Self-made man: 'Life as a drug addict was hell'
As he prepares to take to the Abbey stage, Will Self spoke to Donal Lynch about addiction, ambition and his annus horribilis
It's almost a Will Self interviewing trope to mention how intimidating the prospect of speaking to him is. From Russell Brand to The Guardian to The Times, interviewers have wondered if they will be able to keep intellectual pace with this titan of English literature, and his dauntingly ornate vocabulary.
In fact my adrenaline was wasted: the real Self is warm, generous and self-effacing, with a gloriously honking laugh. He never condescends and handles even the most impertinent of queries with thoughtful patience.
He's resolutely pessimistic (he will interview Stephen Pinker tonight at the Abbey on the subject of optimism) but even his darkest forebodings on life and literature are infused with a sort of gallows humour.
His chipper mood is all the more impressive because it's been a fairly wearing time for him lately. When I ask him what kind of a year he's had he begins, "I don't really know how to answer that. For personal reasons it's been really bad," but that might be something of an understatement.
In fact, over the last few weeks, his ex-wife, sometime The Guardian columnist Deborah Orr, has been live-tweeting some toe-curling details of their divorce, from her perspective. "My ex wants to divide up the contents of the former marital home by coming round, when I'm not there, putting a red dot on absolutely anything he wants, then getting me to organise it all into a place where he can have it picked up. Anyone else had this?" she wrote in one of the more excoriating posts, before going on to accuse him of 'mental cruelty'.
Thousands of people chimed in on Twitter with messages of support to her and the story was picked up in a few of the British papers.
Orr even poked fun at his penchant for big words - "cooperation is not a word long enough for my ex to have any truck with".
According to a letter which Orr released, Self thinks she is "having a protracted mental breakdown", but publicly he is keeping a dignified silence on events. While Orr nurses her wrath on social media, he's moved on, he tells me, and he's in a happy new relationship. "My second marriage split up two or three years ago and there is someone else in my life, so that's nice."
Orr was not the only person in his life throwing back the curtain of Self's life in a self-serving way. Earlier this year writer Matthew De Abaitua recalled his "eerie work placement" with Self to The Sunday Times and wrote a slightly Adrian Mole-ish memoir about their time together in which he claimed he was Self's skivvy.
"Is that what he said?" Self begins. "Bless. He wasn't my skivvy. He was my . He sent it to me in advance of publication. I felt it would have been churlish to prevent publication. I feel far past the point where something like that boosts my ego. I think that anyone who reaches their fifties, still searching externally for reassurance about their place in the world is fairly lost."
If 2018 was a trying year in terms of his personal life, it also represented something of a career crossroads for Self. He finished his trilogy of novels, which broadly deal with the interplay between minds, madness and technology, but was left slightly with the feeling of someone dropping stones down a well.
"It was no relief to have the trilogy finished. It was a reminder of all my negative feelings about what's going on in contemporary culture," he says. "I'm not English enough to be a hypocrite or lie but this is the truth: the first book (of the trilogy) was nominated for the Booker Prize, and partly because of the so-called Booker Bounce it sold around 50,000 copies but the following two books sold almost nothing; nobody's read them, nobody gives a flying fuck."
If there is cold comfort it's that he is not alone: statistically almost nobody reads serious literature any more.
"The novel is finished as a form that is central to our culture and I think that everything that's going on abundantly bears that out," he tells me. "As we've seen from this year's Booker, hardly any of the nominees have sold anything. And what a surprise the winner is linked to current political concerns; the #MeToo movement. Beyond the fact that it's therefore already entering into a discussion that is cacophonous, will it be the vehicle discussion and deeper thinking about sexual harassment? I very much doubt it."
But what about the generation of Harry Potter and Twilight fans, who, we were breathlessly assured, would be a new and improved generation of voracious readers?
"Oh they're still there," he begins lugubriously, "but they're just still reading exactly that kind of shit. They never grew up. The kidult reading they began with turns out to have been their apprenticeship for a lifetime of being kidults."
In a sense Self was always going to be a little out of reach for the kidults. His esoteric fabulism (over the years he has written, variously, of a parallel Earth, populated by hypersexual and exhibitionist apes, a London full of senseless, chain-smoking dead people, and a man who wakes up one morning with a vagina behind his left knee) made him something of an acquired literary taste - Lynn Barber once accused him of writing to impress rather than writing for the reader - and, in fact, to the great British public he is probably better known as a television personality than as a novelist; he gives frequent and thought-provoking contributions to the likes of the BBC's Question Time and writes for The Guardian and other publications.
He concedes that there is a huge element of performance to his career. "I did stand-up before I started publishing and I've continued with a lot of performance. I came of age as a writer when there was a much greater emphasis on public readings and so I put a lot of my frustrations as a performer into performing my own work. I've calmed down now but for a while I did 40 or 50 readings a year."
He says its wrong to claim he writes primarily for himself, however.
"My ambition comes from loving books and I was quite a solitary and misfitting boy who felt an incredible connection to literature and felt it would be magical to do for others what had been done for me. It was quite serious, it wasn't just about making a splash, it was about being a really good writer. I couldn't have written 25 books unless I felt that way. I wouldn't deny I wanted to be known and that aspect of me certainly led me to other performances of one form or another. But that never really attracted from the brute seriousness of being in a room day after day, week after week, year after year, isolated with a keyboard."
He's currently writing a book about addiction and it's been a major theme in his life: even as a child he struggled with substance problems.
He was a "solitary and misfitting boy" who started smoking weed at 12, was a regular in Hampstead pubs by 14, and first injected heroin at 17.
He says this marked his first real period of addiction, which ended when he was 25 and went into residential rehab for the first time. "Even though I went back to using and drinking, and in some style, the first rehab did help in some ways. I never went back to needles and for the three years I was sober after rehab I did learn to discipline myself in certain key ways. I learned to work for instance, so I filed my copy. It didn't mean I wasn't chaotic in every other respect though."
He remembers being a "very erratic and excessive drink and drug user over about 20 years. I could never maintain an even keel. Coping with life while high and drunk didn't feel like purgatory, it felt like hell. It was all wild extravagance, heading down to the country to detox myself and feverishly write a book. Then charging off somewhere abroad and getting fucked up again".
Excess and ambition seemed to exist side-by-side in him. By the time he arrived on the literary scene in 1991 - he was selected as one of Granta's Best Young British Novelists before he'd even published a novel - he was back on drugs and drink full-time, and so he remained for most of the 1990s, during which time he was mostly married to Kate Chancellor. (They have two children - a son Alexis and a daughter Madeleine).
1997 was a tumultuous year for him; he divorced Chancellor, married Orr and, when she was four months pregnant, he was sacked by The Observer for taking heroin while on board then-prime minister John Major's aeroplane.
To more cynical observers, It all had a whiff of Hunter S Thompson-style mischief about it - something to burnish the mythology of Self - but he realised he had to try abstinence again.
"I got sober for the second time in 1999 and began attending meetings, but I do believe in Tradition 7 - anonymity - so I don't really want to talk about that. I don't know what I think about addiction now, but I don't really believe in the disease concept of addiction at all. I think there is some evidence of a genetic disposition that some people have and it takes on elements of a pathology when it becomes very bad. I'm sceptical of defined mental pathologies of any kind."
Self is 57 now, and his four children are adults. He says that his one regret is that his mother, who died in 1988, did not live to see them grow up.
"I wish that my mother had lived to see her grandchildren - she has four huge ones now. I can't really imagine a life without them. My eldest is now older than I was when I had him. I hope I still relate to them as well as I did when they were children. They're not quite as independent as they would like, which is just the way of things in our screwed-up demographically reversed world. I don't quite think of them being quite out of the nest - in their late twenties and early thirties there is a movement toward becoming completely autonomous and that presents a new relationship."
Self is a deft and droll contributor to discussion programmes, which possibly makes him the ideal foil for Steven Pinker who is giving the TS Eliot lecture at the Abbey tonight.
"He's a decent and brilliant man," he says of Pinker and his gospel of optimism, "but I think the sort of Panglossian drive he's been on with his last few books has been a bit wrong. There's a middle path between being an optimist and pessimist and it's to be a meliorist - that is to say, someone who believes that things might get better if people make a bit of an effort."
It's very Self to have an obscure word on hand that, it turns out, we did actually need after all. He has a quiet life these days, still marked by chronic workaholism and nihilism about his profession, but the excesses of the past are behind him.
"I have a joint when I feel like it and it doesn't seem to bother me, but I couldn't go back to drinking or other drugs," he explains.
"Alcohol is fucked up. You can do yourself such a great favour by giving it a swerve. To be frank I never really loved it that much. Socially it's a drag as everyone drinks. Although that, too, has gotten better. I'm often in Ireland so I know from experience that people drink less now. I'm looking forward very much to being back in Dublin."
Will Self will be in conversation with Steven Pinker as part of the 2018 TS Eliot Lecture at the Abbey Theatre tonight. The event is sold out.
Best writers with addiction demons
Hunter S Thompson
Thompson's name is synonymous with new journalism, in which the writers made themselves the subject of the story. He started early with the debauchery: by his early teens, he had already launched his life of drinking, vandalism, and pyromania that would turn him into a best-selling writer. At 18, he was jailed for robbery. In 1970, while covering the Kentucky Derby, Thompson went on a week-long bender and developed severe writer's block. He handed his scrawled notes to the copy boys his editors sent after him, and the result, The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved, was hailed as a landmark in journalism. The style was dubbed 'gonzo', for its wild, careening style. In 1971, Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas became a bestseller, as did his 1972 Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail, about the Nixon-McGovern presidential election. Thompson died in his seventies of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head.
William S Burroughs
Along with Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, Burroughs founded the Beat Generation, the 1950s movement that developed new ways of writing about sex, drugs and creativity, and paved the way for the counter-culture of the 1960s. Burroughs's best-known novel, Naked Lunch (1959), follows a heroin addict as he travels round the US, Mexico, Morocco and a fictional totalitarian state; it was controversial for its graphic depictions of drug use and gay sex. Like most of Burroughs's fiction, Naked Lunch is semi-autobiographical.
An insecure child, plagued by anxieties, King feared everything from falling down the toilet pipes to clowns and deformity. He developed a paranoia about death. As he grew older, he discovered that he was only able to deal with these horrors in his mind through writing about them. Unfortunately, alcohol and drugs would also become a part of his coping and entwined with his writing practice. He began taking drugs such as speed and LSD. About a month before his graduation, King was arrested after binge drinking at a nearby bar for stealing traffic cones. Such an arrest seems innocent; however, this was a warning of the more concerning behaviour to come. After finding success with Carrie, he waged a battle with cocaine and alcohol, which was only ended after the intervention of his wife and family.