Interview with Martin Amis
Harvard Advocate Staff
On October 25, 2012, The Harvard Advocate conducted an original interview with English novelist and critic Martin Amis. Amis has published numerous novels and collections of non-fiction, including The Rachel Papers, Money, and London Fields. His most recent book, Lionel Asbo: State of England, was released earlier this year. The following is a transcript of that conversation.
Your recent book Lionel Asbo: State of England features Lionel Asbo, who is embraced and thrown into the press machine almost arbitrarily. This theme of the contemporary celebrity is some- thing that you’ve dealt with quite frequently. I’m wondering about your own celebrity status—what does it mean for you to have become such a public celebrity figure?
It’s part of the job. If it were a profession in which you worked behind the scenes and became what you did invisibly, then that would be very nice in a way, but I have to compete for attention with millions of other sources of interest. So it’s sort of just part of the job. But some things about it are nice. It doesn’t really affect your daily life and in England there’s certainly no question of becoming like Lionel where you’re recognized and encouraged everywhere you go. The literary novel is not real fame.
A lot of your writing is really about combating the mindlessness of the celebrity culture. What do you think then (particularly given your rela- tionship to the late Christopher Hitchens) of the corollary which is the public intellectual—do you feel like there’s a sense of obligation or a moral imperative to be able to comment on politics and talk about, you know, terrorism and the current elections? Do you think that’s a role you occupy?
Well I suppose that for intellectual men that’s what you are—you lose the temptation and not the obligation to comment on what you see around you. He certainly liked conflict and I find I have not so much a taste for that. But I do surprise myself sometimes by having some.
And it becomes a bit of a public furor in terms of how the press responds to these things ...
Well it’s different in America. In England you’re not supposed to comment on these things. Your status there is more of a pact indulged. But here, where the role of the novelist is not resented, there seems to be fair comment and you’re not con- demned for sort of joining in these debates.?
In general do you feel like you have more freedom in America? You’ve spent a lot of time in the States, because your father was lecturing at Princeton, for example, and it’s figured in a lot of your fiction. How is the author positioned differently in America, do you think?
Well they certainly are, yes. And I think there’s a straightforward explanation for that. I think that America’s a young country that came together two and half centuries ago, and was curious to know whether it was a real country or just a col- lection of immigrants. And subconsciously un- derstood that writers would play a role in telling them what America was. In England—there’s never been any questions about what England is. It’s the country of Chaucer and Shakespeare. Its history is so much longer than that of America and all those questions have long been settled, if indeed they were ever asked.
Your most recent novel is subtitled “A State of England.” Would you consider it in the same tradition as that of Chaucer and Shakespeare, or do you see as kind of a redefinition of what England is?
Well it still is and always will be the country of Shakespeare. That’s its greatest distinction. But it’s certainly come a long way from then, let’s put it that way. And it’s in the process of a long decline. I don’t see any way of pretending that’s not true. And decline would take various forms, and one of them is triviality.
I’m interested in going back to what you said about youth and the particularly the youth of America. You seem to really value innocence and freshness and fresh experience. And you’ve spoken in previous interviews about the “mental rabble of the wised-up world.” In that sense, how do you see the world in terms of its youth or innocence or its cynicism or not—do you feel that we can ever go back to that state of innocence?
You can’t recapture lost innocence. And I don’t see any means of doing that. It would be silly to try, I think. But that doesn’t mean that one embraces pessimism. I just read Steven Pinker’s book The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence has Declined, and it does change the picture and makes it very difficult for people who say that we are launched on a descent and, in fact, all the indicators are that the world has be- come more self-controlled, more civilized, more empathetic than it’s ever been before—despite the horrors of the first half of the twentieth century. All the indicators are down.
To go off tangentially, from this idea of youth, you once said in an interview that every adolescent is a writer. This can be reflected in increased workshops and in creative writing programs across the country. Do you have any thoughts about the cultivation of writers? Should it be a collective activity? Should some people not become writers?
Well, it can’t be a cooperative activity. Writing is about solitude. To be a writer you have to not only have an enormous appetite for solitude, but you have to be in some sense most alive when alone. I think that’s why, for instance, dramatic arts is probably much lower-level than fiction and poetry—because it is collaborative. I couldn’t imagine any compromise on having total say. The novelist is in a godlike relation to what he creates. He’s omnipotent, omniscient —he’s autocratic. But I think any show of interesting writing—above all, reading is one of those—can only be a good thing. And it’s interesting, in Steven Pinker’s book, one of the reasons for the decline in violence over the last several centuries is the invention of printing and the rise of the novel. And he says that the mass reading public does in fact learn to find perspective and a protective where he doesn’t much like. But that’s what fiction must to some extent do, it’s still empathy, because you’re asking the readers to see things from a different point of view.
Related to your own literary education, what did you read when young and when you were in college?
I read comic books until disgracefully late in my teenage years. I came to reading in my late teens. And, you know, you read and you read and every now and then you pick up a writer and you think, this writer is talking to me in a way the others aren’t. And that happened to me with Saul Bellow, most memorably, and that’s what I hope happens when younger readers pick me up. That they will think, here is someone who seems to speak to me more easily than the others. And I will want to read everything they write. And that kind of particular bond of the reader.
You’ve been called “fiction’s angriest writer,” with parallels ranging from James Joyce to Tom Wolfe. What novelistic function do you see in this anger, as well as in the comedy that also comes up in your novels—in general, the hyperbolic language so ubiquitous in your writing?
The word function, it doesn’t—a novel begins in a kind of dream like state. You have an idea of what it’s going to be. And then it becomes a huge sort of wrestling match to make that happen. You draw conclusions from what you’ve already written, but in the actual process you don’t think in those terms. You just say it again and again, every sentence, in your head, until it sounds right, and you do that for every paragraph and for every page. Once the idea takes, it becomes a question of craft and hard work.
Could you talk some more about your thinking process as you begin a novel, its gestation stages, and then how you move from that to the final product?
The key is that a novel has to begin with some strange frisson, a shiver or throb, and you think, “This is a novel I can write,” and you do need to have that. And it’s a very peculiar feeling. And then it can be sort of hardly anything. It could be derisory what this premonitory shiver gives you. Maybe just a situation, maybe just a single character. Then you start writing and see what happens. And usually you have an idea of the beginning, an idea of the end, and an idea of something that happens mid-way through. And that’s probably all you’ve got as you start. So it’s a journey without a map but with a kind of destination. And then it’s a huge exercise in trial and error and multiple decisions, multiple decisions on every page, until you get close to your kind of platonic ideal of what the novel could have been when it first struck you. But it’s an incremental process. It’s brick upon brick.
To what you extent do you find that autobiographical elements play into this process of crafting a novel? To what extent is an autobiographical element, for example, part of that initial shiver?
Some novelists do go quite close to life, Philip Roth as well as Saul Bellow. But if you put a real character in a novel they will look very strange, out of place. What you have to do is change the person so that they fit the novel. I put Christopher Hitchens in a novel, my last one, and he went in quite easily, but I had to give him a toss a few times, I had to change what had to be changed. But that was quite rare for me. I think little segments of your life, you consult—you come to a character and you say, “Who is this like?” You fixate on someone you have known, maybe not at all well, for how they look, and someone else for how they talk, and you cannibalize your acquaintances and friends and people you just pass on the street, and you cobble them together that way. But it can be a help to have a real-life model, although I wouldn’t—the thing about fiction is freedom, and a real person will make demands of you that aren’t really right for fiction where you’ve got to be free.
In terms of fiction and the novel in contemporary culture, do you have any thoughts on what now is the place of the novel? Do you think it could play a different role than it has in the past? And where could it be going? What new direc- tions could the novel be taking?
Well, I wouldn’t know about them because I don’t read my youngers. And the only contemporaries I read are pretty much my friends. Because to read the latest book by the 25-year-old sensation seems to me a very uneconomical way of using your time. I would say that the novel has responded to modernity, to the most recent stretch of modernity, by becoming much more streamlined and dynamic. Because the pace of history seems to speed up and seems just as important to us, whether or not it actually has. And things are moving too fast now for the kind of long essays, the meditative novel that was popular couple of generations ago. Life is too fast for that now and novelists, being modern people, have resorted to that. I imagine the novel wil go on getting streamlined. The arrow of propulsion will get sharper.
Speaking of the arrow of propulsion, do you feel like you’re getting sharper and sharper?
It’s a tradeoff. Your musical abilities get more limited by your craft gets better and you know what goes where. You can modulate and you can ... this concept of earning what you write becomes clearer to you: you can’t just put the words on the page without going through a process that involves pleasure and also some pain. And you have to write it, you can’t just state it. So the technical side gets easier. The inspirational side gets more difficult.
You did say once in an interview about your father, that there’s a fear that older writers can have of younger writers, a fear that the younger writers might have a better sense of the contemporary –
Well, yes, I think that’s inevitable and maybe as a result you will set your stuff in the recent past. It would be very undignified to try to keep up with the new. You have to let it go at a certain point and say, I do what I do, and I’m not going to just go and find out what everyone’s up to, stick to your own milieu, your own area.
We’ve talked about young writers and older writers. You wrote some of your first novels when you were in your 20s—how would you contrast your first novels to what you’re doing now?
Well I can’t read my early stuff ... I mean, I can see it’s lively and all that, it’s surprising but technically it’s embarrassing. The novels of mine that I like most are the most recent ones.
Over the past few years you’ve talked a lot about growing old, about mortality, and about the distastefulness in that. And yet more recently, after the death of your dear friend Christopher Hitchens, you’ve spoken more about the gift of life. How would you say your philosophy on life has evolved over the past few years?
Well, as I said when you arrive, when you start communing with yourself in your teenage years, you start to keep notes and diaries and become self-aware, and the world looks like a—you’re saying hello to the world. And then after a certain point in your life you find that you’re beginning to say goodbye. And that has a certain kind of poignancy and things do look precious when you’re absolutely sure that you’re not going to be around for that much longer. They say that age gives nothing back ... but I think it does.