"No one now writing fiction in the English language surpasses Ian McEwan," the Washington Post Book World proclaimed upon the publication of the author's twelfth novel, Atonement (which would soon thereafter earn the 2002 National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction).
Forgive the hyperbole. To read McEwan is to be swept away by prose of astonishing precision and power, and to be constantly surprised by the ambition and breadth of his scope. Since his first collection of stories, First Love, Last Rights, arrived to international acclaim in 1975, capturing the Somerset Maugham Award in the process, the literary world has cleared room for each new release: in 1987, The Child in Time won the Whitbread Best Novel Award; in 1998, Amsterdam took home the Booker Prize.
From his early macabre portraits to more recent introspective dramas — "The turning point for me was The Child in Time," McEwan considers, "when political, moral, social, comic, and other possibilities moved in" — each new effort finds its way onto the shortlist of one major prize or another. And yet his latest, for many readers, manages to surpass everything that came before. Indeed, the Christian Science Monitor conceded, "The extraordinary range of Atonement suggests that there's nothing McEwan can't do."
Dave: When Salman Rushdie was here, we talked about what he called his "language project," how his approach to writing has evolved over the years. Your own work has certainly changed through the decades. I wonder how that evolution appears to you now, and where you find yourself in the arc.
Ian McEwan: It's always hard for me to describe. I'm about four-fifths of the way through a novel, and like everything I've done it feels to me like it's the first thing I ever did. It is radically different from my last novel or any novel before that.
I guess this project of endlessly reinventing yourself does become central. I'm very slow at starting a book. I require a lot of time between them — Amsterdam after Enduring Love was an exception. I almost have to become a different person. Some ground has to shift very slowly under me. The emotional reach and the priorities have to shift.
I thought I'd come to the end of something with Enduring Love. Amsterdam and Atonement and the book I'm writing now all seem to be so entirely different from each other that I find it hard to bind them within any single scheme. I can't really describe myself as having anything so specific as a language project. I feel that I'm involved in a long-term investigation of human nature.
There's a kind of meta-story that unfolds for any writer who's been doing this for more than a couple decades. That is: the story of your story, the story that's told by your eighteen inches of bookshelf, or whatever it is. One of the great pleasures of writing is not knowing where that story is taking you. You're a character in it you're a character in the metafiction of What next?
The interesting thing I've discovered is that every book you publish changes all the books you've published before. People now look at the rest of my work through the prism of Atonement and find all sorts of connections. Before that it was Enduring Love or Amsterdam or Black Dogs that they saw things through. I find that immensely pleasurable. It's that unfolding story...
If someone were to tell me what I would be writing in the book after next, I know that it would surprise me — I hope it would surprise me completely, that there would be nothing about it that I could guess from anything I've done before — but the moment it's published it will assimilate itself and retrospectively shift everything along.
I think that's going to happen with this book, which is set within a single day, a certain day last year. It is a departure for me in that its central character lives in my house, in my square. He's a brain surgeon, so I've been going and watching very closely major brain surgery. When I go back to England I've got a lot more of this, not out of any gory or prurient interest, but one aspect of this is the fascination with work and its pleasures, the slight abandonment of self that complete immersion in work can bring, the focus. It needn't be work, actually — it could be in a tennis game or cooking a meal — but there's a certain kind of hard-to-describe, selfless elation that comes occasionally with writing, for example, certainly not all the time, but in moments, half hours, two-hour stretches, when you don't even know you exist. You're only doing the thing you're doing and you're not even aware of the clock or what you're going to do next or where you are in the story of your existence.
I was looking for a kind of work that might have to draw on this kind of resource daily, and I decided that surgery would fit the bill. And it's turned out to be absolutely correct. The man I'm shadowing is never happier than when he's operating on someone's brain. He's transported. That's what he lives for, to get back in there.
Dave: To focus on a brain surgeon seems appropriate, in that there's a movement in your more recent work toward a greater articulation of thought, from extensive descriptions of setting and scene in the earlier books toward a greater consciousness of characters' thought processes.
The Comfort of Strangers is a good example of the earlier style. As these two foreigners try to make sense of their surroundings, the reader confronts an obsessive description of things, as if the characters' eyes are fluttering around the room, trying to gather information, trying to settle on something and yet the book is almost entirely internalized.
McEwan: It's all very subjective description, yes. Although I would have denied this strenuously at the time, I think I was in the last, dying moments of an interest in a kind of existential novel in which you never allowed yourself to say, "He thought." I thought that was a piece of rusted machinery that belonged to the nineteenth century.
You built your world through impressions so that the state of the street or the weather was your route into the character's mind. And yes, I did move away from that. The Cement Garden was the same.
At the same time, I became interested in describing the flow of thought, but also I became more interested in history and time and recognizable communal places, whereas in my first two novels I thought I would never stoop to naming a place, I would never stoop to naming a time — my novels were going to hang in a free, ethereal realm. I guess it was a last modernist notion, which I don't think I could sustain. Nor would it allow me to do all the other things I wanted to do.
The turning point for me was The Child in Time, when political, moral, social, comic, and other possibilities moved in. Actually, it liberated me to try to capture a flow of thought. It was moving inwards in one sense, but my novels, particularly Black Dogs and, no, The Innocent, too, which was a historical novel set in Berlin in a very specific time — it's never changed since then. I've wanted to locate things specifically and also to merge invented worlds with real worlds. That's become a very important part of my project. Somehow, the historically real, the actual, the factual seems to enliven the invented. I like to put imaginary people in real, identifiable places. I sometimes like to mix invented characters with historical characters, which I did for the first time in The Innocent when I had George Blake as a character in the book. That has been a big shift.
There was a big gap between The Comfort of Strangers and The Child in Time, and in that time I was writing screenplays, television plays. I wrote an oratorio. Writing screenplays pulled me out of that rather bare, precise, existential kind of novel, and made me feel like I now want to draw some of this stuff back into fiction that I've been writing about in plays.
Dave: There's a much-quoted line in Enduring Love: "A beginning is an artifice, and what recommends one over another is how much sense it makes of what follows."
If you could speak to one of the novels and how that process unfolds: you have a story and you're trying to figure out how to tell it. The beginning may indeed be the best way to get into a story, but you may not recognize it until quite a bit of the story has been written.
McEwan: A lot of that shaping grows out of the material. It can't happen, as you say, beforehand. Something about what feels to me like the truth of what I'm doing will create a kind of structure.
Atonement is really a novel followed by two novellas followed by a sort of coda. That was the shape that just grew out of what had to happen. At some point in the back of my mind when I started, I thought I was going to write a novel within a novel, and that the first half, the stuff that's set in the country house, was going to be a complete, intact novel in itself: the novel that my central character had written.
In the writing, I changed its shape. It was going to be twenty-five chapters; I pulled it down to fourteen. I realized that I wanted to follow these two characters; and even though I'd follow them in the terms that were set down at the beginning, those later chapters were also going to be written by Briony, the central character.
To give you an example of how structure grows out of content: The first half of the book moves in a kind of overlapped way, so most of the things that happen in one chapter are slightly picked up in the chapter that follows. Three of the characters have chapters in which their center of consciousness dictates the view. Briony has slightly more than the others, but her mother has some and her sister has some and Robbie has two chapters. The fact that they overlapped each other struck me as being a kind of polyphony actually, that's why I thought of the name Tallis, because of the English composer.
I knew that kind of structure would not be appropriate for the battlefield — the battlefield section was going to be entirely Dunkirk, entirely Robbie. I wanted there to be a sense of no way out. I know any reader can put the book down, but I wanted the sense of a continuous episode, maybe with paragraph spaces, but basically a novella. It, too, would be intact, but in different terms. With that in place, I knew that the next bit was going to be Briony's, working in hospital. I thought, The counterweight will be a young woman's experience of war, not on the battlefield, but hard, tough, boring work in a hospital. That took on exactly the same structure and more or less the same length.
It's almost like having a square with two rectangles; that's how it sat in my mind. The two rectangles make another square that more or less balances — in fact, the first half of the book is 65,000 words and the other two more or less add up to 65,000. Then there's an 8,000-word coda.
That's how the material simply generates structure. It's not like being an architect who has to design the whole thing before the first brick is lifted. It's rather like being a sculptor or a painter, putting things in, then smearing them out till you get the balance. Obviously, second, third, and fourth drafts are crucial in that respect, but it's usually the material that does the shaping.
Amsterdam was written as a play. I always thought of it as a comic-tragic play; it had five acts, or chapters. Very simple. It was always in my mind exactly how it was going to be. Enduring Love: a very simple structure, moving in pretty linear fashion from beginning to end. The Child in Time was dictated entirely by the period of a pregnancy because it would end with a birth.
Dave: You use analogies to painting and sculpture. Also, musical references arise throughout your work. When you think about structures and shapes, do you find inspiration in other art forms?
Dave: Not necessarily directly, but for instance in the story a classical symphony might tell, do you find correlative shapes and patterns?
McEwan: That's why structure is a lot more difficult in the novel, because you always have to bear in mind that whatever fancy schemes you have in your head, the subjective, real experience of reading it is one thing after another through time. A lot of the structure is more helpful to me, the writer, than it is to the reader.
Because even short novels are long, and because they typically contain a lot of ordinary, transitional experience, just like the day itself, a lot of it is forgotten. I know from my own experience as a reader that you're swept along by it. The more successful you are in seducing your reader into the nature and world of this fiction, the more the reader is going to forget everything that's in it. Structure has to work in pretty invisible ways.
When we listen to a Mozart symphony, as long as you know how these things work, you can hear a first theme, you can hear a second theme, you can hear an exposition. You know where you are at any given point, at least in a classical symphony or in a Beethoven sonata, and you know when to be surprised when the second theme actually contains a third. But structure there, I think, works in slightly different ways. If you're hearing the first theme elaborated in a sonata, it's not quite the same as a theme in a book. And I don't think thematically; I just stick with the material. I know more or less what I want to do with it, but it's never helpful for me to think I'm now going to write a novel about forgiveness. These abstract nouns don't really help me at all.
Dave: You wrote an essay in the Guardian a few years ago about your mother. Will you someday write an autobiography?
McEwan: I did start to think about writing a short memoir with that essay as part of it, possibly even the first chapter, and then what happened? I started writing the novel I'm writing, and it sort of died on its feet. I'll resurrect it. I've got all the notes, and one of these days I will write it.
I find it hard to get drawn into it because I'm so uninterested in novelists' memoirs, myself. It's got to be something different. I very much enjoyed, and always tell him so, Martin Amis's Experience. You've got to come at a memoir with the full resources of a novelist and do something different. The idea of That was the month I met Andy Warhol in the lobby... I can't bear the thought. Or, My father was always an anxious man. Well do I remember the evenings under the... No.
Some people have a resourcefulness with their past, people like Bellow, for example, and Updike. They seem to endlessly mine it. It always feels like their past, anyway. It seems so copious, so full and rich and packed with character. Mine isn't like that, actually. When you read The Adventures of Augie March or the reflections in Herzog or various bits of Pennsylvania revived in Updike's work or New Jersey in Roth's work, you think, God, these guys are such rememberers! I can hardly remember my childhood. Or, that's not true: I can remember, but not in that degree of detail; nor has it ever been a great resource for me the way it has been for them.
It's odd you should mention that essay, which was called "Mother Tongue," because I'm going to mention it tonight in relation to fiction and nonfiction, the ways in which breaking off writing a novel to turn in that essay you promised, moving backwards and forwards across those boundaries, is actually a very important thing to be doing. One influences and shapes the other. Much of Atonement... I thought it was being derailed, but actually it was being shaped by having to stop and write things like that. I deeply resented having to write that essay, and yet I was so pleased when I had done it. I had no idea I was going to be writing about my mother. I'd promised an essay on language.
Dave: You write about having your childhood friend correct you by saying "did" out loud every time you had slipped and said "done" by mistake. It's interesting to read that essay in light of your career choice, as some kind of record of a young writer gaining confidence with the language.
Even since you've been publishing, over the course of your career, you seem to be using language more confidently. The characters in your earlier books don't have the same articulate nature or the confidence with language of your more recent characters.
McEwan: That's true. Even in The Comfort of Strangers: These two are educated types, but their vulnerability to what happens is very much a product of the whole range of attitudes they've developed through their education. And in the short stories many of my characters were seriously impaired in their grip on language.
On the other hand, I once wrote a short story — it was published in my second volume [In Between the Sheets] — narrated by an ape who lives with a woman who is trying to write her second novel. That's a real reflection of someone who thinks hard about fiction. And a lot of the stories did have a great deal of other literature in them, as well as music. But it's true that the kinds of people and the kind of interests I have are bound to change. Think of not changing. That would be a terror.
Dave: Another quote from "Mother Tongue": "I only spoke freely on a one-to-one basis. I never acted in plays, I never spoke in class, I rarely spoke up when I was in a group of boys. Intimacy was what loosened my tongue."
You were a writer waiting for a pen, it seems. In terms of getting that voice to flow, maybe you could talk about the intimacy of a writer putting words on the page for a reader.
McEwan: As I'm sure I say at some other point in that essay, I never flowed. Twenty-five years had to pass before I flowed. Even now it's a good day when things flow. With me, it's usually a sentence at a time and long pauses in between, backtracking.
At the very beginning, I was fantastically hesitant and mistrustful of the language. Like my mother, I always thought it contained traps, that it would end up meaning something other than what I intended it to mean. And as I also say in that essay, I was never one of those people who think onto the page and then shape it to what they want. I always thought these sentences out in my mind, then put them down. I always had this near-superstition that by putting words on the page I'd already pre-empted the possibilities; I'd never get the thing I really wanted.
I actually have quite a tough time with writing, a lot of empty days, not moving on the next sentence. A lot of that.
Dave: Who is an author you think is especially worth reading? And if someone were coming to that author for the first time, where should they begin?
McEwan: Living author or any author?
Dave: Any author.
McEwan: There are many I could mention, but one writer who has meant a lot to me over the years, very different from me, very prolific and whose least successful novels are still filled with various felicities on every page, is Updike. I love the naked intelligence of his prose. I love that sort of muscular quality of his. And the cool eye — I wouldn't say cold; it's a cool eye sometimes.
Where would I start? I guess I'd start with the last of the Rabbit books [Rabbit at Rest] and work backwards.
Dave: Why start at the end?
McEwan: By then he had taught himself how to write those books. As all novels, you have to write them to find out how to write them. Rabbit Run has none of the authority you find in the succeeding three. And Rabbit Is Rich is nowhere near as accomplished, I think, as Rabbit at Rest, though I do like Rabbit Redux and Rabbit Is Rich.
I would say, if one were beginning to write, there are two places I would start, especially with American writers. One would be the particular chapter in Bellow's Herzog where Herzog goes back to his New York apartment, showers and changes, and goes to see his lover. That's all that happens, basically, but there are just some of those superb Bellovian asides, divagations, on what it is to be a man, to be in a city, in a century, in a country, of a class, in a time....He really has that deep-sea thinking, but also caught up with a shimmering ordinariness. That chapter, which is actually about sixty or seventy pages long, I think is a masterwork, rarely equaled in any fiction.
That and the first eighty or hundred pages of Rabbit at Rest, I think, are unequaled in contemporary British writing. We don't have gray, bearded, Senator-like figures, I don't think.
Dave: When one thinks of more established British fiction writers, a group that comes immediately to mind includes you and Rushdie, Amis, Barnes... I could go on. But you're all just about the same age, right?
McEwan: We were born in the late forties. Martin was born in forty-seven. I was born in forty-eight. Salman was born in forty-eight, two days before I was born. Julian was born in forty-six or forty-seven.
Dave: I can't think of a comparable figure to Updike.
McEwan: There's William Golding, long dead, but he was a world unto himself.
We never had anything like the American project. Roth wrote about it very well in that much-quoted essay of his in Commentary. Again, it's on my mind because I'm going to quote a bit of it tonight. It was called "Writing American Fiction," and it's about how American reality constantly outstrips and embarrasses writers because they could never invent characters as vivid.
The generation above us Kingsley Amis, Iris Murdoch, John Fowles to some extent — they had a smaller project. That's not to say they weren't very good writers. There's a good case to make that all good writing is ultimately provincial writing; there's a bottom-up process: you build from the local. But there's something about the ambition of those three very well established writers — Roth, Updike, Bellow — that I don't even find matched in younger American writers. Don DeLillo has some great moments of ambition in this respect, but people like Updike... They're part of the last generation that really knew the names of things. Like nineteenth century novelists, Flaubert and Tolstoy, naming bits of furniture and bushes in the garden; they know the names of corners of eaves and bits of building. An English writer who knew the names of things was Angus Wilson — hardly read these days, but all the same.
Updike can do a face, too, like no one I know. You'd think he would have exhausted every possible way of describing a face, then someone walks in the room and he'll do another face just like another rabbit comes out of a hat. And they're not grotesques; they're not extreme faces. I love that book of his, Seek My Face. Extraordinary. Some great faces in that.
McEwan: An amazing success. I had no idea. I don't often give blurbs specifically for a book. I thought this one would be how I used to think Atonement was going to be: a book that might be of great interest to other writers. But it took off.
Dave: It was a very well told story, but beyond that, one important quality — something that made it more than just a writerly book, as you say — was the modest size of the story. It rushed forward. It didn't linger. With its particular perspective, with Christopher's voice, had it been twice as long I'm not sure a lay reader would have carried on with it, or even taken it on to begin with.
McEwan: I think writing long is an American disease. There's a view now, firmly entrenched and barely conscious, that you can't write a significant book unless it's seven or eight hundred pages long, which I think is unfortunate. It's certainly unfortunate for readers. Often, really good things are embedded in a lot of typing.
An eight hundred-page novel is thirty or thirty-five hours of a reader's commitment. Even in Anna Karenina, there are longueurs. Certainly in every Dickens novel I've read there are longueurs. No one escapes. My opinion is Always look for ways to make a novel shorter. Anything not earning its keep has to go. The opposite way of working — How can I pad this out a little more? — I think is a disastrous step.
Interesting: Bellow, toward the end of his writing life, really discovered the thrill of writing short novels. He returned to his roots in things like The Actual, picking up on The Victim. Similarly, Updike had written some very long novels, including The Beauty of the Lilies, but then he wrote two little gems. One was a prequel to Hamlet, which got terrible press but I thought was wonderful, Gertrude and Claudius.
Yes, length: I sort of understand the feeling. You shuffle the typescript and think, Yes, I have been working. I haven't just been lying here. You're reassured that you've done something: it's fat.
Dave: You once told an interviewer that you'd like to be a rock and roll guitarist if you only knew how to play the guitar. Who is your favorite rock guitarist?
McEwan: We haven't heard much from him for a long time, but someone who's given me a lot of joy is Ry Cooder. Some of the things he did in the seventies when he got interested in mariachi music... his slide guitar was exquisite. And I love the humor in his playing, which you get in his voice, too. I recently heard for the first time in many years one of his songs, "Smack Dab in the Middle," and I thought, I'd forgotten just how good he was. Accomplished, with a jagged, raw edge to the attack on the notes. I love that. I liked his presence, the slight hilarity to his playing. A very intelligent musician, too.
If you could run a lead from your head into someone else's, and I was commanded by the government to exchange whatever writing ability I had with someone else's other ability, I'd say to Ry Cooder, "You can have my writing ability; I want your playing ability." That would see my nicely through the next few decades. Let him sweat over the sentences.
Ian McEwan visited on April 1, 2004, for the Portland Arts and Lectures series, sponsored in part by Powell's Books. We met in the Opus Room of the Heathman Hotel for an hour in the afternoon.
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Books mentioned in this post
Dave is the author of Out of the Book, Volume 3: State by State