Martin Amis: The Face Interview
by Fiona Russell Powell
AMIS' WRITING DEN is a first-floor flat in the only detached house
just manages to dust off seedy Ladbroke Grove and look to upwardly
mobile Westbourne Park. If he keeps his window open, regular gusts
of the 'street' breeze in from around the comer in All Saints Road.
He actually lives with his art historian wife, Antonia Phillips,
and new first-born baby boy on "the other side of Ladbroke Grove" -
by which he means the right side of Ladbroke Grove. The flat is equipped
only for necessity; comfortable essentials and the usual writers'
tools. Greeted at the door at two pm under a hot and brooding sky,
I was given
a Bloody Mary.
FRP: Do you think that poetry is a higher form of literary achievement than prose?
MA: On the whole, yes. Simply because it's more condensed, it's more worked at. My father's a poet as well as a novelist and he sometimes facetiously asks me when I'm going to produce a book of poems. I sometimes dream that I've written a book of poems and I feel incredibly proud in my dream, but it never happens in waking life. I've had a couple of poems published but really they're chopped-up prose. I think whatever poetic latencies or possibilities I have go into my prose, with some good effects and some not so good; but I think prose is the more flexible form, it seems to me you can do almost anything with prose. Lawrence said that the great thing about the novel is that you can do what you like with it. I don't feel thwarted by not being able to write poetry although I think writing poetry is a way of being able to listen to your heart in a way that writing prose is not. Prose is the more disingenuous form
FRP There aren't many books I've read and laughed out loud at. The last three I can remember were A Confederacy Of Dunces (John Kennedy Toole), Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas (Hunter S Thompson) and The Rachel Papers by yourself. Can you remember which books have made you laugh out loud in a crowded public place?
Lots of books. The Naked Lunch is a very funny-book even though it's horrifying, and Kurt Vonnegut, Joseph Heller and Kingsley Amis - his books make me laugh the same way he makes me laugh; family humour is very peculiar humour and that humour is likely to be inherited so it's doubly natural that I should find my father's books funny.
Do you talk to yourself?
Yeah, I mutter and I swear to myself. But I had a brother and a sister so there was no need to talk to myself; I think those things spark from an early solitude.
Would you agree that you are obsessed by other people's obsessions?
I think other people's obsessions are always reflected through your own obsessions. Do you mean that what appeals to me is their oddity?
You mean have I got rid of it? I still seem to have to go the lavatory every day which is a very bad habit which I wish I could kick. Yeah, I write a lot about ... for instance, my father says the novelist should always stop when he reaches the bedroom and stay outside the bedroom door. I like, not only to go into the bedroom but to go into the bathroom too. In a way, John Self is a part of everyone ... how people behave when they think no-one is watching and the bathroom is the place where people behave as if no-one is watching and I enjoy shining a light on that, exposing, people as they have their private dramas in the bathroom, which no-one ever sees . . . I think you can make something of a vice if you put it in a novel and render it amusing; you domesticate it too, you make it livable with, transforming it into the object of pleasure. In the brief biog at the start of your novels, you include the fact that you went to thirteen schools and attended a series of crammers.
Were you a bad pupil or did you have to travel a lot as a child?
Yeah, mainly, we were shifting about a lot. I only got expelled from one school. But my education got out of whack because I spent a year in America when I was nine or ten and their schools are very much behind at that level. I managed to get the 11+ when I got back but then I went to a school in Palma, Majorca for six months and by the time I came back I was out of the system. I went to a grammar school in Battersea which I got expelled from when I was 14. It was crammers from then on. My parents had broken up by that time so my mother presided over the crammers - then I went to stay with my father when I was 16. I'd fallen very far behind - I was averaging about an '0' level a year. I'd still be there but I went to a boarding school where I suddenly got the bug of reading.
Were you brought up in a heavily academic atmosphere?
Not really, no. I mean I was aware that my father was disappearing into his study a lot but in terms of reading I had a very trashy street-centred sort of childhood. I didn't read a serious book outside of school until I was 16 or 17.
This is an obvious question: is Charles Highway (main character in The Rachel Papers) a relative of the teenage Martin Amis?
Yes, that was quite an autobiographical book. What you do really is, you take a part of yourself and imagine that's the only part there is, and - he's quite a stylised character, he's not terrifically believable. He's so extreme. I didn't think Keith Whitehead (Dead Babies) was believable at all. I made him so incredibly unattractive and charmiess too, nasty as well as every-thing else, and yet there were people who believed in him so much that they couldn't bear to finish the book because they knew something horrible was going to happen to him . . . One always underestimates the capacity of belief in a reader. In this sense, readers are Surrogate writers in that they create a world when they read. When people say they feel sorry for Keith I think 'Keith? How on earth can they feel sorry for him?' But even though I wrote that book in a sort of manic, giggling, vicious way, even I have sympathy for Keith really, even I felt sort of sorry for him. I have a very clear idea in my mind of who he is, what he is.
How do you rank your father against his contemporaries?
He criticises me a lot, the son-of-a-bitch! I rate him pretty high. When you say rate, what one is really saying is, is he going to be read in 50 years time? I think that's the only measure. I wonder if I will be - that's the big question really. You write about your time and you write about it in a way that you hope will renew itself later. The most extraordinary example of that is Jane Austen who survived all the orthodoxes of the twentieth century, I mean there were Marx-ist readings of Jane Austen and there were Freudian readings of Jane Austen, she seems to renew and renew all the time although she wrote about an incredibly narrow and dated world frozen in time. With my father, I think Lucky Jim will always be a comic classic, I don't think time will obliterate that. He's a good writer about the present day too, he recaptures the flavour of the present time.
Which of your books has earns the most money?
Money! I got the biggest advance and I've sold more. I earned about £2000 from Success; that's the one that's earnt me the least money. I don't know why. It wasn't published in America and that seemed to be the end of it. That's not much for three years work.
Has anyone bought the film rights to any of your books?
No, they've just bought options. They pay 10% of the asking price and have it for a year, then if they want to, they renew the option or drop it. Some Americans have just bought the option on The Rachel Papers and I think they're going to turn it into a Porkies. Film-makers don't like any voice-overs because they think that pre-empts their thing, the visual medium, therefore you should subdue the words. I wrote a treatment of Money and I thought it might work but I would regard any film of a book of mine as being completely and utterly different. Film is an incredibly approximate medium, the novel is very exact. If you make an analogy between the two, you see that the writer is not only the crowd scene and every extra, he's the weather too, he has absolute control over everything whereas the director is approximating all the time using these human tools.
Is your imagination most active at night or during the day?
During the morning, that's the only time I ever do any serious work. At night, I do wake up with good ideas and thoughts but often they're sort of mangled thoughts, thought substitutes if you like. Something quite ecstatic has been happening to me recently. It's where I feel a sort of shape or form, a literary form that's to do with what I'm writing, and I see it all at once. It's as if I'm cooking it, it's getting cooked in my head. It's very odd, I don't expect anyone to understand it. I don't understand it myself . . .
Is there any book you've read more than three times?
Lolita by Nabokov.
How would you describe your sense of humour?
Darkish, I would say. Maybe it's a funny mixture of things in that I see myself as essentially a comic writer and yet I'm not interested in the usual comic themes. I'm interested in more painful humour, so you get an odd result. In life, I think my humour's pretty normal. It's only when I sit down that it starts to look black or dark or sick or whatever.
In a recent interview you said that Dead Babies was the novel you were least satisfied with. Why is that?
Simply because it gives me the least pleasure when I look at it now. It embarrasses me. There are too many weaknesses: derivative writing, writing for effect, sentimentality of a funny kind. It goes too far in all directions. It's the only book I've written in continuous high spirits. Now that's a very dangerous thing; it's very dangerous to write a novel in a funk - either way you won't come up with much at the end. The proper state for writing a novel is a bit of high-spiritedness, a bit of funk but mostly intense anxiety. You know you're onto something if you're almost sick to your stomach with anxiety. Part of you thinks it's wonderfully good and you despair of ever giving birth to this huge thing. You are just the humble scribe and something in heaven is dictating this to you. Your responsibilities are so great and you might walk under a bus. There's that, but on the other hand you think, 'What is the psychotic drivel I'm writing every day, who'll be interested in that?' You think, 'When I send this off there's going to be a white van outside the house'. So, when those two feelings are in a constant washing-machine inside your stomach, that's how you should feel. The more anxiety you feel, the more you're onto something. I never felt iller in my life than when I read through the typescript of Money. I felt absolutely sick! Later I realised that all that anxiety was the investment I was putting into it. That's the price you pay.
Money had much better reviews in America than it did here. It's very strange because Americans aren't famous for their sense of irony or their ability to face self-criticism, but they 'got' the book much more readily than the English reviewers. I don't know why. A couple of reviews called it 'sombre' and a 'dismal vision' and I couldn't believe it because, to me, it's very high spirited. John Self started off as John Sleet, then I changed it to Street and finally chose Self. It's a great clunking name, it's a horrible name, it's not a name.
Do you think we should abolish the word 'sin' from modern day vocabulary?
People, I wrote: 'These are the seven deadly sins: AVARICE, ENVY, PRIDE,
GLUTTONY, LUST, ANGER, SLOTH'. And under
I wrote: 'These are the seven deadly sins:
Is there any common characteristic in human nature or vice which particularly interests or attracts you?
I'm interested in this whole business of confidence and really, in Money, confidence ends up as a psychopathic state. Anyone who's confident is really crying for help because it's such an inappropriate response to modern life. In fact, panic is the appropriate response to modern life. I'm very interested in peoples' strategy for confidence. The comfort is knowing that the most confident people aren't confident, it's all bull. They have a sort of executive form of it but deep confidence is an illusion.
Would you say you are a contented man?
No. I don't think our condition allows for that. The very exploder of confidence is death. It's inevitability, it's the one-directional nature of the journey towards it; there is no going back, people tend to get further and further away from what they want. The happy man is a complete nutter in my opinion. An amiable nutter. There's a happy man who lives on our street and I wrote a short story about him. You can tell he's happy, it's just so clear. In the story he has this happiness as an accessory which is larded onto everything else and then a huge catastrophe lands on him. He's a strong man but he loses all his strength after this catastrophe, though not his happiness, which is another way of saying that happiness is either there or it isn't and has very little to do with observable facts about someone's life. It's something you're born with. On one level I admire this man very much and on the other hand I think he's a bit of an asshole, really.
Do you think it's insecurity which makes the average Englishman behave so embarrassingly when abroad?
Definitely insecurity. They feel cowed by foreigners so they assert their worst qualities. I don't speak any foreign languages and I lived in Paris for a while. I kept on thinking, 'Jesus, Parisians are so mature, even the children and the tramps speak French'. I felt cowed by it; especially if you're living in a beautiful country like Italy, it's like living in an oil painting and you feel so gross. If you're from Leeds and you're strolling round Sienna or Florence, you're bound to feel a bit rough. I think that's why the English love America so much, you feel like the Duke of Windsor the minute you step off the plane.
Would you call yourself an 'observer' or a 'voyeur'?
Actually, in my books, most of it is made up. I'm an imaginer, I think - or does that sound high fallutin? I don't object to the voyeur label - I certainly look at my characters when they don't want to be looked at. But a voyeur usually has a colluding voyee, people whom voyeurs watch usually want to be watched. It's not the same as a peeper; maybe I'm a peeper? In all of your books, you build up the characters and then ruthlessly destroy them.
I think that's to do with the confidence business again. The exponents of confidence in my books, like Gregory in Success or Fielding in Money were people who seemed to have it all taped but are in fact bristling with suicidal uncertainty. It's just a way of saying, in my writing life anyway, that confidence just doesn't wash, it's a joke. I think in Other People I say everyone thinks that they're a joke which one day other people will get; that suddenly you'll be held up to ridicule and everyone'll be jack-knifed over with laughter because they've seen through you. I think that's quite strong and clear.
'Money' is sub-titled 'A Suicide Note'. Have you ever considered suicide?
In the introduction to Money it says everyone tries their hand at suicide notes, we all write them in our heads. We're all composing these notes which is just one of those streams of babble that go through your head at all times. It's funny because when you're young, you think it's an incredibly available option, that if things get too hard you'll just kill yourself. It's amazing how that weakens. Never comfort yourself with that idea. It seems so easy when you're younger but every day you go on it gets harder and more impossible.
Why does Norman Mailer always refer to you as "that little wimp"?
Yeah, wasn't it in THE FACE that he said that? I know he does. It's because I shat on a couple of his books and I did a profile and shat on him in that. Actually, I didn't think it was too hostile at all. I think it was his wife who started calling me a little wimp.
What aspect of the human race terrifies you most?
Violence and nuclear weapons. I'm just finishing a little collection of stories with a long introduction all about nukes. I'm quite obsessed by them at the moment, I think they explain an awful lot. If you look around for an answer for everything that is extraor-dinary and appalling about modern life, nukes are the single clearest explanation. What's different about our time, that's qualitatively different, is that we live under a huge question mark. Not until now was the human race capable of killing itself. We are completely different from any other people in history.
Since the recent arrival of your baby, you've been extolling the virtues of parenthood. Has becoming a father changed you much?
Yes. I don't think you can come through an experience like that the same as you were before. It changes everyone, in various predictable ways. It makes you worry about the future more and it changes your relationship to your parents in quite a moving way. You suddenly see how you were to them. It sobers you up a bit too.
Your father has been accused of being misogynistic in his work and the same criticism has been levelled at you. Why is this and does it upset you?
I think it's untrue in my case but not in my father's case and I think he would admit to it. He's not a woman-hater, he just thinks they get everything wrong; he thinks they don't have the same perception of truth as we (men) do. And I agree with a lot of that, but I don't think it's a fault. Women are just very different right down to the tips of their hair, but I find that interesting. According to your previous interviews, your father has never read any of your books all the way through and doesn't really like them.
Do you feel hurt or annoyed by his apparent lack of interest?
He's almost read two all the way through. I've got used to it but it baffles me a bit in that if my little boy wrote a novel, one day I would read it. Vulgar curiosity would be more than enough reason to, it would be incredibly interesting because you find out more about a person by reading a novel by them - it's very intimate. I'm astounded that he can't seem to be able to get through; also, I can't see why he wouldn't enjoy them. When he was married to my ex-step-mother, Elizabeth Jane Howard, he looked at the novels that she was writing while she was with him but he never looked at the earlier novels. I think it's a measure of how seriously he takes it, in that he can't. When he's reading a novel he's reading a novel and it doesn't matter who it's by in that sense - also, he's a lazy old bastard and he doesn't like modern prose. He likes thrillers. Dick Francis is his favourite living author. He once said, half-jokingly, 'unless a novel begins with the sentence "A shot rang out", then I'm not going to bother with it'. A nice reassuring cliche but nothing's going to be asked of you. I think he just can't be bothered to make the effort.
Tell me about your mother.
I think I get quite a lot from my mother, at least as much as I get from my father. She's a very disorganised thinker and she's a very vivid anecdotalist and she really understands people. She's terrifically forgiving and she can't see anyone in worse shape than they are. She expects nothing of people. If you say 'I'm a compulsive alcoholic gambler', she'd say, 'of course you are darling, we all are'. She lived in Spain for a long time; in rural Spain there are an awful lot of spastics and cripples on the street and it's very Spanish not to mind that and completely accept it, and once I was walking through Ronda in southern Spain with my mother and this famous local figure in the town came lurching past us with one eye here and one eye there and my mother turned to me and said, 'I now regard that as completely normal'. She's very unsqueamish. She now housekeeps for my father and her third husband lives there too, it's a very complicated arrangement but they're very complicated people.
In Money, John Self visits strip-clubs, massage parlours and so forth. Was this first-hand research?
Yes, I did go to a massage parlour in America. I told my wife I'd have to go. I went with an American friend and used more of his experience than mine because his was funnier. I couldn't imagine it so I had to go. It wrote itself really; it was all so much to do with money; it was such a sham.
What are your opinions on plastic surgery and the American obsession with physical perfection? It seems to me to be a symptom of a tremendous terror of and inability to face up to death and the ageing process in general. I'm not saying the English way of getting older is any better, the way you turn into a fat fuck at the age of 40, but the Barbie-doll look in America is infantile. But they're rather infantile people, they dress up in kiddie clothes and they like big sweet drinks and baby-type food - children with huge toys.