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