An hour with Martin Amis: The celebrated author spoke on legacy, awards, and his latest book at Tata Literature Live

‘Life writing’, or writing about real people, is not an easy affair, said Martin Amis, at Tata Literature Live! The Mumbai Litfest 2020.

Harsh Pareek November 24, 2020 17:14:07 IST
An hour with Martin Amis: The celebrated author spoke on legacy, awards, and his latest book at Tata Literature Live

File image of Martin Amis. Via WikimediaCommons

On 21 November, Martin Amis, the celebrated British author with a literary career spanning some four decades, sat down on a cold night in New York to have chat with journalist Anil Dharker, in Mumbai, for the plague year’s version of city’s literature festival (Tata Literature Live! The Mumbai Litfest 2020).

There was a sense of casualness, at least from Amis’ side, who took drags from his e-cigarette and seemed rather at home (my guess would be, he was indeed at his home) with the across-continents-over-screens nature of affairs. Perhaps unsurprisingly. He has been rather busy of late, this was far from his first online appearance. Just a couple of months ago, Amis’ latest book, Inside Story, had come out.

The memoir-cum-fiction, where the main character is called Martin Amis, and the unfolding events take shape from the author’s own life (interject with writing advice), is Amis’ 15th novel, and he admits it has taken him a long time to produce.

In this flowing marriage of genres, Amis found a sense of freedom which one or the other alone could not impart. ‘Life writing’, or writing about real people, he says, is not an easy affair. Something he feels only someone like Saul Bellow could pull off. An endeavour further complicated by, he says, the fact that writers often have rather dull lives (not him, though); and hence, emotional or intellectual pursuits become the balancing weights. “Novels come from anxiety,” Amis says, or rather from when one discovers its source.

Right about now, thanks to the four decades of progress in technology and access to the internet, one Yashpal pings, ‘Good afternoon, sir’. And almost like a jinx, the greeting breaks the spell of the semi-interesting interaction (well, semi-interesting because I conveniently skipped a part where the two men had a conversation about how difficult it is to write about sex, which didn’t exactly go anywhere).

Amis talked a bit about his late father, the noted author Kingsley Amis, and how it is vanity on the part of parents to expect their children to follow in the same profession or have a similar life. Also, the fact of how relatively rare it is in the world of writing to have a son follow in the footsteps of his father.

There was almost an obligatory air to the conversation when it turned to Donald Trump. Nothing world-shattering was said, but Amis did take a few good swings at the man, calling him too lazy to be dictator and a “uniquely charmless child”.

When asked if it ever distressed him that he never won a Booker Prize (a feat achieved by his father) or any other award of note, Amis talked like a man with wisdom that usually/hopefully comes with age (he is 71). He described how his younger self saw not just money in the Booker, but the power came with it. But over the years, he came to the rationalisation that originality was far more important for him. And if anything was indeed original, it shouldn’t be easy to digest. Something not made for everyone.

Here, Dharker, rather predictably, inserted his insightful comment, telling Amis that it was a very odd thing to say that he was at peace with not winning anything. Amis did go on to say that the only award he holds in high regard is the Nobel Prize because of the consistency of the judging panel.

Talking briefly about the process of writing itself, Amis said although the writing style is important to him, he believes everyone should be free to pursue other avenues, be it plot or characters, when putting pen to paper. The challenge is to find the right tone and be convincing.

At last, coming to the mother of all timely topics, the two talked about the pandemic, and how it might change the writing landscape. Although Amis said he initially felt that writers would have the least bit of inconvenience, he admitted the last months have had some effect on him. As for if readers should expect a shift in the narratives, especially fiction — the author says it will take time. Time for writers to gather their wits about it, time to internalise.

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