seen the tall English dude for three years or so, and it was surprising
to see him at Coffee Shop at Union Square hunched over the bar ordering
a drink and hitting on the waitress. Some people really go for that English
accent. What are you saying, mate? Speak English. Get that tongue out
of yer mouth. I had been hanging out at Coffee Shop, trying to turn it
into a literary hangout. I don't know if it's working? Mr. Self goes into
the back where it's quiet. The place is packed (what a cliché?).
What would Mr. Self say?
AL: What was it like for Will Self today?
WS: It was kind of odd. Huh! My infant son is here from London so we were up quite a bit during the night as you are with babies. We watched the stock market tumble. I don't follow it at the level of investing in it, but I certainly follow it at the level of seeing it as a metaphor for mass delusion and madness in crowds. People behave like animals in masses. It's fascinating. It's also nice to see how provincial London is in regards to New York.
AL: How did you start writing Great Apes? Can you explain to us how you were seized in a room and had a vision of this book then began to write it?
WS: Er. The idea was actually provoked by a British actor, Jim Broadbent, who's in a lot of Mike Leigh films. I came up with the elements of the guy waking up in bed with his girlfriend having turned into a chimpanzee during the night. Then being carried off by a chimpanzee crash team, having been considered mad. But the inspiration for it was like a flash when I realized that I knew very little about chimpanzees. I found the notion of being with a feral male adult chimpanzee in an enclosed space to be deeply worrying and upsetting. I set out to find out if I was right, and I was. That's what the engine of the book is predicated on and got it going. I knew that they are our closest living relatives. We all know the basic facts about chimpanzees. And yet, I felt within myself a real basic desire not to know about them. That they did represent some indefinable and sinister other, and to look into it was going to be dangerous.
AL: There are certain theories of Darwin about relationships and survival that interest us all . What do you think about those sorts of models?
WS: I suppose that I do manage
to tackle an aspect of Darwinian thought by creating a chimpanzee world.
This is a world where chimpanzees are evolutionarily successful for the
same reasons stated by Social Darwinists. We like to regard things through
the lens of scientific inquiry as instinctive animal behavior. That's
not a meaningful way of looking at it.
AL: I felt that with Cock & Bull, and in a few of your stories, that you flip-flopped all the assumptions, and in the new book, Great Apes, there's also the tendency to turn things upside down and look at the world through that lens. Could you comment on that?
WS: Yeah. I suppose that this is the most complete comedy of reversal that I have done in this sense, a full world reversal. The others have been parallel worlds that walked or mutated out of our own. At its most elevated level, it's a means of commenting on what our most basic ideas of reality really are. The novel itself is this sort of ontologically dangerous form in that way. It presents a reality that may not correspond to our own. Even the most naturalistic book has features that are quite clearly not like the way the world is. It is not clear whether the world derives from the novel, or the novel derives from the world. And I suppose at its most exalted level it's an attempt to comment on that very fact. I rather dislike loose labels like "Postmodern" or anything like that but I do suppose that I come of generation who had an innate suspicion about the conventions of orthodox narrative, and one who thought it was very difficult to believe in character and orderly narrative in that way. My parallel and mutated worlds are in part a response to those difficulties.
AL: Is the interest in the novel and the readership of it growing or dwindling?
WS: Hmmmm. Who could say? It's hard to know. Of some of the magazines we talked about earlier, it would hard to judge what the RPC, the readers per copy, is. It's difficult to get an RPC on books. You can notionally create one. I don't know. What do you think? It comes in waxes and wanes, that one.
AL: Well, you see the sort of books that are constantly being published, from the books by celebrities to the "My father abused me, now I'm writing about it" sort. The serious book, or the more literary ones, gets lost in the shuffle....
WS: Yes. There's an enormous mass. I suppose that some people feel that literary fiction may have been slightly knocked off the pedestal just by the sheer mass by whatever, general fiction titles, to diet books, or books by Princess Diana that are being published. Britain is a big publishing country. The total amount of books published and the various titles published constantly rises. My perception is that there is a decline in sales and readership or literary fiction.
AL: You wrote a few pieces on William Burroughs in your book of Nonfiction, Junk Mail. Did you have any thoughts about him since he died?
WS: I had wanted to meet him. There is a sort of genius' touch among writers. There's an idea of....umm.... You want to press the flesh but you don't necessarily want to talk to them, or anything. You feel like any other sort of fan. I finally received this summons that I could go to meet him this year on this book tour. I was going out to the Midwest, and the old fucker died. Screwed that up! I'm not particularly sad about it. Without speaking unnecessarily ill of the dead, the nice thing about them is that's precisely what you can do. Burroughs never struck me as being a particularly nice man.
AL: What is your working schedule like?
WS: When I'm working the aim is to do first drafts fairly early in the morning, and then revisions after lunch. I never aim to do more than four good hours a day. But the practice is that I can't maintain a discipline and then it gets closer and closer to deadlines, and then I find myself engaged in orgies of writing, which I quite like. I get really mad working 16 hours a day. You have the advantage of working like that because you really do have the whole book in your mind very comprehensively. I find it very difficult to do over two years.