My hero: Russell Hoban by Will Self
'He was wry, gentle and wise – one of William James's "once-born"'
A few years ago, charged with writing a new introduction to a 25th-anniversary edition of Riddley Walker, I called the author, Russell Hoban, at his behest. A frail-sounding voice answered the phone, and when I explained who I was, Hoban fluted: "Would you mind calling back in half an hour or so? My wife and I are about to watch Sex and the City." I put the receiver down chastened: here was a man in his 80s who had more joie de vivre than I could muster in hale middle age.
Born in 1925 in Pennsylvania to Jewish Ukrainian immigrants, Hoban was the rarest kind of writer: his works displayed complete diversity of subject matter, allied to a compelling unity of voice. Best known for Riddley Walker, perhaps the post-nuclear-apocalypse novel sans pareil, he wrote 15 other adult novels and many more for children. In the 1970s when I was first beginning to buy books for myself, Hoban was a member of a distinguished list at Picador, whose larger format paperbacks with full-bleed graphic covers were the hip thing to have on your bricks-and-boards bookcase.
Last year I did an event at the British Library to celebrate the 30th anniversary of his masterwork, and met Hoban for the first time. He was wry, gentle and wise – one of William James's "once-born", notwithstanding a life that had had its fair share of emotional turmoil. He told the audience that while he was serving in the signals core during the second world war, his sense of direction had been so poor that he was continually getting lost. "The Germans saw me going by so many times," he said, "they probably thought I was an entire company on the move."
A few weeks later we had lunch, and I felt awed by Hoban's equanimity in the face of growing infirmity. He spoke about his writing methods, saying that he never planned anything, just sat down at the typewriter and worked it out on the page. Then he confided: "I'm working on something now, and I worry I may drop dead before it's finished … but come to think of it that's true of any book you write."
• Russell Hoban died on 13 December 2011.