How I Write

01.09.13

Will Self: How I Write

Will Self’s new novel, Umbrella, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and finally out in America. The fiercely experimental writer tells us about some of his favorite vices—his cigarettes, his favorite snack (or smack), and what phrase he overuses.

Author Will Self
British author Will Self. His novel "Umbrella" is shortlisted for the Man Booker 2012 literary prize. (Polly Borland )

Where did you grow up?
In the hinterland between a dull North London suburb called East Finchley and a rather tonier one called the Hampstead Garden Suburb. I also had a year in Ithaca, upstate New York.

Where do you live and why?
I live in Stockwell, a rather edgier inner-city district of South London. Why? Because it’s central—I can walk to the West End or Soho in 40 minutes. And also because it was the most house we could get for our money—we have four children.

Describe your ideal day.
Any more or less ordinary day is fine by me—I like to walk, so if I have the opportunity to write in the morning and walk in the afternoon it’s a good day; then some family time in the evening. I get up, service whatever children there are in the house, and then write. I prefer to write first drafts as soon as possible after waking, so that the oneiric inscape is still present to me. On a manual typewriter. I aim for 800 to 1,200 words. Once I’m nearing the end of the first draft I begin the second (which involves re-keying the text into a computer), so I’m working on the beginning and the end of the book simultaneously. Then I’ll do the same with the third and fourth drafts. [Then] I watch a bit of TV. The astonishing burgeoning of quality U.S. drama series has been a great boon in the past decade or so. The Sopranos, The Wire, Breaking Bad—these are the comédie humaine of the modern era.

How do you conceive of a book?
I keep notes—sometimes for four or five years while something gestates. Then at a certain point the notes reach a fissionable mass.

Is there anything distinctive or unusual about your work space?  Besides the obvious, what do you keep on your desk?  What is the view from your favorite work space?
It’s pretty strange. There are images of it on my website.

What is a distinctive habit or affectation of yours?
The use of the word “oneiric.”

Of which of your books or projects are you most proud?
The next one—all the others are lost to me, so many Elvises who have left the building.

Please recommend three books (not your own) to your readers.
The Strange Last Voyage of Donald Crowhurst by Nicholas Tomalin and Ron Hall, Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self by Claire Tomalin, Solaris by Stanislaw Lem.

What do you consider the main differences between American and English literature?
The main differences between contemporary English and American literature is that the baleful pseudo-professionalism imparted by all those crap MFA writing programs has yet to settle like a miasma of standardization on the English literary scene. But it’s beginning to happen.

What is your favorite item of clothing?
A Day-Glo orange jump suit—such as the ones worn by the Guantanamo inmates—across the shoulders of mine. It reads: “24 HOUR EMERGENCY WRITER.”

Do you have a writer friend who helps and inspires you?
I regarded the late J. G. Ballard as a friend and mentor. Since he famously remarked that, “For a writer, death is always a career move,” I like to think his new job is simply to be my friend and mentor.

What do you do when you are stuck or have temporary writer’s block?
This never happens.

What is guaranteed to make you laugh?
My children.

What is guaranteed to make you cry?
Anything happening to them.

Do you have any superstitions?
I don’t not believe in God.

What is something you always carry with you?
Cigarettes. I smoke unusual and very strong black tobaccos that I hand roll - so I always have to have my own with me.

If you could bring back to life one deceased person, who would it be and why?
J. G. Ballard. I think he’d be hugely surprised.

What is your favorite snack?
My favorite smack is definitely heroin—but nowadays, as Robert Stone once said, I admire it from afar.

What phrase do you overuse?
“Fuck off.”

What is the story behind the publication of your first book?
I had a girlfriend who was working at a publisher’s—Bloomsbury. She gave it to Stephen Amidon, the novelist, who was reading for them at the time. He recommended that they publish. The rest is “herstory.”

Was there a specific moment when you felt you had “made it” as an author?
When the first book was accepted for publication—it’s been all downhill since then.

Tell us a funny story related to a book tour or book event.
A very beautiful young woman once asked me to sign her breasts. That was back when I was a hip young thing—it’s been all downhill since then.

Tell us something about yourself that is largely unknown and perhaps surprising.
I have a vestigial third buttock (although I don’t, as many people imagine, have two anuses).

What would you do for work, if you were not a writer?
I wanted to be an academic. I was planning a thesis on the connections between the epistemology of Marx and Wittgenstein, then there were some trifling drug offences and it blew that one away. Now I have a professorship at Brunel University in contemporary thought, so I suppose if I weren’t writing fiction I’d devote all my energies to that.

What advice would you give to an aspiring author?
Consider whether you’re prepared to spend at least 20 years of your life in solitary confinement. If not, don’t bother.

What would you like carved onto your tombstone?
“Investigative Reporter of the Year.”

What is your next project?
A novel called Shark.