For over four decades, writer Martin Amis has been a regular contributor to publications like The New Yorker, Esquire, and The Observer, chronicling the worlds of politics, literature, and entertainment in finely crafted prose. While his novels The Rachel Papers, Money, and London Fields established him as British literary royalty (succeeding his father, Sir Kingsley), it is his essays — addressing subjects as diverse as actual British royalty and the Malibu porn industry — that best showcase Amis’s wit and intellect.
The Rub of Time, a new book collecting 45 articles written between 1994 and 2017, covers the writer’s ongoing literary obsessions — his idols, Vladimir Nabokov and Saul Bellow — as well as the failed second act of John Travolta. It also offers no shortage of commentary on present-day politics; after relocating to New York in 2011, Amis arrived in America just in time to study Donald Trump’s political ascension. There is something gleefully fun about such a talented, illustrious author documenting his close read of Trump’s poorly written opus, Crippled America. Not surprisingly, Amis proves just as funny and insightful in conversation as he does in writing.
One of the pieces in this collection reflects on book tours. In it, you write that you’ve felt “robotically garrulous” while having to answer questions in city after city. Are you at that point yet?
I’m better now. It’s part of the professional discipline. And it’s exciting going to exotic places on airplanes. What’s no fun at all is doing interviews with other countries and the interviewer can’t speak English. You find yourself simplifying your answers to eighth grade English.
Speaking of youth — this book is dedicated to your grandchildren, Isaac and Eleanor. In one essay, you talk about the name Tim not typically positioning one for greatness. How did you go about selecting your own kids’ names?
Clio, my youngest daughter, was named for the muse of history. My first son, Louis, has my middle name, and that’s the most traditional I’ve ever gotten. With your first child, you spend months trying out names — it becomes a sort of torment. My first wife and I at one point agreed that we were going to say “To hell with it” and call the child Toilet. You don’t pay as much attention with your subsequent children. Because of that, your first child ends up clever and neurotic — I’ve gathered that’s the sort of pattern. The second is more scholared and more in control.
How has fatherhood been different than you’d expected?
I’m more and more convinced that, apart from choosing your spouse, producing children is the best thing you ever do. I felt quite broody when I was in my early thirties. That surprised me. I thought only women felt broody, but you do want a fresh face around the house. And it goes on being tremendously interesting — as long as you have halfway-normal ones, as mine all are. I shudder to think what life would be without them. Of course, it’s the least cool thing possible to be a grandparent, but you get over that. I just wish I saw more of my grandchildren, who are in London.
You write in one essay that, when you moved to New York, what struck you was “the astronomical mass of America.” What else added to your culture shock?
My second wife is a New Yorker, but had lived nearly 30 years in London. So when we moved here, we discovered it all together. I thought that I was used to America from visiting, and was a bilingual English-slash-American. But there are things about it that completely infuriate me now. I always knew that there were tremendous weaknesses in American policies. But there are so many exploded systems — American health care, American bureaucracy, American guns, American racism — that they cling to so desperately.
What do you miss most about England?
The people. I think Americans and British people are equally friendly and generous, but I’d say English people are more tolerant in the end. And English people are so much wittier than Americans. I don’t mean clever novelists, either — just the people you have interactions with a dozen times a day in the deli or at the dry cleaner’s.
What surprised you more — Brexit or Trump?
Trump. No one in England did their “Fuck you” vote knowing what Brexit would look like or be like. If Brexit had already revealed itself and shown that it had orange skin and yellow hair and couldn’t complete a simple declarative sentence, then I don’t think they would have voted for it. Americans saw what they were getting and instead of wanting less, they wanted more. It’s a much more mysterious and idiotic choice. What did they expect?
“Common sense and humour are very closely aligned. Trump, despite his quips, is an incredibly humourless man and, hand in hand with that, he has no common sense either.”
In your analysis of the Republican Party written back in 2016, after reading Trump’s first and latest books back to back, you noted that an “atrocious” cognitive decline had occurred between the two. What goes through your head as you listen to Trump’s speeches now?
It’s painful and hilarious. He talks like a 14-year-old — so touchy and clodding and transparent and insecure and pathetic. It makes me shake my head and despair American common sense. Common sense and humour are very closely aligned. Trump, despite his quips, is an incredibly humourless man and, hand in hand with that, he has no common sense either. And he is getting worse. If you watch his appearance on Charlie Rose 25 years ago, there was an irony and a twinkle of intelligence that has completely vanished now. Power and money corrupt, yes, but we mustn’t forget that being corrupt corrupts you.
That phrase — “power corrupts” — comes up in three of your pieces in this book: one about Trump, another, Princess Diana, and the third, Khomeini. How conscious of this expression were you as you rose to power in the literary world?
My friend John Banville won some huge, very lucrative prize in Ireland, and he was then up for the Booker prize afterwards and didn’t win it. I asked him what the difference was, and he said, “The Irish prize is just money, but the Booker prize is power.” I haven’t won a literary prize in England since my first novel. Still, I saw very early on that I was completely vulnerable to the corruption of power. When I was literary editor of the New Statesman, I was 26 — very young for that position — and I had a secretary. That completely went to my head. I did feel as though I was master of the universe. My friends and my family said after a couple of weeks, “Perhaps you shouldn’t have a secretary.” I had gone insane, is the explanation. I was terribly grand and snooty. It didn’t last — you get used to it and it wears off.
Reacting to the Times’ 2016 investigation into Trump’s treatment of women, you wrote that “every reasonably energetic baby boomer…behaved far more deplorably” than he had. Reading that now, it felt like a foreshadowing of #MeToo revelations about Harvey Weinstein and others. Did that coverage make you reflect on your own past behaviour?
I had a poet friend who said “They’ll be coming for you next,” and I said without any anxiety, “No they won’t, actually.” I did a terror-stricken review, and there are one or two things I could reproach myself for. I was maybe a bit pushy in my twenties. But absolutely no coercion, and no promising of career help. If you like women a lot and spend time with them, then you think about their feelings.
Having written about Princess Diana, how have you seen the role of a royal celebrity evolve from then to this era of Meghan Markle?
I love Meghan Markle. The way her and Harry look at each other, it looks like the real thing. But two points about celebrity. One is that it has become like a cult. Joseph Conrad said that a terrorist is motivated by wanting to make a huge impression. But they’re not going to do it the hard way — they know they’re not going to become an immortal name by becoming a town planner in Cairo. The other side, that comes in with the Royal family, is that it’s become a form of child abuse to continue the royal tradition. Famous babies. If there’s not something manifestly ridiculous about that, what is ridiculous? What’s one’s achievement as a three-year-old?
You say in another essay that writers die a double death — “once when the body dies, and once when the talent dies.” How has your awareness of that impacted your writing?
It’s a slow process. And there are magnificent exceptions — writers who’ve produced their best work in their eighties. My stepmother, Elizabeth Jane Howard, is one of those. But it’s much more realistic to expect that there’s going to be a gradual loss of originality — which is the same thing as talent, really. I feel I’m compensating for it every time I reach for the dictionary when I write now. I’m very dependent on it. And I can’t work for as long as I used to. Four or five hours is down to three hours being considered pretty illustrious. Then again, that’s all Trollope did, and he wrote 40 novels — most of them huge.