the Insiders


May 10, 2010 1:01 PM

Eye, Media

Amis Outtakes

Martin Amis at home.PHOTO BY TIM JENKINS Martin Amis' latest book, "The Pregnant Widow" (Random House), comes out in the US on May 11. The story, which takes place in a castle in the countryside near Naples, is a...

Martin Amis at home.

Martin Amis' latest book, "The Pregnant Widow" (Random House), comes out in the US on May 11. The story, which takes place in a castle in the countryside near Naples, is a comedy of manners and centers on a clutch of 20-somethings test-driving free love in the summer of 1970. I'd interviewed Amis - a literary legend in the UK - a few times over the phone, and had found him frank and forthcoming. I also knew he had a long history with Women's Wear Daily - one of his former girlfriends is the biographer and author Julie Kavanagh, a former London correspondent for W and WWD in the early Seventies. Clearly, I couldn't wait to meet the man and pick his famously big brain about everything from his novelist father Kingsley Amis, to his old pal Saul Bellow to the books he was teaching at university and who he was voting for in the UK's latest general election. 

Sinking happily into the cushions of a fire-engine red velvet sofa in Amis' sunny sitting room, I felt like the sole guest at a fabulous literary festival, firing off questions and getting thoughtful and witty answers back. Herewith, an excerpt from our hour-long interview:

WWD: How long did it take you to write the book?
Martin Amis: I struggled with it for six years and then I abandoned what I was writing, which was a long autobiographical novel. Then, after two horrible weeks, I realized that with luck it would be two novels. What was wrong with it was trying to combine them.
WWD: There's much talk about physical beauty - and its power - in the book.  
Amis: It's the most invidious subject on earth because no one really knows what beauty is. We all sense it, don't we? But it's very hard to define, and very hard to see it in human worth or virtue - but there it is.

How autobiographical is this book?
Amis: There was such a summer, but absolutely nothing happened. I was with a girl like Lily, and there was a great beauty there, and other comings and goings that I haven't put in the book, but absolutely nothing else. And it bears up the Philip Roth line that you don't write about what happened, you write about what didn't happen - or what might have happened. I imported lots of characters in to make sure something did happen.
WWD: Tell me about your teaching gig at Manchester University. [Amis is Professor of Creative Writing at the university's Centre for New Writing].
Amis: I don't do any workshop stuff, we just take a novel and we talk about it very much from the point of view [of the author]. You know, when you read "Pride & Prejudice," as a girl, don't identify with Elizabeth Bennett, and if you're a boy, don't identify with Darcy, but identify with Jane Austen, see what she's trying to do and how she does it. That's what we bring to every novel we look at, what difficulties have to be solved to write this novel. I was very curious, because my father had taught me for years and years and I wondered whether I had any knack for it but I think I'm fine as a teacher.
WWD: You were close friends with the late American novelist Saul Bellow. Who, in your opinion, is Bellow's heir in America?
Amis: Denis Johnson, perhaps. But the Jewish line seems to have dried up. It was a fantastic half-century for Jewish-American writers. It was a like a revolutionary struggle for the Jews to be taken seriously by the Americans. Lionel Trilling was told someone of his background wouldn't have a feeling for English literature. Bellow made it easier for the others.
WWD: Is your father's body of work due for a revival?
Amis: My Spanish publishers say when a novelist dies, he always slumps. It's rather counter-intuitive, I think. The big difference is now that the Wiley Agency has taken over [the Kingsley Amis] estate. He's being re-issued in many countries. He had an agent who was semi-retired, and then this huge energy of the Wiley agency comes in. Pretty much re-publishing the whole list and audio books, and all over the place. He's been dead for fifteen years - 1995. I am very happy to talk about him, and it's a huge body of work.
WWD: Whom are you going to vote for in the upcoming British election?
Amis: I was going to abstain from voting because I always vote Labour, and I couldn't ever bring myself to vote for Conservative - I mean just for superstitious childhood reasons, really. But I think I will vote for [Nick] Clegg, [leader of the Liberal Democrats]. Labour is exhausted and corrupted by power, every democratic [government] should chuck them out at least every ten years.
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