The Blagger's Guide To: WilL Self

So, Will, can a sesquipedalian be lost for words?
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Poor Will Self. He has been writing novels for 20 years, yet never been long-listed for the Booker. This is odd, given that his talents were recognised as early as 1993, when Granta included him among their "Best Young British Novelists". Now all that has changed, as his latest novel, Umbrella,is on the long list for this year's prize. It's his ninth novel, and has been called his most ambitious, spanning a period of 92 years in a non-linear Modernist structure. The Independent called it a "consolidation of everything he has written to date". Find out what we think in our review next week.

Self is at least as well-known for being a journalist and controversialist as he is a novelist. Ever since he took heroin on the prime minister's plane, while covering John Major's 1997 election campaign, he has had the reputation of a literary bad boy. He went clean in 1998, and hasn't had so much as a drink since. And, as he said at the time: "I'm a hack who gets hired because I do drugs." But for all the early rebellions, Self is more of an establishment figure than he might like us to think.

Born in 1961, his father was an academic at the LSE and his mother a Jewish American who worked in publishing. Their house in East Finchley, north London, was "a great and messy repository of their great but messy minds". He started reading voraciously aged 10, only two years before he smoked his first joint, and spent the next two decades vigorously pursuing both interests. He injected heroin for the first time aged 17, in 1979. After attending University College School in Hampstead and Christ's College Finchley, Self read Politics Philosophy and Economics at Oxford, the same degree course as David Cameron and Rupert Murdoch.

Self's literary style has been likened to William Burroughs and Hunter S Thompson, and was shaped by the sci-fi he read aged 10: JG Ballard, Philip K Dick, and Frank Herbert's Dune. He cites Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland as the book that is "really embedded on my cerebellum", and his novels feature similar excursions into surreality, with transgressions of scale and time. Self says he writes fiction to astonish people, and to "disturb the reader's fundamental assumptions", not to create people and worlds they can relate to.

He lives in Stockwell, south London, and is married to the ex-Independent columnist Deborah Orr, with whom he has two sons. He has a further two children by his first wife, Kate Chancellor. The Selfs have a Jack Russell called Maglorian, whose mother Cyril was named after the writer Cyril Connolly. Self writes his books in a study in the attic of his house, and makes notes using Post-its, which are plastered all over the wall. Earlier this year, the lintel at the top of his Victorian house suddenly fell off, owing to a change of temperature.

Self has admitted to reading the dictionary to improve his vocabulary, and is a shameless sesquipedalian (a lover of obscure words). Despite criticism from some readers, Self has defended his use of archane vocabulary, saying it's good for us. In any case, as he says, he doesn't write for the readers.

The Quiddity of Will Self, by Sam Mills (Corsair, £12.99) features a sinister organisation called The Will Self Club, comprised of members who idolise the writer. Life imitated art months before it was published, with a real-life Will Self Club contacting literary types and inviting them to become members. In the novel, Self finally wins the Man Booker Prize …