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Is using real people in fiction the ultimate gamble for an author?

It might have ended so differently – in court, for example. You spend nine long years writing a book about your idol (‘An extraordinary odyssey of orgiastic obsession,’ according to the Guardian), the first three of them settling on the structure.  And then, on the brink of landing a publishing deal, you think: I wonder, should I have asked for his permission?

But that is how Sam Mills, Sovereign Grand Quiddity Inspector General of the Will Self Club, approached the writing of The Quiddity of Will Self her main concern that he would think she was a stalker. It was a gamble that paid off.  Self gave his blessing, provided that it only touched on his public persona and left his private life well alone.   

On face value, Quiddity (we are on first name terms) is a high concept but difficult-to-categorize book. And yet the themes that Sam explores in her writing are highly accessible. Believing that our deep-rooted religious leanings are dissatisfied in an age when nearly every soulful thing has been explained by science (a view I share), she sees art and obsession with celebrities as replacement outlets. Through her characters, she also explores how reading another author’s work can influence writing style. No bad thing provided it is both deliberate and managed. Sam described how Hunter S Thompson once typed out the whole of The Great Gatsby just to see what he could learn from the process.

Sam shares a publisher with Jennifer Egan, she of A Visit from the Goon Squad fame (another of those tricky difficult-to-categorize novels and my favourite read of last year). It is easy to see how the two works might be compared. Both use multiple voices to explore how we interact – how we remain essentially human – when traditional belief systems and values are stripped away.

Quiddity was published to critical acclaim. Will Self, one feels from his comments to the press, has blown hot and cold about it. Rather than ask his opinion on, say, one of the twenty novels  he has written  – the most recent of  which ran neck and neck with Hilary Mantel’s Bring up the Bodies as the Booker contender –  all journalists wanted to know was, What do you think about the book?                      

I asked Sam – who, at the start of her talk, cited Being John Malkovich as an influence – who would play the man himself were Quiddity ever to be made into a film. “That’s a good question,” she replied.  

The Quiddity of Will Self has its own website. Visit here.

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