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Story last updated: 19 Jan 2004 2021 GMT Printable version of this page
Will Self: 'I don't read fiction'
Will Self
by Dickon Hooper
BBC Bristol website reporter
The website that loves Bristol is also the website that loves contemporary fiction and its authors.

We bagged an exclusive interview with novelist Will Self in Bristol recently.

Self says his work is "ideas-driven rather than plot or character-driven."

Read on to find out his views on writing, fame and the government.

DH: You are well-known as a journalist and an author, but also as the team captain on ‘Shooting Stars.’ Are you comfortable with your fame? Is it something that you consider a lot?

WS: I do think about it a bit. Fame is a bit vulgar really. It is just like having a flashy car. I am fairly used to it now, but I don’t intend to embellish it any more. For some years now, I haven’t gone out and about in that way. It’s not a big issue.

DH: The public perception of you is as intellectual jack of all trades. Is this fair?

WS: I do write books and a wide range of journalism – serious, social commentary to colourful criticism and more frothy stuff – so it is a fair analysis.

I also do some satire work on TV and punditry of one kind of another. It is a mixed portfolio.

Whatever the British think about themselves, there is the tradition of a public intellectual in this country. It's not that bizarre.

It has always been around. Not to compare myself in a direct way, but look at Orwell. He occupied a not dissimilar role in the 40s.

DH: Can we talk about your writing? How do you start? What is the process?

WS: I tend to start with an idea, which can be quite a simple riff on the face of it. Some expand more than others, like paper flowers in water, and they tend to turn into novels.

My work is ideas-driven rather than plot or character-driven.

DH: Often, it seems to me, you present a fantastical, life-as-it-could-be, world?

WS: This is a basic satiric device. By holding up a distorted mirror, people see an exaggerated picture of what is, and what it is that is objectionable about our world.

DH: With this in mind, how is Dr Mukti a satire on psychiatry and psychoanalysis?

WS: In parts, it is a satire on the way in which we view psychiatry, and the psychiatric profession, and by extension the whole medical profession.

Do we revere them? Well, the debate over MMR suggests this reverence is in decline, but the minute there is something wrong, people go running to mummy and daddy doctor.

Dr Mutki links to my first book, A Quantum Theory of Insanity. I have always been preoccupied by the idea of the therapeutic state.

In some respects, this is similar to the ideas of the anti-psychiatrists in the 1960s; that in our society, there’s one idea of sanity. This is an aspect of a hidden totalitarianism.

The psychiatric profession is there to enforce the idea, often unwittingly. We do live in a heavily medicated world.

DH: In terms of politics, do you still believe in open government and proportional representation?

WS: I think the thing about constitutional change is that you can mass a lot of arguments against open government and PR.

Particularly among young people there is a real decline in interest in the political process.

If there had been a willingness by the Blair regime to have an open and frank debate to move this forward, it could have invigorated the process. But this hasn’t happened.

At a wider level, there is a loss. Blair has lost sight of and not addressed the destruction of communitarian politics that started under Thatcher and has continued.

DH: What do you think will happen with the Hutton report?

WS: I don’t know. Even if Blair gets a third term, he won’t last it out. It is a significant mine on the hull of his ship of state. Whether it blows up or corrodes, sooner or later the vessel will spring a leak.

DH: What about weapons of mass destruction?

WS: Luckily a disinterested electorate is a short-term memory electorate. The political class will turn against Blair if he is not perceived as being electable.

DH: What about the furore over Killroy?

WS: I didn’t read the original piece. But it is another issue about BBC figures indulging in punditry outside the payroll and coming a cropper.

I’m not on the BBC payroll. I’m not a BBC employee and never have been and never would be. I don’t have to do that; so why would I? I haven’t worked for any kind of corporate entity for a long time and I wouldn’t again.

It is important to have people who stand outside that, with the freedom to express themselves denied to those dependent for their living on certain institutions.

DH: What’s your next literary project?

WS: I'm going to start writing a new novel in next couple of weeks. It is about an enraged, slightly insane London taxi driver who writes a rant against contemporary society, which he then buries.

It is dug up 500 years in the future and becomes the basis of a revealed religion, the holy book of a future society.

It is a satire on revealed religion and fundamentalism, which is very much affecting us at the moment.

DH: What authors do you recommend reading?

WS: I don’t read fiction. I don’t enjoy it. It uses the same muscles that I use to write with, although I do read a little bit. At the moment I’m reading Samuel Pepys: An Unequaled Self by Claire Tomalin. And I very much enjoyed re-reading Roger Deacon’s Waterlog.

I like quirky travel – I walked here from the airport, which is about 12 or 13 miles.

DH: What do you think about these book signings?

WS: It’s what you’ve got to do. It is a double-edged thing as it is nice to bring narratives in a bardic way to people, so they can attach a voice to what they are reading. In other ways, it is not for me what literature is about.

People come expecting light entertainment and literature is extremely serious. I often see dismayed faces – I'm not sure what they are expecting.

Because of the volume of my sales, I know that the numbers that are here are a function of other media.

On the whole, books generate the readership they should, even though I know lots of struggling authors who don’t think so.

My perception is that the other notoriety I have doesn’t translate into sales, it doesn’t increase readership.

People don’t read books on that basis. It is a big commitment for a book – a serious novel is a couple of days of your life.

You take on books with intent to read on a personal recommendation synergised with some other media, like a book review.

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