Following his appearance at this year’s inaugural Rhys Davies Short Story conference, John Lavin and Chris Cornwell of Wales Arts Review caught up with acclaimed novelist, short story writer and political commentator, Will Self, to discuss both the short story and his writing in general.
You have spoken in the past about your ‘love’ of writing short stories. What is it you admire about the form?
Will Self: Well, concision mostly, – was it Chateaubriand who said, ‘Even with the best of the novels there’s a lot to put up with?’ At any rate, with the ideal short story – and even simply good ones – there’s very little, by definition, to put up with. Novels, if they are to be effective – in my view – are homologues of worlds (this one or others), short stories, by contrast, are synecdochical, offering either part-for-whole or whole-for-part (and on rare occasions – Borges springs to mind – both). There’s an intensity to this kind of fictive work that you see in all the masters of the form.
Could you speak a little bit about what it is you set out to achieve when you write a short story?
Well, I feel a bit of a fraud – I haven’t actually sat down to write a short story for over three years now; I’m sure I will return to the form, but probably not for a while. But to answer your question retrospectively, I can’t say that I’ve ever thought about achieving anything in particular when I’ve begun a story, except to articulate the idea/mood/situation that lies at its core most appositely.
How often do you write? Do you have a particular daily routine?
I like to write first drafts as early as possible in the morning – immediately on waking if possible, when dream and reality are still interfused. I write on a manual typewriter, I shifted to this in 2004 when broadband became ubiquitous – I realized it was a fatal distraction if you were working on a computer; I don’t switch a computer or any other internet-enabled device until the day’s word count is done. Nowadays I manage about 900 words of first draft; I tend to write every day if I can – including weekends. Back in the day I could do more. When I’m two-thirds of the way through a novel I begin rewriting the beginning while I’m still writing the end – I find this helps with coherence at all levels. Obviously this doesn’t apply to short-form fictions.
Are they any writers, or indeed artists in other fields, who have particularly influenced your work?
Borges – as above – Katherine Mansfield, Joyce, Chekov, Kafka, Saki, Dahl, O Henry, Poe, Ballard, Bierce…
Do you generally have a fully formed idea of the story you want to write before you write it, or is it more of an ongoing process during the writing?
Well, I usually have a more fully-formed idea than I would for a novel in this sense: I usually have an ending, but beyond that a lot of the furniture of a story can be quite inchoate, even if I know what I want to say and where it’s all leading.
Turgenev claimed to start from the character and never the idea. Is this true of you?
No, rather the reverse – I used to start with no characters at all, and it probably showed. I do spend a little more time in them now, but I still find the way character is presented in most fiction so hopelessly bogus, and so worry about it infecting the beings that populate my tales, that I try and creep up on them in the process of writing them into existence.
In many of your works there appears to be a deliberate emphasis on destabilising the constructs of sanity, reality, situation and identity. What would you say is the relationship, or difference, between absurdity in fiction and insanity?
Well, the absurd – either in fiction or in life – is by no means always the same things as the insane; the two overlap but are not coextensive. Absurdity is fiction is useful for conveying the ways in which sanity is coextensive with certain arbitrary social and cultural mores, and I suppose I do like to use it as tool to make this explicit. Absurdity – like the constructs of the psychotic – can have a remorseless logic about it, but then that’s also true of the world-views of the ‘sane’ and the ‘rational’. Doris Lessing once said that in my work absurdity unfolded logically from absurdity – but that this was the mirror image of our world; and I suppose this nailed what I’ve been trying to do as well as anything has.
Is your world the world found through language or is your writing an on-going meditation on language found through the construction of contingent realities?
Well, I certainly find language confining – and as I write more and grow older almost cosmically irksome in its strictures. But I hope I haven’t fallen into the Beckettian trap… yet (and of course, Beckett has the stage to make good the unameable, the unsayable and all those other semantic lacunae…); by which I mean to say that neither of these are the case: the world largely exists independent of language – albeit in a numinous fashion – and it’s the job of the writer to try and make this noumenon cohere with the phenomenon, to go looking for the world in language would be quite fruitless. Less fruitless, but surely too philosophically top-heavy, would be to write prose fiction of any sort that was about language qua language… Top-heavy, and even toppling over into that pit of solecism in which reside novels about… novels, and indeed short stories about… short stories.
Many of your characters exist within death, that is to say they often seem to co-exist spatially with the point or cause or fallout of their own death: the creeping state of addiction-toward-death shared by the regulars of the Plantation club found in ‘Foire Humane’ from Liver for example or the residents of Crouch End in the North London Book of the Dead. The plots of these stories are disclosing what is occurred. Would you consider your own work to be led by a spatial rather than temporal sense of existence or form?
Well, we’re in an Einsteinian not a Newtonian world, aren’t we? Robert Oppenheimer once posed the question (rhetorically), why was it that the General Theory hadn’t had as much popular impact as the Three Laws of Motion – especially considering the intensity of its technological applications. He concluded that it was because the mathematics – and the metaphysics – of E = MC2 were quite impenetrable to the layperson. But I think this is bollocks: from Ulysses through Cubism to Alain Renais and Andrei Tarkovski, the great art of the 20th century has been absolutely typified by its attempt to render meaning aesthetically in the unified field of space/time – and this isn’t merely arty-farty doodling, people response to these works because they too feel themselves to be living in an era of full temporal simultaneity.
How comfortable are you with the notion of translation of your own work? Your books have been translated into over 20 languages, do you think this reformation – if indeed reformation is the right word – of your work by third parties is in anyway damaging (particularly considering the intricate polychromatic palette of patois, slang and vernacular your novels are composed of, as well as your attention to etymological revelation and play)?
Well… it’s rewriting isn’t it – even translating quite basic material; when it comes to work like mine, which is overloaded with social and cultural specifics the rewriting becomes that much more profound… I’m aware that some translations of my work are held to be good – others woeful, but that’s the way it goes… and I’m not sure I’d want it any other way given that my credo in English and all other languages – is that I just want to be misunderstood.
Will Self is the author of nine novels, five collections of shorter fiction, three novellas and five collections of non-fiction writing. His work has been translated into 22 languages, and his novel Umbrella was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize
Illustration by Dean Lewis