way that contravenes every textbook definition of free market economics.”

Perhaps before too long there may even be a garde worth being avant to again. Meanwhile, tend your garden. Get some fresh air. Sniff the wind. Eat your liver.

This also appeared offline in The Big Issue in The North.

Jamie Kenny has spent most of his life indirectly promoting the circulation of commodities.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, October 7th, 2008.