Muttering ‘What’s all this bollocks?’ Will Self climbed up onto his elevated chair next to his editor and scanned the room like a velociraptor looking for flesh.
‘AND I SHALL BE QUEEN!!’ he shrieked more than once.
A theatrical start but what followed was an interesting exploration of a complex man, who is shot through with contradictions. I had spoken to him earlier, at the wine reception in the conservatory. He signed my book and he was calm, earnest. He can’t help that melancholic face but later, when he was excited, there was something highly daunting about his intellectual dismissal of anyone he considered inferior.
‘Someone earlier said my book was warm. I have never been so fucking insulted!’
He would repeat this during the evening – almost spitting out the word ‘empathy.’
On reading other people’s fiction
It was clear that he loves to talk facts, technique. Although denying that he is interested in anyone elses’s fiction, he spoke well of Kafka and Joyce. He had read them in the last few years. He also acknowledged reading Oliver Sachs’ Awakenings. Sachs had impressed him and you get a sense from Self that rarely does anyone impress him. He said he reads to look at the mechanics of things – or as Auden used to write in other people’s margins – if anything was GETS (good enough to steal).
I asked him (in the before as a ‘shy sharer’ – his phrase) if writing was a curse. He agreed that it was a compulsion. When talking to a very young writer who asked him ‘What advice would you give your 20 year old self?’ He replied ‘Get a job. You’ve got ten years to fanny around.’ He admitted that he was sitting in squats taking drugs – but a writer should be travelling, learning.
On the continuous present tense used in Umbrella
He feels that he cannot go back to ‘The Count took tea at 5 O’clock’ realist style of fiction. ‘There is no way back for me now. Finegan’s Wake is next.’ He admitted that he is excited about Umbrella as a trilogy and he had a productive summer blocking out the other two books. Despite the fact that he hated writing Umbrella, he seemed lighter and excited when he mentioned the next two. Self adopted the continuous tense for the emotional intimacy and although he may hate to hear it – it did indeed make the book a warmer one that the novels that have gone before.
Real people in Umbrella
Albert Death is based on his grandfather – a 6ft 7in man who was a mathematical savant and incredible autodidact. Self scanned the room with dinosaur intensity again. ‘We’re all pygmies compared to him.’ Audrey Death? Entirely fictional. ‘I like old women (a ‘hoorah’ sounded from the back of the room) and young women…I wanted to create a woman to love.’ It was probably the most enigmatic thing he said all night.
‘Winning the Man Booker? I should have fucking won it years ago.’
(on white Australians) ‘There they are crouching on the verge of this incredible civilization..with the amazing tradition of storytelling…putting meat on BBQs. They are ridiculous!’
‘Oliver Sachs must have felt very demeaned by being played by Robin Williams.’
(on charm) ‘What is the use of charm. It’s the answer before you’ve asked the question. It’s close to fascism.'
(on them choosing the book for the Man Booker) ‘They chose it because there are no gags – so it is considered serious.’
Self has a strong interest in psychology and believes the ‘hard zombie’ theory – that although we technically have free will, we are in fact ruled by deterministic elements. He also believes in more ethereal concepts and ‘could never live in an old mental asylum.’ (Talking about the one he visited while researching the book.)
I did chat to him afterwards. He had told a story about a chimp – the alpha of her troop – he met when researching ‘Great Apes.’ The chimp had pointed at his tattoo on his arm to show her but the keeper had whispered ‘Don’t put your arm anywhere near the bars. She is trying to trick you and wants to break one of your fingers. I know all of them and if I stepped inside, I would be killed instantly.’
Self said 'Of course, these are highly intelligent animals held prisoner against their will and they are fucking furious!'
That was actually the point that I took up with him quietly afterwards – we both agreed it was bizarre that people are shocked that apes are developing, with weapons etc. The conversation extended to animals and I asked if any other animal had inspired or sparked his fiction. ‘I’m not an animal person,’ he said, but he was interested when I said that I worked with wolves – although his first response was a Benny Hillesque ‘What…professionally? Nar Nar.’ He was still up and performing - looking around to see who was listening when he said ‘They are just dogs. JUST DOGS!’ At which point, rather than tell him off like a naughty boy who had eaten too many cakes at a party, I shook his hand and as Shakespeare might say, took my leave.
I found him complex, exhausting, funny, scary, vulnerable, strange, witty, wordrich, awkward, insecure, fascinating, infuriating, egocentric, shy………
What a night.
- Julia Bohanna
- Shortlisted Bath Short Story Award 2013 Runner-up Cinnamon Press Competition 2013 WNNER: Don Louth Writer of the Year (run by Reading Writers) WINNER: Bradt/Independent on Sunday Travel Writing Competition 2012. SHORTLISTED: Scott Prize (Salt Publishing) 2012 for a short story collection. Writer/ Journalist - assistant editor and writer for the art and books pages of Wolfprint. Most recently published in Independent on Sunday and short story anthologies: Sentinel Champions No 9, 100 Stories for Queensland, 50 Stories for Pakistan, 100 Stories for Haiti and From Hell to Eternity. In a recent writing competition, Joanne Harris described my writing as '...compelling (but quite creepy)'
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Prizes and Writing Awards
- Winner Bradt/Independent on Sunday Travel Writing Competition 2012
- Shortlisted for Salt Publishing's Scott Prize for short story collections 2012
- Finalist in Brit Writers' Award 2011
- 2nd in Sentinel Literary Competition 2011
- Whitechapel Society Anthology to be published 2010
- Shortlisted for the Mslexia Short Story Competition 2009
- Shortlisted for The Asham Award 2009
- Joint winner of the Penguin/Decibel Prize 2008 - Asian Invisible. Published as The Map of Me
- Highly Commended in The National Galleries of Scotland Short Story Competition 2008
- Runner-up in Segora Short Story Prize 2008
- Joint Winner of The Lancet Short Story Competition 2007: The Resurrection Girl.
- Runner-up in Virgin Trains/The Guardian Short Story Competition 2007: A Small Revolution
- Winner of the Woman and Home Short Story Competition 2006: Ghosts of Jamaica.
- Shortlisted for The Asham Award 2005
- Runner-up in the Good Housekeeping Short Story Competition 2003
- Winner of The Sunday Telegraph Tourism for Tomorrow Travel Writing Competition 2002: Wolves of Rumania. Winner
- Winner and also Winner of Most Original Short Story in the Competition in Trowell and District Writers' Competition 2006