Writers & Company

Martin Amis on the inside story of his literary life, loves and losses

The British author spoke to Eleanor Wachtel about writing a fictional account of his connections with family, friends and mentors.
Martin Amis is a British novelist, essayist, memoirist and screenwriter. (Ian Gavan/Getty Images)

Martin Amis is one of England's most provocative writers — a kind of rock star in the literary world — with an unmistakable voice. 

His new book, Inside Story, is his most personal novel yet, drawing on people and events from his own life, including the death of his closest friend, the writer and critic Christopher Hitchens. Combining autobiographical reflections with sheer imagination, Inside Story explores Amis's relationships with other significant men in his life: his father, the novelist and poet Kingsley Amis; and his mentor and friend, Nobel laureate Saul Bellow. 

Martin Amis is the author of 15 novels and three collections of literary criticism, most recently The Rub of Time: Bellow, Nabokov, Hitchens, Travolta, Trump

He spoke with Eleanor Wachtel from his home in Brooklyn, N.Y.

A license to invent

"Twenty years ago, I wrote a memoir that dealt with my life in a chronological and factual way. I didn't want to do that again. 

"I thought it would be very interesting, as it was, and very challenging, to make it a novel. That changes everything, even if you don't do what I did — which was to invent certain scenes and manipulate reality up to a point. It was nothing radical, but I just tidied it up to make it more artistically palatable. Your imaginative habits, your habits of thought have to readjust to this very different form. There is more freedom and there is more air.

"The subconscious, which you slowly learn after a lifetime of writing, is a sort of a magical superpower that writers have. It's hard to control, but you do get on good terms with your subconscious over the decades. 

"When you're writing about real people, there's nothing for the subconscious to do. There's not that much for the imagination to do either. 

The subconscious, which you slowly learn after a lifetime of writing, is a sort of a magical superpower that writers have.

"But if the subconscious could type, then I would just lie in a hammock all day and let the subconscious do the whole thing. But of course, you have to do the executive part of it. It can't act by itself. It acts through you."

British author, novelist and poet Kingsley Amis. (Express/Getty Images)

My father, Kingsley Amis

"My father didn't have much to say about my novels. I was very hurt the first time it happened — stunned, in fact — but then got immediately used to it. I realized the plain fact that his tastes were actually lower-middlebrow when it came to reading. He read a great deal of poetry — that's where his literary flame was as a reader — but in prose, he wanted to be entertained. 

My father found my writing too compulsively vivid.

"He liked to read writers like Dick Francis. He once said to me, 'I'm never going to read another novel ever again unless it begins with "A shot rang out," or "A scream rent the air."' That was the kind of fiction he liked. 

"My father found my writing too compulsively vivid. He said I should write, more often, this kind of sentence: 'He finished his drink, and left.' In response, I said that Kingsley should write fewer sentences like that. 

"It was quite an important difference in artistic pitch." 

Saul Bellow (left) holds a child while Martin Amis looks on. (Submitted by Isabel Fonseca)

My mentor, Saul Bellow

"Bellow's work was the main thing I loved about him. I loved him personally, but there was nothing like the awe I would feel sometimes when I read him. Just the weight, the weight of his words. 

"I did covet a relationship with him, as you do with all the writers you love. In this case, it happened to come about, largely through the intercession of his fifth wife, Janis, who's still a very dear friend. She was younger than I was. She was something like 45 years younger than Saul. She paved the way for a friendship. 

I loved him personally, but there was nothing like the awe I would feel sometimes when I read him.

"I don't know from experience, but I'm sure if you have a wife who's nearly half a century younger than you, then you want to leaven your social circle with people her age. And that's how it turned out. 

"Life seemed comparatively thin, after his death. It was as if a layer of spiritual richness in the observable world had been harshly withdrawn. 

"I had many stirring conversations with Saul about religious belief. He was the only close friend of mine who was a believer. He was a deist rather than a theist, in that he believed in a God who didn't interfere with human action. 

"I acknowledge the poignancy of the thought and the hope — but I could never bring myself close to believing that. But it was nice that someone was doing it."

Christopher Hitchens was an English-American intellectual, polemicist, socio-political critic and author. (Christian Witkin)

My friend, Christopher Hitchens

"He was a Mack truck of charm. He flattened me. There was a very identifiable homoerotic element in the whole attraction, similar to the connection between my father and Philip Larkin. 

"I remember Kingsley telling me that when he was about to meet Larkin in a pub or a club, he would feel the same sort of excitement he did when he was meeting a woman that he had designs on. The men of that generation were more gay than men of mine because they'd been deprived and segregated much more in early life. 

He was a Mack truck of charm. He flattened me.

"So there was more of what they call 'situational homosexuality' then. But I think it's an element in every powerful male friendship. So there was that. It was not a coincidence that Hitchens's main political commitment, which never deserted him, was very much there when he was 21.

"It was a discipleship of Trotsky. I never, ever had the slightest attraction to communism or indeed to utopianism of any kind. If someone said to me at any point in my life, 'Come and live with me in utopia,' I would have said, 'No thanks.' 

"I don't want to live in such a creepy place as utopia, which seemed to me couldn't be more and more precisely tailored to an existence without any literary interests at all. 

"Who wants to live in utopia? Who wants to be a writer in utopia? Writing would have no existence in utopia."

Martin Amis's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.