Habit forming

June 24 2000 / The Times

What is it like being Will Self? What is it like being one of the most talked about, but least understood, writers of your generation? What is it like being sacked from your job as a feature writer for snorting heroin on John Major’s plane, as Self was while reporting on the 1997 general election for The Observer? What is it like turning yourself into an exhibit at an art gallery, as Self recently did in London?

So go on, Will, I say, sitting opposite the writer as he reclines on a sofa in the front room of his tall, terraced house in Stockwell, South London, tell us what it’s like being you? What’s it like being Will Self?

The question seems to take him by surprise. His eyes, I think, water a little. Moments earlier he had been laughing, jokily discussing the tone of invective and splendidly sustained rage in How the Dead Live, his third and best novel. But now, fleetingly, he seems lost for words. Which, in itself, seems unbelievable, since Self is a great talker, perhaps the best talker in town; a fluent, tyrannical, engaging monologist, a dictionary-swallower and gift-of-the-gab merchant.

Then Self looks up, draws on his roll-up cigarette and repeats my question in a deep, deliberate drawl. “What is it like being me? Well, because of my drug and alcohol addiction, it’s not been easy. People wonder at the incredible darkness in the work but it’s all there in the life, which has been often painful, desolating, unpleasant. I was a heroin addict in my late teens, I went into rehab in the mid-Eighties and then went back on drugs.

“For the past ten years, it’s been a case of off then on, off then on, with my being completely cross-addicted to heroin, cocaine and alcohol. During this time, I would go away to the country or to Scotland, write frantically and then fall apart on my return. I knew there was a way to live outside addiction, but I wasn’t prepared to make the necessary changes.”

Self has been clear of everything now for eight months. “If I hadn’t given up this time, it was going to do for me; if not physically, then psychologically.”

He looks better for being on the wagon. He is tanned and healthy, although with his present crop-short haircut he resembles, from certain angles, a curious cross between Derek Jarman and Bela Lugosi. Long-time friends have spoken of his violent mood swings and unpredictable temper, but today he is benign, good company.

Reflecting on that episode on board the former Prime Minister’s jet, which fleetingly turned him into a notorious star of the tabloid world, he blames his folly and “unbelievable arrogance” on pathological addiction.

“What happened was pure illness,” he says. “I was an inveterate pot smoker and the only thing I was worried about that day was not standing downwind from Special Branch, so as to avoid being busted. I never gave the smack a moment’s thought: like a hideous old jazz musician, I had a habit.

“It was a working drug. I’d had a hit before leaving the house that morning, and I realised I still had some heroin on me when I got on the plane. I went to the loo and snorted it up - to get rid of it. I never thought I’d get rumbled, because I was working and, to my mind, wasn’t showing any signs of intoxication.”

He is still angry at the way he perceives he was treated by Alan Rusbridger, his executive editor at the time, and Rosie Boycott, then editor of the Independent on Sunday, who ran a wounding front-page story about Self.

“Rusbridger behaved like a complete jerk,” says Self. “He really dumped me in it. He neither sought to understand that what was at work here was evidence of a pathology, nor that The Observer had been profiting from that pathology. As for Boycott, she stitched me up in a news story, when she should have known better as a recovering alcoholic herself. The whole episode was awful. My wife Deborah was four months pregnant, we had paparazzi outside the house.”

Although he doesn’t say so, one suspects that much of his present equanimity arises from satisfaction that he has written a novel that, at last, does something like justice to his big, erratic talent, to his singularly skewed world view.

How the Dead Live is that unusual thing in British fiction: a work of sustained and invigorating nihilism, hysterically imagined and taking place in a kind of purgatory between living and dying. It is a first-person account of a 65-year-old Jewish-American called Lily Bloom and her long, painful death from cancer and her journey through a kind of inferno of the imagination to a curious rebirth as one of her junkie daughter’s own children.

Lily Bloom is based on Self’s own Jewish-American mother, who died of breast cancer and spent much of her life in a kind of perpetual rage. “She was, in her own way, a frustrated writer,” he says. “She very much wanted to write but was one of those people who felt crushed by the weight of the canon, which she reread obsessively.”

Her death, he feels, “freed him to write” because she had transmitted much of her anxiety about the great literary dead to her son.

Have drugs made Self the strange and difficult writer that he is? He doesn’t think so. “Only a fool would think that an addictive illness gives you a special insight; the truth of the matter is that it’s an awful existence.”

Self speaks as he writes, in a torrential flow of half-remembered quotation, baroque opinion, parenthetical interruption and street-smart patter. His new novel is all voice, Lily’s voice, which is often a Selfian voice: amused, wised-up, hectoring, enraged.

There is real darkness in How the Dead Live; real rage, particularly when Lily wanders through the dead zone of “Dulston”, meeting old friends and an assortment of bizarre zombies. At times you tire of the unrelenting ferocity of Lily’s self-hatred - her rage against the world, family, gender, Jewishness (Self, whose father was a Gentile, describes himself as being a “deracinated Jew”) - but you cannot help but admire her indomitable will; her, well, her Selfishness. He is, after all, his mother’s son.

What will Self do next? He is weary of his public notoriety and claims to be both showman and introvert, attention-seeker and disciplined loner. “There’s something really schiz about it all, as if I were two people,” he says. He certainly has a manic work ethic, and it is his desire to write and create that has sustained him through the wretched years of self-abuse and broken friendships.

He is happily married for the second time; to the journalist Deborah Orr, with whom he has one son. He has two other children from an earlier marriage. Have they suffered as a result of his excesses? “My eldest son, who’s ten, has been protected by the fact that his mother and I have been separated since he was two. But I have had care and control of him during that period, and yes, he’s been undoubtedly damaged by being around it more than he should. If I stay sober, I hope I can warn him that more than likely he will have a strong predisposition to that kind of thing himself.”

Self plans to scale down the journalism to concentrate on writing another “big, ambitious book”. Fiction, he says grandly, remains his “calling”. Ideas come to him in the form of stories and novels. “Writing fiction is the only thing I’ve ever really wanted to do,” he says, finishing his cup of tea.

You leave him, a shadowy giant at the door, hoping that he will indeed remain sober, remain committed to the writing life. It would be a much duller country without him.