The Times (London)
March 4, 2000, Saturday
By Joanna Coles
Frustrated novelist Stephen Amidon quit America for England, determined not to go back until he had a hit. Four books later, he is delighted to be home. Words and pictures by Joanna Coles.
From the very first page you can tell that Stephen Amidon enjoyed writing The New City. It’s his fourth novel and the prose fairly spits like cedar logs on a winter fire. This is a duvet of a book whose pages you want to pull around you as the characters wrestle their way through a plot which twists and turns like the Mississippi.
The New City is set in urban-planned America in the Seventies and is based on Amidon’s teenage years. Because of his father’s job as a manager for a multinational, his family had to move from New Jersey to Columbia, a new town in Maryland. The book describes the tragedy of Newton, a city which was built to accommodate a society living in social and racial harmony, but which instead slowly disintegrates into urban unrest, threatening to destroy the three families at the centre of the story. Its themes are familiar: friendship, black versus white and a father-son relationship. The blurb calls Amidon “Tom Wolfe, only edited” and, for once, you can see the point.
We meet at Amidon’s house in the snowy town of Greenfield, Massachusetts, where he has holed up with his British wife Caryl and their four children to write his next book. They arrived in the small community only six months ago, after 15 years in London. “I always knew I’d return to America,” Amidon says. But there was one, unspoken condition. He wanted to return as a successful writer.
“Not being successful in America is hell,” he sighs. “I left because I was 25 years old, I had a written a book of short stories I was not able to sell and it was the height of the Reagan era. It was a horrible time to be here. The money culture had set in.
“I had wanted to write since I was 14 – I never saw myself as good for anything else – but I was having no luck.” Caryl suggested they move to England. “She said, ‘If you want to go somewhere where, if you’re a writer and you’re not successful, people will still respect you, then what about London?’”
Amidon, an English Literature graduate, spent his first week in London sending his CV to literary editors offering to write book reviews. “I got one response, a note from Auberon Waugh at The Literary Review. I went to meet him. It was 11.30am, he was drunk and there were all these gorgeous, pouting assistants. He gave me Pimms and I was in heaven.” He slaps a cushion and lets out a great snort of laughter. “Now obviously I’m more sophisticated! But it was a great place to get going.” And get going he did. He wrote for Esquire and The Sunday Times to pay the mortgage, then, after putting the children to bed, he wrote fiction.
He produced three well-received but poorly paying novels – Splitting the Atom, Thirst and The Primitive – before embarking on The New City, cutting down on journalism to give it proper attention. It was a gamble, but he knew it would pay off. In November 1998 the manuscript was sent to his American agent. Amidon sat back and waited for her call. It never came, and after a month Amidon rang her.
“I was trembling, and when she answered she said, ‘Huh? Oh, Stephen, Hi. Um, I don’t know anyone who would publish this. But hey, if you have anything else, we’d be happy to look at it.’”
Amidon was stunned. Then, after a while, he remembered another agent he had met briefly at a wedding. Off went another manuscript, minus the expectations.
The Amidons spent Christmas Day worrying about how they would make ends meet. On Boxing Day the phone rang. It was 9.30am – 4.30am in New York – and it was the new agent. “He said, ‘I’ve been up all night finishing your book and I loved it!’” A month later The New City had sold for a sixfigure sum both in Britain and in America. It was time for Amidon, now 40, to come home.
“I didn’t miss America because I knew I would come back,” he grins. “But the other thing that was going on when I left, and which I can say now because it doesn’t sound like sour grapes, was this Brat Pack thing. There was this whole emphasis on glamorous young writers which I found it to be really unbearable.” Because he wasn’t one of them? “Yes,” he grins.
“Because I couldn’t be one of them. Because I don’t write flashy urban fiction, because my sensibility did not fit.” Of course the Bratpackers (led by Bret Easton Ellis, Jay McInerney and Tama Janowitz) are still writing, but their books are less hysterically received and as a cultural phenomenon they are passe. Does Amidon feel vindicated?
“There’s a funny tendency in American fiction,” he says. “A lot of writers come along and write a book which blows everyone away and then you don’t hear from them again. Remember Donna Tartt and The Secret History? Well that was 1991.” What does he think happened? “I think people are overwhelmed by the process. That’s why I’m up here in Greenfield, not New York. I just want to write.”
A final question: What made Amidon choose a Seventies new town for inspiration? “It’s nothing more complicated than having lived there,” he says. “1973 was a funny time to be 14, I was in the throes of puberty, the Vietnam War was ending, our President was imploding and I was aware that this incredible thing called the Sixties had just happened and I had missed it. All my friends said the same thing.
“I have a vital interest in America as a subject, it’s my subject and I was tickled pink when a reviewer compared me to Sinclair Lewis and Theodore Dreiser. They’re not fashionable any more, but that was a great compliment.” He should expect many more.