Will Self talks to Sarfraz Mazoor

It’s always an entertaining hour with Will Self.  He tells us ‘”all you need to know, is that we see inside the mind of Audrey Death, aged 14.”  Her father is a manager in the London omnibus company. He takes Audrey along with him one afternoon in 1903 as he goes on an errand for his friend Arnold Collins. Self reads in character, which is a hugely entertaining experience, making you feel like you are there with them, using the cockney vernacular of the day.

Interviewer Sarfraz Manzoor asked; “So, Will, what’s the book about?” It is the story of Audrey, a working class girl who contracts a form of encephalitis – commonly known as ‘sleeping sickness’ – and was woken with new medication given to her by a maverick scientist in 1971. There are echoes of the Oliver Sacks story. He tells us that he writes the novel in the form of monopolised narration by Audrey, so that there is a continuous presence of character. He writes the first draft of his novels on a typewriter – to avoid the distractions of the internet. It was interesting to hear how the structure of Umbrella is actually in the form of one – tightly furled up at first, then as the narrative develops it blows out suddenly, like the umbrella on the cover. Self is critical of much fiction today, identifying that the vernacular is very different to the written word at that time, and he has sought to make his language realistic.

Quote of the day, on Boris Johnson “he’s an enigma wrapped in a whoopee cushion!”

Self comments on the label journalist/author, preferring to be called a writer. Journalism and ‘getting out and experiencing the world’ is what feeds his writing – no point locking yourself away to write, after all, what would you write about?

Umbrella is the first part of a trilogy of novels he is working on; the first set in WWI, the second in WWII, the third will be set during the Iraq war. Self observes that as you get older, it suddenly becomes more urgent to write about things that really matter. ‘We cannot eradicate this [violence] from human nature” he observes.  Asked “what can we do about the events in Woolwich?” Self is critical of David Cameron’s reaction when he rushed back to the UK to chair a meeting of the COBRA committee.  He should have stayed to attend important negotiations, but instead observes that “they need terrorism to bolster their own sense of authority.”  Self also identified what he calls “a sickening symmetry between the vile act of murder with the simultaneous filming on a mobile phone by people so they can sell the footage to News International for £150,000.” Food for thought.

We are reassured by him that we should be able to hear the voices come through when reading Umbrella, much the same as when he read to us, for “they are there, and I hope they come across.” I look forward to reading it.

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