No More Illusions
Martin Amis is Getting Old and Wants to Talk About It
by Alexander Laurence and Kathleen McGee
We looked forward to talking with Martin Amis, British
novelist, and author of the new book, The Information
(Harmony). He is the author of numerous books, including Money,
London Fields, The Rachel Papers, Time's Arrow, and Visiting Mrs
Like many, we had read the pre-publication publicity articles
in The New Yorker and Vanity Fair. The media circus treated his
new book as if Kato Kaelin wrote the next Ulysses. Amis
complained about being misquoted in The Chronicle, an article
which came out the morning we interviewed him. He called the
article sloppy and atrocious. Amis pointed out that the writer
had misquoted him as saying "desperation" instead of
"desertion;" while he drank a "Virgin mary"
not a "Bloody mary." He ordered another one while we
talked to him in a hotel around Union Square about his new novel.
Much hoopla had already been made about his large advance, his
new set of teeth, his mid-life crisis, his divorce, but we
focused on the art of fiction.
- Alexander Laurence:
- Do you do e-mail?
- Martin Amis:
- I went on-line yesterday on the internet and answered
some questions and typed up some answers. It was weird
because I don't use a computer as I said when they asked
me how I worked. I said "I work in a velvet smoking
jacket and write with an ostrich quill." It's not
quite the truth.
- Good to hear it. In the spirit of Ronald Firbank....
- Kathleen McGee:
- Have you gotten many writers asking you for advice?
- You get a little of that. Some advice or encouragement.
If someone is struggling with their first book, the only
advice I would give them is "Just get to the end,
then worry. But do finish it." Then you'll know what
you have in front of you. Don't worry about the little
decisions along the way.
- You didn't worry too much with your first novel The
- No. Also because I was the son of a writer, there was
never any question of its getting published. I guessed
that, simply out of mercenary curiosity, most publishers
would have taken it. Children of writers are usually good
for one or two books, and that's it. There's a curiosity
about book number one, rather less for book number two,
and then you shut up. That's been the pattern. I'm still
at it. I think that some people do think that I've
inherited a full set of writer's genes, and that I lie on
a hammock drawling into a type recorder, but it's just so
easy for me.
- I was wondering how you were affected by being around an
author growing up, your father, Kingsley: how has that
- What it does is it de-glamourize the job, because nothing
is more banal than what your dad does for a living. I'm
the same as all writers but I'm different in that way. I
can get off the train of these thoughts of being a
writer. I can just let them run on, and not take them too
seriously. I'm detached about it. But say you're dad was
an army man like Ian McEwan; it seems like a big
achievement to write books. But with me, it doesn't seem
like an achievement or an oddity. So when I get a bad
review I don't lie on the sofa in the fetal position all
- In The Information there are two types of novelists:
there's Gwyn Barry who writes effortlessly like you did
with Rachel Papers, which you wrote so young; and there's
Richard Tull who writes compendiums of knowledge which
don't interest anyone. Do you think that these writers
are not so much based on other people so much as them
being a struggle between two sides of yourself?
- Yes, except that Gwyn Barry writes crap effortlessly.
Neither one of them is me. Many writers would just have
one writer as the main character, then there would have
been a been a subtle psychological conflict in a writer's
mind, but I'm a broad and comic writer, so I get the two
and force them apart. Gywn is a compendium of all stupid
and vein thoughts you get when you're feeling pleased
with yourself and smug, and when you feel slightly
over-rewarded. Tied up with that too is the idea that
this worldly success is irrelevant, and no big advance,
no prize, no sash, no yarn is going to tell you what you
want to know: are you going to last after you're dead?
It's locked in. You're never going to know the answer.
- Richard Tull is obsessed with the idea of immortality:
reaching a vast audience, getting good reviews, and it's
somehow going to redeem him, that he's considered in the
same light as Homer, Dante, Shakespeare....
- That's right. Funny enough, as a subject, it's failure
that is rich and complex, and poignant. Success is a drag
as a subject: it's what Jackie Collins writes about.
Success is for the soaps. Failure is what's interesting.
Failure is where we live. On the whole, we don't walk
around gloating over our little triumphs. We walk around
aching about our defeats and disappointments, and since
the writer's ego is infinite, there's always some damn
thing you're not getting. Even if you won the Nobel
prize, you'd be thinking, well, I didn't win it last year
and I'm not going to win it next year.
- So you think that they're going to give you the Nobel
this year for this book?
- Yeah. But it matters and it doesn't matter. I read in L.
A. at a place called Book Soup, partly a restaurant, and
then I ate there at the bar, so I could smoke while I
ate. I looked down the bar and there were ten people, and
eight to nine of them had my book in front of them. They
were chatting and having drinks. I thought "This is
the way the world is supposed to be." I want to go
to any bar in the world and have people with my book. You
want everyone to read you and no one else, basically.
- Do you think that since this is a book about two
novelists that it's self-conscious or Postmodern?
- It isn't really. I've written things that are more
Postmodern than this. The fact that it's about writers
takes care of that kind of tricky-ness. There's no
messing around with the narrative, there's no levels of
reality or unreliable narrators. Although the publication
of the book has become surrounded by all these Postmodern
- Is it a third person narration? I thought that there was
an "I" repeated a few times subtly through the
book. Who is this narrator?
- There's an "I" in the first sentence. The
narrator is me but he disappears halfway through the
book. I wondered about that: I think that I wanted to
tell the reader where I was coming from. It is a book
about mid-life, and for me the mid-crisis came in the
form of blanket ignorance, I felt. I just didn't know
anything about the world. Milan Kundera said that
"We're children all our lives because we have to
learn a new set of rules every ten years." Which is
a good remark. But I think that the real new set of rules
is when you hit forty. All of what you knew up till then
is of no use, and you have to start from scratch. I felt
that I had to open up to the reader about that and say
"How can I be an omniscent narrator when I don't
know anything." Which is what it felt like.
- Perhaps, besides the mid-life, was this novel trying to
track down a modern consciousness in some way?
- Like Richard Tull thinks he's going to do. This novel is
a "cride coeur" rather than a way of
indirection like some Postmodern novels. This is direct
and straight me. As I say in this book, I think that most
books are written in a language thirty years out of date,
a generation out of date. The rhythms of thought that are
actually out there don't correspond. We write in a kind
of pedagogic code. Maybe writing does lag behind the
times. I wanted to suggest the new rhythms of thought
which change all the time. I think that the modern
consciousness gets more and more to be an ungodly mix.
What was Timothy J. McVeigh's consciousness like? He
probably sees it as kind of straight, that he has a
motive and he knows what he's doing. I guess it's a
ragbag of Rambo movies and repressed homosexuality.
- Do you think you were criticizing self-obsessiveness or
- Um. We need all this vanity and egotism if you're going
- Yeah. You need that to get going, but were you creating a
critique of vanity, that this was a contemporary problem?
- It's a sad thing, but it's an inevitable thing. Writers
are really like everyone else in that department.
Although I think that everyone sees a bit of their own
egotism in these extreme examples. But what are we going
to do about being self-obsessed? Try stopping them. I
don't think that they're any more self-obsessed than they
used to be. Some things have changed: the language, the
setting, the furniture. One difference is that we're so
much more clued up about what we're supposed to be
thinking and feeling. I'm sure that people freaked in the
middle ages when they had their mid-life crisis at age
twenty-five. We know what we're going through.
- A classicist would think that since Homer, there's not
much new under the sun, and with Modernism, there are
different levels and they chop it up a bit differently.
- That's all true. Funny you should mention the chop up,
the William Burroughs thing, where you chop up a page,
throw it up in the air and reassemble it in some
different way. Some monk in the 12th century was doing
the same thing, "art of the scissors,"
everything has been tried. There is nothing new. What is
new is the background. The observable world changes. The
rhythms of thought about the world are always changing,
heading in some direction, heading away from innocence.
That's all we really know about the world: that it's
getting less innocent just by the accumulation of
- There's a theme in the book of continuing meaninglessness
in the world, that Richard is fighting a losing battle to
find meaning or control his existence against what is out
there, which is nothing.
- Yeah. Nothing is the void we come from and return to.
You're dead for a lot longer than you're alive.
- What can happen at the end of a mid-life crisis than to
- Well. You do come through a mid-life crisis. I sailed
through it. (Laughter) Bought a new sports car. It does
end because it's an over-reaction to a certainty that
you're going to die. You just end up with a reaction. But
a huge element of a mid-life crisis is what Richard has
to cope with, which is that he's failed at what he tried
to do. He didn't attract anyone to his internal thought
processes. They weren't of interest. That's why people
freak out. A guy was saying to me at a bookstore in Iowa
City, he said "I wake up, and one by one, I think of
all the things I thought to myself when I was
twenty-something: I was going to be a great writer, and I
was going to re-think the theater...." He said
"I didn't do any of that." Richard has some of
those thoughts, but I don't. I've done more than I
thought I would. I've made a contribution of something or
- That reminds me of Krapp's Last Tape with Krapp thinking
about his past life and non-achievement while listening
to tapes of himself when he was younger. His last
thoughts were "I do not want those days back."
Beckett was harsh.
- That's a kind of a bitter thought too, isn't it? At
forty, you realize that this is more or less it, no
sudden expansion. If you haven't done it by then, you're
not going to do it. You have a sudden certainty that life
is finite. When you're young almost the definition of
youth is this idea that it's going to last forever, and
clever "you," you're not going to get old like
everyone else. It's just a rumour.
- You have animosity for older people as if they were never
- You think that being young is a terrific achievement. At
forty, the jig is up. You know damn well your place.
That's why people run off with three year old
- The mid-life crisis is essentially male.
- Women have it demarcated biologically. They have
something called "The change." Terrifying! They
freak out. They have a hot flash. They lose their
biological raison. Men don't.
- Men just have problems getting it up.
- Right. I was reading Larry Kramer's book Faggots, about
old men in bars getting rejected dozens of times, and
then they would find some other quite older guy. It would
take him thirty minutes to get an erection and thirty
seconds to come.
- Richard Tull is battling against the cosmos as well as
his own insignificance.
- There's a sense that you're just a speck or a dot in the
infinite void. Of course all his energies become
malevolent because he's filled with envy. Also Gwyn
stands for the culture: if Gwyn writes shit, and if the
world likes shit, then the world is shit. That's how he
works it out. Gwyn is not just Gwyn, he's the whole
inoffensive, politically, euphemistic culture. He
personifies that, pretending that there's no difference
between men and women, and that he doesn't have a
- Is the book also a comment on book publishing?
- Not really. It's about the fact that the audience has an
agenda now, in a way it didn't used to, and sometimes the
press does too. Like with Tantulus Press, the vanity
publishers, those people aren't really writing, they're
just screaming. When Richard does the reading in Boston,
he has a fat person, a black person, and an Indian
person. What they want is stuff about them. Everyone's so
tied up in themselves and their own little political
arena. It's a satire, but not a serious investigation.
The stuff about Gwyn becoming a high-tech product as a
writer while he's in America: interviews, photographs,
movie deals, etc.
- Could you talk about the influence of Milton on you?
- Yes. The poem that is mostly referred to in the book is
Paradise Lost. I did reread it before I wrote the last
draft. I was in a flood of tears often. It's awfully
good. I made a lot of notes. It was my intention to put
in lots of Paradise Lost. It just seemed right. It's the
basic tragic story of our culture.
- Lost innocence. A struggle of good and evil.
- Yes, exactly. Lost innocence above all, and lost godhood
with Adam and Eve working out between humans and angels,
and the intention was that they would win a promotion to
heaven. The bank of immortality and joy. Before the fall
the rose grew without thorns, animals moved among with
human beings and other animals. The lion layed down with
the lamb. One little mistake, the minute Eve eats the
apple, the rose grows thorns and the animals snarl and
cringe. Adam is taken upon the mountain and given a
cinematic preview of the history of the world. Disease
and wars are blamed on this one act, and the film begins
with his oldest son killing his youngest, and this
infinity of agony and ruin. There's Adam sobbing on the
hilltop because it was his fault. Then there's a great
assertion of human love between Adam and Eve where they
forgive each other and wander out of paradise.
- Then there's Milton arrogance saying that he can tell
this story better than anyone.
- Because he's connected to blindness. There's that passage
that he rails against the darkness that he's in. But he
liked the devil. Milton gave the devil the best lines.
- And he got paid fifteen pounds for it.
- And he got another fiver when they reprinted it, but it's
the central English poem.
- There was something about modernity: losing innocence and
- That is the history of the world. Getting rid of
illusions. Shedding illusions. For instance, one's place
in the universe was an illusion till Coprnicus came
along. The earth was the center of the universe. Part of
the energy of the renaissance came from shrugging off
that illusion. Even Einstein thought that the Milky Way
was it. He was deluded. Since then, the universe has been
expanded hugely, observationally, and it's exciting to
know that everyone before me didn't know the truth.