At home with grumpy old Will Self

Keiron PimHe's known to many for his outlandish satirical books, and also for his rather grumpy persona. We met up with Will Self ahead of his forthcoming appearance in Norwich.Keiron Pim

He's known to many for his outlandish satirical books, and also for his rather grumpy persona. We met up with Will Self ahead of his forthcoming appearance in Norwich.

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Tucked away at the top of a tall terrace in south London, Will Self's study is a strange little bolt-hole that yields more curiosities the longer you look around.

A jumbled collection of tobacco pipes rest on the mantelpiece, and on the wall above dozens of small yellow Post-It notes detail ideas and characters for forthcoming books. The window overlooks Stockwell's grey high-rises and rooftops, and a pull-down blind is decorated with a map of London.

A 400,000-year-old flint axe lies on the wooden desk, amid an organised clutter combining papers, a typewriter, a small laptop computer and, more surprisingly, a small Calor gas burner.

The last object's purpose revealed itself when, after a couple of minutes' absence, Self came loping back up to the top of the house bearing a mug, a teabag and a plastic bottle of water, from which he proceeded to fill a little metal kettle and boil a cup of tea. A touch eccentric, perhaps, but then that is Will Self, an author who has become known for his persona by countless people who haven't read his books.

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Thanks in part to curmudgeonly, stone-faced appearances on television programmes such as Shooting Stars and Grumpy Old Men, Self has acquired something approaching celebrity status. This is something that in itself makes him grumpy. What's the appeal of the television work, then?

'Small,' he says with a vehement laugh. 'I think it has probably been a double-edged thing for me. I've perhaps always been more conscious than most writers that the persona is the salesman for the work, and the work, let's face it, with a book like Liver, is quite hard to place. If it were written by an unknown writer it would be quite hard to find a readership for it. I've always viewed things like television from the get-go as being a vehicle for getting a readership to my books.

'I tell you what really put a stop to it - I hate being recognised in the street. I really don't like it. I don't like the intrusiveness of it - the sort of thing that when you're unknown you think you will like - and I rather regret it.

'It's very precisely calibrated. It never ceases to amaze me. I can wander round the streets unrecognised for quite a period of time and then I'll have a day when I get 'Oi, aren't you that bloke off the telly?', which is particularly annoying, and it will be because some channel has, without your knowledge, had something on a re-run. It's so precise. If you don't do it, it won't happen; it will die out.'

So no more populist television, it would appear, and an increased emphasis on being known for his books, such as the aforementioned Liver: a Fictional Organ with a Surface Anatomy of Four Lobes. As hinted at by its subtitle, it is a collection of four stories, each featuring a character with damage to one of the liver's lobes. The opening tale, Foie Humain, is a wondrously dark affair set in Soho, concerning a set of varyingly pickled old soaks who inhabit a club called the Plantation Club. Central to the story is the landlord. 'Ah! Val Carmichael's nose,' Self writes, '- a treatise could have been written on it; indeed it looked as if an unseen hand had begun to do exactly that - poking with a steely nib at its sub-surface blood vessels and pricking them into the raised purplish calligraphy of spider angioma, a definitive statement that the Plantation Club's owner was already in the early stages of cirrhosis.'

The relevance of the story's title becomes appallingly clear towards the end. In this story, as so often, Self seems to relish exploring what many people would consider humanity's less appealing traits, to glory in the ugly and decrepit, and to leap from recognisable departure points into unashamedly implausible flights of fantasy. Coupled to this in terms of making his work off-putting to some people is his fondness for arcane words. With regard to the first point, 'it's a kind of corrective to the kind of silicon-injected airbrushed physical descriptions which even dominate literary fiction,' he says.

'I'm a Joycean; I think that one of the great victories of modernism, which had been done by the pre-moderns and then was abandoned by the Victorian period, was to get the visceral firmly back on the fictive agenda. And then there's oddly enough been a kind of retreat from it again,' he argues, citing Ian McEwan's On Chesil Beach as a recent example of an acclaimed novel that, to Self, had an oddly fey attitude towards the body.

'The way I write is only a correction, perhaps an over-correction, to the prevailing view. All that's going on is life and death. That's all there is to write about.

'I don't think there's anything there to defend. I pick up the average literary novel and see the way it deals with the body and I don't recognise a world I know.'

A common criticism is that he employs language that, far from embodying George Orwell's famous assertion that 'good prose is like a window pane', instead serves to put a bar between Self and the reader.

'I think it's horses for courses,' he says, arguing that Martin Amis uses obscure language 'way more than I do. He really does. But he never got pitched up that way… I'm always that wordy bastard and Martin's the great high stylist.

'I'm not complaining about it but I think there's a limited number of pigeonholes and writers get put in one or another and once you're put in the pigeonhole it kind of sticks. You take something like The Butt. I don't think that's got any particularly tricky language in it. Quite a lot of the fiction doesn't at all.'

The Butt is his most recent novel; his sixth, with notable predecessors including Great Apes, The Book of Dave and How the Dead Live. He is right to imply that overall it is not an off-putting, overly complicated read. The premise is clever: Tom Brodzinski is on holiday with his family when he flicks a cigarette butt from a balcony and it lands on the elderly man below, burning his head. This man, Reggie Lincoln III, is a white American (though like all characters in the book, his nationality is not made explicit) who is married to a far younger woman indigenous to this unidentified country, which is loosely based on Australia. As a result aboriginal law takes precedence. The woman's tribe, the Tayswengo, do not believe in accidents. All individuals are responsible for the results of their actions. So when Tom's 'victim' lapses into a coma after the burn gets infected, it the possibility emerges of Tom being charged with murder. Once it has been ascertained that the flicked butt's parabola intersected a 'no smoking' zone, his situation only worsens. Tom has to make reparations to his victim's wife's tribe, which necessitates a long road trip deep into aboriginal territory.

If it sounds bizarre and a touch confusing then that's because it is, but it's also a sharp critique of the Western imperialist mindset. Its depiction of Westerners way out of their depth in a land they don't understand skewers Messrs Blair and Bush's Iraqi adventure very amusingly. What it isn't is a novel featuring a single likeable character; rather Self offers a parade of grotesques: the bumptious American Tom, the lily-livered paedophilic Englishman Brian Prentice, the sinister anthropologist Von Sasser. Perhaps the realm of satire allows a writer more leeway in terms of providing characters with whom the reader can empathise - no one would criticise Self's old friend Ralph Steadman for not drawing a few friendly faces amid his ink-splattered lampoons of politicians. But it is a criticism that Self has levelled at himself in the past. (While he's a scabrous critic of other people, one of the disarming things about him is his equal capacity for self-criticism.) In a broadcast conversation with Amis he once said: 'It's true I'm not really interested in character at all.'

Does this still hold true a few years on? 'I think I've probably changed a bit,' he reckons. 'The second piece in Liver, which is novella length, is an exercise in character very much. It's not so much that I don't see character as interesting in fiction or that I don't try to make my characters credible in some ways. I think there's a kind of obsession with deep psychology in the novel that I personally find quite incredible. Just as I do in life. You can take any character and say 'they did this and that and they had to do that because they had an abusive childhood'. You could just as easily say, 'no, they didn't do that'.

'The reader always has the benefit of hindsight and it's very easy to make psychological causation appear obvious but it's not obvious why people do the things they do.'

I'm reminded of Martin Amis's scathing review of Thomas Harris' novel Hannibal, in which Harris attempted to explore his fictional serial killer Hannibal Lecter's psychological motivations: 'That will cut you some slack, won't it, having your little sister eaten by Nazis?' Self agrees: 'It was never credible to have a psychopath who was an aesthete, but it became absolutely incredible when Harris tried more and more to ground him in a perceptible reality and you're absolutely right, that was the point where it fell apart, where he tried to give a self-exculpatory back-story.'

The hypocrisies and inconsistencies of western society are Self's target rather than individual psychology, and this underpins his thinking in The Butt.

'It's overstating the case to say it's simply an allegory of the Iraq war but that was a way of trying to present it and gain some attention for it,' he says. 'I saw it more as a way to look at how the way in which European society, in the colonialising process, viewed the indigenous 'other' still informs things like the Iraq war. So it was more that that I was interested in describing and getting to grips with rather than the straightforward allegory of the Iraq war. Because quite clearly what's going on in The Butt is not like in any sense what's happening in Iraq. It was much more about that and of course the most significant thing for me is that, and this is what was meant to expose that continuity in our other-ing process of indigenous people, was that you know no more about the indigenous people at the end of the book than you did at the beginning. You know nothing about that at all.'

His wealth of learning is impressive - among other things it emerges he's well read on the history of mountaineering ('I've read a lot about mountaineering, mostly in East Anglia,' he says dryly. 'I like to read about people in vertiginous situations while I'm lying in a hammock in East Anglia.')

And in truth Self's reputation predated his television work. For years he was known as a writer who took drugs, something that culminated in his sacking by The Observer after he was caught taking heroin on John Major's plane during the 1997 general election campaign. It was at that point that he decamped to East Anglia for a spell, 'living in a place called Knodishall, near Leiston, at the back of Sizewell. So not that kind of uber-bourgeois section that goes up to Walberswick and Southwold. I ended up there because my first marriage had broken up and I wanted to get out of town, away from the flesh-pots for a while. I think you sort of cleave to places you knew as a child and I went there a lot as a child. I was writing Great Apes.'

Nowadays his only vices are caffeine and nicotine. While we spoke he sat smoking a roll-up through a cigarette holder. As mentioned The Butt has some fun with the absurd possible consequences of strictly monitored smoking exclusion zones. Is he an unrepentant smoker in the face of a world increasingly intolerant of tobacco?

'I don't know if you've heard,' he says slowly, the hint of a grin forming on his lugubrious face, 'but it gives you cancer.'

That's a no, then. With that our hour is up - he has to pick his children up from school. Self is 48 and has four children, two of them with his second wife, the journalist Deborah Orr. Apropos of this I mention my five-month-old daughter, which prompts him to exclaim: 'Ah! I love babies,' adding a little wistfully, 'All my babies are grown up now.'

Not entirely the intimidating character his reputation suggests, then, though this always was a bit of a caricature, albeit one that we've seen he has perpetuated as a marketing exercise. But Will Self is still an acid-tongued, iconoclastic presence with the ability to lacerate our leaders and pinpoint our inconsistencies, often raising a bitter laugh in the process, and for this we should be more than thankful.

t Will Self will be discussing his recent work at the UEA Spring Literary Festival on May 4. Tickets are �6. Call the box office on 01603 508050.

t The Butt is published in paperback by Bloomsbury in May, and Liver will be in paperback in June, both priced �7.99.