Tea, Will Self and Irony: Interview with the award-winning writer

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PHOTO// walnut whippet

Tea? Earl Grey, please; one sugar – and a li’l bit of skimmed milk, please. PLEASE ENTER PIN, Self thumbs in digits – will he make the 21:01? We should have walked faster, PLEASE REMOV–. Tea is the least I can do, really; is there anywhere actually open at this – Is that, eeerrm, Will, er, Self? Lying is tempting, but I’m putting all my effort into buying tea right now, so can’t think of anything clever: Yes, I’m interviewing him. He’s…You’re meant to be famous…

Wha’ do you mean by tha’? Why the fuck did you say that Sean? I mean, erm…Bugger, jus– oh! tell him about…one of the till-girls earlier, erm, bragged to a customer about how famous you are. 12 seconds in – having already fucked up the handshake – I spew a tactless one-liner, inviting Newsnight-esque ire. I wish I were epiphenomenal. At a table, in a Costa-in-a-Waterstone’s, Self and I. 2nd floor: English Literature, Education etc. I’ve got only a few minutes before his Q&A downstairs. Better say something non-stupid. I read your book. Okay…did you like it? Yeah, I enjoyed it. Not. Stupid. I found it, erm, stimulating. Well, we’ll settle for tha’! I should ask him something sensible, but…I wonder what he’ll think of my interpretation of his new novel ‘Umbrella’, a 400-page Joycean – Rogettian – stab at ‘taking up the challenge of Modernism’ – in which paragraphs metastasise and narratives unfurl, while Self seamlessly hops around, both temporally and spatially, mid-sentence; a stream-of-consciousness overflowing with allusions and introspective digressions. English Literature, Education etc. Self mercifully slides on his kid gloves: Texts are interesting things, y’know: they superrrvene their creators. You’ve got your, erm, way of understanding the text…I’m comfortable with tha’.

This chair’s hardly comfortableI wonder if my questions sound as stupid as these people’s? 1st floor: Politics, Horror etc.– Shortlisted for the Booker Prize, ‘Umbrella’ draws intriguing connections between mental health and technology – though I don’t reeeally care if I win, or perhaps I’m jus’ bracing myself for defeat. Next question……yersss; Do you love your younger children more than your older children?…You wha’? The joy of third-person ire. I should think up some questions for our walk to the station – mine definitely sounded as stupid as these.

You’re meant to be – fame? It’s vulgar…It’s like ‘aving a big flashy car. And I’m the motorcade, shuffling down George Street – pathetically holding a phone-cum-voice-recorder at (my) chest height – and writing? In the first ‘alf of a writer’s career, y’know, ‘e’s saying ‘Hiii’! In the second half, ‘e’s saying ‘Byeee’! I’m definitely saying ‘bye’…The hard thing abou’ writing, if I’m frank, is tha’ it’s an isolating occupation. Many, many yeeears of writing have isolated me. I always ask young writers: are you ready for twenty-t’-thir’y years of isolated existence?

Probably…probably should…ask you some, erm, proper literary questions, I guess. Should I be walking faster? What time did he say his train was? Your writing touches on time and space as modalities of human existence…Yesss, I’m a transcendental idealist. Always ‘ave been…I’m a believer in full temporal simultaneity. You’re meant to be famous. Space and time are social constructs. That’s why we feel so odd; that’s where a lot of the religious impulse comes from. Intellectually, emotionally – spiritually – we perceive that space-time is a construct, but we are bound by it. But, of course, you can’t rationally convey this. You just sound a bit dotty, don’t you?

Was that-. I thin-. Yeah: I’ve been given the thumbs-up: Professor Self can chat for a few minutes before his Q&A. Impelled upwards by the encircling jealous scowls, I scale – 1st floor; 2nd floor – the stairway, I thought he’d be taller. Should I shake – no: he’s talking to someone. Turning: Hi there, I’m sorry: remind me ovvv your name?…I’m Sean – It’s Will, right? I preferred 1st floor scowls. Say something else, quick: You’re meant to be — very boowlshy – and angry – as a young man. I did actually work quite ‘ard here, though. I remember: the 21:01, should just about make it. I read a lot, and I wrote all my essays. If I wasn’ on drugs, I might ‘ave actually got a decen’ degree, and…

A smacked. Buttock. Politics etc. ‘e becomes a lot more bearrrable, David Cameron, when you reealise tha’ ‘e looks like a smacked. Buttock. Are these chairs designed for humans? I had a dream about ‘im last week, in fact. I was in a train carriage; ‘e runs in – looking eeeven MORE like a smacked buttock than usual: like ‘e’d jus’ spent two hours with a dominahhhtrix. ‘e asked if ‘e could hide under my coat – I’m ashamed t’say that I did hide ‘im under my coat. But whooo was I hiding ‘im from? Me?! I know where ‘e is! Anyway, enough of tha’. Let’s ‘ave some questions…yersss, lady ova’ therrre; Your writing on mental health is, er, voyeuristic. Well, I’m sorry you feel tha’ way, I –. I don’t want you to apologise. This is awkward. Wha’ do you want me to do then – offer my ’pinion? No, I was just saying. OK, then – I won’t offer my ‘pinion. Next…yerss;– The now-defunct motorcade chirps: Well, I’d like to hear your opinion: voyeuristic? I completely reject what tha’ lady said: ‘voyeuristic’ suggests tha’ you take pleasure, and tha’s just not true. London Paddington–21:01–Platform 1: I need to get a tick’it, quick. Should I get him a tea, or

A big flashy car. Fame is a vulgarity. Y’know, I use’ to say to myself tha’ my persona was just to get people to read ‘ard books, but – I think tha’s just special pleading. Walk faster Sean. But, hey – it’ll all be over soon anyway…Your writing career, or your life?- My life! Ovvv course. Is he laughing at or with me? You’v gotta look at the upside – At – and, y’know, I quite like Duchamp’s epitaph: It’s only the others who die.

Horror etc. Why am I nervous? He’s only human. Just don’t make any stupid jokes. If I’m stuck for a question, I’ll tell him the till-girl semi-anecdote. Was that-. I thin-. Yeah: I’ve been given the thumbs-up. He is quite a famous human...Say. Nothing. Stupid.

Sean Scoltock