For Books’ Sake Talks To: Sam Mills
31st May 2012
If my own reading is anything to go by, Sam Mill’s latest novel is currently blowing minds all over the literary world. The book’s publicity campaign seeks to extend the heady, surrealist tale of a mysterious, heavily sexualised cult that worships Will Self, and has successfully blurred the lines between reality and fiction. I’ve read the book, interviewed the author and I still don’t know what’s real.
The Quiddity of Will Self is split in to five sections, each with a different narrator and skipping gleefully through time to as far in future as 2049. The longest part of the book is narrated by Richard, as he slowly unravels the mystery of the Will Self Club (WSC), and seeks to become a member of this allusive cult.
Mills notes that although this book is inarguably about Will Self, it is also an exploration of the schizophrenic mind, with Richard being a sufferer himself, and the idea of allowing a writer’s voice to enter your mind.
Quiddity is part murder-mystery, part thriller, part surrealist lit-fiction extravaganza, but it has been well documented that Mills intention when writing the novel was to create a literary equivalent of the film Being John Malkovich.
When asked why she chose Will Self as the subject, Mills replies only with the characteristically cryptic; “Divino Afflante Selfian” (a play on “inspired by the Holy Spirit”).
Whilst she is outspoken about her opinion that Self is, in her words, “our greatest living writer”, she argues that it takes both passion and detachment to write about obsession.
Mills’ intention when writing Quiddity was to craft great prose, but she notes that many seem intent on seeing it as “an emotional gush, a release of pent-up emotion” or “one woman’s sexual fantasies put into a novel”.
It is clear that this reaction is solely due to the fact that Mills is female, as she puts it; “nobody accused Spike Jonze and Kaufman of releasing their secret gay crushes when they made Being John Malkovich.”
Mills seems in some ways surprised by the reaction to a woman writing this type of book. Given that satire is usually a male-dominated genre, she muses that perhaps it is difficult for people to imagine a woman writing it “as a purely cerebral exercise”.
She goes on to highlight the fact that traditionally, female fandom has been associated with hysteria (Beatlemania, etc) and so set out to deliberately invert these stereotypes.
She notes a couple of scenes described in her own words as “intellectually playful conceits”, most notably the WSC’s graphically sexual initiation ceremony, performed in front of Will Self via a giant cinema screen.
In 2009, Mills approached the real Will Self to seek his approval before attempting to get a publisher for the novel. He responded with enthusiasm, praising the “warped narrative… and generally seedy-Gothic ambience”, and shared her passion for the mythologised, fictional version of himself, stating “I just want to be misunderstood”.
Overwhelmingly the message of this book is the idea of art as the new religion. Mills is philosophical about this, and quotes the WSC’s manifesto in saying:
“We have no true spiritual masters in current Western society – our priests are paedophiles, our politicians are celebrities, our celebrities are earthworms. Who can fill this spiritual vacuum? … The answer can only lie with writers”.
In Quiddity, Richard and the other members of the WSC consume literature interchangeably with drugs and sex. When asked why she believes people are so profoundly affected by the written word and other art forms, Mills is critical of the “foolish yet human tendency to be unable to fully separate life and art”. She notes that people who feel isolated in their own lives have a tendency to seek “relief [and] reassurance” from narratives that echo their own lives.
Mills references Orlando Figes‘ book, Natasha’s Dance, as an example of the blurring between characters and real people. She explains that Russian novelists were forced to shape their work to conform to Stalin’s social ideals, and quotes Lion Feuchtwanger in explaining that in the Soviet Union there were “no clear divisions between the reality in which [the reader] lives and the world he reads about in books”.
She notes that this is probably just as true today, referencing Frank Kermode’s The Sense of an Ending, a critical study of people’s need to create narratives in their own lives, and a recent Guardian article confirming that people adapt themselves to mirror art.
In Quiddity and in Mill’s previous YA, the majority of the narrating characters are male. Indeed, in the final part of Quiddity, Mills even creates a male version of herself to narrate the end of the book. When asked if she deliberately set out to subvert gender, Mills admits a deep-rooted inhibition about writing female characters.
This stemmed from a disconnection from an image of modern women featured in most novels, films, magazines and newspapers that Mills could not identify with.
She felt that a woman preoccupied with her marketing job, swanky apartment and difficult boyfriend would not have the “intellectual enquiry or… interest in science or philosophy” that was required of her characters.
Feminism offered very little as an alternative, as Mills found herself put off by the idea of women acting like men, “boasting about how aggressive they were, as though gentleness and compassion… were ‘pink’ emotions they dare not associate with”.
Eventually, Mills came to realise that this idea of womanhood was a construct of capitalist society, designed to sell “beauty products, diet plans and boob jobs”, and her female characters have grown as a result.
Mills notes a particular affection for Mia, the lesbian book-reviewer from Quiddity, and was pleased to discover that many people responded to her as the most sympathetic character in the book.
The hardback edition of this book is a striking and beautiful object, with bold and dark cover art, and within the pages there are text format changes and graphic drawings to illustrate parts of the story.
These illustrations were done by Mills herself, initially by cutting and sticking pictures of Will Self from the internet (“like Blue Peter on drugs”), and then with a sketchpad and paints, with no less than thirty attempts to perfect the Will Self playing card image alone.
To explain the appropriately sinister artwork of the book jacket, Mills shares some of the other cover designs offered by the artist, with particular reference to the one below, rejected for its similarity to the Being John Malkovich movie motif.
When asked about her influences, naturally Mills credits Will Self, particularly noting My Ideas of Fun and The Quantity Theory of Insanity, in Mill’s words; surely “the greatest short story collection ever published in the English language”.
She also notes DBC Pierre, Jonathan Swift, Michael Ondaatje and Rachel Cusk among her literary influences, and recalls feeling a profound impact from the film, Dangerous Liaisons (and, later in life, the book and play of the same name).
Like Dahl, Mills never attempted to shadow children from the darkness of the world in YA fiction. Her second YA novel, The Boy Who Saved the World, was a satire based on the War on Terror, in which a group of teenage boys set up their own religion and then kidnap an Asian girl from school believing she is a terrorist.
She muses that because she wrote teen fiction without having read much teen fiction, much of what she wrote may not have been particularly suitable for the market, admitting “I didn’t censor myself in any way whatsoever”. Most importantly, she notes, “[I] never felt I had to dumb down”.
For the time being, Mills is clear that she is sticking to adult fiction. Alongside “a few pieces of journalism and… some bad attempts at poetry”, she is working on a political satire, both “more silly and more serious” than Quiddity.