Martin Amis calls his new novel, which melds autobiography and fiction, a “baggy monster” because it runs for 560 pages and has many footnotes. “Inside Story,” to be published Oct. 27, also reads like a farewell. In his introduction, the 71-year-old British author writes that this is almost certainly his “last long novel.” Over his nearly 50-year career, Mr. Amis has published about 25 works of fiction and nonfiction.
“Inside Story” is both reverential in its remembrance of real-life friends and mentors—such as writers Christopher Hitchens and Saul Bellow—and mischievous in its fabrication of a fictional girlfriend whom Mr. Amis encounters periodically throughout the novel. The book also calls into question the identity of Mr. Amis’s father, Booker Prize-winning author Kingsley Amis, by alluding to an affair his mother might have had with the poet Philip Larkin.
During a recent Zoom call from his home in Brooklyn, Mr. Amis spoke about his new “novel,” the art of blending “imagination and actual experience,” and the short stories he is writing about race in America. Here are edited excerpts.
How much of your new book is truth and how much fiction?
It’s truth with embellishments, and one character in particular is wholly made up, which varied things from my point of view. It was a great holiday from the novel to make someone up, that someone being Phoebe Phelps, who has no model or inspiration. The other characters are openly named. That felt as though it hadn’t really been done before and spiced it up for me as a project for a novel. It is a sort of intermediate between invention, imagination and actual experience. But all the friendships in the book are based quite closely on real life and are close to the chronology of the events.
The writer Antonella Gambotto-Burke wrote in the Daily Mail that Phoebe Phelps is based on her. Did you read the article? If so, what is your reaction?
I didn’t, no. It was summarized to me. But [it’s] quite untrue. The whole question of who’s in the book is almost always based on a simple misconception about how characters are made. Taking a character from life is one thing and very different from what one is normally doing in a regular, non-autobiographical novel. But even if you do attempt a character who is based on somebody in real life in the course of a normal novel, they get pulled in every direction by the novel itself. That didn’t apply in this case because it isn’t a straightforward novel, or what I would call an “art novel,” where everything needs to balance and make patterns, and so on.
In “Inside Story” you write about Christopher Hitchens, Saul Bellow and Philip Larkin, all of whom are dead. Would you have written about them if they were still alive?
My first attempt at writing this novel was at the beginning of the century and I did feel very inhibited by the fact that Saul and Christopher were alive. Not cramped, but just that they were in my mind in a way that they ceased to be when they died, which is inevitable and natural. So I think when Christopher died, which was very unexpected—Saul was 89 when he died—I did think that I could re-approach the novel with that in view, that in fact death became the theme. It’s a very obvious theme and it’s there in all fiction.
You give us a glimpse of [Vogue editor in chief] Anna Wintour, who was a girlfriend of Hitchens. You say she was the one woman who made you envious of him. But otherwise you’re quite discreet. Is that because she is still alive and prominent?
Well, I did the same with Germaine Greer. But I wouldn’t presume to invent anything about those characters. They’re all quite faithfully reported and those conversations are faithful.
If Hitchens were alive, what would he have made of Donald Trump as president?
Well, he did have this strong streak of perversity in him. I’m not saying for a moment that he would have approved of Trump but it wouldn’t have been a predictable leftist rejection of Trump. It would have been more interesting than that, though God knows what it would have been.
In “Inside Story,” you advise writers to ignore warnings about cultural appropriation and go wherever their pen takes them. Do you worry that pressure is being put on writers to censor themselves?
That’s been going on for a long time. I find myself constantly rephrasing things that I would have not given a second thought to in light of not just the sensitivities of certain groups of writers, but just because that’s the way our culture has evolved. I’m part of that culture and naturally attentive to it. So there always is another way of phrasing things.
In the book you refer to Alexis de Tocqueville’s view that humor would be bred out of Americans by sheer diversity because anything witty was bound to offend somebody. Is there a risk of that happening?
There’s a risk in it. I can imagine a little manifesto appearing that says humor will be not tolerated anymore because a joke is nothing without a butt. An accusation of stupidity defines the average joke. It’s always about the stupidity of others. So I do see that it makes people feel accused of something or ugly. It attacks the security of certain types of people. You’re not supposed to tell jokes in novels, anyway, but a lot of humor does deflate pretension and stupidity.
You are working on a collection of short stories about race in America. When did you begin wanting to write about this subject?
My last 10 years, nine of which have been spent here, have brought home to me just how pervasive and ruinous it is for the country. I started writing about it towards the end of last year and, then suddenly as we know, it looked tremendously relevant and topical even.
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