IF you type the name of novelist, satirist and journalist Will Self into an internet search engine, apart from sites dedicated to the man himself you will find several references to the phrase: “will self destruct”.
(That’s as in the cheesy spy-thriller dialogue: “this message will self-destruct in ten seconds”).
It is a spooky result to be thrown up randomly when you consider Self’s years spent addicted to drink and drug-fuelled oblivion.
He is, after all, the writer who was sacked from The Observer for lying to his editor about taking heroin on John Major’s campaign bus during the 1997 general election.
And in past interviews he has talked about the times in his life when he was disposing of a bottle of Scotch a day.
So having stumbled across “will self destruct” I knew there was very little chance I would be able to resist sharing this bit of trivia with him during our telephone conversation in advance of his visit to Northampton University.
Self is the latest attraction in the university’s Novelists In Northampton series of talks and probably the best known.
He is a scarily clever bad boy, who has deployed merciless wit as a panelist on Have I Got News For You, Vic Reeves’s Shooting Stars and Grumpy Old Men.
When the time came to reveal my search engine discovery, there was a brief pause, during which I could hear the soft lip-smack and hiss of him drawing and exhaling on a cigarette.
“Hmmm, yes, I guess the joke is wearing a bit thin now . . .”
He went on to explain, wearily but politely and in precise grammatical terms, how this is neither random nor spooky but a straightforward by-product of having names that can mean two things.
In other circumstances, I might have been offended by such a curt and well-aimed smack round the metaphorical chops. I was only making small-talk, after all.
But this is what Self does. He stalks through public life, picking off the feeble jokes, the flabby ideas and the weak excuses.
He slips so effortlessly into the role of conversational assassin that there isn’t time for your hackles to rise.
There is a sense he cannot help himself, like a predator reacting to the scent of fresh blood.
And, if he sets high standards for the world around him, he applies the same critical judgement to his own work too.
His new novel, The Book of Dave, is out in a few weeks.
“It’s about a demented London taxi-driver who has a breakdown and writes a rant against the contemporary world.
“Hundreds of years pass and a future society discovers it and adopts it as a religious text,” Self explains, as though this kind of thing happens all the time.
It’s taken a couple of years to complete. I ask if he is happy with it.
“I am never really pleased with anything,” he muses, adding in a voice that trails off distractedly, “You hope people enjoy it and find it meaningful . . .”
Self’s back catalogue of short stories and novels suggest a writer who will never be content to “bosh” out material to a commercial formula.
In How The Dead Live, he suggests that nonreligious people, having no afterlife to keep them occupied after death, simply move to another part of London and continue griping about their relatives.
In Great Apes, a man wakes up and discovers everyone else has transformed into apes who communicate by sign language.
For more than a decade, Self has produced fiction on an almost annual basis, exploring the lives we lead through a lens of “alternative worlds, parallel realities” but is not in the least bit troubled that his work has not been adapted for television or the big screen.
“If you write with that in mind, then you are not really writing in the medium. You are not producing a novel, you are producing a movie pitch. I do not know any serious fiction writers that do that,” he says.
Self also has issues with the idea of having a plot.
“I am not a great maker of plots. I like building the railway carriages, but not the rails. I think plots can be over-contrived. They provide rationale, but it’s not realistic.
“Why should a novel have a plot? My life doesn’t have a plot.”
Although his earliest ambition was to be a novelist, Self judges that he has probably produced as many words of journalism as he has of fiction.
He reels off the various assignments he has found himself involved in over the years, from court cases to political coverage, and there is a definite sense of pride in his claim that: “I have never seen myself as a real journalist, but I have pretty much done it all”.
Editors clearly enjoy launching Self at news events like an esoteric hubris-seeking missile and, in return, Self gets a hearty dose of the real world: a place he is careful not to lose touch with, despite the cloistered nature of a writer’s life.
He is married to Independent columnist Deborah Orr and has two children by her and two from his first marriage.
Domesticity, far from cramping Self’s style as an enfant terrible, has provided another important access point to reality.
I put it to him that life as a contented family man seems at odds with the satirist’s obligation to have a ready supply of bile running in his veins.
“I didn’t start writing seriously until I had children. I’ve got a couple of outlets into the world beyond the walls of my study,” he explains.
Self’s television work, although he refuses most offers, has given him enough of a public profile to make it difficult to blend into the background on the high street.
He admits that the idea of writing and presenting documentaries in the style of Nick Broomfield or Michael Moore has some appeal, but sees such a task as a “separate job in itself” and is not prepared to front-up less rigorous television productions simply to get his face on the screen.
His desire for anonymity is not shyness – as a teenager Self was interested in theatre and stand-up comedy – but being well known hinders his search for authentic voices to transplant into the mouths of his characters.
“It makes it hard to hang out in cafes and just listen to people talk. To write fiction seriously it is a good thing to be like everyone else.”
Self strikes you as a person with a compulsion to engage with what is genuine and at different stages in his life he has gone to different extremes to find it.
In his mid-forties and showing an admirable lack of inclination to self-destruct, his search is literally more pedestrian now than in his wilder days.
“I am quite a solitary person, apart from my family life. I am a walker. I like hill-walking. I like to go out the front door and just walk in a straight line.
“People get in their cars, people live in a world of human geography, I like to see what’s beyond it.”
This interview first appeared in the Northampton Chronicle & Echo in February, 2006