Recently in these pages, The L's Mark Martin declared Martin Amis's new novel The Pregnant Widow—"the story of a young man's sexual coming of age during history's sexual awakening"—the best of his career. He spoke to the erudite, inventive, comic, often controversial Amis over the phone last month.
THE L: A lot of people think of you as a man's writer. What are your thoughts on being described as a guy writing for guys?
MARTIN AMIS: I don't think it's true, though it sometimes looks that way. When I started out, people in the signing queue tended to be blokes. But now it's very 50-50, and I think I have plenty of women readers. What I don't have are women reviewers.
THE L: Why's that?
MARTIN AMIS: It's to do with literary editors, thinking, you know, "Stand back, my dear, this won't be a pretty sight!" I think it's a sort of accident, and a general impression that, as usual, isn't really accurate.
THE L: I understand that The Pregnant Widow grew out of a longer, autobiographical novel that you abandoned. Is that right?
MARTIN AMIS: Yeah, well, I didn't abandon it. I had a bad couple of weeks, and then realized it was two novels and that trying to meld them into one was a disaster. I'm getting away from autobiography, which I found so hideously constricting. The autobiographical novel will be the one after next.
THE L: I remember your father writing that he couldn't put real people in fiction, because they interfered with the structure he envisioned. They did their own thing.
MARTIN AMIS: Yeah, that's right. They're obtrusive. They don't fit into the scheme of the novel. I discovered, or I already knew, that it's not fidelity to what actually happened that breathes life into a novel. It's contrivance and patterning, which life doesn't have.
THE L: I read some of the British reviews and they all portrayed The Pregnant Widow as very much an autobiographical novel. Would you say that's not the case?
MARTIN AMIS: Yeah, absolutely not the case. It's palpably not autobiographical. Demonstrably not.
THE L: There is one aspect of the book that seems very autobiographical, and that's the story of the protagonist's sister, Violet. It's a sad strain in a novel with a lot of tremendous humor in it.
MARTIN AMIS: Yeah. There are three real figures in the book and they're all dead. My sister, my old friend—who's called Kenrick—and the poet Neil Darlington is based on Ian Hamilton.
THE L: I did wonder whether your sister was as confused about sex, about men, about life, as Violet.
MARTIN AMIS: She was, completely. Actually, the Violet in the book is a toned-down version of my sister [Sally, who died in 2000].
THE L: The new novel's about the sexual revolution of the 60s and 70s. The protagonist Keith Nearing makes a mess of his youth, and it's an obvious deduction from this, though not necessarily an accurate one, that you regret coming to maturity in the 1970s. Do you think a Martin Amis born in, say, 1980 would have been happier as a young man?
MARTIN AMIS: I don't at all regret being a young man at that time. He regrets it, but he's not me. I wanted to concentrate on the casualties of the revolution as well as the beneficiaries, so I actually turned Keith over into being a casualty. There were casualties, and my sister was one. But she would have struggled in any society, apart from, say, a strict Muslim society. So no, it was a time of tremendous opportunities, and I was absolutely thrilled at the time. I don't have many regrets about anything that came after.