Books | An interview with Will Self

Having recently released his new novel, Shark, the subject of his recent event at Ilkley Literature Festival, In The Middle grabbed an interview with the controversial author to find out what he had to say about sharks, Orwell and hipsterdom…

We’ll start by asking about your new book, Shark. As the title suggests, sharks reappear throughout your novel as a theme and an image. What drew you to this idea? What is its meaning for you?

As a child I was attacked by a shark while snorkelling in the Caribbean off the island of Antigua; it almost gently relieved me of the little toe of my left foot. It was a curiously liberating experience, for ever since then I’ve never been frightened of sharks, believing them to be creatures that only attack and kill humans who lack the necessary respect for them. (I concede, I’m probably wrong about this!)

You’ve said in the past that you don’t “write for readers”. Do you find this liberating as a writer? Do you worry that this means your audience may not get the message of Shark? Is there a message at the core of Shark?

There are ideas, but no ‘message’ if you mean something that could be written on a fortune telling card. I write for those people who are interested in reading what I write – and on the basis of this tautology I am never likely to be disappointed.

What’s it like returning to the same character, Dr Zack Busner, over twenty-five years?

It’s like he’s never gone away – and he hasn’t; but I think I’ll kill him off soon… Or maybe not.

Shark will form the middle chapter of a trilogy which includes your previous work, Umbrella. Can you give us any hints about the direction you’re going with the next book?

Well, such hints would only be of interest to those who had read the first two parts of the trilogy, and I suspect none – I repeat none – of your readers will have done this, so, no.

You’re now in the third decade of your career as a writer, what continues to drive you on?

Trying to express what I think and feel – and what I believe other people to think and feel as well.

How do you see literature remaining relevant as an art form in the future? I’ve read that you believe the time of the novel is coming to an end, do you stand by this?

I think the time of the serious novel is coming to an end – not the novel driven by suspense, sex or violence. New literary forms will indeed emerge, ones suited for bi-directional digital media. They will be interesting – and I’ll be interested to see them, but as some one educated and trained to write paper books they won’t be for me.

As a columnist and writer it’s fair to say you’ve courted your fair share of controversy. Do you revel in this? Is it a conscious decision to pursue this controversy? Or just a consequence of being sure of your own convictions?

My motto is, I just want to be understood. I also take seriously HL Menken’s contention that the role of journalism is ‘To comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable’. If I’ve ever courted controversy it is only in the cause of satisfying these two requirements.

You recently described Orwell as “literary mediocrity”. Do you think it’s your duty as a writer to take risks and avoid complacency? Do you feel it is literature’s duty to be challenging and complex?

I never described him as a ‘literary mediocrity’, I said that the way he was worshiped by a certain kind of, specifically English person, put me in mind of GK Chesterton’s dictum that ‘The English love a talented mediocrity’. It isn’t that Orwell overall is mediocre – far from it – it’s that the apparent clarity of his prose gives succour to those who don’t wish to assimilate difficult or different writing.

Given your recent comments about our generation’s obsession with “hipsterdom”, have you ever considered that you may not be able to keep pace with the changing face of modern culture? Is that an issue a writer ever needs to worry about?

Well, I have no intention of keeping pace with the changing face of modern culture – why should I? I’m 53, I can reasonably hope to be dead within 25 years, and the culture I have already will certainly suffice to last me out my days…


Interview by Jessica Murray.

Image property of The Guardian

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