METERArtin Amis, 71, is the author of 15 novels, two short story collections, and seven non-fiction works, including a memoir, Experience. His latest book, Inside story, published in paperback, is a “novelized autobiography” loosely focused on the story of the narrator with an escort named Phoebe Phelps. The New York Times he called it a “shaky and charismatic composite of reality and fiction … that includes some of Amis’s best writing to date.” He spoke to me on 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 direct sequel to Experience?
It is a very solipsistic book: to make it interesting to write, I needed to give the imagination a little play. Phoebe Phelps is in a way an anthology of women I have met, but it is 100% made up.
The narration revolves around a letter, sent on September 12, 2001, in which Phoebe says that your father is not Kingsley Amis. but Philip Larkin …
I had to prepare for an identity crisis, I never had one, and I thought it had to be seismic, as it was on September 11. If you are my age, you had the cold war, but nothing that involves you personally, like 9/11 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 he chose that very specific start date for his fictional insecurity crisis because of the nature of his response to 9/11, which came to shape his public image in that period, particularly after his 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 a nasty blast [at that time], and I certainly regretted having said what I said; Already in the middle of the afternoon that day I stopped believing what he was saying. Collective punishment is obviously out of the question by definition – it was the kind of thing you say towards the end of a long interview without actually having time to clear it up with yourself. But that never felt like a big upheaval in my life. A death threat and a lot of talk. It was not a great cancellation.
Inside story Mention that you are working on a short fiction about races 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 and have tea? And he said, no, your mother doesn’t like me, because I’m black. Enough to hold 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 is. [expressed by Marty] It’s for the Negroes of this country. I’ve almost finished two fairly long stories, one about lynchings and one about slavery just before the civil war.
Are you planning stories about the present?
I don’t think I would. As he gets older, he turns to historical fiction, because he becomes more tremulous as he tries to take over the current state of mind. I wouldn’t dare say what it feels like for blacks in 2021. I like that historical reality is hermetically sealed, although like Faulkner said, the past is never dead, it is not even past.
A surprising mention of “the first works of Elena Ferrante” is one of the Inside storyFew references to living novelists. Do you read contemporary fiction?
I read to my friends, Zadie [Smith] and Nick Laird and Will Self and others, but I’m not keeping an eye on So-and-so’s new sensational novel, the 25-year-old genius, because it’s just an uneconomical way of dividing up reading time: his stuff – not true in Will and Zadie – they haven’t stood the test of time the way older boys and girls have. It could become part of the canon; it could disappear completely. I don’t want to take that risk.
You still think that JM Coetzee “has no talent”, as you said in 2010?
I have never been stimulated by anything he has written: his prose seems incredibly inert to me. If you write “the chickens would come home to sleep” [a phrase that appears in Coetzee’s 1990 novel Age of Iron], it’s just dead. Style is not something you apply later; it’s embedded in your perception, and writers without that freshness of voice don’t appeal to me. What does one look for with such a writer? Your opinions? His theories? It was Clive James who said that originality is talent, what could be less original than “the chickens would come home to sleep”? He’s falling at the first hurdle, as far as I’m concerned.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism