Please note: This article is published as an archive copy from Philadelphia City Paper. My City Paper is not affiliated with Philadelphia City Paper. Philadelphia City Paper was an alternative weekly newspaper in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The last edition was published on October 8, 2015.

February 11–18, 1999

20 questions

Interview by Justin Bauer



Noted, Notorious: English author Martin Amis


A week of stomach flu might have been the best preparation for an interview with the surprisingly personable Martin Amis; a long bout with nausea seemed like a fitting counterpoint to the miasma of disgust his characters take on as their native territory. Perhaps England's most notorious living writer, Amis, 49, has been called the Mick Jagger of English letters and earned his bad eminence with the loose trilogy of Money, London Fields and The Information, the last accompanied by a tabloid subtext of bridge-burning business dealings, infidelities and broken friendships. Now Amis, who spoke from his London office, is on tour supporting his second book of short stories, Heavy Water, and the paperback release of his last novel, Night Train, which garnered cooler reviews for its uncharacteristic American heroine and suicide story.

The first story in Heavy Water, "Career Move," is about screenwriting. It almost reads like a wish fulfillment or revenge fantasy…

It's a revenge fantasy in that it was written while I was a writer on Mars Attacks!, and of course, not a word of my script was used in the eventual film. But I thought it quite affectionate satire and the producer of Mars Attacks! thought it was very funny… it didn't cause any ill feeling. On the contrary, they enjoyed it very much.

Where does a character like working-class Big Mal in "State of England" come from? It's obviously not in your background.

Well, it sort of is in my background a bit.… But you're much more likely to base a character on someone you hardly know. Someone you've just seen in a pub or on a bus. If you take a real person and put them in a book, they don't fit. So better to take something shadowy and spin it out with the imagination.

Do you come to shorter works differently than novels?

I sort of go away from them differently and that's the main thing. It's much more difficult to write a long novel. It's much more of your life in terms of time and preoccupation. And nothing, as Dr. [Samuel] Johnson says, "nothing odd works long."… So, I think instinct stops you from writing a whole novel called "Career Move" or "Straight Fiction" [also in Heavy Water]. You realize it's too odd to last more than a certain distance.

How has your status, and English letters, changed?

It's the gigantism that's the media. It used to be that you wouldn't enter the literary life unless you had a real feeling for it. But nowadays you can elect to become a literary person without any feeling for it.

Do you see the kind of celebrity status you've gotten, especially after The Information, eclipsing your writing?

Well, I actually do think that the whole business of that novel over here was rendered chaotic by the press. John Updike said that publicity is a voracious idiot that doesn't mind what it eats and, you know, all publicity is good publicity. Well, I think that I disproved that with that novel, in this country at any rate. Because a lot of bad publicity is a lot of bad publicity and the dirt sticks. I mean, the really important reviews are your obituaries; that's when the real action starts. I think there'll be a clearer view of the book when I'm gone because I seem to get in the way of the books.

Now that you've so publicly had your teeth fixed, does that mean an end to dental anxiety in your work?

You catch me on a day when I've just posed the question, a rather grandiose question, in this memoir I'm writing. The question is: Of these three noted stylists—James Joyce, Vladimir Nabokov and me—how many suffered dental catastrophes in their early-to-middle 40s? And the answer is all three.

Clear link between teeth and greatness…

Yes, right, yeah. I like to think so.

Martin Amis will read and sign copies of his work on Mon., Feb. 15, at 7:30 p.m., at Borders Book Shop, 1727 Walnut St., 215-568-7400.

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