written and illustrated by HUGO GUINNESS
Martin Amis is the author of 14 novels, including Money, London Fields, and The Rachel Papers, which won the 1974 Somerset Maugham Award. In April, I visited him at his home in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn. We had a refreshing glass of white wine and began to talk...
HUGO GUINNESS: I’m always very interested in people’s creative work habits and how they structure their days. How do you structure yours?
MARTIN AMIS: Just to give you the bare bones, I get up between 9 and 10 o’clock, usually, and then breakfast.
Quite a large breakfast?
Well, three courses. You know, an orange, a bit of microwaved bran with fruit, and then a boiled egg that I take the yolk out of. Then it’s down to the study to work. There’s a general misconception that you do it all with your front brain, writing. That it’s a cerebral and rational business. I increasingly notice that a) it’s the subconscious that does the work, and b) how physical it is. Saul Bellow used to sweat when he was writing. The whole body is involved. You come to a paragraph that you feel you’re not quite ready to write. When I was younger, I would’ve batted my head against it. Now I don’t even think about doing that. My legs take me up from my desk and I go to an easy chair and read, or I do an errand, and then at some point, hours later, or even the next day—because sometimes you have to sleep on it—you go back. Your legs take you back to the desk, because the subconscious has solved it. It’s increasingly mysterious to me, the whole writing process, but increasingly marvelous as well.
“When I was 30, an evening in with a bottle of wine and an eight-hour read of me was my idea of heaven.”
Do you find you do your best work when you’re not trying too hard?
You shouldn’t know too clearly what you’re doing. I think Tom Stoppard defined bad writing as writing by people who know exactly what they’re doing. He says that’s always the mark of a charlatan. It has to be this fruitful confusion—what Keats called negative capability, which is a sort of silly term for what is a simple thing: You live with doubt. You have to suffer. You really do have to suffer. Not in a Beckett-like way, but you have to have a lot of anxiety to put into the book.
That’s the tough part, isn’t it?
Well, it comes at you at different points. I finished the novel Lionel Asbo in a year and thought, Great, a whole novel written in a year! And then it took me another year to revise it. A fellow novelist, Edward St. Aubyn, said to me, “What did you have to put into it that wasn’t there?” And I said, “Anxiety.” Because the year I spent writing it was sort of carefree, but that makes you slapdash, and then you look back and it’s full of repetitions and things that haven’t been pushed through. I spent about three weeks revising just two pages. Nabokov claimed that he spent a month on a paragraph in Lolita, and you go and look at it and think, Alright, it’s a very nice and important paragraph. But a month? So even very productive writers have to be patient. You have to learn how to wait. There’s a story of a journalist in a dodgy country who changed the job description on his passport from “writer” to “waiter.” It’s what you have to do.
Do you do a lot of outlining? P.G. Wodehouse, for instance, would spend nine months on a plot. He’d plan the whole novel out, but then the writing process was very quick.
That strikes me as very weird, because it’s always a journey. You know the destination, and you know about some turn in the road about halfway through, but otherwise it’s a journey.
You really don’t know what your characters are going to do or where they’re going to go?
No. It’s a journey with a destination, but no maps. Wodehouse was more a cartographer. He was a very odd sort of talent, capable of great brilliancies and great longueurs. He was essentially frothy. You aren’t a Wodehouse freak, are you?
I am not.
I find Wodehouse freaks slightly creepy.
I just remember everyone telling me at school that he was a great role model for writing, along with Evelyn Waugh.
I was reading Evelyn Waugh’s Second World War trilogy, Sword of Honour, recently. It’s a kind of grand style, or grandiose style. I don’t think either of them are role models anymore. They had an aristocratic style. At its worst, a snob style. Brideshead Revisited was Waugh’s most successful book, and he said he was alarmed by the fact that it was a great hit in America and took that as a very bad sign. He reread it, he said, “on a full stomach,” long after the war, and was appalled. It was so lush and vulgar.
Do you ever reread your own books?
I don’t. I’m actually feeling quite resentful that I’ve had to read the proofs of my last novel. More and more as I get older, going back to the past, as the future shrinks and the past gets bigger, feels onerous. I want to get on with the one I’m doing. I want to go forward. When I was 30, an evening in with a bottle of wine and an eight-hour read of me was my idea of heaven. Not anymore. But you do quite like reading a few pages when they’ve just been minted.
Just to see that it’s real.
Yes. You sort of flick through and read bits with perhaps some pleasure. It looks more convincing in a book.
How do you keep track of your ideas?
It’s very chaotic. I have two or three notebooks on the go and I just write, you know, the thought of the hour and then I’ll go to another notebook. But I do write in longhand, with a cheap ballpoint. A cheap ballpoint is your only man. The ink on the page and the blood in your arm—there’s that sort of painterly connection.
Okay, so after breakfast you’re at your desk until when?
If all goes well, about 3pm. That’s a good stint. It doesn’t happen every day.
Seven days a week?
Of course, and especially Christmas. And then I’ll do the crossword in the Financial Times for about half an hour, and then read. I’ll do another hour around drinks time.
Do you like to go out to dinner for a change of scene?
Not often. I’m happy at home.
Quite lonely, isn’t it?
I think you have to be the kind of person who is most alive when alone. I think all artists have to be that kind of person. You have to have a huge appetite for solitude, and for its rituals.
I think that’s what I wasn’t prepared for — how lonely it is.
Will Self wrote amusingly about this. Every Christmas, he said he gets drunk and has a wank behind the filing cabinet. The office party of one.
I’ll have to remember that. Now that you’ve finished your next book, what are you working on?
I’m 70 pages into another one.
So there’s never a gap?
You fear the gaps. It’s almost a necessary component of finishing a novel to have, in your mind, the certainty that you’ve got another one to start within a day or two.
A day or two?
Or even the same day. When I see people waiting at bus stops and all they’re doing is waiting and not reading, I pity people who aren’t novelists or artists. At least if you couldn’t be reading, you could be thinking about the next sentence or thinking about the next brushstroke. There is always another layer of preoccupation, and my life would be miserably thin without it. But I suppose most people ruminate about their work, even if it’s accounting or something like that. But do you think they dream about accounting? Are they stirred by it?
They must be. Do you remember your dreams? I very rarely remember mine.
Well, I have great respect for dreams because they’re part of the subconscious made visible, and it’s very nice of your subconscious to let you see the films it’s made. It’s a funny thing: tell a dream, lose a reader, said Henry James. It’s one of the few things that fiction can’t do. Another thing fiction can’t do is sex. It can do embarrassing sex, but it can’t do good sex.
It has to be very brief.
Or just sort of suggest it. My father [Kingsley Amis] put it very well when he said descriptions of sex “de-universalize.” The novel is trying to be universal, but as soon as you start talking about someone’s likings in the bedroom, it doesn’t connect with anyone else.
So how’s the new one coming along?
I’m enjoying it, but it’s incredibly self-indulgent. It’s really another memoir, but very lightly fictionalized, with one or two plot points completely invented. I don’t disguise myself so much. When you get to my age, you very much want to know what it was that you lived through. Not just geopolitics, great power politics, but social politics. What were the great social events of your time? Apart from the wars, my grandfather’s time was about people leaving the land and coming to the cities; in Kingsley’s time, it was the war and then the sexual revolution, which I tracked because I was about 17.
You did quite well in that one.
As Larkin put it: “Sexual intercourse began / In nineteen sixty-three / (Which was rather late for me)—/ Between the end of the Chatterley ban / And the Beatles’ first LP.” It was a real revolution.
Martin Amis’s latest novel, The Zone of Interest, will be published in September by Knopf.