Martin Amis, 71, is the author of 15 novels, two story collections and seven works of nonfiction, including a memoir, Experience. His latest book, Inside Story, out in paperback, is a “novelised autobiography”, loosely centred on the narrator’s affair with an escort named Phoebe Phelps. The New York Times called it an “unstable and charismatic compound of fact and fiction… that includes some of Amis’s best writing to date”. He spoke to me over the phone from his home in Brooklyn, where he has lived since 2011 with his wife, the writer Isabel Fonseca.
Why did you conceive Inside Story as a novel rather than a straight sequel to Experience?
It’s a very solipsistic book – to make it interesting to write, I needed to give the imagination some play. Phoebe Phelps is in some ways an anthology of women I’ve known, but she’s 100% made up.
The narrative turns on a letter, sent on 12 September 2001, in which Phoebe says your father isn’t Kingsley Amis but Philip Larkin…
I had to cook up an identity crisis for myself – I’ve never really had one – and I thought it had to be seismic, as September 11 was. If you’re my age, you had the cold war, but nothing that involved oneself personally, as September 11 did involve everyone personally, in the psychological sense, in the emotional sense. I felt that discovering that someone else was your father would roughly correspond to those feelings of having to doubt everything you had previously assumed.
I wondered if you chose that very specific start date for your fictional crisis of self-doubt because of the nature of your response to 9/11, which came to shape your public image in that period, particularly after your 2006 interview with Ginny Dougary [in which Amis said “there is a definite urge… to see Muslims suffer until they get their house in order”]…
Well, there was an unpleasant flurry [at that time], and I certainly regretted having said what I said; already by mid-afternoon on that day I ceased to believe in what I said. Collective punishment is obviously ruled out by definition – it was the sort of thing you say towards the end of a long interview without really having time to clear it with yourself. But that never felt like a great convulsion in my life. One death threat and a lot of chat. It wasn’t much of a cancellation.
Inside Story mentions that you’re at work on some short fiction about race in the US. What drew you to that topic?
I went to school in America when I was nine with a black boy, Marty, who was my age. I said, do you want to come to tea, and he said, nah, your mother wouldn’t like me, because I’m black. Enough to lodge the subject in my mind, and now that I’m living in America… unless you live here, you have no idea how present that feeling [expressed by Marty] is for black people in this country. I’ve almost finished two longish stories, one about lynching, and one about slavery just before the civil war.
Are you planning stories about the present?
I don’t think I would. As you get older, you do resort to historical fiction, because you become more tremulous as you try to get hold of the present mood. I wouldn’t venture to say what it feels like for black people in 2021. I like that historical reality is hermetically sealed – although as Faulkner said, the past is never dead, it’s not even past.
A surprising mention of “the early work of Elena Ferrante” is one of Inside Story’s few references to living novelists. Do you read contemporary fiction?
I read my friends, Zadie [Smith] and Nick Laird and Will Self and others, but I don’t keep an eye out for the sensational new novel by so-and-so, the 25-year-old genius, because it’s just an uneconomical way of dividing your reading time: their stuff – not true of Will and Zadie – hasn’t stood the test of time in a way that the senior guys, and girls, have. It might go on to be part of the canon; it might completely disappear. I don’t want to take that chance.
Do you still think that JM Coetzee has “no talent”, as you said in 2010?
I’ve never been stimulated by anything he’s written: his prose just strikes me as incredibly inert. If you write “the chickens would come home to roost” [a phrase that appears in Coetzee’s 1990 novel Age of Iron], it’s just dead. Style isn’t something you apply later; it’s embedded in your perception, and writers without that freshness of voice make no appeal to me. What is one in quest of with such a writer? Their views? Their theories? It was Clive James who said originality is talent – what could be less original than “the chickens would come home to roost”? It’s falling at the first hurdle, as far as I’m concerned.