Will Self strides into the Groucho Club, London's exclusive watering hole for people in the arts, hops on a barstool, orders two bagels with lox platters, a beer and a Bloody Mary with a double shot of vodka. At 6'5", everything about him seems extreme-an impression that he clearly enjoys projecting.

As a journalist (he was a regular columnist for the London Observer until he was "fired in a rather high-profile incident"), Self estimates that he published a quarter of a million words last year alone. Great Apes, his new novel from Grove/Atlantic, will be his fifth book in seven years.

In a conversation that spans a manic run through Soho, a ride on the Underground and a tour through the Natural History Museum with his two children, the writer -- and his thoughts on the writing life -- remain constantly captivating, if difficult to pin down. Fluctuating between the brash, self-contradictory manner of the enfant terrible often portrayed in the British press, and the somewhat surprising persona of the serious writer and family man, Self at times seems to suffer from the same fate that afflicts the simian art critic in Great Apes who can no longer "tell himself whether or not he was being ironic."

Self's fiction, too, is riddled with contradictions, combining explicit violence and a vicious sense of humor that often borders on the misanthropic, with characters who are surprisingly accessible, even sympathetic. A rough division can be made between what he has referred to as his "nasty books," Cock &Bull and My Idea of Fun -- in which a woman grows a penis and becomes a rapist and a man fornicates with the neck of a decapitated tramp-and his collections of short stories that are more like intellectual puzzles, with narratives that turn in on themselves and texts within texts.

Great Apes has elements of both. Like many of Self's stories, the novel is built around a central conceit -- chimps have swapped places with humans in the evolutionary hierarchy. The idea of a London overrun by monkeys -- climbing everywhere, stuck in traffic and mating at art openings -- is made more plausible by the predicament of Self's protagonist, Simon Dykes (an artist who first appeared in his short story collection, Grey Area). Dykes begins the book as a human, and wakes up in the alternate ape-world convinced he is still a man. As the novel progresses, the habits and language of the chimps grow familiar, and as the doctors gradually convince him that he is deluded, the reader is convinced as well. "There are two ways of getting someone to suspend disbelief," Self explains. "One is just to present a fantastic conceit -- like Kafka -- and the other is to very gradually try and convince somebody of something utterly preposterous."

Publisher to Writer

Self traces his enthusiasm for art and literature to his adolescence in London, as the child of an American mother who worked in the production side of publishing and a father who was an academic. It was a strained relationship that ended in divorce, and Self mentions in passing that in his own "very troubled teens," he was "diagnosed as a borderline schizophrenic and put on very heavy drugs." This experience explains in part the distrust of psychiatry that is a common theme in his fiction. "I always wrote," he says. There were "failed, pretentious novels in my late teens and early 20s"; then, a few years after he graduated from Oxford with a degree in philosophy in 1982, Self found himself running a trade-magazine publishing company.

"It sounds grand, but I had only five or six people working for me, and I used to have to do everything. I would go out and take photos, I'd do the reporting, the desk-top stuff, lay the whole thing out and print it. It sounds odd, but that's when I really learned to write to order. It disciplined me. Then I started writing seriously and I wrote my first book."

At the suggestion of his ex-girlfriend, an editor at Bloomsbury, he submitted an un-agented manuscript of his first collection of short stories, The Quantity Theory of Insanity. Bloomsbury bought it for 1,700 pounds and published it as a paperback original in 1991. The book was soon lauded by Doris Lessing, Martin Amis and a Granta panel comprised of Salman Rushdie, Bill Buford and A.S. Byatt that designated Self one of the best young writers in Britain.

"It was a terrible baptism of caresses for a writer, because I didn't receive one negative review at all," says Self. "Of course, that tees up the next generation of critics to really savage you and also gives you a completely unrealistic idea of what it's like to publish books."

Quantity Theory was not published in the U.S. until 1995. Self met his American publisher, Grove/Atlantic's Morgan Entrekin, in 1992. From the beginning, Self recalls, it was an "astonishingly serendipitous" partnership. Self was visiting the States with a friend, who knew Entrekin's foreign rights director, Juliet Nicholson, who had just finished reading Cock &Bull. When Self's friend called her up to invite himself to the Hamptons, he "said I've got this friend Will Self with me, and she said 'What? I've just put down his book. It's a complete rave. We want it, we want it.' " And so Self went to meet Entrekin.

"At the time I'd written about half of My Idea of Fun and I pitched it to him like a character out of The Player. Entrekin acquired both Cock &Bull and the not-yet-written My Idea of Fun, deciding to postpone the publication of Quantity Theory until Self was better known in America. "It was the classic canard about being unable to flog short stories," Self recalls.

Entrekin is the only editor who has ever done extensive editing of Self's work, helping him revise My Idea of Fun (which appeared Stateside in 1993) at an early draft. His Bloomsbury editor, Liz Calder, is "terribly sort of degagee," he says. "She's brilliant. She has an absolute nose for books. She's made her career on being able to spot Atwood, spot Rushdie. She'll get a manuscript and she'll say, well, I thought you might do X, and Y, and they'll be two tiny little points. And you'll think, bloody hell, I just submitted a 130,000 word manuscript, and then you'll actually think about it, and you'll think, yeah, those are good points, and that's it."

Self now counts Entrekin as a close friend. "There are terrible rumors about me and Morgan -- that we check into a brothel in New Orleans for a month every year, where 40 whores cover us in cocaine." He laughs. "It's an astonishingly staid world, books. If you've got any kind of dash at all you become like Scarface."

Staid is not a word one associates with Self. He started using drugs at 12, and fought addiction throughout his teens and early 20s. He spent the years after university traveling around Australia and India and then went into rehab in 1986, and as he tells it, kicked the habit. Self admits freely to being a drug user now but is adamant that, for more than a decade, he has never found himself addicted.

A Public Humiliation

In general, the media's obsession with Self's drug use has merely enhanced the stereotype of the high-flying anarchist the writer has so strenuously sought to cultivate. But this May, weeks before Great Apes came out in England, his well-publicized audacity suddenly backfired, as another reporter leaked a rumor that Self had been taking heroin on John Major's press plane before the election; he was forced first into avoiding the charge and then into publicly admitting it. The incident ended with his being fired from his job at the Observer, which he had held for a couple of years, and having his face on the cover of every tabloid in town.

Self radiates a flippancy about how he is perceived by others, so it is somewhat surprising to hear him say that he hasn't been able to sleep since the whole debacle occurred. "It's been pretty bad. Enormous public humiliation, your face smeared over every paper, paparazzi at my door. We had to virtually go on the run and live out of my car for a week.

What worries Self most is that the attention will take away from serious consideration of his novel. Otherwise, he says, "I can sort of take it -- I have had such heavy personal criticism for so many years now -- I'm not saying that I've become inured to it, but yes, I have become inured to it.... Before the election, I was having a lot of difficulty accepting that I was famous. I was finding it very hard to deal with. And now I've sort of given up."

It seems ironic that the fuss about him using heroin would erupt now, when his life seems comparatively stable. Recently remarried, he has moved into a new house in Stockwell in South London with his second wife, Deborah Orr, who edits the Guardian's weekend magazine, and they are expecting a baby this fall. He still gives the impression of getting out and about more than most, but he also seems to have gotten into the rhythm of being a productive writer.

He credits Orr with helping him a great deal with Apes. "She puts a 90-page newspaper out every week, so she really knows how to deal with text. I've shown her far more than I've ever shown anybody before. I feel odd saying it, but I do regard it as a bit more of a cooperative exercise, without her turning into Mrs. Nabokov and having to accompany me to all my lectures."

Asked what he's working on now, he reels off a number of projects that include writing for American magazines ("The British press doesn't deserve me," he says), and a film adaptation of The Picture of Dorian Gray set in contemporary London. "Then there's a new novel and various other things. It just g s on and on and on. When I started seriously on my career, I was like, When are you going to be able to relax? How many books will you have written? And gradually it's begun to dawn on me that this is not going to happen. I'm feeling much more relaxed about it now because I know it's never going to stop... unless I dry up."

Self clearly sees writing as an integral part of the way he makes sense of his life, fueling an insatiable interest in anthropology, psychology and semiotics. But pressed to discuss his deeper motivations for writing, the same contradictions in his persona emerge. At one moment he seems passionately engaged, and at the next he presents himself as a dried-up cynic, driven to bloodlessy observing human behavior out of an overdose of ennui."If you're very committed to writing, it is the way you interpret the world," he says. "I suppose what writers try to score for, the writer's heroin, really, is that moment when you read a work of fiction and you think to yourself, I completely identify with that sentiment or idea or that experience and I've never heard it articulated to me in exactly that way. It's essentially a new coinage of sympathy. And if you can do that once or twice a book, you're doing really well. If you can do it once or twice a page, you're Tolstoy."

It seems typical of Self that he starts backtracking here, as if he doesn't want to get caught sounding too earnest about anything. "I basically write to amuse myself, and for money. I do it for money because I'm unemployable in any other context, and I do it to amuse myself because I get really bored the whole time."

Self bristles when it's pointed out that money and boredom can't possibly be his primary motivations, and he leans forward to emphasize his point. "I'm telling you the absolute fucking gospel truth. You can't sit down as a satirist and think, 'oh, these people are behaving dreadfully badly. I must write this satire about apes to show humans that they've all got to be much nicer to each other. I'm very upset about it and I'm going to lock myself up in this room....' It doesn't work like that. You just get very bored, and start writing books."