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Remembering Martin Amis, author of the London Trilogy novels

TONYA MOSLEY, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Tonya Mosley. We're going to remember novelist, essayist and literary critic Martin Amis, who died last week at the age of 73. The cause was esophageal cancer. He was a member of one of England's most famous writing families and is best known for his so-called London trilogy of novels, "Money," "London Fields" and "The Information." His father, Kingsley Amis, was best known for his satirical novel "Lucky Jim" and his caustic wit and curmudgeonly personality. Martin shared his father's caustic wit. His Washington Post obituary describes Martin's style of writing as kinetic and restless, weaving from satirical to comic to professorial. Human flaws such as vanity and selfishness and moral weakness abounded. In all, he wrote 15 novels, a memoir and several collections of reviews and essays. We're going to listen to an excerpt of Terry's 1990 interview with him. At the time, he had written his novel "London Fields."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

TERRY GROSS: Your book, "London Fields," is as much about language and writing as it is about anything else. There's a paragraph about writing that I'd like for you to read. It's on page 23.

MARTIN AMIS: Right. This is the narrator, the American Jewish blocked writer or failed writer who is transcribing this tale. (Reading) I think it was Montherlant who said that happiness writes white. It doesn't show up on the page. We all know this. The letter with a foreign postmark that tells of good weather, pleasant food and comfortable accommodation isn't nearly as much fun to read or to write as the letter that tells of rotting chalets, dysentery and drizzle. Who else but Tolstoy has made happiness really swing on the page? When I take on Chapter 3, when I take on Guy Clinch, I'll have to do it well - not happiness but goodness, anyway. It's going to be rough.

GROSS: Does this describe your feelings as a writer - that it is easier to write about despair than happiness, easier to write about unlikable people than likable ones?

AMIS: Well, I think we're all hooked on bad news, really. The two villainous characters in my novel are Keith Talent, the cheat, and Marmaduke, who's this rampaging infant, 1-year-old baby - it seems to me easily the most popular characters I've ever created. We like vigorous wrongdoing, I think. It doesn't mean you want to have Keith or Marmaduke over for the evening, but there's a great thrill in being able to read about wickedness or mischief when it's at arm's length.

GROSS: You've been criticized by some people for misanthropy in your writing and misogyny. Is it just your pleasure in creating unlikable characters?

AMIS: Well, you see; they're not...

GROSS: People never know, I think, whether it's you or just your sense of what writes well that we're seeing.

AMIS: Yes, it's that. I mean, you see me - if you saw me in my civilian guise as the person who, you know, goes into shops and conducts his life, you would think me, you know, rather unusually polite and considerate and pleasant. But when I go into the study, some sort of demon takes over. And, you know, I own up to feelings of schadenfreude in my fiction. I delight in discomfort, mischief, wrongdoing. But it is as if it's another person doing all that. I do just find that comedy comes from the pointed end of things, from really sharp interactions between people. I'm not a very subtle writer. I like the grotesque, the extreme above all.

GROSS: It seems to me that you're working out of two really different impulses. One is this desire to fend off nuclear disaster, to spread the message that will help save the world. And the other is to make people uncomfortable, to write about wrongdoing, about mischief.

AMIS: Well, it's - I think that's just the traditional comic thing in rather an extreme form in that - you know, Nabokov has this wonderful paragraph where he says, the way you punish the gangster in a work of fiction is by - is not by having a tiptoeing assassin sneak up on him. It's by watching his horrible little finger, probing around inside his ear as he makes some fatuous deal on the telephone. It's through contempt and laughter that you really pay them off, not through some trite punishment or conversion.

GROSS: Your father is a well-known English writer, Kingsley Amis. When did you start writing?

AMIS: I started writing when I wrote my first novel, which - when I was about 21. But I'd always - I think all writers, maybe all artists, get the call in adolescence. I was about 14 when I decided that this was what I was going to do. And that was before - I mean, I knew my father was a writer, but I didn't know what kind of writer he was. I mean, for all I knew, he could have been writing Westerns or supermarket romances. I didn't know he was a mainstream writer. I didn't know what the mainstream was. But I sort of felt that I was going to write about everyday life.

GROSS: Did you read your father's books?

AMIS: Well, a little bit later, when I was about 17 or 18.

GROSS: Did you like them?

AMIS: I adored them and still do. I like his stuff a lot more than he likes mine. But that's, in a way, how it should be. It would be a little creepy if he were mad about my stuff. I mean, you like the generation that came before. You don't like the generation that's snapping at your heel.

GROSS: Oh, that's interesting.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: When you started writing, was your impulse to show your writing to your father or to hide it from him?

AMIS: Well, he remembers - I don't remember this very clearly, but he remembers coming into my room. I was still living at home. I'd just - you know, I'd finished university, and I was - had a few months before I moved out. He came into my room, and I put my arm over the typewriter as a sort of instinctive gesture. I didn't want him to see what I was writing. But I didn't show it to him until I left - I went on holiday and left the galleys or the bound proof on his desk. So no one saw it until it was, you know, in that form - so later on.

GROSS: Did you look to your father for encouragement, for a sign of, like, do I have talent?

AMIS: I don't think I was too anxious about it. It's disgracefully cool to say. I think he was nice about the first novel - you know, not fulsome. The great thing is he never encouraged me. He never gave me a word of encouragement.

GROSS: What's so great about that?

AMIS: Well, I know quite a lot of writers who encouraged their children to write, and it usually ruins the relationship. The thing is writing talent isn't very strongly inherited. There aren't many cases of it. And I'm not talking about the son of a writer producing one book. I'm talking about him producing a body of work. There are practically no examples of it. So when the 16-year-old writer's son shows his daddy that poem he wrote or this short story he wrote and the dad goes nuts about it and says, you're going to be a writer, too, it's a very complicated, emotional thing. It's as if the dad is saying, you can have my life. You can be me.

Now, what will happen in practically every case is that the son will not have enough talent, will not be a writer and will then feel completely that he's been betrayed by his own father. And I know several cases of this. And I'm sure it was pure indolence on my father's part, by the way. I'm sure he didn't think it out, but he did do exactly the right thing. And I'm very grateful. And, you know, we have a very nice relationship, and it was never in danger.

GROSS: Well, thanks a lot for talking with us.

AMIS: Pleasure.

MOSLEY: Martin Amis speaking with Terry Gross in 1990. He died May 19 at the age of 73. If you want to listen to more of this interview or other interviews with Martin Amis, check out our archives at freshairarchive.org. Coming up, a review of the new live-action remake of "The Little Mermaid." This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.