The Boston Phoenix November 9 - 16, 2000


Living Will

The last time he toured the United States, British author Will Self was so drugged-out he ended up in the hospital. Now, he's back with a new book and a newfound dedication to sobriety. Self talks about life, death, smack, and his eighth novel, How the Dead Live.

by Chris Wright

Will Self is making a phone call. Perched on the edge of a bed at the Eliot Hotel in Boston, he's speaking in lullaby tones about homework and dinner and bedtime. Back in London, his eight-year-old daughter, Madeleine, is trying to pull a fast one. It's only 8:30, she fibs, not sleepy-time yet. Self checks his watch, does a quick calculation, and proceeds to give his daughter a brief lesson on the inflexibility of international time zones. "Love you, darling," he says finally. "Nuh-night."

For those familiar with Self's fiction, this outflow of paternal tenderness might come as a bit of a surprise. Self's work -- part Franz Kafka, part Jonathan Swift, and part obscene phone call -- seethes with sex, violence, substance abuse, and enough bodily fluids to fill an Olympic-size swimming pool. He writes often about his native London, but one reflected in a very unflattering looking glass. His landscapes are grimly hallucinogenic, his language a swirl of poetry and bile. A take-no-prisoners satirist, he appalls as often as he amuses.

In the 10 years since Self, 39, first bludgeoned his way into Britain's literary scene, he has been compared not only to Swift and Kafka, but also to Thomas Pynchon and J.G. Ballard, Edward Lear and Aldous Huxley. But there really is no one like him. Will Self, after all, is the author whose powers of description once led him to call a pit bull's penis "a knotty sea slug of gristle"; who has written stories with titles like "A Rock of Crack as Big as the Ritz"; whose 1992 book Cock & Bull featured a woman who sprouts a penis, and a man with a vagina budding in the crook of his knee.

Self's latest novel, How the Dead Live, grapples with the topic of anti-Semitism by presenting us with a Jew-hating Jew. The protagonist of the book, one Lily Bloom (no relation to the James Joyce Blooms), spouts the kind of racist claptrap that would have made Adolf Hitler proud.

As he folds his six-foot-five frame into a wing chair in the quietly posh confines of the Eliot, Self certainly looks every bit the renegade. He wears tight black denims and a tight black sweater. His tightly cropped hair tops a through-a-fish-eye face that's at once handsome and ugly, intelligent and menacing. He has a large, attention-getting voice. This guy, you think to yourself, is not someone you'd want to run into in a dark alley. Or maybe even a hotel room.

But then, his reputation precedes him.

If Self's work has often plunged headlong into debauchery, so too has he. In his home country, Self is as well known for his history of drug use as he is for his fiction. In 1997, he sealed his reputation as a highbrow reprobate when, covering the general election for the London newspaper the Observer, he was caught snorting smack on Prime Minister John Major's campaign plane. "I had a habit," he says by way of explanation.

Despite a long-standing addiction to drugs and alcohol, however, Self has proven himself to be a writer of superhuman stamina. Along with eight books of fiction and two books of essays, he has written a weekly column for an architectural magazine, restaurant reviews for the Observer, interviews for the Independent, articles for GQ. His vaguely sinister looks and switchblade wit have earned him regular spots on British TV. He recently completed a gig as a "live writer" at a London art gallery, in which he wove gallery visitors into a narrative that appeared on a large screen behind his head. He even has his own weekly radio show.

Yet Self's accomplishments have too often been overshadowed by his appetites. Although American audiences know him mainly for his work, in Britain he's become a kind of literary novelty act -- the biggest and baddest of Britain's bad-boy authors. And Self is the first to admit that his reputation is entirely of his own making.

"You know," he says, puffing a Camel and sipping a Coke, "if I was still drinking and using, we'd be absolutely fucking toasted by now, you could bet your arse on that. We would be working our way through that mini-bar. I'd be beguiling you, inveigling you, working my hideous, charismatic, seductive wiles on you."

But that was the old Will Self. The new Will Self wants to clean up his act. In fact, he wants to abandon the act altogether.

"I think it would be a good idea to take myself out of the equation," he says. "I would like people to be able to read my books without a sense of the author hovering behind them. Because I'm fucking serious about the writing. That's what I do."

The last time I saw Will Self in Boston, in 1997, he was striding across Copley Square smoking a joint. With his large, angular features and his intimidating height, Self is not the kind of man who blends into a crowd. This is especially true when he's emerging, Godzilla-like, from a haze of pot smoke. But if he felt any cop-fear that day he didn't show it. He certainly made no attempt to conceal the smoldering spliff in his hand. Instead, he behaved as if drug use were the most natural thing in the world. And for Self, of course, it was.

Time was, Self would gleefully sop himself with whatever mind-altering substance he could get his hands on. Heroin, cocaine, speed, booze, pot. Psychotropics, mood-enhancers, uppers, downers. You name it, Self swallowed, shot, snorted, or smoked it. Now, after a 20-year on-again-off-again battle with addiction, Self is finally unhooked. At least he'd better be, he says. His life depends on it.

"You have here a guy who was quite manifestly suicidal," he says. "When I was last on tour here in the States, I was hospitalized. I was really in a bad way with this. Yet there's that delusion -- we addicts are the quintessence of humanity in that way -- the addict, despite dying every day, still thinks he's going to live forever."

Drugs were not only killing Self; they were also playing havoc with his personal life. His first marriage, which had produced two children, imploded in 1993. His second wife, the Independent columnist Deborah Orr, with whom Self has a baby boy, grew tired of picking her husband up off the kitchen floor. His children were at the age where they could read about his excesses. Many of Self's friends, exasperated by his erratic behavior, had stopped calling. The heroin-on-the-prime-minister's-plane incident had cost him his job.

"I was a wreck," he says. "I was in terminal addiction. I was bogged down in depression. I had terrible self-harming problems; I'd always be covered in infections and scars and scabs. Self-suicide through addictive behavior is not a pretty sight. You don't look good and you don't feel good."

More dire, perhaps, was Self's discovery that terminal addicts don't write so good, either.

"I wasn't an artist," he says, "I was a piss artist."

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Chris Wright can be reached at cwright[a]phx.com.

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