Interview: Will Self, author of Umbrella

Will Self seems anguished by the fact that his new writing is not going to be easy (Getty)
Will Self seems anguished by the fact that his new writing is not going to be easy (Getty)
Have your say

WILL Self has some regrets about his new novel, which does not follow the conventional narrative form, set as it is in the continuous present, like life, but he is sure it’s not enough to keep on telling stories the old way, discovers David Robinson

Look, says Will Self, trying to explain why his latest novel rips through the conventions of narrative fiction, here’s the thing. We don’t think in metaphors. No-one is telling our story, there is no impersonal narrator of our lives. And if anyone here has had their lives changed by some astonishing coincidence of the kind that you might expect to find in a conventional novel, come and see me afterwards.

Will Self author at the Edinburgh International Book Festival 2011

Will Self author at the Edinburgh International Book Festival 2011

It’s nearly half past ten on Saturday night, and I’ve had 12 hours of stories in Charlotte Square. Twelve hours of stories on the best day for stories in the planet’s best place for stories.

And Self is on fire. I’ve seen him before, commanding a crowd with an eloquent sneer, dripping satire on some poor unfortunate without the remotest ability to measure up to his monumental sardonic grandiloquence.

But this is different. He’s explaining why he can’t write any more in the old ways of narrative fiction, and he sounds almost anguished: he really wishes he could, it would be a lot easier for him if he could, he’d be a heap more successful, maybe even happier if he could, but it just grates on him too much. So in Umbrella he’s writing in the continuous present, the way we all think, and he’s switching between his characters’ consciousnesses, between whole decades in the middle of a sentence because – well, because why not? Our lives aren’t subject to narrative form, so why not take the lid off completely?

So Audrey Death, feminist, munitions worker at Woolwich Arsenal, struck down by encephalitis lethargica, is thinking her thoughts, and before you know it you are inside the mind of psychiatrist Zack Busner, who is trying to spark her mind into life again (shades of Oliver Sacks’s Awakenings, dutifully acknowledged), with little more than the ephemera of their minds – a snatch of a music hall act, a little twist of a Dylan lyric – to tell you where you are, though all of this isn’t just the story of two different minds but, with almost impossible ambition, nothing less than an attempt to drag modernism into the 21st century.

Because it’s not enough, says Self, to keep on telling stories in the ways we do. For one thing, there’s a feedback loop – people who write novels start thinking like people who read novels – and for another, life just isn’t like that. We each watch TV an average of 2.5 hours a day, but when did you ever read a novel that reflects that? And Self being Self, he went off on a hilarious riff about a woman eating biscuits and watching Newsnight and staying watching as it switched to snooker from the Crucible in Sheffield, wondering idly whether it was a real place because nobody she knew had ever been there. Maybe you should have been there.

So what other new and different ways with stories did we have in those 12 hours on the best day and the best place?

Well, we started with Wilbur Smith, so there wasn’t much there, and so what if the Daily Telegraph interviewer thought the book he was here to promote the worst one she had ever read in her life, he’s sold 120 million of them. So there. It is (I think) about a millionairess and a handsome action man rescuing her daughter from being gang-raped by Somali pirates, and don’t let anyone tell you Smith doesn’t know what he’s talking about: once, when he was out fishing on his island in the Seychelles, his Somali servant spotted some pirates setting out on a raid and told him not to look. Another thing: the details about the guns are always correct. Hugo Berretta is a good friend, and Smith and his beautiful fourth wife occasionally drop in on his Tuscan pad and try out the new stuff on the firing range.

Next up: Carol Ann Duffy – first woman poet laureate, first Scot too: surely she could make it new? And yes, there’s no greater and more populist revisionist myth-making than the poems she read from The World’s Wife, few more moving poems than her elegy to her dead mother, where she shoves time backwards from the last breath, unsays unbearable farewells, banishes the appurtenances of infirmity and drifts back through the years. Except that was how her reading started, with her poem Last Post, when she imagines the First World War poet picking himself up after being scythed down by shrapnel, walking away from history to a land fit for heroes, only to conclude “if poetry could truly tell it backwards/then it would”. If it can’t, why repeat the trick except for deliberate sentimentality – underscored in both cases by musical accompaniment?

But perhaps that’s too cynical, so onwards into the afternoon with Chris Cleave. Like Wilbur Smith, Cleave is a best-selling writer, but here’s the difference. “Every time I pick up my pen, I try to cross a line that I wouldn’t normally cross in my ordinary life,” he said, adding that he wrote from a black female point of view precisely because being a white heterosexual “is life on its easiest difficulty setting”. And once he’d thought himself into the mindset of a female Olympian track cyclist (and done all the practical research to match) he became angry at how comparatively little we value women’s sport. “There’s a women’s Tour de France and it’s every bit as exciting and demanding as the men’s – but when have you ever heard of it?”

For this white male hetero, then, onwards and upwards into the minds of three women – Lydia Cacho, Marina Warner and Zadie Smith. Mexican journalist Lydia Cacho has been tortured, jailed, and received multiple death threats for her work exposing sex trafficking networks. In the affluent West, it’s easy to doubt the UN statistics on the scale of the problem – does organised crime really sell three times more people into slavery than when slavery was legal? – but nobody can doubt her courage.

Then again, as Marina Warner could have pointed out, remember Tales from the Arabian Nights, when the Sultan threatened to execute not just one unfaithful wife but all the women in his kingdom? Yet as she brilliantly showed, in its time, this was a fiction that wove a new spell on the Western imagination, that showed the power of story to change minds (the Sultan’s for one) and break down prejudice and which – in the adult versions at least – wandered off into other stories almost as fully as Will Self would wish.

And if we’re still looking for experiments in fiction, won’t the 185 sketches of four Londoners from the same Willesden council estate in Zadie Smith’s latest novel NW also pass the test? A nervous interviewee, one got a far better flavour of the novel from her reading than the answers she gave to Jim Naughtie’s broad-brush questions.

The scene she chose, in which an 18-year-old boy smoking a cigarette on a children’s roundabout is comically abused by a series of passers-by, including a Rasta woman and an Indian man, was drawn straight from life. “Smoking in a playground is bad but not really important, yet so many issues of race and class were being played out, with everyone getting het up about something that wasn’t necessary.” She has, one suspects, always known that she could write such sassy, vibrant dialogue, and always doubted her ability to assemble the novel’s superstructure, hence her confession that she “can’t get enough editing”. An intriguing taster all the same.

Yet of all those authors I saw this weekend, the one I want to end with is Andy Coogan. You won’t have heard of him, because he’s not a famous author. I hadn’t either when I went into the Peppers Theatre on Saturday night.

He was born in the Gorbals in 1917, and by the time the Second World War came round was one of the fastest runners in Britain. Had he not been weakened by the three and a half years he spent as a Japanese prisoner of war, he could have run for Britain in the 1948 London Olympics.

That’s part of the story contained in his memoir Tomorrow You Die – that, along with the times he was told to dig his own grave, the torture, the starvation, the disease, the hellships, witnessing the aftermath of Nagasaki. Yet as he talked to his ghostwriter Graham Ogilvie, all I saw was a warm-hearted, clear-headed, self-effacing 95-year-old.

He wasn’t a hero of any kind, he said. And when he looked back, he wanted just as much to tell you stories of what the Gorbals was like back in the 1920s, about his mum, about the scrapes he got in, the laughs he had with his mates, the races he ran. Remember Birdsong, where you felt war’s horrors all the more because the first third of the book was all about the sweetness of life? That was what it felt like, listening to Mr Coogan on Saturday night.

The best Book Festival events are those when can you forget it’s anything at all to do with the selling of books. Instead, it’s just you listening to someone telling stories that go straight from their heart into yours. So it was with Mr Coogan. He took us with him into the Malaysian jungle, the time he saw a leopard, the time the natives found him water, that time his group stopped a rape and killed the Japanese rapists, their 400-mile trek south to Singapore and disaster.

At the end, we gave him a standing ovation. It was the least we could do. And, joining in, another hero who had crept in unobtrusively at the back of the room, an athlete who actually did win gold at the London Olympics: Mr Coogan’s great-nephew, Sir Chris Hoy.