Issue 146, Spring 1998
Martin Amis was born on August 25, 1949, in Oxford, England, where his father, the Booker Prize–winning author Sir Kingsley Amis, was a doctoral student. He grew up in the various university towns in which his father taught literature: Swansea, Princeton and Cambridge. His parents divorced when he was twelve.
At eighteen, a role in the film A High Wind in Jamaica took him to the West Indies. He returned to England in 1968 and, after taking “crammers” (courses designed to prepare one for university), he enrolled in Exeter College, Oxford. He graduated with first-class honors in English. In his early twenties, he wrote book reviews for the London Observer and soon thereafter worked as an editorial assistant for The Times Literary Supplement. His first novel, The Rachel Papers, was published in 1973 and received critical acclaim, winning the Somerset Maugham Award (a prize his father had also been awarded). While at the TLS, he published his second novel, Dead Babies (1975), which Auberon Waugh referred to as “nothing less than brilliant.”
From 1977 to 1980 he served as literary editor of The New Statesman, a socialist weekly, and wrote two more novels, Success (1978) and Other People (1981). In 1984, his best-selling Money appeared, followed by a collection of journalism, The Moronic Inferno (1986), and a collection of short stories, Einstein’s Monsters (1987), which focused on the nuclear threat and contained a polemical element previously unseen in his fiction.
London Fields (1990) again confronted nuclear holocaust and the death of the planet. One critic described the novel as “ferociously impressive.” Amis subsequently published another collection of journalism, Visiting Mrs. Nabokov, and a novel, Time’s Arrow (1992).
Soon thereafter, at the time of his divorce, Amis found himself the focus of a literary feud. When he left his longtime agent, Pat Kavanagh, the wife of his friend and fellow author Julian Barnes, to sign with Andrew Wylie, A. S. Byatt accused him of selling out to pay for his divorce and extensive dental work. His response to the scandal: “Envy never comes to the ball dressed as envy; it comes dressed as high moral standards or distaste for materialism.”
Since then, he has written two novels: The Information (1995) and Night Train, a best-selling detective thriller set in an unnamed city in the United States.
The following interview is the result of several meetings, the first of which took place in the summer of 1990, on a former turkey ranch near Wellfleet, Massachusetts, where he was vacationing. Dressed in tennis gear, tan and relaxed, Amis drank coffee and throughout the afternoon rolled his own cigarettes with a frequency reminiscent of John Self (in Money) who explains to the reader, “Unless I specifically inform you otherwise, I’m always smoking another cigarette.” Amis now lives in northwest London.
When you are writing a novel, how do you start out? Is it with character or with theme? Or does something else come to you first?
The common conception of how novels get written seems to me to be an exact description of writer’s block. In the common view, the writer is at this stage so desperate that he’s sitting around with a list of characters, a list of themes, and a framework for his plot, and ostensibly trying to mesh the three elements. In fact, it’s never like that. What happens is what Nabokov described as a throb. A throb or a glimmer, an act of recognition on the writer’s part. At this stage the writer thinks, Here is something I can write a novel about. In the absence of that recognition I don’t know what one would do. It may be that nothing about this idea—or glimmer, or throb—appeals to you other than the fact that it’s your destiny, that it’s your next book. You may even be secretly appalled or awed or turned off by the idea, but it goes beyond that. You’re just reassured that there is another novel for you to write. The idea can be incredibly thin—a situation, a character in a certain place at a certain time. With Money, for example, I had an idea of a big fat guy in New York, trying to make a film. That was all. Sometimes a novel can come pretty consecutively and it’s rather like a journey in that you get going and the plot, such as it is, unfolds and you follow your nose. You have to decide between identical-seeming dirt roads, both of which look completely hopeless, but you nevertheless have to choose which one to follow.
Do you worry, as you go along, that what you’ve already written isn’t up to par?
You try to think about where you are going, not where you came from, though what sometimes happens is that you get stuck, and it’s really not what you’re about to do that’s stumping you, it’s something you’ve already done that isn’t right. You have to go back and fix that. My father described a process in which, as it were, he had to take himself gently but firmly by the hand and say, Now all right, calm down. What is it that’s worrying you? The dialogue will go: Well, it’s the first page, actually. What is it about the first page? He might say, The first sentence. And he realized that it was only a little thing that was holding him up. Actually, my father, I think, sat down and wrote what he considered to be the final version straightaway, because he said there’s no point in putting down a sentence if you’re not going to stand by it.
So that assumed he knew where he was going.
He knew a lot more than I do about where he was going. That may come with experience in the craft. I tend to be more headlong.
How important is plot to you?
Plots really matter only in thrillers. In mainstream writing the plot is—what is it? A hook. The reader is going to wonder how things turn out. In this respect, Money was a much more difficult book to write than London Fields because it is essentially a plotless novel. It is what I would call a voice novel. If the voice doesn’t work you’re screwed. Money was only one voice, whereas London Fields was four voices. The eggs weren’t in one basket. They were in four baskets. I was fairly confident that the hook, this idea of a woman arranging her own murder, pricked the curiosity. So although nothing much happens in five hundred pages, people are still going to want to know how it ends. It’s a tease novel, in that respect.
Did you read or hear somewhere that certain people were predisposed to being murdered?
Yes. I can’t even remember when the idea or the scratch on the mind occurred. It wasn’t even a book I read; it was a book review I read or heard about, or a conversation I listened to in a pub or a tube train. Anyway, all I needed was one sentence, which was the sentence you just outlined. And at that point I was thinking in terms of a very short novel, about the murderer and the murderee and their eventual conjunction. Then the introduction of a third character, Guy, the foil, opened the novel out into a broader kind of society, and then the narrator had his own demands for space to be met. And finally, time and place took over, i.e., London, a modern city at the end of the century, at the end of the millennium. That brought together all kinds of interests and preoccupations. Again, it must be stressed that you don’t have your themes tacked up on the wall like a target, or like a dartboard. When people ask, What did you mean to say with this novel? The answer to the question is, of course, The novel, all four hundred and seventy pages of it. Not any catchphrase that you could print on a badge or a T-shirt. It’s a human failing to reduce things either to a slogan or a personality, but I seem to have laid myself open to this—the personality getting in the way of the novel.
How do you mean that?
Judging by everything from reviews to letters I receive, I find that people take my writing rather personally. It’s interesting when you’re doing signing sessions with other writers and you look at the queues at each table and you can see definite human types gathering there.