Martin Amis on Writing, Politics and…Porn?

Perhaps the biggest event of WordFest each year, the Banff Distinguished Author Series, took place last night at the Margaret Greenham Theatre.  This year’s event featured Brilit’s ‘bad boy” and literary provocateur, Martin Amis.  Always a controversial figure, Amis was a great snag for WordFest as he not only brings in people who read his books, but also those who only know his reputation, having never read anything of his.

Also at the event, were John Vigna, reading from his book Bull Head, and Deni Bechard reading from his memoir, Cures for Hunger.  As happened last year, and can probably be expected to happen every year, the event was sold out, so my seat was located backstage in the green room.  Well, it wasn’t really the green room, but the next room out from the green room.  It featured chairs, TV’s with audio, and beer.  It also featured a giant, by which I mean Costco-pickle-jar-size, jar of condoms.  Yes, there is a giant jar of condoms sitting backstage; I guess you can never be too safe.

Since the announcement that Amis would be attending WordFest, I’ve been going through a range of emotions, dominated by excitement and fear.  I’ve read several of his books, including last night’s read Lionel Asbo: State of England, hence the excitement.  But I’m also aware of his, shall we say, controversial nature, so there was a little bit of fear that the event wouldn’t turn out well. That probably wasn’t a well-founded fear, but it was fear nonetheless.

As I eased into a chair backstage with a cold bottle of beer, the night began with The Banff Centre President, Jeff Melanson taking the stage to introduce the first two authors for the evening, John Vigna and Deni Bechard. Both gave excellent readings, after which the event broke for a brief intermission.

Following the break, Jeff returned to the stage to introduce Mohammed Hanif, who in turn would be introducing Martin Amis. “So without further ado, please welcome, Mohammed Hanif” were Jeff’s words, as the crowd began its applause.  But after a few seconds, Mohammed had yet to appear, and the applause began to awkwardly taper off.  Suddenly, Jeff returned to the mic to interrupt the silence, “So the Banff Centre was started with a vision, in the midst of the Great Depression…”

In the green room, we wondered what had happened when the washroom door in the corridor between our room and the green room flew open, and Mohammed came running out, headed to the stage!  Mohammed later told me he was told he had more time, so he made a quick pit stop in the washroom. “Then I hear my name being called!”

Understandably flustered, Mohammed rushed onto stage, passed the podium, waved to the crowd and took a seat in one of the two chairs at centre stage.  Apparently he was of the belief that Martin Amis was a man who needed no introduction.  After a couple of moments, the event’s main attraction took the stage and read a couple of passages from his book before joining Mohammed at centre stage.

This is where the night really took off, as Mohammed led a wonderful conversation about the book, writing in general, language, and even politics.  In fact it was the political discussion that generated the best sound bites I might have ever heard at a literary event.

After a series of more typical questions, Mohammed asked Martin, “Living in America now, tell us what is going to happen in the upcoming election.”  Apparently this was something Amis had thought about before, as he let loose his opinions for all to enjoy.

“Help us if Mitt Romney wins. This isn’t a man any American would like to have a glass of…a glass of…water with.”

“Mitt Romney is World blind.  Here is a man that while in Jerusalem, thinks the garden of Eden is in Missouri.”

And my favourite exchange:

Martin Amis: “Mitt Romney looks like a porn star.”
Mohammed Hanif: “Which one?”

Maybe it was the beer, but for those of us in the room-next-to-the-green-room, we were in stitches for much of the conversation, but also on the edge of our seat, as nobody wanted to miss a word of what either had to say.

The feeling seemed to be the same for those in the front-of-house, and everybody I talked to after the event was smiling and seemed to have enjoyed the performance very much.  I think two things made the evening such a success.  First off, Mohammed asked some great questions, especially when he strayed from the typical questions one hears at an event like this.  And secondly, Martin delivered some real answers, and didn’t offer the typical responses.  An audience can always detect honesty, and they always appreciate it, as was the case last night.

Following the event, the night wasn’t over of course, as there was still the Poetry Cabaret to finish of the evening.  Performing were Ken Babstock, Ivan E Coyote, Lorna Crozier, Phil Hall, Kath MacLean, and A.F. Moritz.

I think my favourite part of the poetry events, both here in Banff as well as at the Vertigo in Calgary, is they seem to create a certain kind of intimacy with the audience, more so than other events.  But the space is the same, and the audiences are more or less the same size, so I think it must be the nature of the material being presented.  Perhaps it is poetry that is more intimate than a novel, and as a result it creates a bond between the performer and the audience that reading from a book does not.

After the Poetry Cabaret I was forced to make a quick escape to my room to catch up on some much needed sleep.  After all I still had a full day of events to see.  But I did manage to stop into the Artist’s Lounge for a drink.  Plus they had pizza, and I really like pizza.

-Bryan

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