Ian McEwan Interviewed

In February, English novelist Ian McEwan visited Hong Kong in the wake of the Oscar success of the movie “Atonement”, based on his novel of the same name. Gary Pollard had a chance to talk to him, and you can see our edited clip of that interview here.

The interview was much longer than we were able to show. Here, for fans of McEwan, is the full transcript.

Ian McEwan’s first book, “First Love, Last Rites” was a collection of stories, mostly about sex and death, that earned him the nickname “Ian Macabre”. For him, such short stories were a way to find his feet as a writer.

“First Love, Last Rites” won him the Somerset Maugham Award in 1976. He was given the Whitbread Novel Award (1987) and the Prix Fémina Etranger (1993) for “The Child in Time”; and Germany’s Shakespeare Prize in 1999. He has, several times, been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize for Fiction. He won it in 1998 for “Amsterdam”. His novel “Atonement”, recently filmed by British director Joe Wright, received the WH Smith Literary Award (2002), the National Book Critics’ Circle Fiction Award (2003), Los Angeles Times Prize for Fiction (2003), and the Santiago Prize for the European Novel (2004). In 2006, he won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for his novel “Saturday” and his latest work  “On Chesil Beach” was named Galaxy Book of the Year at the 2008 British Book Awards.

Like many of his books, “On Chesil Beach” is built around misunderstandings and the potential destructiveness of sexuality.

Gary Pollard
Sexuality often seems to appear as a destructive or disruptive element in your work.

Ian McEwan
I don’t know about destructive, but I think it is an area of human interaction fraught with difficulty and underpinned by delight. So there is this polarity, very tempting to the writer, I think.

You can find in a sexual relationship not just sex, but all possibility of misunderstanding and of moments of togetherness. I think that the territory is so vast because it encompasses both the tragic elements of misunderstanding and the heavenly elements in what we sense is possible, that if we could fully understand, we could fully reach a concord. And because misunderstanding is fraught too with comedy, I’ve found it an irresistible topic over the years.

Gary Pollard
In “Enduring Love” you presented a kind of “stalking” pathology with a character suffering from “De Clerambault Syndrome”. There seems to be some doubt as to whether you made this up or whether it actually existed.

Ian McEwan
Yes it does exist. De Clerambault is a French psychologist. He worked for the Paris police. He was a forensic psychologist. He blew his brains out in front of a mirror so he was clearly not a very stable sort of guy. And he identified a syndrome where one person falls in love with another in an obsessive way and is convinced that it’s the other person that started it all off, is the one who is actually initiating the affair. And the affair, of course, just exists in the psychic reality of their own minds.

I came across references to it in a couple of newspapers and filed them away, thinking that would be a very interesting little motor for a plot. But I forgot about it for several years, and then it fell into exactly what I needed in the book I was writing.

At the end of this novel, having read so many books of psychiatry and papers on “De Clerambault’s Syndrome”, I thought: “I can’t let it go. I’ve now learned this language. I’m going to write a paper in this, a psychiatric case study”. And I really described the whole novel again in those terms. So I stuck it at the end of the novel in the appendix. It caused something of a stir because before the novel was published, I submitted the paper to a very well known psychological journal. As soon as I posted it off, I regretted it.

Gary Pollard
As a practitioner of the English novel, do you sometimes find the English literary scene a bit too precious and insular, a bit narrow in scale? Some American novelists still seem more willing to take on the world.

Ian McEwan
One of the reason I admire American novels in the second half of the 20th century is precisely because of their formal ambitions. They really did continue to pursue the notion of the Dickensian “totality” novel. And among my favourite writers are John Updike and Philip Roth.

I sense, really, a generation of writers largely untouched by the literary modernism that swept through Europe, and which rather limited the ways in which people are approaching the novel. Can we measure up to this? I don’t know. The world is getting harder to describe.

Gary Pollard
Is that it? Has the world become too complex to grasp in a single work? Was it easier for Renaissance artists because things were simpler?

Ian McEwan
Perhaps it’s just an illusion that the world is getting harder to describe, and if we were plunged into the mid 19th century Europe we’d find it just as teeming and contradictory. I think some writers offer us a standing challenge, like Tolstoy and Dostoevsky and Dickens. We have to measure up and that’s all there is to it.

On the other hand, there are so many great miniaturists around. Among my favourites is Tobias Wolf. I think he is a superb American writer, and in a nutshell can make a whole universe.

Gary Pollard
There is this notion that our attention spans have become too short for complex, all encompassing, works.

Ian McEwan
I am again sceptical about that. I think our attention span is a biological matter, not a cultural one. Wallace Stevens said all writers believe that they are living at the end of their imagination. There is a great temptation to think that we live past a golden age. There is something rather defeatist about that.

I don’t see it. I don’t feel it. I think writers will come along in future generations who will find readers who will have the attention span. If our attention span were diminishing we wouldn’t be able to build the extraordinary machines that we do. We are capable of extraordinary feats of engineering.

Gary Pollard
You’ve had your books such as “Enduring Love”, “Atonement”, and “The Comfort of Strangers” adapted into film. You’ve adapted other people’s works like Timothy Mo’s “Sour Sweet” into film. And you’ve written original screenplays like “The Ploughman’s Lunch”. What’s your perception of the relationship between movies and books?

Ian McEwan
I have to say my prejudice is that movies are the inferior form. They can’t give you that marvellous interior quality of the novel. I think also of the novel in terms of its visual power. On the other hand, there is the immediacy of movies, and they are not very demanding, and we sit and they happen to us.

I’m always interested in how one particular novel becomes a movie. In fact when I was 20 years old, I applied to do research on that very subject. Thank God I was turned down and I got engulfed in writing, and write fiction instead.

It’s always a difficult process when it’s your own novel. It’s best not to do your own stuff. It’s best to hand it to someone else, because it’s a fairly destructive and limited process, writing a screenplay. Timothy Mo’s book is probably about 100,000 words. My screenplay of it was probably 18,000 words. A lot has to vanish, and finally you are down to just what people say and do. You cannot give the sense of the inside of the fine print of consciousness.

That said, I love nothing better than a movie set. I love the controlled panic of it. I love that sense of collaboration, even though it might lead to spectacular betrayals and upsets. And I love the expertise on the movie set too. And the fact that there is a ticking clock of money that defines the day. And for that I think I got involved with the movies, just to burst out of solitude for a while and then of course I creep back to it rather gratefully.

Gary Pollard
You began by writing short stories. Was that a way of building your confidence for taking on a larger work?

Ian McEwan
I was very uncertain about myself and what I wanted, and ended up writing these strange dark psychopathological stories. I didn’t know where the hell it came from. Perhaps there is a certain element of attention-grabbing in them too. There is a reckless pessimism that I probably could not really endorse or subscribe to now. And it took me a while to really find my whole voice or feet, or that part of the body through which on speaks or hears. And in fact even my first two novels are really extended short stories, so I was a slower learner in this.

Gary Pollard
Where does a novel come from for you? Do you begin with a theme or a scene?

Ian McEwan
It varies enormously for me. I sometimes have to start writing to find out what it is. Sometimes it’s just characters. A novel I’m just starting now is simply emanating from a sense of a person. At other times it might be a newspaper cutting, as for “De Clerambault Syndrome”. It can come from an external source: an anecdote, a piece of gossip, a newspaper cutting, that could trigger the whole thing.

Once I get going, I then find I’m connecting things I thought were separated, I thought there were three different ideas for a book, and then I realised actually they all belong to each other. At some level just below the threshold of consciousness, something is knitting itself together. Of course the discovery of that is very satisfying.

Gary Pollard
Do you regard yourself as a formalist? Or do you want the form to be transparent?

Ian McEwan
I do think of the novel in architectural terms. I do like them to have shape. But I think the shape is very much driven by the content, not the other way round. I like a sense of structure within which the reader can feel secure, in which there is a sort of controlling sense of things.

But at the same time novels are always messy, slightly baggy, capricious things. They should have an air of felt life about them. You should always prepare when you lay down your schemes for them to be upended or distorted somewhat. I’m not sure that life, observed life, can be neatly poured into the form imposed. But still it should be there as a background force.

Gary Pollard
Are there novels that you read and think: “I wish I’d done that”?

Ian McEwan
Oh yes, a lot! I suppose that top of my list will be John Updike. I don’t and can’t write the way he does. I love his sentences, the little twists in them, his sceptical intelligence, his marvellous visual sense. It’s not for nothing that he’s such a good writer on painting. He’s also a great writer about sex. And there’s a real sense too of massive change, the sociological novel. It gives a real sense of a society moving through it, a slow evolution. There’s the sheer ambitiousness of his novels. Hugely impressive.

Saul Bellow too. Again many English writers admire Bellow rather more than American readers and writers do, but there’s something very democratic about it. I don’t think could come from a pen of an English writer. There’s a sense of classlessness, a sense of being in the street, the bar, the speakeasy as it were, and yet also with those able to do the deep-sea thinking: the professors, the intellectuals, who always find themselves a little disoriented in what he calls the moronic inferno of American life. So there are two.

Roth’s sexual comedy too I admire enormously, and I would love to be able to do. In fact, I tried to emulate it in a rather timid way in short stories when I was just starting.

Gary Pollard
We’ve been hearing for decades, if not centuries, that the novel is dead. Nobel prize-winner Doris Lessing repeated the idea most recently. Or is the demise of the novel exaggerated?

Ian McEwan
People have been talking about the end of the novel, certainly throughout my entire adult life, and it hasn’t died. I don’t share that pessimism about it. I think we will always need some account of the fine print of consciousness. We won’t get it from movies: that sense of what’s it like to be someone else and to be someone else through time, and which the novel is particularly good at. I think the novel is also very good at fixing the individual in relation to his or her immediate society and to larger society. I think also the aesthetic pleasure of good prose will never desert us.

So although the form of delivery might change – now people are talking about these electronic books that you can carry around with 500 novels inside, or you can download novels from the internet – although the forms of delivery will be technologically different, I think the impulse to read remains. I think we are very nosy as a species. We are very gossipy. Novels are a form of higher gossip. They take us into other lives. I feel on the whole, it will survive.

Another reason it will survive is we are going through so much change: the way we live, the way we connect with each other. Again, technology is driving the change. We also have a lot of conflict. Again the novels are a good medium for describing conflict. So I think it’s going to be around a good while yet.

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