For more than thirty years, BOMB magazine has been pairing artists, authors, poets, and painters together for intimate artist-on-artist conversations, more than 1,200 of them so far. In BOMB: The Author Interviews, published last week by Soho Press, the magazine's editor, Betsy Sussler, has compiled an incredible collection of authors interviewing authors: an unknown Jonathan Franzen; Roberto Bolaño, just before he died; Lydia Davis and Francine Prose; Edwidge Danticat and Junot Díaz; Jennifer Egan and Heidi Juilavits; and many more.
Below are snippets from two of those conversations, featuring two authors featured on Amazon's Best Books of the Year list: Colm Tóibín (Nora Webster), in conversation with with Chris Abani (The Secret History of Las Vegas), and Martin Amis (The Zone of Interest), in conversation with Patrick McGrath (Constance).
CHRIS ABANI: I play with sexuality in all my books. There’s an ambiguity to all my characters. In The Virgin of Flames, the protagonist wants to be a woman. I write my characters from the inside out. There’s no spectacle to it, so of course the first question is, Where is your body in relationship to this text? That always fascinates me. Before I wrote this book about this guy who wants to be a woman—I had always prided myself on, while being straight, being not homophobic at all. Until I wrote a scene where the character is finally about to make love to a transsexual stripper but realizes that that’s not what he wants. In fact, he wants to occupy the stripper’s position. And you have that whole Crying Game moment, but instead of the penis revelation being the thing, it’s the penis disappearance. So this transsexual stripper is teaching this guy how to disappear his penis, so that he could wear a G-string were he to perform as a stripper. I researched it on the Internet. My girlfriend at the time read what I had written and said, “This reads like a manual.” The rest of the book was beautiful but then it’s, “Okay, over here we have the penis.” I really had to go there, so I hired someone who performs as a woman. I said, “Okay, show me how to do this.”
COLM TÓIBÍN: Do you have his number? (laughter)
ABANI: I wanted to ask you, did coming out change your interaction with the text or with readership or with editorship or all of this?
TÓIBÍN: Yeah. For me, writing down the opening section of The Story of the Night and publishing it, was a very big moment. It was like what you were describing, except I realized I was going to go on being it, even if I stopped writing about it. It was like writing down the truth, which is something we should all be very suspicious of. And the question then is that of putting the truth genie back in the bottle. I would like a rest from either being gay, gay, gay or being Irish, Irish, Irish. Some other thing you could be—French, maybe, or very old, or clean-living—I might try. Obviously, being a woman would be terrific. I did it in my first novel so I suppose I cannot do it again. I wish there were more categories. I suppose there will be in time.
PATRICK MCGRATH: Evil accumulates?
MARTIN AMIS: Evil takes it out of you. Evil’s always been winning.
MCGRATH: Why should evil keep on winning?
AMIS: Perhaps because the brain is partly reptilian. I have a rather schmaltzy notion of human potentiality which is, in fact, embodied in literature.
MCGRATH: How do you mean?
AMIS: It’s a commonplace that literature evolves in a certain way but it doesn’t improve. It just stays there. It’s a model. I think literature has not just been about, but embodies: the best. The best that humans can do.
MCGRATH: The best moral thought?
AMIS: The best moral thought. The representation of humanity at the crest of itself. Something like that. In fact, I’ve never understood why the idea of literature as religion was demolished so quickly. It seems to me that would be a tenable way of looking at it. It’s a constant, making something out of the present and the past at the same time. Certainly an elitist thing, there’s no question about that. But it’s an elite open to everyone.
MCGRATH: Do you see it decaying alongside everything else?
AMIS: Literature? No. I mean, they say the novel is dead. Well, try and stop people writing novels. Or poems. There’s no stopping people. I suppose it’s conceivable that no one will know how to spell in fifty years’ time, but not while the books are still there. You don’t need a structure. The autodidact is omnipresent in fiction.