Bookforum talks with Martin Amis

In his new novel Lionel Asbo Martin Amis returns to London’s mean streets, where a petty criminal, Lionel Pepperdine (renamed Asbo in honor of the UK’s notorious Anti-Social Behavior Order), wins a £140 million on the lottery. Lionel is a great comic-villain in the tradition of London Fields’ Keith Talent and The Information’s Steve “Scozzy” Cousins. Skyrocketed into society’s highest socio-economic echelons, Lionel struggles to reconcile front-page stardom with his modest, inner-city roots (he is from a fictional part of London where everything hates everything else: “the caff hates the van! the bike hates the shop! the pub hates the bus!”) Caught in the middle of it all is Lionel’s sensitive and intelligent nephew, Des Pepperdine, who is busy juggling family loyalties, his universities studies, later, young parenthood.

On a swampy-hot July afternoon I paid Amis a visit in his new home in Cobble Hill. Loitering on the corner of his street a few minutes before we’d arranged to meet, I wondered what he felt about the prospect of encountering yet another wide-eyed admirer. As it turned out, Amis was cool, calm, and incorrigibly friendly. In his book-lined study downstairs we drank ice water, smoked cigarettes, and talked shop.

Bookforum: Lionel Asbo feels like a return to quite natural territory for you. How long did it take you to write this one?

Amis: It was a very odd book to write, I hope this doesn’t happen to me again. It came very fast. I had these two ideas and once I’d welded them together in the first few pages it all came very quickly and enjoyably. But there’s a danger in that. I finished writing it after a year and thought it would take me a few weeks to revise it. But it took me a year. What happens is that you get perfunctory. You’re enjoying the speed of it, so you think, ‘I’ll sort that out later. It’s a bit flat at the moment, but I’ll come back. Let’s get on with the next bit.’ But it was just not good enough. It’s funny how with each book the suffering and the exaltation—the highs and the lows—are oddly distributed. There has to be both. It’s no good if you’re down all the time and it’s no good if you’re smugly typing away the whole time. I wrote Money in three years, having a very good time with it, really enjoying it. Then I read it through at the end and I was horrified. I just couldn’t believe that all the eggs were in the basket, the voice; I had an appalling few days before sending it off.

Bookforum: What horrified you about it?

Amis: Well, it seemed to me I’d gone mad. When I sent it in I expected to see a van pull up and men in white coats fanning out around the room. So that was four days of hell compared to three years of enjoyment. Lionel Asbo felt more like 60 percent enjoyment, 40 percent suffering. But you have to get it done, the suffering. Funny enough, even though you expect it, you’re always appalled by it. And then you have to go through this process where you say, ‘This novel is no good. But come to think of it, neither was the last one—or any of them. All of them were no good.’ And when you’ve done that, then you’re ready to go on.

Bookforum: It’s a very different experience with each novel, then.

Amis: Yeah, it’s turning out to be. I don’t remember having to do too much worrying with my very early stuff, because you’re young and brave and stupid and you just sort of go ahead. But when you get more self-aware of your craft you have to wrestle with it.

Bookforum: Do you feel that Money was the leap from the early stuff to greater self-awareness?

Amis: I suppose it was, yes. It was my first long novel. All the other stuff was 250 pages, I would almost sinisterly keep to that length. Money did loosen me up.

Bookforum: It felt like an Augie March for you. I remember reading in the Letters how Saul Bellow felt when he was in Paris writing The Adventures of Augie March. He uses a metaphor—I forget how it goes exactly—about seeing water running in the street.

Amis: Yeah. That’s in the Letters, is it?

Bookforum: I think it’s in the Letters.

Amis: I know exactly what you mean. He’s writing some miserable-sounding novel about two old guys in a hospice. Two old philosophers—two old Eastern Europeans—in a hospice... Then he sees the water cascading down, and he gets Augie March. I once asked him what it was like writing it, and he said ‘I just bring in the buckets.’

Bookforum: I thought you said something similar about writing Money. There was something in Richard Bradford’s biography of you...

Amis: Yeah, let’s talk about that as little as possible. But yes: with Money it all just seemed to be there, presenting itself. That’s what it’s like when it’s going well. Auden, I think—was it Auden?—said it was like taking dictation from heaven.

Bookforum: I was very interested by the character Des Pepperdine in Lionel Asbo. You once wrote that Money partly came from being tired of being single and childless, and here in the new novel you have two different kinds of masculinity—the violence of Lionel and the fatherhood of Des—in some ways competing.

Amis: Des is probably the nicest person I’ve ever created. Some of writing is embarrassingly transparent: how it gets going is that Lionel is so terrible that Des has to be nice. It’s like painting by numbers; you have to balance it out.

Bookforum: It almost felt like later Amis arguing with younger Amis. Lionel Asbo is very much in line with Keith Talent from London Fields and Scozzy from The Information, whereas Des seems to come from a concern with parenthood and age and mortality that’s also there in The House of Meetings and The Pregnant Widow.

Amis: Des wants a child much sooner than I ever did. But it was fun writing about having a baby after all this time. I had to go back and read all these huge baby books, and I thought ‘Oh god...’ I’m a grandfather now, and when I go see my oldest daughter it just seems like this impossible world. My youngest is thirteen, which is young, but nothing like infancy. Cilla, the baby in Lionel Asbo, is all a description of my middle daughter, who was that kind of baby, while the prematurity bit is from my oldest son, who was six weeks early. So I remember all that. It was fun to go back.

Bookforum: In that case I have to ask if Marmaduke, the nightmare child in London Fields, was based on anyone?

Amis: That was all based on Christopher Hitchens’ son, Alexander, who is a lifelong friend of my two sons. He was an unbelievable baby.

Bookforum: I just reread London Fields and was nearly in tears laughing every time he skirts across a room to sink his teeth into his father’s calf...

Amis. And self-damage too. Fucking a light socket and all that.

Bookforum: You’ve actually written a lot about children, or parenthood, now that I think about it. It’s there in The Information, too...

Amis: Yeah, there’s a lot about the boys in that. Well, I did get very broody—this won’t happen to you for another ten years—and wanted a fresh face around the place, but when they arrived I thought, ‘Great, this is a whole new type of person to write about. It’s a whole new planet.’ And as a parent I was much more hands-on with the boys than with the girls, or with my eldest, who I didn’t meet until she was at Oxford. Salman Rushdie said to me, ‘That’s the way to do it. Don’t meet them until they’re at Oxford.’

Bookforum: So what about Lionel, then. Where did he come from?

Amis: Well, I thought they’ve got to get worse as I go on. Clint Smoker [from Yellow Dog], I thought, was truly dreadful. Lionel had to be worse, but also magnified by winning all this money. He’s much more of an oddity than the other ones. I managed to get hold of a book entitled Careful What You Wish For by a binman [Michael Carroll] who’d won £10 million in the lottery. And I read it and it’s actually quite a charming book, he’s a lovely boy, really. But it was cocaine, girls, quad bikes, smashing cheap cars, all that stuff. And it’s so sweet because the book ends with him saying, ‘I didn’t spend all my money, I’ve still got considerable holdings in Dubai.’ I read the book the week Dubai crashed in 2008. When I finished Lionel Asbo I read he was back on the dustbins. But I read the book and realized I couldn’t use any of it because it’s what you’d expect. In that respect it was a good corrective, knowing I that couldn’t do any of that. Not parties, not coke... Lionel’s a kind of a concoction based on a few people, or aspects of a few people, that I’ve come across.

Bookforum: You mentioned in a recent Guardian interview that you’ve experienced part of this world because of your friend Rob, who was in prison a lot.

Amis: He was in prison a lot, yeah. And he went to the fanciest prep school in England. But he had a fatal attraction to that kind of life, an attraction that makes mine look very dilettantish. But it wasn’t just him, there were others too. I have a great friend who now lives in Spain who has connections, not in Lionel’s world, but in Lionel’s milieu. And he used to take me to events where they’d gather, to lunches where these old villains got together. He looked out for me very well and, because he’s not a reader himself, he once said to me, ‘Have you ever tried reading one of your books?’ Quite a profound remark. But he knew exactly what interested me, and I owe him hundreds of pages. What surprised me about the novel, though, was that it was only towards the end that I realized—I’d had Dickens in the back of my mind and a lot of street names and character names in the book are Dickensian—I was writing in the same genre as Dickens, which is the fairytale. Many people only seem to half-understand what Dickens is up to, because they sort of expect him to be a social critic and a realist like the great Victorians, like George Eliot and Trollope and those people. And he’s nothing like that. His genre is Charlie Chaplin and Walt Disney. It’s cartoonish and exaggerated and hugely energetic. And I realized Lionel Asbo was a kind of fairytale—the transformations, the inordinate punishments, the inordinate rewards, the tower, the nursery rhymes. It was that kind of world. You couldn’t call it unrealistic, it’s not not realistic, it obeys the conventions of realism. But the mental furniture is fairytalish.

Bookforum: You’ve often been compared to Dickens, and I wonder if that’s where you picked up some of your own knack for hyperbole and comic exaggeration. Because I can’t really find it in any other writers...

Amis: Yeah, maybe more than I know. I’ve always been a huge admirer of Dickens.

Bookforum: Do you have a favorite Dickens novel?

Amis: Hard Times is terribly good, and it’s a manageable length, too. The others are much too long. He has great energy, but he’s a very uneconomical writer—as many 19th Century writers are. Dostoevsky is unbelievably uneconomical. But I like Bleak House, and for Lionel Asbo I reread Martin Chuzzlewit. My father used to say that the experience of reading Dickens is very uncomfortable because you’re bounced from violent admiration to violent aversion every few pages. The sentimentality is gross, there’s no question about that. In The Old Curiosity Shop Little Nell turns into an angel at the end. That’s slightly overdone. She disappears in a sort of flurry of wings... And all Dickens’ good guys are boring—faceless, bodiless. But the energy that goes into his eccentrics and his villains is astounding. In Martin Chuzzlewit two guys get into an open carriage and ride across a county of England. There’s no real structural reason for giving it the treatment he does, but it’s just three or four pages of marvelous writing, of giving it everything. He died at 59, I think, but look at those books. Look at the size of those books.

Bookforum: What about your own prose? It’s changed, it’s become more restrained in some way, more economical. I wonder if it’s a change similar to the one Saul Bellow went through as he got older.

Amis: Part of it is, you know, willy-nilly. It’s just what happens. I wrote a piece about Nabokov for the TLS around Christmas-time and said it was sort of convenient—an artificial distinction, but convenient—to look at his stuff and think, ‘What derives from genius and what derives from talent?’ By which I mean that the genius is the god-given stuff and the talent is the craft, all the things that are to do with propulsion and with modulation in a novel. That kind of thing. But if one’s generous and you say that all novelists who are worth anything at all have a little bit of genius and varying amounts of talent, what happens as you get older is that the genius quietens down. It didn’t in Nabokov’s case, except until the very end. I mean Ada or Ardor is all genius and no talent. It’s impossible to read, it’s like Finnegan’s Wake. The love for the reader, which is the healthy, necessary thing, becomes onanistic. It’s a hand-job, basically, that sort of novel. It’s self-loving.

Bookforum: How late was that novel?

Amis: Ada was three from the end, and far and away his longest novel. But then you get Transparent Things which I think is a masterpiece.

Bookforum: I understand your next novel is set in the Holocaust, but I thought I’d read somewhere that you were writing a kind of sequel to The Pregnant Widow, one that would have more to do with some of the people you knew, like Ian Hamilton.

Amis: Yeah. Maybe. How do you know about Ian Hamilton?

Bookforum: I’ve been reading his criticism and his poetry, as well as the portraits of him in Clive James’s memoirs and parodies.

Amis: Have you read the Robert Lowell biography?

Bookforum: No. I’ve got it on my shelf but I haven’t gotten around to it.

Amis: It’s first rate. I was talking the other night to a friend of Lowell’s who very much liked that book, but said too much is made of the madness. I met Lowell two or three times and I thought he was a real sweetie. One night I met him at a party, and about halfway through he went to the bathroom, which was on the ground floor. And he was sicker than I’ve ever heard anyone be sick. I mean really, really explosively sick. And then the next time I saw him he reminded me of the incident. He wasn’t the least bit embarrassed... Clive James used to be able to write a parody of a Lowell sonnet on the back of a napkin in three or four minutes.

Bookforum: He’s also written very perceptively about Lowell.

Amis: Yeah. He’s a great poetry critic. He used to have a monthly column in the Observer, and it was always first-rate. And very fair as well, never gratuitous, really civilized. But very firm in his judgment. I find it impossible not to agree with him all the time. And what energy. I once saw him standing at a bus stop and I went up to him and said, ‘What are you reading?’ And it was Tacitus. In Latin.

Bookforum: That English tradition of literary essayism and literary journalism is remarkably strong.

Amis: It has its fans in odd places. When I was in India last year these three young guys came up to me and wanted to talk about Clive and Ian Hamilton. And they said, ‘This was our education.’

Bookforum: What about your own criticism? You haven’t written much in the past few years. The DeLillo piece in The New Yorker was great.

Amis: It seems to me I’ve written quite a bit. I’ve certainly got enough for another book.

Bookforum: You’re putting together a new collection?

Amis: Yeah, I’m sort of desultorily putting it together.

Bookforum: It’s such an art form, the good literary essay.

Amis: Yes, and very difficult. The toughest thing we do. Talk about suffering. The organizational aspect seems so difficult. When it’s done it doesn’t make much sense to you at first, but then it’s published and you read it and it seems amazingly convincing. But it comes out of that struggle.