x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Her written world: Isabel Fonseca

Martin Amis "didn't think twice" about embarking on her debut novel, despite the risk of comparisons with her husband's work.

Isabel Fonseca's latest novel, Attachment, has been compared to her life, although she says it is not autobiographical.
Isabel Fonseca's latest novel, Attachment, has been compared to her life, although she says it is not autobiographical.

Isabel Fonseca would be forgiven for feeling a trifle exasperated that conversations about her debut novel inevitably veer towards her husband's latest outburst. It's a habitual occurrence that seems to come with the territory of being married to one of the UK's foremost and most controversial novelists. The predictable furore surrounding Martin Amis's remarks about euthanasia is still bubbling away in the press as we talk. His hyperbolic solution to what he describes as the "silver tsunami" is to set up euthanasia booths on every street corner.

A few weeks later, Amis is once again the centre of a public war of words as the veteran broadcaster Anna Ford describes him as "whingeing and narcissistic" and accuses him of being a poor godfather to her daughter Claire. Throughout his life Amis has attracted as much attention for his intricate private life, his relationship with his late father, the novelist Kingsley Amis and for his controversial public utterances as he has for his work.

Fonseca's sigh is a mixture of frustration and resignation: the former that some people just don't get it and the latter that her husband seems incapable of passing on an opportunity to stir up controversy. "Do we have to get into this? He's so relaxed talking about whatever comes into his mind at the moment but he's making a joke. This thing about old people, for example. He is talking about himself and his own generation, the baby boomers, and there being a lot of them. He is satirising the prospect. He is a satirist. That's the kind of writer he is. Hyperbole is part of his kit. Within that there's a serious and tender point about the ghastly death of his stepfather last year and how awful that was," she says, clearly amazed that people should think it was a serious attack on the elderly.

"He is not a sound-bite person. He might make life easier for himself if he was," she says. The subject of ageing and the baggage one acquires at a certain time of life are clearly preoccupying Mr and Mrs Amis and are the central themes of Fonseca's novel Attachment. Teenage children, elderly parents, sagging relationships, affairs and the "what if" questions people often ask themselves, looking back at the crossroads in their lives, are all explored.

Jean Hubbard is a 46-year-old health columnist living on a remote tropical island with her husband, whom she suspects of having an affair. She embarks on a journey of self-discovery, impersonating her husband in a series of internet postings and in the process begins to work out her feelings about her life. The central question, Fonseca says, is "how well do you know the person you love". Inevitably, reviewers draw comparisons between the book and Fonseca's life, and there are indeed similarities. She and her heroine are roughly the same age, both American writers married to highly intelligent and charismatic men and both not living in the country in which they were born. The Amis family also spent two and a half years living in a remote location in Uruguay, but there the similarities end.

Fonseca, who will be one of the authors taking part in the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature in Dubai this week, says the book is not autobiographical. "There are bits and I did nothing to dodge that, but it isn't autobiographical. It never occurred to me to worry about that because when you are writing fiction you have to be totally free. If you are anticipating the 'ooh I remember' or 'I bet that's...' you would curl up under the sofa.

"You use the things that interest you. I'm about that age and I was very fixated on that ageing business. It was a way of working out feelings about that a little bit. "That's autobiographical in the sense of the time we're passing through but not in a particular way. Actually it's a distraction because the person of Jean is so different. She needs to be naive for things to happen to her. I didn't start out with a type, rather more the situation that I knew."

Fonseca admits that she finds Jean "rather irritating" at times, especially when she discovers a letter that appears to be from her husband's young mistress and fails to confront him about it. "It just wasn't part of her character. She is a columnist who has a sort of virtual relationship with her readers and she's very isolated in every way by her early marriage, by her emigration and by her personality, so it wouldn't be like her to do that.

"She is reserving judgement till she can work it out and I think that is a plausible person. She's not a person who would hit someone over the head with a frying pan." An elegantly written and often gently humorous exploration of middle-aged angst, Attachment started off as a short story. "I was working on something else and I just felt a little bit stuck, so I took a break and thought this was going to be a short story. I knew something about that letter and how it would unfold and just thought that it would be interesting to pursue the idea of being in someone else's shoes. We hear about identity theft but what about borrowing an identity, how close can we get even in a long, close marriage. It just got longer and more intricate."

Relationships with her parents, husband, daughter, old boyfriends and college contemporaries are beautifully observed as Jean reviews her life. Says Fonseca: "You are stuck with choices that you make. There is a sense of time passing and part of it takes the form of reviewing the other possibilities. If you physically live far away from where you started, as I do, it is very graphically plausible to see what else you might have done. I always enjoy that kind of experimental alternative narrative. Everyone has to think that - what if you'd done the other?

"What I hope had happened with Jean is that she moved away from the position that many of us find ourselves in, that it's someone else's job to make you happy. A lot of complaints in marriage come out of that. This is her thing, taking responsibility for her own happiness. It's the story of this book. "It's to do with this moment when something happens and we're going down, parents are going down and there's the burden of care and you become the parent of your parents, and that's a universal thing if you're lucky."

Fonseca says she "didn't think twice" about embarking on a novel despite the risk of comparisons with her husband's work. "I should have but I didn't. That's how these things happen. Some things just come very naturally and this did." She didn't show the manuscript to him until it was finished and says his suggestions were more about craft than content. "I didn't know what he thought. He is a very good reader with an ear for repetition and little infelicities. He improved it with his comments but I had already handed it in by then. I didn't want that much influence."

Fonseca, who has recently completed a six-week stint as a guest lecturer at Barnard College at Columbia University, where she was an undergraduate, is also the author of a highly respected history of the Roma gypsies called Bury Me Standing, published in 1995. Research for that involved travelling alone through Eastern Europe on and off over a period of four years and living with an Albanian gypsy family for six weeks.

Fonseca's roots and exotic family background make for fascinating reading. She was born and raised in New York City, one of four children. Her mother is American and her father was an Uruguayan painter and sculptor. Her brother Caio is also a painter, as was their other brother, Bruno, who died in 1994. Her maternal grandfather was Jacob Kaplan, the founder of the Welch's grape juice company, and she is often described as "an heiress", although her grandfather left the bulk of his fortune to a charitable foundation administered by the family.

After graduating from Barnard, she moved to Britain in 1984 to study politics. She cut a swathe through Wadham College, Oxford, before going to work at the Times Literary Supplement. Contemporaries remember her for her potent blend of glamour and intelligence, although Fonseca says she never felt particularly glamorous. "I was a little older than the other kids. To be 23 as opposed to 20 is a huge difference at that age. I had a car and I came fully formed because I had already been to university. That whole myth of glamour at Oxford I don't find very convincing," she says.

Nevertheless, she has never managed to shake off the fascination of other people about her life, which became even more intense when she married Amis. When they fell in love in the early 1990s he was married to the American academic Antonia Phillips, with whom he has two sons, Louis, 25 and Jacob, 24. Amis also has a daughter, Delilah Seale, from an earlier relationship, whom he did not know about until she was 19.

"The world sees you differently. It may be of interest for a few minutes that it's unusual to have two writers living together and how does it work. There are a few couples like that, but in terms of glamour Martin has always attracted a lot of undue extra-literary interest. I don't know really why that is. That predates me," she says. The early years of their marriage were overshadowed by the death of Fonseca's brother Bruno, both their fathers and Martin's sister Sally. "I think that makes you incredibly close. Most people get that at the end of a relationship. We got it at the beginning. With the deaths of siblings - that's a kind of a club, not just to us but to everyone to whom that happens because it's so unnatural and so cruel. If you lose a brother or sister early, you have a slightly different sense of your time than your peers do because you're more aware than others that there's a limit."

After two years in Uruguay, they now live in London with their two daughters, Fernanda, 13, and Clio, 11. Fonseca is a frequent visitor to her native New York, where her mother still lives. She believes the years in Uruguay gave their girls confidence and independence. "There was nothing, no outside stimulation of any kind. The first year we lived there we didn't have internet and television was unappealing because there were no real channels apart from some Brazilian cartoons. They had the beach and their drawing supplies and their reading and they are both self-reliant kids. They had a lot of freedom there, which is something you can't give to your kids in a northern city. We lived nearly an hour from their school and their friends and I do think that made them a little different from other kids. They don't need a lot of entertainment.

"When we came back, partly for selfish reasons, I didn't pick up with all the ferrying about. Everything they do is local. I also think they need free time, their lying on the floor time and not so much input. Schools are so full-on in England." She says it's sometimes hard for the girls with both parents writing at home and often distracted as they put the finishing touches to their work. Amis was writing his latest novel, The Pregnant Widow, at the same times as Fonseca was writing Attachment.

"If you work at home you never really leave it behind. You are distracted when you are finishing a book and you are a pretend mother and a pretend wife for a while. There's always something to get out of the way before I'm allowed to get to my desk, either some job or some child related thing. I don't know if it's lack of discipline or just the way you have to navigate life. I often wish I had an outside office so I could just leave, like a lawyer. Other parents seem to get away with it, but if you're writing at home no one takes you seriously. You are sort of available for distraction.

"The great thing about being married to a writer is that they understand that about each other. I think it's hard for other people to understand and not be hurt by it," she says. "It's helpful to me when I'm working to know that someone else is working. You might meet at the coffee machine but you don't chat because you're in the middle of some thoughts and how many people can understand that? It's a very nice thing to have someone in the building or in your life in a kind of shared solitude."

Their relationship is clearly based on mutual respect laced with a strong shared sense of humour. "I think it's very important for me. I think that would have been a non-negotiable thing for me based on my upbringing. I do love his work and that's important to me. I really respect what someone does. In a long marriage, where there are lots of ups and downs, that's a sort of help to think that the other person is on a worthwhile path trying to do something hard and doing it well and trying to make a contribution, whatever that might be.

"The other thing is the person who makes you laugh. How can you not love that person? I have a slight tendency to seriousness and maybe a bit of melancholy and earnestness and I love to be relieved of that. He makes me laugh and that's the great thing. We have running jokes that go on in variations. He is constantly stealing my jokes. Those are the fundamental things for me, humour and that work ethic. He has a very powerful work ethic and I love that, it's a good influence on me. I feel relaxed. He is an unfrivolous person while being fun."

The Emirates Airline Festival of Literature runs from Wednesday to Saturday at the Intercontinental Hotel, Dubai Festival City. For more information, visit www.eaifl.com.