A Conversation with Ian McEwan

David Lynn

Ian McEwan received the 2006 Kenyon Review Award for Literary Achievement. He is the author of nine novels, with a new one to appear in the summer of 2007, along with many other works of short fiction, plays, screenplays, and other work. He has also received the Booker Prize and many other honors. David Lynn interviewed Ian McEwan at Bloomberg News on November 9, 2006, in New York.

David Lynn: Thank you for taking the time to come in and have this chat.

Ian McEwan: Sure.

DL: Early on in your novel Saturday, the central character, a busy surgeon, who is anticipating a day of rest, is thinking about literature, specifically fiction, and how it’s never appealed to him. This is the passage:

His free time is always fragmented not only by errands, and family obligations, and sports, but by the restlessness that comes with these weekly islands of freedom. He doesn’t want to spend his days off lying or even sitting down, nor does he really want to be a spectator of other lives, of imaginary lives, even though these past hours he’s put in an unusual number of minutes gazing from the bedroom window, and it interests him less to have the world reinvented. He wants it explained. The times are strange enough, why make things up?

It’s a wonderful passage—obviously this sentiment establishes among other things that Dr. Perowne is not Ian McEwan. But does this reveal any kind of ambivalence on your part with the role of fiction in our culture?

IM: Well, there are two things really for me to say about that passage. One is it’s really setting out the manifest, as it were, for this book. In other words, this book is going to be tied right into a world that is public, shared, recognizable, real. All the external events—the Iraq invasion and so on—are definable, clear, checkable in your newspaper. The other thing is yes—Henry Perowne is not me, although I gave him one or two elements of my own life.

DL: Such as your house.

IM: I gave him my house; I gave him little bits of my children, of my wife. I gave him in its entirety, a relationship with my mother, who also suffered from a neurodegenerative disease. But for the purposes of this novel, it seemed intriguing to me to have a man who is not an intellectual, but nor is he stupid. And he does share with me something that I felt in the months after the Washington / New York attacks in 2001, a sudden restless urge to know more things. I felt we’d been missing something all through the nineties. Our backs were turned on certain events that clearly were linked. And like many other people, I went out and bought numerous books on the history of the Middle East and the nature of Islam and actually the tenets of belief of Islam, which had never really bothered me before, books by a whole range of scholars, historians, and historians to colonialisms. I did an awful lot of reading as I think a lot of other people did too. And at the time I wasn’t reading a lot of fiction. So I captured that little sense of impatience of imagined lives and urgency that I felt for some months and just gave them to him as a sort of mindset.

DL: Terrorism does of course come up in the book—but it’s of a very homegrown order. A deranged group of young men, or at least one of them is suffering from, as you say, a neurodegenerative disease—the leader of them, and it’s specifically not Muslim terror intruding, it’s something very local, very immediate . . .

IM: But, the issue still remains, what does a rational person or a society that regards itself as rational do in the face of irrational behavior? And there’s something very contaminating about aggressive and irrational behavior. In the Second World War, for example, the allies had to become genocidal in themselves, they had to firebomb, they dropped nuclear weapons. Genocide became an aspect of foreign policy. In that sense they began, horribly, to resemble the people they were bound to defeat. It’s always an interesting issue, how do you defeat a vile opponent without becoming a little bit vile yourself?

DL: Or is that inevitable?

IM: Exactly.

DL: I’ve always felt that the role of fiction, one of the roles of fiction in our lives, was to give shape to the chaos of human experience. That we tell stories in order to shape a world that resists shape. Does that tie in with what you’re saying now, that you’re using this novel as one way of dealing with the irrational? That you’re trying to contain it within the form of a novel?

IM: I do think of novels in terms of investigations, journeys, open-ended pursuits in that sense. The reader is bound to be aware that when Henry Perowne says he’s not interested in invented imaginary beings, he himself is an invented imaginary being, and therefore there is a paradox. I mean, he might not like novels, but he happens to be the hero of one. In other words, for all his struggles, he is another mind that has been invented. And he belongs in that project, I think, of literature—showing us what it’s like to be someone else, but someone with whom we might or might not share some vital aspects. Containing the irrational, I don’t know—all you can do is describe it and describe the dilemma, never really resolved in this book and I don’t see how it can be resolved, of when you’re confronted in the street as a doctor and you somewhat abuse your professional authority to escape a good kicking, but then afterwards feel somewhat besmirched. You feel you’ve told a lie, but you haven’t.

DL: There again you’ve been tainted by the encounter with that behavior.

IM: Exactly, and if we’re just to talk outside the novel, politically the United States and its allies have found themselves besmirched through their struggles against an enemy, that is, I think, completely vile in its totalitarian instincts. It’s very hard to remain good and to enter battle.

DL: You were speaking of Henry Perowne with a little distance, as if for you he had achieved a sense of independent status. Did you feel that at some stage in the writing he’d become a being unto himself? With a mind—that’s the word you just used . . .

IM: He became that for me in the very first paragraph when I wrote in longhand, “Henry Perowne comma a neurosurgeon,” and then rather like Joseph K., he wakes from troubled dreams. But finds himself waking in the act of rising from his bed. Standing in the darkness utterly naked. My pleasure in creating that moment for myself was, I have a character in the dark, as it were, just emerging, waiting to be dressed. I didn’t know who he was at that point, apart from his profession.

DL: But he lived for you, the heart was beating for you.

IM: Yes, he was already there and it was a rather pure feeling of just having this character stand naked by the bed, feeling rather elated and then crossing to the window. And yes, he is distinct from me, but more than in any other novel of mine I’ve drawn on a recognizable world to fill out the details. Of course, one is always giving every character some aspect or other of oneself. But, I gave him, as we said, my address and I gave him some of my . . . well, the tortured ambivalent feelings about the impending invasion. His utter impatience for, say, magical realism in fiction is not really mine. But it’s something that I have sometimes fleetingly felt, not as a dismissal so much as a sense that I really want the real world plausibly reenacted.

DL: And that’s obvious in your fiction.

IM: And I’m fine with much magical realism. I have read The Tin Drum, and I adore the work of Borges, and have actually started re-reading Garcia Márquez with some pleasure.

DL: I like the later Márquez myself—he became famous for One Hundred Years of Solitude, but I actually think the later work is better.

IM: I’m with you on that, and I do feel sometimes a little impatience when characters sprout wings and fly out the window. I think the laws of physics are intricate and wonderful enough and the world that greets us is wondrous enough and difficult to reenact.

DL: One of the traits that Saturday does share with most of your fiction is very much that what is presented is a real, solid world of blessed normalcy. The characters are lucky to be where they are. And then, over and over again in your work, something extraordinary intrudes. There’s something from the outside that’s unexpected, sometimes irrational, sometimes just physical, something totally unexpected that alters that real world irrecoverably in some ways. Every writer I’ve known has his or her own way of making their way through the process of writing. I’ve never heard two people describe it the same way, but generally they either have a pretty good idea where they’re going from the time they start or they discover the story in the process of telling it. How do you make your way?

IM: Well, if I had to opt for one of those two, I’m in the latter. I write to find where I’m going. But sometimes a scheme doesn’t emerge very rapidly in the early part of writing, sometimes in the first five or ten thousand words. Sometimes I just blunder into a novel and start out thinking I’m doing one thing that I had asked myself to do in a note ten years before and end up doing another thing that I had asked myself in a note three years before. Sometimes I have to trick myself into doing things. But I do see writing, the actual physical matter of writing, as an act of imagination. And the best days, the best mornings are the ones in which forcing down a sentence might generate a surprise. A combination of ideas, or simply a noun meeting an adjective that suddenly gives me pleasure. Whole characters have sometimes emerged for me simply out of a sentence. Not out of the need to describe a character, but the need to make this kind of a pattern on the page. And then I’ve gone on to build on that and found myself again pleased that something has come up, a little serendipity that’s taken me in the direction. I’ll give a concrete example: When I was writing Atonement, I was setting out to begin the Dunkirk section, and I decided that the central character, Robbie, was going to simply make a three-day walk towards the coast, alone. As I wrote the first paragraph, I suddenly found myself inventing two names and two other characters, and as I did so I thought, of course, this is going to be a lot more interesting, for him to have company. Suddenly, the whole matter thickened for me, and I didn’t know who these people were. The writing unfolded it for me, too, and those are nice discoveries—to end up at lunchtime with two people you didn’t know about at breakfast. That’s what I mean by the pleasures of surprise and of not having too strong or too rigorous / prescriptive a scheme. But on the other hand I do, or with Atonement I did have, a pretty strong sense of how it was all going to unfold. Once I got going, once I was three chapters in, I suddenly realized that I was writing in the voice of a seventy-seven-year-old woman novelist. That I would put her initials finally at the end of the main body of the novel and that there would be a coat and so on, all those things were quite clear.

DL: Speaking of the pleasures of the language, that reminds me of the great American stylist John Updike. In an earlier conversation you mentioned to me that you particularly liked and admired his work. How have you found Updike important for you?

IM: I can’t claim him as an influence, much as I’d like to, because I’ve never really written like him. But, there is the little twitch or spring or little “knight’s move of consciousness,” a phrase which I know I read in a book of his, but he claims not to know where it is, we can’t find it and he thinks he almost certainly stole it from Nabokov.

DL: Sounds like Nabokov.

IM: A scientist friend of mine says that actually a famous neurologist of the twenties used this phrase. So, anyway that’s a hunt to be conducted. Still, it nicely captures the spring in the step of a good Updike sentence. Sometimes it’s a matter of a word inversion, slightly off the normal nature of Standard English. He is a natural metaphor maker, simile maker. He has a marvelous eye. He is the one who follows Conrad’s prescription to make you see. I mean I think he is the most extraordinarily visual of writers, and maybe that’s what I admire in him above all and aspire to in my own writing—to make you see, to get to the heart of any emotional exchange or any transaction or any set piece. It’s crucial, in my view, to have the reader see, and that is not to say that you’ve got to lard the page with masses of description, but key, vivid, specific details, like little starbursts in the darkness, I think have emotional consequences. If you can see this then you can feel it.

You don’t want to get bogged down in metaphor. But Updike is full of these superb descriptions. When Rabbit, for example, rows his granddaughter out to sea and has a heart attack, the description before this terrible event happens of the vividness of light and water and sound. Clearly you’re being set up or sense that there’s some great physiological change occurring within Rabbit and in this indirect free style you know that it’s Updike, but it’s also Rabbit, and that something terrible is about to happen. Why is the world becoming so vivid? Or in Roger’s Version when the character takes a thirty-page walk through a decrepit part of town and there’s a description of a puddle with a bit of oil slick in it refracting light as in a rainbow. A couple of paragraphs I think there are just exquisite.

DL: Do you think that this facility with images has something to do with Updike’s fascination with visual art, his work as an art critic?

IM: I’m sure—I think it must be inseparable from it and I mean, no question that it’s a different side of the same coin. He has a very strong visual sense. I like writers generally, and Nabokov is another who is supreme in this respect, who recognize that forty percent of the brain’s processing is given over to the visual, and the visual region projects deep into other parts of the brain, of language and emotion. We are visual creatures and the novel, more than cinema, for me is ultimately a visual medium. Perhaps too, Updike’s poetry, which again is highly descriptive, is of importance here too. But I like, myself, to be able to see a scene. And in the opening scene of Enduring Love, for example, the most important element of that set piece was to make the details in the relationship, of all the different bits, the people running across a field towards a balloon that was in trouble, to make that clear, as clear as . . .

DL: I have to say that when I talk to people about your work, that’s the image that over and over and over comes up. People remember that opening scene of Enduring Love more than any other moment in your fiction.

IM: Yes, it’s funny how that seemed to have made such an impact. I wrote it when I was two-thirds of the way through the book; I’d been looking for an opening. What I wanted was to sort of hit the ground running, to have a sense of urgency and visual clarity with something knocking the heart, or making the heart knock and get a sort of drumbeat of prose. But, I couldn’t find it, not that I even looked, I just knew it would come up; I hadn’t yet found the event, the thing that would embody all this. Until a friend of mine, we were hiking in Ireland in a high wind and he suddenly remembered he’d read in a paper of a balloon and a father and son who had tried to tether it and dropped to their deaths. I never could find the newspaper piece ’til long afterwards. But as soon as he told me, I thought—now that’s it. And I need more than two people, I need six or seven around that balloon. What better enactment of morality? This notion that if we all hang on we can hold it down, but if one breaks rank then there’s no point in being good anymore. How perfect that was for me. So, that was a gift really. I just couldn’t wait to get back to my desk. Well, in two days I think it went down.

DL: What other contemporary authors do you read for pleasure or with admiration?

IM: In fiction or nonfiction?

DL: Well, either.

IM: Well, in nonfiction, I’m reading and rereading now the great American biologist E. O. Wilson. I think he is a superb writer, as well as a great scientist. I’m just reading his book called Creation, in which he pleads with Christian fundamentalists. At the beginning of each chapter he says, “Pastor, may I now bring your attention to . . .” and what he’s arguing is that, although he knows he can never get an agreement between one who thinks the world was created and one like himself who is a secular humanist, who believes firmly that evolutionary theory is beyond doubt. At the same time, since science and religion are the two most powerful forces in the world today, they have a joint mutual interest in saving its environment, the environment of the earth. So it’s an elegant plea, probably a hopeless one, because I can’t imagine any pastor wanting to read E. O. Wilson, they’ll just want to reread those familiar verses, from those same old Apostles and bearded prophets. But it’s a bold attempt to put a hand out across the divide. I’ve admired his work for a long time. I like the roll of his prose. As a stylist alone, even if he wasn’t a scientist, I think he would have made a colossal impact in the literary culture. I’m interested too in the way certain scientists, and I include Voltaire for example in this, write so well. When they’re forced, when people are forced to actually describe their best summary of the thing as it actually is, I think that’s quite a strict discipline for the prose. I’m a great admirer, for example, of the letters Voltaire wrote when he visited England. He wrote some letters back. They’re called “Letters from England” or “Lettres Philosophe.” He describes witnessing Newton’s funeral and then just gives a couple of long letters to the theory of optics. Some of the best explanatory writing for the layman on science that I’ve ever seen. There are great moments in Darwin, too. So I think there’s this hidden literature which really needs to be brought, molded, talked into a canon that lives alongside our literary canon. And I hope one day a publisher will make a science library that is about the literature, the poetry of science writing, because it’s certainly there and is a marvelous tradition.

DL: The distinction between fiction and nonfiction is one that really fascinates me, and I think some of the most interesting writing done in recent years has deliberately played with that boundary. W. G. Sebald, someone I admired a great deal, he plays with this over and over again. Recently in the U.S. we’ve had things that amount to scandals, although they don’t strike me as that, where some writers have presented what are essentially novels or pure fictions as memoir or biography in some sense, and people have felt strangely betrayed by that, really furious and angry, as if there’s a moral dimension to that confusion. What do you think of that? I think it is very recent that people have a faith that there is a truth that can be told so readily and are so abused when it turns out not to be that way.

IM: Well, I feel a mixture of things. On the one hand, I think that there are things that are the case and there are certain other things that are not, and I’m not much in sympathy with the kind of relativism of, say, postmodernist criticism. I think we do know more now than we knew ten years ago about the natural world, for example. Fiction has always, right from its inception, certainly in the eighteenth century, liked to blur the distinctions. “In the town of M, stroke, in the year of . . .” So why is he not telling us the name of the town? Well, because he doesn’t want to offend the real people who are living there. That old trick is one that we’ve all learned. I’ve constantly made use of real events, real people, or have my characters meet real people. In Saturday, Henry Perowne gets to shake the hand of Tony Blair, and it’s the real Tony Blair, not the imagined Tony Blair. When someone says, “this happened to me” and it didn’t, well I think the most fascinating thing about that is the outrage that follows, not so much the deceit. I know in certain recent cases there’s been another matter, which has been plagiarism. In other words, you’ve stolen someone else’s experiences or even imaginary experiences and claimed them for yourself.

DL: That seems a different order of crime.

IM: Yes, so this does seem more like pickpocketing to me, and for that you need to be fingered and named and shamed. But I don’t know, it does show us that we care about these lines, and I think they ought to be drawn actually. I do. I don’t think we could just drift away in a cloud of unknowing relativism about this. Something happened to you or it didn’t. Of course we all know that travel writing is fantastically smoothed and fictionalized and many travel writers know that they collate events, miss out great stretches of boredom, make certain things happen in one place that probably happened in another, but it suits their purpose better or whatever . . .

DL: It would be like actually transcribing the way people speak into dialogue. You would never write dialogue that mimics the way people speak; it would be boring and wretched. You’re creating the illusion of reality.

IM: Exactly. I mean there have been cases, and it happened last year here in a big way; there was a Swiss writer who claimed to be a Holocaust survivor and wrote a very successful book. And I wonder why that writer didn’t simply say it’s a fiction, because I think it would have been a very successful fiction, because it was all imagined and rather brilliantly so. Somehow, that this really happened is of great consequence to readers. Briony Tallis, at the end of Atonement, having shown her hand on this, says you know there’s always going to be a certain kind of reader who’s going to say, “but what really happened?”

DL: But that’s an astonishing moment, when she appears for the first time at the very end of the novel. My head snapped back with that. It’s very, very interesting when, as you say, she pulls the curtain aside.

IM: There’s one bit of that book I never published.  I thought, “no it’s too tricksey”, but sometimes I regret it . . . that you would turn the page and you would get, “About the Author.” And it would say: Briony Tallis was born in 1922 in Surrey. Her father was a high up civil servant. Her first novel published in 1951, and I gave her some titles, very period titles. Her first novel was called Soho Solstice, and then various others, then her career dipped for a while, but then in the sixties she was taken up by the feminist Virago press and her novel The Ducking Stool was made into a film with Julie Christie. I say she died in July 2001—which is when I finished the novel. Then I chickened out. I thought, No—time for the tricks to end. It’s got to actually end with acknowledgments to the Imperial War Museum and set the reader down on terra firma.

DL: Do you, as you’re writing, ever think about your audience, whom you’re writing for? Do you have an ideal reader in mind or are you at the point of your career where you just don’t much care, that you’re writing what you need to write?

IM: I have a kind of being, not really a reader, a kind of entity whose dominant disposition is utter skepticism. And this being wears a constant snarl, and is always muttering, “come off it, you’re never going to get away with that,” or “this is feeble.” It’s all the hostile reviews or reviewers that I’ve ever had in my life. And it’s quite a useful being. But as for readers, readers are too diverse and the thing that we all learn about contemporary literature is that there are no standards; there are no common standards of taste. You can get two perfectly intelligent, widely read people in the room who’ve read the same book, and one thinks it’s a disgrace from one end to the other, and the other thinks it’s a masterpiece. How is it that we don’t have a common view of what even constitutes a good sentence? There’s nothing, our feet can’t touch the ground on this, and it’s no good to try and sort it out by voting—these sorts of lists that you get in newspapers.

DL: Oh, but they are popular those lists.

IM: Maybe the lists are our desperate plea for some certainty, given that we just don’t know what a good book is or we can’t agree on what a good book is. It decimates me every time the Booker Prize comes around, what’s on it, what’s off it, you know, outrage, delight, someone says it’s a master work, someone says it’s a piece of crap. How is it we have not taught ourselves in university courses the elements of a good book? It’s fine about the past, we can say in a letter, a few hundred funerals go by, and we can begin to build a consensus. But what follows from that is, it is impossible to constitute a reader in your head, except a strange, skeptical, critical, unimpressed one that I have who makes me take things out, generally. It’s not about putting things in; it really makes me take things out.

DL: You touch on an interesting quandary. Updike, for example, for all his high acclaim, has never made a lot of money with his novels. His sales have always been fairly modest. You’re incredibly well thought of—no, that’s not the right word—you have sold many, many books on both sides of the Atlantic. Do you have any ambivalence about that or are you just thoroughly pleased?

IM: No, I have no ambivalence about it. I think I represent the standard author in that, you know—I would like more readers. It’s a sort of colonizing instinct. For a long time I have thought that the novel, not in its modernist form, but in its nineteenth-century form, is a popular art form, it’s a demotic one. It should reach large numbers of people and there’s nothing shameful about it . . .

DL: And that’s the irony, that someone like Dickens could aspire to the highest literary qualities as well as try and reach as broad an audience as possible. But in the twentieth century that was thought of as somehow soiling.

IM: It was modernism that promoted the notion of the artist as a sort of severe high priest who belonged to a small elite and was not going to ever have his pages dirtied and grubbied by the hoi polloi. I think it was a nonsensical view. Writers like Virginia Woolf saying, “character is now dead,” helped push the novel down some very fruitless impasses. And although I think in the United States, literature, fiction, largely bypassed all the problems posed for it by modernism, in continental Europe there was a long fading off through the fifties, sixties, and seventies of authors still writing novels that never really engaged the world in the way that, say, Saul Bellow could. When I was researching The Innocent, set in Berlin during the cold war, I spent good time in Berlin, walking and cycling all around the perimeter, walking the whole length of the wall with a good German friend. And I remember asking among my German friends, “Well, where are the good contemporary novels on the German wall, on the Berlin wall?” And they said, there’s Peter Schneider’s The Wall Jumper, but no, there’s nothing, because it’s not a subject for novelists, it’s a subject for journalists. And you got a sense that they were still in this aesthetic, that the proper business of the novelist was to write about an alienated figure in a hotel room in an unnamed city staring at the wall, waiting for the appearance of another unnamed character in order to accomplish some unnamed pursuit.

DL: So you’re not a fan of Becket?

IM: Not of the later Becket, I’m afraid I’m not, and I think what would Roth, Updike, Bellow, just to take the obvious three, have done had they been Berliners? . . . They wouldn’t have ignored that wall.

DL: No, in fact they were just who I was thinking of as you were making that description. I was thinking that the American realist novel, even someone like Toni Morrison, really is there as well.

IM: I think the wall did not find its literature, I hope it does in retrospect. I mean part of the problem too, was, the wall was a fantastic shaming monument to the dreams of the left or of Soviet Communism. And it was odd that so many people, so many writers on the left felt that if they were going to condemn the wall in the madness of polarizing thought, people would think they were right wing, working for the CIA. To call the Berlin wall a monstrosity was what American presidents were doing, so it couldn’t be right. As Orwell says, it’s a terrible thing that if your enemy says something, it becomes an untruth. If your enemy points to a fact and you therefore are forced to think it’s an untruth, that is a terrible, terrible mind-set to get into.

DL: So if you’re not an heir to the modern novel or the modernist novel of the twentieth century, whom do you look back to as a kind of literary mentor in the sense of someone that you would like to be seen as following in the steps of?

IM: I’d have to qualify what you say, because Atonement could not have been written without all the experiments in fiction and reflections on point of view. And tricks with those and that sense drawn from modernism and postmodernism of having other writing, other texts, the spirits of other writers moving through your pages as if they, too, were as much a part of the real world as forests and cities and oceans. I feel myself to be absolutely not someone, as it were, trying to write Mozart symphonies in the time of Stockhausen. But, I do think that the nineteenth century invented for us some extraordinary things and we’d be crazy to turn our backs on them. And one is, the notion of character. We run narratives about other people in our real lives, we make characters of them, necessarily, because it helps us to guess what they might do next. Intention is very much bound up with the notion of character, the sort of person who might do this or that. It’s all part of the way in which we instinctively judge other people’s behavior and see ourselves reflected back in their own view of us. So I think the nineteenth century formalized this for us, and the creation of character and the mapping out of other minds and the invitation to the reader to step into those other minds seems to me very much the central project of exploring our condition. So it is connected with what was achieved by Jane Austen or Balzac or Flaubert or Dickens. But now it’s become much more complicated, we can’t simply take a point of view and omniscience for granted and there’s a kind of innocence that’s lost there. But still I think, people do hunger for the complete immersion in a fictional world that seems real. We still have that.

DL: I think that’s a lovely place to end the conversation. Thanks so much for speaking with me today.

IM: Great pleasure, David.

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