“Novels begin not as an idea or thesis but with an image,” Martin Amis begins the evening. He read from his latest novel, The Zone of Interest (August 2014) at what has become his neighborhood bookstore, BookCourt. “You can’t in good conscious start a novel without it,” he adds. In the case of The Zone of Interest, the image is of the horror of German death camps.
The novel follows a love story set around Auschwitz, during the second World War. The Germans, Amis explains, would bring their families with them assignment, so that German officers’ families lived in proximity to the death camps and carried on the ordinary banalities of life while their husbands and fathers oversaw an extermination.
The passage Amis reads is intentionally humorous. The audience is charmed, as are the characters, with a kind of light-hearted, jovial flirtation. The Zone of Interest is afterall, a love story.
Amis says writing about the Holocaust entails certain responsibilities. He rejects the thesis of Life Is Beautiful–that even in great tragedy there is goodness. He is more contemplative, considering how artists approach certain kinds of events.
Writing about tragic events helps sharpen awareness, Amis explains. Bringing novelists and poets into this realm is important to help prevent similar tragedies by illuminating problems before they begin.
Amis has memorized some stats. Anti-semitism in the United States is comparatively low — just 9% Amis says. Its higher in Canada. “We think the Canadians are so civilized,” he quips. In places in Europe, its higher, and anti-semitism is also associated with mental illness like schizophrenia.
Writing a novel still, regardless of the subject, still feels enigmatic to Amis. Often he writes without knowing the form the narrative is taking — and then, he adds, it’s suddenly formed. “The whole process seems more and more mysterious as I get older,” he says. The challenge is making the idea coherent.
Zone of Interest is the first novel Amis has written while living in Brooklyn, although this is not his first stint living in the United States. As a child, he spent about a year living in Princeton. “We did have a wonderful day in New York,” he jokes. Then, he and five or six family members toured the Empire State building, enjoyed a fancy dinner, and bought train fare for $100. He says then they all kind of marveled at the expense. Now of course, they marvel at it because the day out cost so little.