What I learnt from my teacher Martin Amis, reveals millennial novelist Coco Mellors

Martin Amis would have his writing students on “the edge of our seats”, says novelist Coco Mellors.

The author of the bestseller Cleopatra and Frankenstein studied at NYU where Amis, who died in 2023, was her teacher.

“I just absolutely adored him,” she told audiences at Hay Festival. “I have to say I wasn’t the biggest fan of his writing before I met him, so I was kind of surprised by that. But he just had such a love of language, such a particularity with language that was absolutely infectious.”

British-born but New York-based Mellors, 34, has sold over 200,000 copies of her debut Cleopatra and Frankenstein, which is about the whirlwind romance of a twentysomething artist and fortysomething ad-man. She described the painstaking detail that Amis taught her and her fellow students to give to their word choices.

“He would say something like, you can’t say ‘dilapidated hedge’, because dilapidated comes from ‘lapidare’, which is the word for ‘stone’. So ‘dilapidated hedge’ should speak to a structural building. It sounds pedantic but actually I was like ‘wow, I want that level of attention in my work’,” she said.

She also described how “he would pick up a book and read a sentence at random, and he would go, ‘now, that’s very good’. And that’s all he would say, and we would write it down. And then he would read another sentence at random and he would go, ‘now, that’s not so good’. And then we would all write it down!”

Amis died from oesophageal cancer last May at the age of 73. A memorial event dedicated to the novelist, whose books included Money, London Fields and The Rachel Papers and who was described as the “Mick Jagger of the literary world”, will be held in London next month.

Coco Mellors talks to Jack Edwards at Hay Festival (Adam Tatton-Reid and Hay Festival)
Coco Mellors talks to Jack Edwards at Hay Festival (Adam Tatton-Reid and Hay Festival)

Mellors’ second novel Blue Sisters, about how three sisters process the death of another sister both individually and as a unit, has just been released. The author said that she was at Hay Festival with her six-month-old son, and that she is currently writing her third novel, which will be set in Paris.

Asked her views on the infamous quote that “the pram in the hall is the enemy of good art”, Mellors said, “I don’t think being a mother is an enemy to being an artist in any way because it’s expanding. It’s expanded me as a person, it’s only given me more to write about.”

Coco Mellors and Jack Edwards at Hay Festival (Adam Tatton-Reid and Hay Festival)
Coco Mellors and Jack Edwards at Hay Festival (Adam Tatton-Reid and Hay Festival)

She added that the number of great female novelists with children showed that the statement was untrue. “Look at Zadie Smith, she has two children. Look at Grace Paley. Look at Leslie Jamison. Her new memoir is about being a mum, taking her baby on a book tour, which is just proof that there is a book out there for everyone, because I read that right after my son was born and was like ‘she’s writing for me’.”

Mellors also discussed receiving 15 rejections for her debut novel, and how she had made a conscious decision to speak about being eight years sober. She said that when she started writing she had internalised glamorised ideas of self-destructive writers, which had been unhelpful to my creativity.

“Sobriety has helped my career, the myth of the tortured artist harmed it,” she said.

Hay Festival continues until 2 June; for more information, head to hayfestival.com.