Books

Martin Amis: 'The past gets bigger but the future shrinks'

The great novelist Martin Amis has died aged 73. Back in 2013, he told us why he was glad he started writing when he was "young and bold and foolish"

Martin Amis at the The Times Cheltenham Literature Festival, in October 2010.

Martin Amis at the Times Cheltenham Literature Festival, in October 2010. Photo by David Hartley/ Shutterstock

With his classic novels, including Money and London Fields, Martin Amis defined the British literary scene of the 1980s and ’90s. He was among an influential set of writers – including Salman Rushdie, Ian McEwan, Julian Barnes, and Amis’s good friend Christopher Hitchens – who shaped the public conversation well beyond the pages of their books.

Martin Amis was born in Oxford in 1949. His father was the Booker-winning novelist Kingsley Amis. His father and mother, Hilary Bardwell, divorced when he was 12. Though Amis has often been compared to his father, he says he “never tried to be like him”.

In his writing, Amis was a savage critic of modern society’s self-destructive tendencies and absurdities. He was feted for this style, and once said that “plots really matter only in thrillers”.

Martin Amis died on 19 May 2023 at the age of 73 at his home at Lake Worth in Florida. This Letter to My Younger Self interview was first published in The Big Issue in 2013.

At 16 I was just the usual awkward, acne’d teenager. I wasn’t a reader of great literature. But as I lost my adolescent reek I got more interesting, more articulate and confident. I had my first novel, The Rachel Papers, done by the time I was 21. At that age everyone is looking inside themselves, processing their own thoughts, working themselves out. Writers are just people who never grow out of it. I think it was good that I began when I was young and bold and foolish, otherwise I’d have become too self-conscious and aware of the weight of not having written anything yet. And I might have become very conscious of being Kingsley Amis’s son and how that might affect how people would regard me.

I spent a year living in New Jersey when I was nine. Right away I loved America, and was excited by it. Then I had to go back to South Wales, and it all looked so small and dark and poky and fridges looked very… small. I’m very grateful for that year in America. I think I speak American, I’m fluent in American. It’s very difficult to go from one side of the Atlantic to the other and trust your ear. Quite considerable writers can’t do it; they sound ridiculous, the words aren’t right.

I read my dad’s stuff and liked his stuff and was very conscious of being in the same tradition as him, the comic novel. It wasn’t until later [being his son] began to hang over me a bit – in this country anyway, where he’s still a sort of presence. It doesn’t matter so much elsewhere. But here, people get sick of you because you and your father have been around so long. They don’t separate you. It’s as if I was born in 1920. People think, “Oh no, not that name again.” And that’s why I have such a weird relationship with the press here.

English novelist and poet Sir Kingsley Amis with his wife Hilary and children Sally, Philip and novelist and journalist Martin Amis (right) outside their house in Swansea, 18th June 1956. Photo by Daniel Farson/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The Rachel Papers was probably the closest I got to my dad’s work, taking a few remarks from his first novel, Lucky Jim, turning them around a bit. But I never tried to be like him. On the contrary, I was trying to be myself and to be original. As Clive James said, and Philip Larkin agreed, originality is talent. It’s the same thing. You’re hoping you can find your own voice. I wasn’t trying to impress him either, or any specific person. Just my imaginary reader – in my case always someone in their early twenties who picks up one of my novels and thinks, right, this is the writer for me. Someone just at the beginning of their reading years.

I met Christopher Hitchens at Oxford. I remember we were at a party with about 20 people and he said, I’ve got to leave now, I’ll just make a brief pass at everyone then I’m on my way. Then he’d go round, tongue in the ear of everyone present, boy or girl. I would be more focused in the women in the room, and not so interested in talking about politics. I used to correct his grammar. His punctuation was hopeless.

One of the things that bound Christopher and me very strongly was that we did things in parallel; we got married around the same time, had kids about the same time, got re-married, and then had more kids. When you have someone hitched alongside you in life like that, it’s very bonding. He spent the last few weeks of his life in hospital. The way I put it to myself is, it was so radical of him to die, so left-wing, so extreme. Most of us, maybe we get sick or have a shortened life. But I like to think he lived to about 75 really because he never went to sleep. His day was three or four hours longer than mine. So that’s a huge addendum to a life. He crammed it all in, perhaps too much.

I’d tell the younger me not to be cruel in his personal relations, ever, because when you do wrong, you suffer for it later. I used to play very fast and loose and I regret that now. I’ll be walking down the street and have a terrible memory and have to churn it up. I’ve had a bit too much of that. 

Children are the best thing. I’d got completely fed up with the single life, just not interested any more. I wanted to see a fresh face, and a new relationship between me and the world. So I was quite broody for a while before my children came. I was delighted to see them. I felt from a very young age that these were the things on offer in life and I wanted to have the life that involves bearing children. A negative example was Philip Larkin – no children, no marriage, no divorce, no war. I thought, I don’t want that. My father was the opposite, he did it all. And I thought, definitely that. Not “wanking in digs”, that’s how Larkin put it. Which doesn’t sound great does it?

Martin Amis and Salman Rushdie. Photo by Times Newspapers/Shutterstock

A great part of writing is hoping to make things as nice as possible for the reader. You want to be a good host, have them put their feet up by the fire, pull up a chair, a good wine. The writer who loves the reader always feels that. Nabokov would always give you his best chair. But there have been one or two writers who didn’t give a shit about the reader, like James Joyce and Henry James, who went off the reader in a huge way. That’s why those last few novels became impenetrable. They became bad hosts. If you wandered into their house you wouldn’t be welcomed. You’d stagger around while they were in the kitchen making some vile concoction which might amuse you but it would taste disgusting and eccentric.

I don’t think it’s a bad idea to decide you’ve come to the end. You feel your powers are waning. It’s a response to feeling you have to dredge it out of yourself, whereas in the old days it was just coming up by itself. I’m much more controlled than I used to be. I’ve lost a bit of inspiration but I’ve gained in technique. So it’s more of a fascinating job than an absolutely giddy experience, as it used to be. And there’s more anxiety involved. You worry something’s wrong and you don’t know what it is.

I’ve never gone back and read all my old novels, like Philip Roth said he’d done recently. My father did that late on; he said his books were all right, there was some good stuff. But I’ve never done it and I’m much less inclined to do it now. It seems a real waste of time. I used to think that a three-hour read of me with a bottle of mine was a very good evening in, but now I wouldn’t dream of doing that. The past gets bigger but the future shrinks. It’s always on now, on to the next thing.

You can buy Letter to My Younger Self: Inspirational Women from Bookshop.org, which helps to support The Big Issue and independent bookshops.

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