The Sadistic Muse

The Salon Interview - Laura Miller interviews Martin Amis about his new book, "Night Train" and the disturbing memoir he's working on.


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Laura Miller
February 10, 1998 2:47PM (UTC)

Feelings tend to run high when it comes to the work -- and the career -- of Martin Amis. Son of the magnificently misanthropic British novelist Kingsley Amis, Martin enjoyed a celebrated debut at age 24 with "The Rachel Papers," the "memoir" of a clever but hopelessly -- ruthlessly -- affected young fellow on the verge of his 20s. Grumblings about the undue advantage of an esteemed literary parent accompanied that success, and Amis has provoked plenty of outrage, and envy, since. In 1995, during the negotiation of the advance for his last novel, "The Information," Amis found himself in the midst of a bitter tempest that roiled the never especially placid teacup of England's literary scene. He fired his agent (in the process alienating her husband, his close friend, novelist Julian Barnes); hired the notorious New York agent Andrew Wylie to secure him a fat 500,000-pound advance; got lambasted by novelist A.S. Byatt for extorting unjustified sums from Britain's publishers in order to squander them on fancy dental work; and abandoned his wife of 11 years to take up with writer Isabel Fonseca.

Acrimony, jealousy, Schadenfreude, betrayal and feckless ambition have long been Amis' literary subjects as well. At 48, he is as well-known for his pitiless satires of human ugliness and folly as for the glittering brilliance of his prose. In such novels as "London Fields," "Money" and "Time's Arrow," he applies the height of literary ingenuity and invention to the depths of contemporary life, and the results, while impressive, have earned him a somewhat scary rep. In person, he's slight and soft-spoken, but also uncannily articulate. After a much-discussed (by him) midlife crisis during the writing and publication of "The Information," a savage tale of literary envy, classic Amis, he's touring to promote "Night Train," a somber, subdued detective novel whose narrator is Mike Hoolihan, a knocked-about 43-year-old female cop investigating the apparent suicide of Jennifer Rockwell, a girl with a seemingly perfect life.

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This book is a departure for you in several ways. First of all, it's very American.

I've written in a more subdued American voice before. "Time's Arrow" is sort of an American voice. "London Fields" has an American narrator some of the time. This is the first time I've used an American narrator throughout, and "Night Train" is presented as an American document. Here you have double quotes with the full-stop and the commas inside, and a capital letter after a colon, and you say things like "to" at the beginning of a sentence -- all that looks very odd in the English edition, but looks completely normal in the American.

And Mike is a woman ...

I had written from the point of view of a woman before, but I hadn't used first person. I'll say that the whole thing felt very natural to me. The day I was starting it, I was going upstairs to my study with a cup of coffee, thinking, "Jesus, in 10 minutes, I will have to be a woman. How am I going to make this transition?" But it was a breeze. That part didn't worry me at all. I have often said, and gotten into trouble for saying, that there are huge differences between men and women, a view that is not unpopular now, but was very unpopular about 10 years ago. It turns out that when your creative energies are in play, there doesn't seem to be any difference at all. I just made the switch. It didn't feel like I was doing anything unusual, just writing.

Mike, a semi-burned-out recovering alcoholic, is the total opposite of the victim Jennifer ...

I usually write about extremes of fortune and talent. There are usually two characters; one who has everything, one who has nothing. A sort of savage disparity between two people.

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I think the difference here is that you don't really handle her in a satiric way. She has dignity.

She does. I respect her efforts to be good at her job and a straight person. I was frequently moved by her, and that is why the ending felt so terrible. It is an odd thing: Once a novel ends, you could ask me about any of my characters and I'd give you my guess about what they are up to now, but I can't say for sure. The same with Mike. I hope that she pulled herself out.

Mike is so different from the narrator of your last novel, "The Information." He also has his problems, but he's just so horrid in his grappling with them, and his response to them. You really seem to respect Mike. Do you feel like that is a new direction for you?

I do. I get the feeling that there is a new direction. I feel I'm at a kind of turning point. I've been playing devil's advocate for a long time. I sometimes think it's easy to be dark, easy to be nihilistic. What is difficult is to write well about happiness. Not many people have done that. Perhaps Tolstoy, perhaps early D.H. Lawrence. That is clearly a greater challenge than writing dark. Writing light is very difficult. It's been said that happiness writes white. It doesn't show up on the page. When you're on holiday and writing a letter home to a friend, no one wants a letter that says the food is good and the weather is charming and the accommodations comfortable. You want to hear about lost passports and rat-filled shacks. If you are a comic writer, which I mainly am, you want things going wrong. That is what comedy is about.

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You also have to have some kind of conflict to have a story, to have drama. Otherwise nothing happens. That's not quite the same as being dark though.

Right. And this book is as dark as I could make it. I said, OK, if this is noir, then let's really make it pitch black. But I do feel that I have always have been playing devil's advocate, I have always been exulting in people's discomfort. I feel there's a sort of sadistic element in me as a writer. I do torture my characters. Now I am just wondering whether it is going to go on like that. The novel that I'm shaping in my head is still pretty dark, with glimmers. It would be no good to just decide to write more positively, so to speak. You have got to evolve there. It has got to develop at its own speed. I suspect it is turning in that direction.

"Positive" is not quite the word I would use. Your authorial perspective is less lofty in this work. In a certain way, you are on a level with Mike, not slightly above, looking down on her struggle.

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Yes, there's also no author-surrogate figure in this book. I'm writing a memoir next, about my father and about the last few years of my life. When I have done that, I feel I'll have cleared the path for something.

Do you find these changes we've been talking about exciting or daunting?

I will just follow my instincts, and just see what happens. Luckily that is all you ever have to do as a writer. You can't put yourself on a program to improve. You can't 12-step it. I am fascinated to see how it goes. You just follow your nose and see what happens. Your whole career is like a novel, in the sense that when I begin, I know where I am going to start. I have an idea about where I am going to end up. I know something crucial happens in the middle. But then it is a journey with a destination but without maps. Your whole writing life is like that. You have some sort of glimmer, but you don't know how you are going to get there.

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What was the germ that started "Night Train"?

Originally it wasn't a police story. It was someone asking someone, who'd been perhaps an investigator or a private eye, a retired person, to look into a suicide. Then, when I started researching this sort of thing, I started reading a lot of true crime, and I got into the police side of it, the procedural side. It started as a short story, as did "Time's Arrow." I imagined it would be 30 or 40 pages, but then suddenly it took on weight, took on cargo.

You'd be surprised at how flimsy-sounding the original thought is in any of my books. I have written 400-page novels that had just half a sentence as their germ. For "Money," I had nothing more in mind than there's this fat guy in New York trying to make a film, and that was it. Then it just gets going. For "Night Train" I had this idea that you'd look into a life and find it absolutely perfect, and you wouldn't be able to ... then of course, once I made Jennifer an astrophysicist, it even turned into a kind of existential novel. I thought once or twice about Camus and "The Outsider" and Genet's "gratuitous act." This nihilistic vein was opened up. It is an odd mix of genres.

Did you always have the idea that the suicide that was going to be investigated was going to seem completely bewildering?

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Yes, that it would be almost comic to see what good shape this life was in. You look at the health, wonderful. You look at the boyfriend, he was adorable. Then of course, once it gets going, other elements come in and the investigator herself becomes at least as important -- they have a kind of dance together, these two characters.

We have to be careful. It's important to not know, while you are reading it, exactly where it is going to go.

True. There's more narrative drive than is usual for me, and more plot. As someone writing for a so-called literary audience, I always rather despised plot, up to a point. Then when you have to do some, you realize it is rather demanding, and it's hard. I am completely committed to entertaining the reader, but this is the first time I have done it more through narrative than through other things. I would wake up at 5 in the morning and think: Make sure there are no holes in this. I did feel quite stretched.

What interested you about the prospect of somebody with the perfect life committing suicide? Was it just the irony of it?

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G.K. Chesterton said -- I came across this after the book was published, and I thought, hmm, that is very close to what I was trying to do -- the quote is something like, "Suicide is a much greater crime than murder." Murder kills only one or two or a handful of people, but the suicide kills everyone on the planet. The suicide rejects the planet. Usually you look into a suicide and you think, well, his marriage wasn't ... there was this, there was that. But what if it really was a rejection of the planet? That's what I was interested in, as a judgment on the planet.

Jennifer's profession encourages a cosmic perspective.

Making her an astrophysicist gives the suggestion -- which Mike Hoolihan downplays or even rejects -- that if you spend a lot of your time thinking about other worlds, or even other universes, then you are going to look at this world with a more critical eye. There is nothing inevitable about this landscape. There is nothing inevitable about the fact that we spend all our time grubbing along in our little rat races, that we spend so little time thinking about ourselves in a grander context. As good as it gets down here, it may look not very good to some people.

Do you identify with Jennifer's perspective at times?

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I think all artists look at the world with that kind of critical notion, that it didn't have to be like this: Why all these cars, why cities? Why, why? They're always questioning. As far as rejection of the planet in a cosmic sense, I feel the other way. I feel that the discoveries of this century about our place in the universe are beginning to sink in. Even Einstein, in 1920, thought that the Milky Way was the extent of the universe, that that was it. We didn't know that the universe was expanding in 1920. We now know that it is, that it is unimaginably vast, and that we are just a tiny speck in a rather unfashionable part of the Milky Way. It is becoming clearer that there is an infinity of parallel universes, too.

I think it's a very inspiring notion that we are so tiny and fragile and isolated. It does scare me a little bit, but it excites me to know the truth. But there will be people who will find it terrifying. There will be casualties. I also think that there will be gratuitous suicides simply because everything that can happen will happen. I think there are impulse suicides. People just do it out of the blue. Suicide is a very weird subject.

You've known suicides?

I have known three or four. And one in particular has been in the back of my mind. The mother of my grown-up daughter, who I have only gotten to know in the last two or three years, killed herself. I think that has been kicking around in my unconscious for a long time. But once you look into it, you see that it is the strangest subject. Something unholy about it --

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It's a big override of the way living beings are set up, which is to survive. It's the ultimate perversion.

It is, it is. Of course, nowadays, I don't think any of us would judge a suicide. As Mike mentions in the book, you used to be punished by the state, your family would be punished financially, you might be buried on unsanctified ground or even under a pile of stones, with a stake through your heart. As Joyce says in "Ulysses," "As if their hearts aren't broken enough, already." His is the modern view of suicide: Oh, you poor thing, how horrible.

You would assume a suicide was in extreme pain.

Absolutely. Self-lacerating pain. You could even say that in some cases, it is involuntary, suicide, just a very, very powerful impulse, like when you're on a cliff and there is that 1 percent of you that wants to jump. It's not that you aren't happy, but there's this icky thing that you can do.

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It's like the Freudian idea of Thanatos, the death wish. You can feel it sometimes when you're driving and thinking, if I just veered off --

-- Into this truck. It's a disgusting thought. It makes you feel --

But exciting.

Exciting and nauseating.

You talked a lot, when your last book came out, about your midlife crisis. Is there a connection between that and being interested in suicide?

The midlife crisis, as I defined it, was the sudden accession to death, where you suddenly think, "Jesus, it wasn't just a rumor. This is really going to happen. I am not the exception I thought I was." Both are very death-centered themes. When you're 16, it's your answer to anything -- well, I'll just commit suicide. No trouble at all. I remember Kurt Vonnegut saying, hauntingly, that if you are a child of a suicide, then it becomes your first recourse when anything goes wrong. Roof is leaking, I'll kill myself. The pump doesn't work, I'll blow my brains out. We all do that when we're young.

Then I remember having a talk about it with someone who was very depressed, and I said, "Do you ever think about suicide?" And she very seriously said, "I have but I know that I haven't got the courage to do it." And I suddenly thought, yes, it would take a lot of courage. Not just to have the 1 percent, the 2 percent, but to have the 100 percent to go over the cliff, or to steer the car into that wall. Courage or extreme desperation. But still courage to do yourself that harm, to do your body that harm. It is out of the question for me.

Did you decide from the beginning to make your investigator a middle-aged woman?

It wasn't always going to be a woman. The original conception had a domestic setting, and it was going to be a man. But then, as soon as the victim was established in my mind, I thought, no, no, you'd have to have a woman because the man wouldn't see certain things.

What seem like big decisions are taken instinctively and instantaneously by the writer. Lucky, you don't know where these things come from. The unconscious decides a lot of this stuff. You never write something because you are interested in the subject. You write something because it is given to you to write. You think, this is something I can write. That is all it comes down to in the end. It is not an attraction to the subject, it is just, here is something for you to write.

And the memoir, is that something you've been thinking about for a while?

For quite a while. I started it, and I find it's not anything like as exciting as writing a novel. You are limited.

Do you find, as you're writing, that you feel differently about certain events? Do you surprise yourself?

Yeah, you don't quite know how you feel about anything until you start writing about it. Even writing an essay or a book review. How do I know what I'm going to say until I see what I write? When you're reading a book and making notes to review it, you're on a kind of conversational level. But once you start to write about it, you move up a hair. Then you do find out what you deeply think about it, rather than what your random thoughts are. I write about these things, and I think, Where did that come from? Or, I didn't know I felt that way about it. You're going deeper, it is another level.

Is there anything in particular that surprised you?

I haven't really written about me much yet. I've written some about my father, and mostly what I have written is about my cousin. This is the other great theme: My cousin disappeared in 1973. She was 21. We didn't know what had happened to her. Then in 1995, 22 years later, she was dug up in a garden of the mass murderer Fred West.

He was described in Andrew Hagan's very good book from last year, "The Missing," right? One of his victims was your cousin?

My mother's sister's child. I realized that that had been knocking around in my unconscious, and so I was writing about her and Fred West. I also found that I was writing about three occasions in my life where I was molested as a child by strangers. Once by a couple. There was a party going on at the house. I was 9 years old in my bedroom. He said he was a doctor. She just stood at the door. That sort of thing gets you going off into strange areas.

Did all of these events happen in your own home?

No, the other two, one on the street, one on the beach.

That is terrible.

Yeah. Well, you feel so trusting.

After being molested in your own bedroom, where would be safe?

Yeah. [Long pause] So I don't know what it's going to be like writing about myself. That might feel more like writing fiction than writing about historical persons, like my cousin, my father. Writing a novel is close to God-like power because you control everything, and you're completely out there on your own. With a memoir, or a piece of journalism, there are constraints and there are other people, other people's feelings, and the narrative of what actually happened. You are constrained by the goddamn truth. So, it is less heady, but I can write 1,200 words in a couple of hours. I couldn't write fiction at that rate. It does feel like a chore, although once you get going, you find doing the chore is great, and you get the satisfaction of a chore well done. But not nearly as exciting.


Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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