An Interview with Sam Mills

Sam MillsDescribed as the literary equivalent of Being John Malkovich by BBC Radio 2′s Art Show, The Quiddity of Will Self is a quirky, inventive novel about obsession at its most macabre.  Guest Editor, Alex O’Toole, talks to author, Sam Mills, about her nine year labour of love.

Do you think readers of The Quiddity of Will Self have to have read a book by Will Self to truly appreciate your book, The Quiddity of Will Self?

I don’t know. I’ve reached a point where I can’t imagine never having read a Will Self, or what it’s like to unknow words such as quiddity and stetorous and flocculent and all those other gems he favours. However, the narrator of part 1, Richard, is a Self virgin until he encounters the WSC (the Will Self Club). At which point, he wanders into Waterstones Piccadilly, picks up his first WS text, Great Apes, and then works his way through the oeuvre.  At first he doubts whether he will like Self, feels intimidated by his prose – as though he has been invited to a party where everyone else is a sesquipdelian and he can only stand in a corner feeling dumb. But soon he becomes obsessive, and devours his books in a gluttonous frenzy until they are all read and then, on realising that he can’t buy yet-to-be-published Book of Dave, he curls up foetal and weeps himself sick (a perfectly normal and healthy reaction, I feel). People have told me that this sequence works well as an introduction to Self for those readers who haven’t read him. My agent loved the book when he read it, and he’s only ever read Cock and Bull, so I guess it works for the uninitiated, yes. I hope so.

There are moments in our lives when a piece of art performs alchemy on us. We listen to a piece of music, view a canvas, real a novel and emerge a different person. Often these moments are a question of timing, of the fateful choreography of our mind meeting the artist’s mind in a moment of perfect union.’  What was the fateful moment and /or piece of art that sparked you to begin writing The Quiddity of Will Self?

When I came up with the idea in 2000, I decided to cast Self in my novel on the basis of reading just one of his texts, Cock and Bull. The Kafkaesque premise – a woman who grows a cock, a man who develops a vagina on the back of his knee – was so brilliant, the writing so daring, sardonic, imaginative and unexpected that I just knew that, in literary terms, Self was the One. Nine years on, Self remains my favourite author. I do think he is our greatest living novelist (and he really ought to have been crowned with the Booker for Umbrella). Someone once said to me that they don’t like his books because they’re trying to be clever, but I don’t think they try to be clever, they are clever, and they’re challenging, and they demand a little more from the reader than some books – but that’s what I love about them. The more books you read, the more picky you become as a reader and the harder you are to please. There was a time a few years back when I would wander into Waterstones and pick up a debut novel and I could tell within a few lines of reading the opening that the author had graduated from UEA. UEA have produced some writers I love – Andrew Miller, Ian McEwan to name a few– but there seemed to be a season when their authors all seemed to be writing in a certain style and tone that was quite uniform. Pick up a book by Self and within a few lines you’ll recognise his voice. I don’t think Self would have fared well on a creative writing MA, for that matter…

Sam Mills Will SelfAs part of your research for The Quiddity of Will Self you set up The Will Self Club, a real organisation, whose members worship the author, Will Self. How would you feel if a Sam Mills splinter group was set up in its wake?

I just can’t imagine it! Will Self is worthy of worship. I am not. However, the WSC pet Dodo seems to be getting a lot of fans and will no doubt soon have his own following. Pigeons already sing songs about him; people never stop petting him and taking pictures when I take him for a walk.

The last section of the book is voiced by a fictional version of the author, Sam Mills, who you have created as a male character. If art is imitating life, why not remain female?

I got my first novel published by pretending to be a man. It was a YA novel and I sent it to Faber and they pulled it off their slush pile. I allowed them to believe Sam was a Sam-man for a while before I enlightened them.  All of my crossover novels before Quiddity were published from male viewpoints. I find it much easier and more natural to write from the point of view of a man. So whenever I turned up to literary festivals and events, people were expecting a Sam with a goatee beard, not a Sam with long hair who looked a bit girly; their mouths would form ‘O’s and they’d blink hard and stutter a bit. It’s not that I crave a sex change, as Sylvie does in Part 2 of Quiddity. But I think it still sucks to be a female writing in today’s publishing world. Just look at the covers that female writers have to suffer. Feminism has a long way to go in the literary world, a long, long way, and not putting silly Mills & Boon images of dreamy couples on the cover of serious novels by female authors would be a start. The publishers of Quiddity originally wanted to publish me as Samantha, but I won them round and insisted on Sam.  (besides which, my full name is not actually Samantha anyway…)

You took nine years to write The Quiddity of Will Self and the novel is clearly a labour of love. Is there a particular part or aspect of it that you’re most pleased with, or a character who you feel most affection for?

When I read through the novel the other day, I was already beginning to fall out of love with it, to feel I had matured and moved on, and it made me feel sad in a way, knowing that three years ago I was so proud of the novel and in a decade or two I’ll no doubt look back on it and cringe – such is the natural progression of any author. I think I like Part 4 the best, because Mia was one of the first successful female characters I’ve created.  I enjoyed writing something slightly sci-fi, that satirised rather than celebrated technology, which I feel we all put far too much faith in. I tend to agree with John Gray’s viewpoint that most technology is not going to lead to progress, that you can’t predict how any new technological innovation will play out once released and in fact many technological advances will probably be misused and lead to tragedy. People who believe that GM foods will feed the world, for example, are naive, given that farmers in Canada are being sued because pollen from nearby GM crops have accidentally blown onto their fields and mingled with their crops and therefore they are ‘stealing a patent’ . How fucking ridiculous is that? GM foods are just about making money for corps. If we wanted to feed the world, we’d have worked out a way long ago and the fact that we haven’t is not about supply, distribution or technology but human nature.

The Quiddity Of Will Self references so many different texts in its construction, the language used and concepts explored. Aside from the obvious, Will Self and Being John Malkovich, which other writers, books and films influenced you while writing the novel and how?

Eyes Wide Shut was an influence on the WSC’s orgiastic rites sequence at the end of Part One, because by chance, back in 98, I happened to be staying in one of the places where it was filmed. True to legend, Kubrick’s team came along and put up all the sets several times, then tore then down again, before Kubrick finally decided that he was happy with the location. David Lynch was an influence, especially Blue Velvet, my favourite of his films. Flowers for Algernon was key  because I read it when I was a teenager and I was fascinated by the way it showed a character in metamorphosis,  a simple man who undergoes an experiment to raise his IQ.  I loved the way his voice/the prose displayed his transmogrification, and I decided to explore this in Quiddity – Richard’s prose is flavoured by Self’s, and the character in Part 5 begins to lose his ‘voice’ when he is sucked dry by a parasitic lover. My father was an influence, because he suffers from schizophrenia, and though I am sane (well, as much as any of us are) I can feel the ghost of his madness inside me, so I made a conscious decision to let it unfurl and swirl out in this book – which is why it is such a crazy read.

In the disturbing future section of The Quiddity Of Will Self, worship of Will Self has reached such a level that, after his death, parts of Will Self’s body are carved up and reanimated to allow them to exist without being attached to the whole. One of his eyes retains Will’s consciousness and communicates through blinks.  What inspired this particular nightmarish twist?

My parents were interested in religion so when I grew up I had the Bible and The Bhagavad Gita in the house. Many religions are preoccupied with the idea of the body being a prison for the soul and many rites seem to seek ways to transcend the body, or even punish it –from the medieval Christian preoccupation with flagellation to the cutting of breasts in ancient Hindu/Buddhist traditions. So I think I was playing with the religious theme, for Self effectively transcends death within the novel and suffers a certain resurrection – but it is a suitably warped one.

The fourth part of the book, is set in the dystopian future of 2049, where books inspire criminals, rooms speak and schools sedate their pupils with government issued drugs to keep them in line. These themes mark a return to those explored in your last book, Black Out, which deals with censorship and tells a story in which books are banned because of the threat of social disorder and terrorism. What is it that interests you most about this idea and how has writing The Quiddity Of Will Self allowed you to explore the theme in a different way?

I’m just fascinated by the dynamic interplay between art and life, and the impact that books, films and culture have on our perceptions of life, on our political viewpoints, on our behaviour – whether the way that Lenin was influenced by Nikolai Chernyshevsky’s  novel What is to be Done as much as The Communist Manifesto or soldiers who watched John Wayne movies and lost their lives because they imitated his squat when shooting, which looked glamourous on screen but didn’t work too well in the battlefield, to the impact of 24 or Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty on our attitudes to torture. Quiddity is a more surreal and exaggerated exploration of the idea, whereas Blackout is more of a straightforward sci fi novel.

Do you plan to carry through any of the themes of The Quiddity of Will Self through to your next book? If so, can you give a taste of what readers can expect?

My next book is called The Bankenstein of London Fields. For a while I was toying with this title and The Banker & The Hoodie but in the end I’ve gone for the former. (Though it echoes Amis, there are no Amis refs in the book, nor is it a nod to him). I think it is a more serious novel than Quiddity – though I never really saw Quiddity as being a comic novel either. Someone recently said to me, “I do want to read Quiddity –it looks such fun” and I just cringed. Sam Byers made the point to me recently when we were discussing this issue over emails that over in the US the literary world is much more accepting of novels having a comic thread and seeing it as part of the tapestry of the novel rather than putting a novel with humorous moments in it into a shiny yellow box marked ‘comic’. Anyhow, the new book is more of a satire. It starts off as a state of the nation novel but I promise you that it won’t be one of those tedious epics which has six token stereotypical PC-jacketed characters (one of which is inevitably a Muslim terrorist planning an attack who doesn’t quite go through with it) exploring their lives against a post 9/11 backdrop. It begins with an exploration of the riots and then it takes a surreal twist and heads into much more strange territory. I’ve enjoyed researching it, whether it’s been chatting to Hackney gangs or reading Ernest Becker’s Denial of Death, or interviewing bankers or delving into Marxism. It will be out next year or early 2015. I think it’s a more serious book because I’ve been in a more sombre mood over the past year. My mum died at the end of 2011 and now I care for my Dad. So the new book also explores death, the afterlife, and the apocalypse.

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