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Interview: April 8, 2011

Ian McEwan's works have earned him worldwide critical acclaim, and he has won prestigious awards for ATONEMENT, SATURDAY and ON CHESIL BEACH. SOLAR, his most recent book now available in paperback, is an engrossing and satirical novel that focuses on climate change in correlation with one man's ambitions and self-deceptions. John Hogan of recently spoke with this bestselling author, asking questions submitted by readers and reviewers. McEwan eagerly discusses his personal inspirations, his desire to "accelerate change" in his characters, Philip Roth's helpful advice, and the differences between the American and British novel. He also reveals his propensity for vaguely unsympathetic protagonists and how he still tempts readers to follow them. SOLAR is a novel about an adulterous, Nobel Prize-winning physicist whose work deals with quantum mechanics and global warming. What inspired you to write the book?

Ian McEwan: I'd been thinking for many years about writing a novel about climate change, but couldn't see a way in. The subject was too large and too impacted by science and surrounded by a halo of virtue. Then I found myself at a conference on climate change, where all these speakers had Nobel Prizes. They were all men, all alpha males from the science jungle, all of them touched with a certain kind of sadness in that their work that had brought them this great prize had been done much earlier in their lives. It was at that point that this character began to swim toward me, and I realized that my best way into this world was through an entirely realized person like Michael Beard, who would take on some of our faults and become a greedy consumer and a victim of his own disorder. So this is one of those novels that really began to take shape only when I'd thought of a personage, a character, and so of course I gave him a Nobel Prize because I wanted him to be touched by this sense that his greatest work was behind him, a feeling that I think is strong in mankind generally.

BRC: In SOLAR, physicist Michael Beard is lambasted after publicly making a controversial statement about women. What are your thoughts on political correctness as it relates to freedom of expression?

IM: I think everyone should be free to speak within the usual limits that we prescribe. Certainly political correctness has generated some comedy for us, and it's always worth exploring that. On the other hand, people do mean different things by political correctness. I remember some years ago --- before the term was invented, but when the activity, as it were, was in the air --- when people started raising questions about statements that were overtly sexist or racist, others would pile in with the term "political correctness." We have pushed back this boundary, and importantly so.

In general, Michael Beard gets stuck in a problem that assailed Larry Summers some years ago, but here I think there is a certain kind of nonsense in the air because whether men and women have different brains or different aptitudes is an empirical matter. At the hard edge of the political correctness movement were people wanting to say that this shouldn't be raised or shouldn't even be examined. But more generally, I gave Michael Beard a press storm because I've had a few myself and I've seen it with close friends. When you're caught up with one, you feel the frustration that you think you might have with a public debate, but actually it simply concerns the taking of positions and the willful misunderstanding of others' positions. Nothing gets learned, and they're utterly fruitless in that respect, but they're also fascinating. There's a parallel here with climate change --- it's not an ideological matter whether we're warming the planet or not, it's an empirical one. Either we are or we're not. Our only tool for discovery is good science, but the debate is often in terms that have entirely to do with political positions and ideological motives, and that's the reason this got included in the novel.

BRC: Beard has few redeeming qualities, but he is a fascinating character. How do you anchor your characters in a reader's mind so that even the most distasteful ones still hold some sort of appeal?

IM: If you have a vaguely unsympathetic character at the heart of a novel, you do have to address the question of how you are going to persuade a reader to travel with you or with this person. The modern writer, I think, who sets this question for himself so extensively and sold it so beautifully is John Updike with hisRabbit series, his four books about Harry Angstrom. He sold it by making Rabbit interesting. He might be bad --- he's rather limited and not a fantastically pleasant person --- but he is always interesting. So I rather crouched in Updike's shadow. I felt that if I could make Beard clever, get him into scrapes that were themselves interesting, and exchanges and situations that held some fascination for the reader, I could tempt the reader to stay in the boat.

BRC: I have read a number of your books, and what strikes me most about them is how the narratives always seem to be centered on a central violation or an "unspeakable act." Your books are always very good, but these unspeakable acts are so heartbreaking, and sometimes it can be difficult to read about them. Can you talk about this aspect of your narratives?

IM: I am one of those novelists who likes things to happen. I don't think I'm all that strange or unorthodox in this. On one level I could say that I like to create the opportunities for myself to shift the pace, the drumbeat of the prose. I like to examine characters by putting them through some sort of test. Sometimes I'm drawn to --- if you have a strong situation and two or three characters involved --- exploring the different ways a situation rests in their memories, often in very self-serving ways. That's a matter of great fascination. Sometimes it's just the sheer love of narrative excitement, or what I think is exciting, that impels me to do this. We explore character through the mechanisms of plot. Henry James formulated it once extremely well. [He said] that we have to have things turn and change; the novel is a great instrument in measuring change within an individual's fate. Sometimes I am tempted to accelerate that change.

BRC: Unlike many novelists, you don't seem to repeat either themes or genres. Are you consciously trying to reinvent yourself with each book?

IM: I don't know about consciously, but it's certainly what happens. I'm the kind of writer who takes longish pauses between books. I don't believe in writer's block, but I do believe in the creative importance of hesitation and delay. When I get an idea, I will sit on it for a good while before I begin to work on it or write anything about it. I let time pass partly in order to feel my own changes, to feel I've become a slightly different person by the time I start a new book. I do start a new book with a real kind of anguish, a sense of here-we-go-again, I'm in the foothills, how will I ever get to the top of the mountain range and finish? I do a feel a responsibility with each book to write it as if it's my very first. I think it's very dull to readers, and even duller for writers, to write the same book over again in disguise. So it becomes important as a way of maintaining one's faith in the nature of fiction itself to keep shifting one's crown in a radical way.

BRC: Do you have a daily routine for writing? What helps you if you get stuck?

IM: I'm mostly a morning person, but if I have something going, I'll gravitate and just keep going until I drop, really. So I could work all day, pause for dinner, and go on working late into the night. But the routine element of my day is to always turn up in the morning at my desk, whether I regard myself as in between things or waiting or hesitating or not. As for stuck, I think too much is made of it. I think writers torture themselves with notions of block. If it's not spilling onto the page that day, that's not a problem. Just go do something else. But I only allow myself to do something else after I've turned up and really committed my mind to the matter. But a long walk or reading someone else's book or even emptying the dishwasher is all part of a kind of flow in which sooner or later it will be resolved. What hesitation is often really about is being faced with innumerable choices and wanting to know which one to take. Not a problem, I don't think, in the worst sense --- there's nothing catastrophic about stopping writing. Sometimes it's useful to stand back and walk off.

BRC: Which character in your fiction most resembles you?

IM: I'm tempted to say Briony of ATONEMENT, though even as I say that there are parts of her that are definitely not me. I certainly did give her many intimate moments from my own childhood, like staring at my own finger and crooking that finger and wondering when it is I make that decision and thinking that somehow the crest of that breaking wave of decision was the very core of my own selfhood…moments like that. And the yearning to write and the wish to make an ordered world with writing as a child, I also gave to her. So I do feel very close to that character.

BRC: What is the worst crime you've ever encountered in a novel?

IM: Committed by one of my characters? I think all of the worst crimes in my fiction belong in the early part of my career, when I was drawn to the idea of awful first-person narrators who sidled up to the reader and somehow got the reader to co-habit with them as they committed appalling acts. I wrote a short story that I now even shudder to recall called "Butterflies," about a young man who sexually assaults a child and then drowns her, but does so and tells his story in a completely expressionless way. My ultimate aim in that story was completely moral, but the story itself was utterly amoral, and that was probably the greatest crime of any of my characters.

BRC: Do you have any literary heroes?

IM: Well, there are writers who I admire, dozens of them. I've mentioned Updike. I have a great fondness for American writing in the second half of the 20th century. Updike, Bellow and Roth have been constant presences for me. I felt truly bereft at the moment of Updike's death. I felt a great consciousness had faded from the world, an extraordinary sentence maker, a man of an amazing range of insights, a great namer of the world and a great namer of every tiny little corner of human sensitivity. And I don't think we'll see the likes of him again.

BRC: What are you reading now?

IM: I'm reading a novel by David Lodge called A MAN OF PARTS. It's about H.G. Wells, and it's pitched very cleverly between fiction and biography. It's very difficult to know, when you're reading it, which scenes are entirely reliant on documentary record and which have been entirely invented by David Lodge. It's utterly seamless in this respect. Because the prose is very lucid, with great clarity, it's hard to stop thinking all the way through that this really happened. In that way, he has rather invigorated the idea of fiction. I think all writers, now and then, face a sort of crisis of belief in the act of fiction-making. Here we go again, making something up. Can I really believe it? Can I persuade myself to believe it before I persuade the reader? I think Lodge's novel is a very, very interesting way of reanimating that point.

BRC: What is the best writing advice you've received? And what's the worst?

IM: Someone said to me when I was a young writer --- it might have been Phillip Roth --- that you must write as if your parents are dead. In other words, say absolutely anything you want about anything. You must feel free. And I've rather followed that advice. My early stories did cross some boundaries of taste, and I couldn't have crossed those boundaries if I thought my parents would read them --- which they did, by the way. As for bad advice, there was an editor early on who read one or two of my stories and immediately pushed me toward writing a novel. I wasn't ready and wanted to go on writing stories, but still I did waste a good deal of time launching on a full-length work before I really had one to write. I often tell young writers not to feel impelled to write full-length novels. Short stories and novellas allow you to make the errors you need to make. You can devote a few weeks to a short story, and if it's no good, you can move on. Also, it's a laboratory; you can try out the voices and work off those oppressive influences that maybe hamper your style.

BRC: What are the chief differences between British and American readers? What about British and American writers?

IM: Readers, I would find that hard to answer. I don't think I could characterize them as being fundamentally different. Between British and American writing, there are very, very different histories and literary traditions. In the literature of the United States, geography and geographical isolation play a crucial part. Nature and geography combined to help shape the American novel. There's a sense of newness, departing from an old world. It's been said many times, but it's true, that this has shaped the American novel and, along with that, a very strong sense of ambition. Young American writers are filled with the idea of creating a great American novel. The British literary tradition is much more shaped by social history than geographical fact. We're a much socially dense country, weighed down but also enlivened by tradition, so manners and class and faith in history weigh heavily in the subject matter of the English novel. It has suffered, I think, in the past, particularly in the 1950s and '60s, from a lack of that kind of ambition I discussed in the American novel, though I think that's changed now.

BRC: What's most gratifying about being a writer? And what do you find to be the most frustrating?

IM: Most gratifying is that you create your own work, and by that I mean, when you start a novel, you know you're going to be living with it for two or three years, but you enter into that contract with your own free will. However difficult it's going to be, you're doing the thing you want. I love that sense, too, that I have no employer. If I suddenly wish to put down my pen and walk in the mountains for four days, it can be arranged. The frustrations are the flip side of the coin from all the advantages --- the loneliness sometimes, lack of a community in the work itself. That's why I like to get involved in other things, like working on an opera, which I did recently, or working on a movie. Choosing one's own work means sometimes feeling that you've limited yourself by your own choices. But going back to the advantages, there is rarely any sense of repetition, because you can just shift your ground. The element becomes a real source of pleasure.

BRC: You have received numerous writing awards during your career. Which award, if any, has meant the most to you?

IM: The one that was really highly contestable and debatable was going to collect the Jerusalem Prize in Israel back in February. There were many people who didn't want me to go and said so in terms. I had to work hard to set down on paper and give a speech on my own feelings about the Arab-Israeli conflict, and to stand there and be both critical and honest. It was a powerful experience and quite a demanding one, but to come through it was important to me.

BRC: What are you currently working on?

IM: I'm about 20,000 words into a novel. 20,000 words is not quite enough for me to make it sufficiently robust to withstand a description by me. When I get to about 40,000 or 50,000 words, I might be able to say what it is, but at this moment I wouldn't want to disturb it.

BRC: Is it normal for you to dive into a novel without knowing exactly where it's going to go?

IM: Yes, I regard novel writing as a kind of exploration, or as a journey without maps. I have a broad idea of the direction I want to take, but I live for the surprises that will act as a kind of loop in the way that one good sort generates another. One surprise generates the possibility of others. In that sense, characters and situations can lead you into places you never expected to be, and that's what I'm hoping for.

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