May 2008

Aaron Shulman

features

An Interview with Stephen Amidon

For the last eight months novelist Stephen Amidon has been the William Kittredge Visiting Fiction Writer and Professor at the University of Montana. This is the fortunate context in which I’ve come to know him. He is an engaged and supportive reader of student work, a hard-working writer eager to discuss the progress of his seventh novel, and a family man who talks often of his wife and four kids. Readers of his work know him as a penetrating and unflinching explorer of the late twentieth century American psyche, a writer who takes on the Big Issues. The novels of Theodore Dreiser have been invoked to describe his scope and ambition. Reviewing Human Capital, Amidon’s last novel, Jonathan Yardley wrote, “If there's anyone writing about [the suburbs] now with the clarity, insight and honesty that he brings to the task, I'm unaware of it.” All this from a writer who spent twelve years working as a journalist in London. In a series of conversations which spanned two weeks, Amidon gave me his thoughts on the transatlantic differences between how writers mature in England compared to the U.S., the effects of writing from a position of dislocation, and the problems inherent in an Englishman liking the Cincinnati Bengals.

What took you to England in the first place?

My English wife. I was in my mid-twenties when I went; Caryl and I had been together on-and-off for a few years, though we were not really ready to make a big commitment. And then, when I was living in a shack and working as a theater critic for a small weekly paper in North Carolina, she asked if I wanted to come live with her in Notting Hill and write full time while she supported me. It was a tough call, but I went.

When was this exactly?

This was the mid-eighties, right in the middle of the whole Reagan thing. The Contras, Jesse Helms, that whole nightmare. The country seemed to be getting increasingly crass and reactionary. And I was having trouble getting my first book of short stories published while every other twenty-something (McInerney, Ellis, that crew) was getting famous. It just seemed like a good time to get out for a while and get some perspective on my writing and my country. The idea was to spend a year or so in London, write a book, then return. But I wound up spending twelve years there, having four kids and writing four novels.

What it was like to mature as a writer there?

I wrote my first novel, Splitting the Atom, in London. I did it in sort of a fevered rush, basically in one draft, teaching myself as I went along. (I don’t have an MFA and never took a fiction writing course after high school). When I was done I sent the book to my American agent, who took five months to read it, then told me to get lost. So I found a great young British agent who sold it to Bloomsbury over there. Meanwhile, I made money by doing lots of book and film reviews and other bits of newspaper and magazine writing, which was the British equivalent of an MFA, at least back then. That’s probably the big difference between maturing as a writer in the UK as opposed to the US – young writers over there are expected to work for newspapers and magazines. Greene did it, Martin Amis, Will Self. It’s given me a lifelong belief that novelists should do all sorts of other kinds of writing besides fiction, a tendency I think is discouraged in the States by our academy-based writing community, though maybe blogging is beginning to change that.

Did you ever have doubts about being a distinctly American novelist? Did being abroad help you find the U.S. that you needed to create for your fiction?

The curious thing was that all four books I wrote while living in London were very American. For my second and third, Thirst and The Primitive, I traveled back to the States and spent a couple weeks wandering around the locales where they were set (Phoenix and North Carolina) to take notes and really see the stories before returning to London to do the actual work. So I was writing as a sort of curious hybrid of insider and outsider, looking at my native country through the eyes of a foreigner. My fourth novel, The New City, was about my childhood, so that was done entirely from memory. Still, even with that book, there was this sense of dislocation, of being daily immersed in a different culture from the one I was writing about. I think it helped me focus on 1973, when the novel was set. Oddly enough, I never wrote fiction about the UK while living there, though the novel I’m now writing while teaching in Montana is set in London. Go figure. Maybe I’ve got myself into the habit of writing from a position of exile.

One funny thing about living in the UK in that period (1987-1999) was that there was an intense process of Americanization going on in the country all the while. Privatization of public companies, easing of credit, a kind of materialistic frenzy. You could get Pringles; Coke was it. In the media, you saw magazines like GQ and Esquire getting a foothold (I worked for the latter), while publishing companies became much more corporate. Seinfeld and NYPD Blue were huge hits. And filmmakers were definitely more inspired by Scorcese and Coppola than David Lean, and selling something to Miramax was the Holy Grail. There was even an ‘American football’ craze – a good friend of mine developed an unnatural passion for the Cincinnati Bengals. It took me a long time to bring him back to his senses. So being an American writer there, especially in my incarnation as a journalist and commentator, meant that I was straddling the fence between two intermingling cultures, or rather standing by the gate as one barged into the other’s yard. It certainly gave me a lot of work, though sometimes I felt like simply shouting “Stop! Go back! Leave this nice little country alone!”

Who did you feel was your audience? Who did you want to be your audience?

In terms of my audience, I didn’t have a major publisher in the States when I was living in London, nor did I have much in the way of review coverage, so I was always aware that my primary readership was in the UK. Which was frustrating. I always wanted my main readership to be American; I mean, that’s who I was writing for. And that’s one of the main reasons why I decided to move back. I just felt that I wasn’t reaching the people I wanted to reach, and wouldn’t unless I was on the scene. Plus, I was running out of things to write about. Every time I’d return to the States I’d feel more and more abstracted from the country, especially during the dotcom orgy, which I didn’t really understand at all until I was back living in America.

What it's been like being back?

Moving back has been a mixed bag. We returned in 1999, when the country was at peace, prosperous, liberal-minded (or so it seemed) and there was a cool, interestingly flawed person in the White House. But almost immediately after we settled in, Bush stole the election, 9/11 happened, and this horrible reactionary period started. It was as bad as when I left. No – worse. Much, much worse. Sometimes while we’re watching the news my wife looks at me like – what have you done to me? Take me back to Twickenham!

Now that you're back in the American literary scene, what are your thoughts on the publishing climate?

Well, I have decidedly mixed feelings about the publishing business in the US right now. The things I dislike are pretty much common knowledge – the corporatism, the reliance on blockbusters even when it comes to serious fiction, the growing refusal to back a writer over the course or his or her career, even if this means absorbing early losses. (You have to wonder what would have happened to Cormac McCarthy if he were just starting out now!) And yet, very good books are still published all the time, and very good writers are able to sustain careers despite having to hop around from house to house in order to find a home. My main concern is that big publishers will eventually give up on new serious fiction altogether, leaving it to small presses to publish these books, then poaching writers who prove themselves able to reach a larger audience. And then you’ll end up with a situation that we now have in poetry, where you have this hermetically sealed environment in which a limited group of people write, buy and read one another’s books.

I think the greatest thing I’ve learned since returning to the States is that you really are on your own as a writer. You certainly may develop close relationships with publishers and editors – I know I have – but at the end of the day there are cold-hearted bean-counters calling the shots behind the scenes, and the rest of us are powerless. So when it comes to issues like marketing and getting the books into the hands of key readers, you really do have to take the bull by the horns. Which is not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s not the world I expected when I set out a quarter century ago.

What do you think of the fiction being written today in the U.S.?

In terms of what’s going on in contemporary American fiction, it seems to be a pretty diffuse and directionless era, with a lot of people doing their own thing, some of it good, some of it not so good. I suppose there’s the whole McSweeney’s crew, though when you take a close look at them they’re a pretty diverse crew, and it’s hard to pin a term like ‘dirty realism’ or ‘metafiction’ on them. I think this might be a function of the brutal marketplace – publishers aren’t really allowed to build lists that reflect a school or sensibility, but rather go for the quick score.

Of the six books you’ve published, which is your favorite and why? The most enjoyable to write versus the least enjoyable?

My favorite novel is my fourth, The New City, because that was the one in which I felt I really came of age as a writer. It was much bigger and more complex than my previous work, and contained a wide variety of characters yet still managed to be very personal. The most enjoyable to write was Thirst, my second novel, because it only took me four months and was done largely while sitting at a small desk next to the crib of my newborn son. Least enjoyable to write? Probably Human Capital, because the plot is so complex. But that’s also my most successful in terms of sales and critical reception. Which tells you something right there. Just don’t ask me what.

As a father of four, how do you balance writing and family?

Having an unbelievably supportive and energetic partner in my wife Caryl. It’s really that simple.

Would you like to talk a little about your next book coming out? And also the one you're currently working on?

My next book is called Security and will come out in January 2008. It concludes an informal trilogy (with The New City and Human Capital). While the first two dealt with what I believe to be the key issues of their time – race in the former, which is set in 1973, and money in the later, which is set in 2001 – Security, as its title suggests, deals with the key issue of our time. It’s set in a small New England town in which the owner of a home security company stumbles on something he shouldn’t. Don’t worry, there are no terrorists, though I hope it says something about public hysteria and fear. I’m also close to completing another novel which I’ve been hammering away on during my year in exile in Montana. It’s a black comedy set in London in 1994 and concerns an American film critic whose life is in freefall. It’s my first book told in the first person and the first set overseas, so it’s going to be a real departure for me.

How’s the writing of it going?

I’m loving writing it. I’ve developed a sort of counter-self, a Bad Stephen, and have turned him loose on the world. By the way, this is highly recommended as a palliative for middle age melancholia.