Being a writer is like having a guest: you give them your best chair, closest to the fire, your best wine and you try to amuse them. Not instruct them, amuse them.
The pleasure principle is everything. Don’t pretend you have to read these gloomy bastards, where everything is all flat and miserable. Everyone good tends to be funny — and that’s true of writers you wouldn’t connect with humour immediately: Tolstoy is funny, George Eliot is funny, Dostoyevsky is mainly a comic writer.
Names are a good indicator of what kind of writer you are. If everyone’s called Tom Metcalfe and Jane Jenkins, then you know what you are in for. And if it’s John Self, Keith Talent, Clint Smoker, Lionel Asbo, you sort of know what you’re getting, too. You don’t want to be John Smith and you don’t want to be Engelbert Humperdinck, but John Humperdinck or Engelbert Smith is all right.
I like Keith; Keith’s the roughest name there is.
When I was 20-something, I’d have very much liked to hear what my 60-year-old self had to say. On the other hand, there’s not much likelihood I’d have listened, or that I would have obeyed.
I can give advice to my boys, not my daughters. I say to them, when you are in love affairs and sex, make sure you clench it in the fist of your mind, so you remember it later. It becomes very important in your late fifties and early sixties; you spend quite a lot of time in the past, thinking of those moments. I know people my age who can’t remember being in love, or girls they got off with and had a great time with, it sort of blurs. So I instruct the boys; it’s like a pension for when they’re old.
It’s tremendously important how you get on with the other sex. Your life record on that is incredibly important. You never really think about any of your other achievements.
I don’t create consensus: some people think I’m great and some people think I’m shit — that’s not a bad thing.
The only real measure of merit — prizes certainly aren’t that — is longevity, how long your stuff lasts. I said that to my father and he replied, “That’s no fucking good to you though, is it? Because you’re dead.”
Heredity, being the son of a writer, is a sort of taint. In a very democratically minded culture, there’s an idea that you didn’t have to graft for it. It never goes away, gets worse in fact: oh, it’s Amis again.
Writing is a much more physical business than people think. They think it’s cerebral, but it involves the whole body in a weird way. In the old days, if I’d come up against a difficulty, I’d bash my head against it until it came good and it would take days of almost tearful labour. Now I just walk away. My legs do it. I just know that the subconscious has got to fix the problem; it’s going to occur to me in the next few hours what to do. Then my legs take me back to my pad or to the computer and it’s fixed.
Trust the initial throb; it’s so important to have that. People say, “Why did you decide to write a novel about this or that?” It’s never a decision, it’s a glimmer, it’s an impulse — often not more than a character or a situation or a headline in a newspaper. But you couldn’t really proceed without it.
I live in Brooklyn now, the best address I’ve ever had: Strong Place. It wouldn’t work so well if it was Strong Street, you’ve got to give the two words equal stress. Strong. Place.
I feel slight scorn for English people who have American accents, grown-ups at least. I don’t care how long they’ve been living there — it’s weak-minded, that.
A magician shouldn’t really show you how they do their tricks. I would never go to see a shrink because I don’t want anyone messing with my subconscious, confusing my subconscious, since I rely on it so much in writing. I don’t know how I do my stuff and I don’t want to be told either.
When my sister died in 2000, I became addicted to sleep and dozing and not getting up. I wouldn’t describe myself as depressed, more as defeated or exhausted. You just wait, you’ve just got to wait it out. And it did lift. I expect to get hit about the Hitch, Christopher Hitchens, but you don’t know what form it’s going to take. It’s only the first year and almost certainly I’ll have to pay for it in the form of a depression.
Your friends do something for you even as they die. I always thought Hitch loved life more than I did — not by much, but significantly — and since he died, I feel he’s made something of a presence in me of his love of life. I feel more: which I hope is universal in the death of an exact contemporary, a peer and friend.
I went from loving tennis to really hating it. I peaked at the age of 40, but then I started to lose all the time. My wife said I should start playing 80-year-olds. The elderly and the crippled.
The Zone of Interest is out now
Interview by Tim Lewis
Portrait by David McKendrick