Q&A with Ian McEwan: The art of writing, the writer's life

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Ian McEwan, author of books such as "Nutshell" and "Atonement," will visit the Free Library of Philadelphia at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Sept. 14.

Ian McEwan was ranked by the Times of London among the 50 greatest British writers since 1945. His novels, including Amsterdam, which won the 1998 Man Booker Prize, and Atonement, a 2001 novel made into a 2007 Oscar-winning movie, have attracted a large worldwide audience.

McEwan visits the Free Library on Wednesday for a conversation about his new novel, Nutshell. The book is based on the story of Hamlet, told from the point of view of a fetus. McEwan talked about his new book and his writing life.

Am I counting correctly that this is your 17th book?

It's my 17th book of fiction, my 15th novel. My first two books were short-story collections.

You write in a variety of genres, including screenplays and television adaptations.

 

Yes. I've been very caught up with screenplays lately. I'm in preproduction with two based on my books The Children Act and On Chesil Beach. Saoirse Ronan is in that one.

Can you tell us about what you are like while you are in the midst of writing a book: how you work, how quickly you write, your general approach?

 

I'm pretty obsessive once I get going. I tend to throw everything at it, and I'm generally rather happy if I'm making progress of 450 to 500 words a day. I work from 9:30 in the morning. If things are going, I see no reason to stop, because I know there's a point I'll get to, a moment of hesitation, and a day or a week will pass before I see the way through.

Sometimes, I work late at night, sometimes into the early hours if things are going along. I spend a lot of time at the beginning of a day looking over things from the day before. I was a very early adopter of word processing back in the early '80s. Being able to constantly correct is good for writers.

I think you do need to come away, somewhere along the line, and let it sit, so you can come back with a completely fresh eye and almost regard it as the work of a stranger.

Do you ever teach?

 

I've chatted to seminars and groups of students, including MFA students, usually when I'm passing through the morning after giving a reading. Long before I even published my first book in the States, I taught at [the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop]. I had a very enjoyable time. My sense is that anyone who is good arrived good and left good. They surely picked up a few things. The most useful is when someone has expectations of you. You've got a reader, got an audience. The difference between having a handful of people [reading your work] and having no one is infinite.

A lot of readers tend to use the same word in describing your books: "devastating." Would you say that word is an accurate description of your stories? Is that something you are consciously trying to do, to have that kind of powerful emotional impact?

I don't set out necessarily to devastate people. I hope that all my readers are going to fall under the spell of some kind of curiosity. Reading a novel without curiosity is a deadly process - we all remember it from high school. Curiosity can be intellectual or emotional or a mix of the two. Something has to arouse you to keep reading. Henry James said the first duty of a novelist was to be interesting. I sort of know what he means. For myself, if my own interest or curiosity is not aroused, then I tend to put a novel aside.

I like something to happen. It doesn't have to be these set pieces that I have some notoriety for. I just want my reader to feel that she or he cannot so easily walk away without coming back.

In your new novel, "Nutshell," how did you decide upon the narrator's voice, and what made you decide to take on "Hamlet"?

It came from separate directions. The first line ["So here I am, upside down in a woman"] came to me while I was sitting in a boring meeting. I made some notes, then just left it. I'm a slow starter when it comes to novels. What can seem like a good idea on a Monday can be much less of good idea in two months' time.

I was looking at Hamlet in that time, and the two ideas began to mesh in my thoughts. Once the voice was in place and the scheme - the scheme being the request to the reader to abandon disbelief - once that was in place, it just sort of followed its own logic.

All that remained is the main difficulty at the beginning of the novel: deciding on the style in which the story should be told. Since the idea was playful, I decided the language should be playful. It's often iambic and often trochaic; it's an acknowledgment that Shakespeare is our source. His own words drench our language. Not only thousands of sayings - his characters, his thought processes have had an impact. Even people who've never heard of him quote him without knowing it. Saying "the be all and end all" - they're quoting Shakespeare. It's a source I go back to regularly. It was a kind a bow in his direction, the whole thing.

What's a day in the life of Ian McEwan like? Are you able to walk around unrecognized? How do people react when they recognize you?

 

My wife and I live in the deep countryside. There's no one around.

Literary fame is not like rock-and-roll or sport or TV fame. People are not trying to tear the shirt off your back. Passionate readers, if they do recognize me, will either do nothing or come over extremely politely and say, "I love whatever novel," and then they shrink away. The rest of my life is like anyone else's. I do get spotted in the street, especially when I have a novel out. But it's very small beer.

What is most meaningful to you about the chance to encounter and interact with your readers?

 

When you meet your readers, you're meeting a self-selecting group. You must beware of coming away with the idea that the whole world is reading you and loving you. But it's very pleasant. I've met 17-year-old kids and people in their 80s and 90s who've been reading me all their lives. Once, my son and I visited a park in central London near where we lived and where people picnicked at lunchtime. I had all these books of mine and other writers. I took stacks of them and gave them away. Every woman we approached asked for three. Every man said, "No thanks, mate." It reinforced my sense that, without women readers, the novel would be dead on its feet.

Lynn Rosen (lynn@openbookphilly.com) is the Inquirer books blogger and co-owner of the Open Book Bookstore in Elkins Park.


AUTHOR APPEARANCE

Ian McEwan: "Nutshell"

 

In conversation with Wesley Stace, at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Free Library, 1901 Vine St.

Admission: $15, $7 (students). Information: 215-686-5322 or www.freelibary.org.

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