The Salon Interview – Ian McEwan

Dwight Garner talks to Ian McEwan, the black magician of contemporary fiction, about mortality, gossip and his arresting new novel, 'Enduring Love.'

Topics: Author Interviews, Books,

“Ian McEwan is contemporary fiction’s black magician. In novel after
novel, beginning with “The Cement Garden” (1978), his crisp, almost
clinically precise prose — part Kafka, part “Lord of the Flies”-era
William Golding — sucks you into worlds that spin with violence, sexual
aberration and paranoia. In the U.K., where he was among British fiction’s
angriest young men of the 1970s, he’s long been dubbed Ian Macabre.

McEwan is now 50, and the “Macabre” label fits him less snugly. In person
he is amiable and almost shy. And after years of exploring such subjects
as sadomasochistic intrigue (in 1981′s “The Comfort of Strangers”) and
children who lapse into feral states (in “The Cement Garden”), his
fiction has come to seem more open and humane — while losing none of its
potency. “Not many things in life get better as you get older,” McEwan
says. Writing, he implies, is one of them.

McEwan’s seventh novel, “Enduring Love,”
opens with a remarkable image –
a hot-air balloon is falling into an open field, and a series of
onlookers rush toward it, hoping to rescue its two occupants. What none
of these onlookers knows is that this moment, and its tragic aftermath,
will alter their lives forever. Particularly haunted is the novel’s
protagonist, Joe Rose, a science writer who ultimately becomes the object
of a religiously deranged man’s affection. By its close, “Enduring Love”
has become a striking meditation on rationality and religion, on love’s
wilder states and on the nature of selfishness.

McEwan recently spoke with Salon in New York, where he was on tour for
“Enduring Love.” He talked about not only his new novel but a
variety of subjects — his concerns about the “tabloid” interest in
writers, the high virtues of gossip, his love of science and some of the
“creepy” Web sites devoted to him. He was an engagingly urbane speaker;
there was not a hint
of Ian Macabre in the air.


Last night, I entered your name into a few Internet search engines … some
of the sites about you are slightly creepy. You’ve got some obsessive fans.

Sometimes they are creepy. Some of the ones you stumble across are
incredibly illiterate; some of them are nice. But some of them are fizzing
and popping with all kinds of lonely madness. I don’t really want to meet
these people.

Let me ask you about the somewhat creepy, somewhat beautiful image that
opens your new novel. There’s a helium balloon falling to earth in a
field, and people are rushing toward it. Was this image the genesis of the
book?

No, it wasn’t the beginning. I’d already gathered quite a lot of the book
from different quarters. I was looking for a device to bring together
complete strangers, and to bring them together in a kind of emotional
heat. Something like a car accident might have been right, but I wanted
something unusual. I heard this true story about a man and his son who were
hauled away by a balloon they were trying to tether in some field in
Germany. What
immediately struck me was the dilemma of knowing that if you all hang on,
you can bring this balloon down to earth. But as soon as anyone breaks
rank, then madness follows. The issue is selfishness. And that seems to
me to be the underlying basic moral factor about ourselves. We’re descended
from generations of people who survived, who acted successfully. But
who also cooperated successfully; so we clearly need to save our own skins
and look out for own interests, but we’re social animals and we need other
people dearly. The issue is constantly with us. I think I could place
everyone I know somewhere on that scale of 0-to-10 — are they slightly more
self-absorbed? Some people are completely selfless; they only give. It’s
self-destructive, possibly.

Although I wasn’t thinking about it that metaphorically at that point. I
felt I was writing a novel of ideas, but I did want a very strong
narrative shelter. I thought, if I’m going to do this I might as well hit
the ground running. We discover these characters in this process. So it
offered all kinds of possibilities — and dangers, too. I knew that if I
wrote a racy first chapter there’s the danger of falling off. For a long
time, I thought the scene of the attempted murder in the restaurant
would be first. I’d do it there and work the novel in a less chronological
fashion. In the end, I thought: No, I want a simple, clean time line for
this kind of thing so that it would give me the freedom to be more
complicated about other things.

Do you make false starts often?

Not often, actually. I often have spent a while writing a paragraph that I
know is a first paragraph of a novel. I just let that paragraph sit
there for eight
weeks. These sentences are like keys; they really can just turn a lock.

Do you have a lot of paragraphs like that sitting around? Keys waiting to
be inserted in locks?

If I only did! I wouldn’t be sitting here now talking to you. The first
chapter of “Black Dogs” came in just that way. Often what
I’m thinking about is some kind of tone or prose style or voice and a
paragraph can really tell me everything I need to know. I think of novels
somewhat in architectural terms. You have to enter at the gate, and this
gate itself must be constructed in such a way that the reader has immediate
confidence in the strength of the building. I’m careful not
to overload with information, but not to deny too much either.

Is it ever a concern that the next key won’t be there when you want it?

I used to worry about that. I think that’s a reasonable worry, not a
paranoia. It’s a pretty active concern for any writer, especially at the
beginning of his or her career. The sort of panic that, “I did it once
but can I do it again?” But I’ve been doing it for 25 years. The only
thing that would really make me dry up is some kind of emotional distress,
not creative block as such but lacking a certain amount of calm. I’m
actually on a roll. Not many things in life get better as you get older.
But in a writer’s life, perhaps
there’s a little plateau that you hit somewhere in your mid-40s to your
mid-50s. You’ve still got the physical stamina to write a novel without
too much pressure, thoughts of mortality.

You’ve sometimes been charged with being misanthropic, how do you respond
to that?

I think one does get more misanthropic as one gets older. What some
people would call misanthropy, others might call a kind of insouciance,
almost a delight in saying what you want to say. I think that issues of
mortality do becomes a writer’s subject matter. There’s no getting round
it. It’s coming to an end and it’s extraordinary and comic and tragic.

There’s a real tension, in “Enduring Love,” between rationality and
religious belief. The protagonist, Joe, is a science writer and a
professional skeptic. He’s pursued, almost romantically, by a man who is
religiously obsessed. At one point a character says, “Rationality is its
own kind of innocence.” I’m wondering what you mean by that.

Oh, Clarissa [Joe's girlfriend] says that. There’s a certain kind of
insight that she feels he’s missing by sticking too closely to a method.
With his organized mind he can take things too literally. There is
something about Clarissa’s take on the world that Joe badly needs. But I
wrote the book in a spirit of investigation, rather than try to give a lot
of answers to either how people should live or whether one could live
a good life by scientific method.

There’s a funny moment in the book in which Joe is looking at all the
novels in a library, and he thinks to himself: How dare people regard
literature more highly than science.

I’m being a little provocative here. I do think that the discovery of
scientific method and the achievements of inquiring scientific minds do
rank with the highest artistic achievements. They rank with the work of
Shakespeare, or the painting of the Sistine Chapel. It bothers me that so
many people I know who value the life of the mind, and live by it, seem
to live by it with one eye shut to that great triumph.

Are you at ease in the world of scientific thought? Do you take a
particular interest?

Yes, a massive interest. This novel was written after a long period of
reading in a number of fields in science. It wasn’t ever conscious
research. I’m always fascinated by the subject. I think we’ve been very
fortunate — we’ve had a golden age in science, for 15 years. The number
of highly literate scientists writing for an intelligent lay public is
extraordinary. There’s a kind of science writing that seems to bridge the
gap between informing laymen but also informing other sciences. To take
an immediate example — Steven Pinker’s book on language certainly
addresses not just lay people like myself but other scientists outside
his immediate field. Similarly, my own particular intellectual
hero is E.O. Wilson. He’s a biologist. He wrote “The Diversity of Life,”
and that was just genius. The thing that really interested me was the
extent to which scientists are now trespassing into other areas.

How so?

Well, there is a subject matter which would have been completely ruled
out of court 15 years ago as a matter of scientific inquiry, and now it’s
central. It’s called human nature. That interface between biology and
social sciences, between biology and psychology, is increasingly clear.
And by, from the other end, a new spirit perhaps in anthropology that is
now exploring not how exotically different we are from each other, but how
exotically similar
we are. Which seems to me a really fascinating problem — to go to a
hunter-gatherer tribe and discover the emotional range, the expression of
emotion, certain kinds of social institutions exist right across the board
whether in Manhattan or North Kalahari. I think that tells us a great deal
more about what we are than Margaret Mead ever did with her tales of the
mischievous young Samoans.

Do you find yourself reading scientific books in the same way you
would a novel?

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I have this twin hunger. I need fiction, although I find it harder to
find any that really satisfies. But I nearly always have two books. At
the moment, I’m reading the Ted Hughes
poems and I’m finishing the latest
Updike and I’m reading Steven Pinker’s book on the brain. I do have to
hump around two or three books at once.

Does music inform your writing?

Only insofar as listening to music helps set the mind free. Into
daydream, into realms of unrestrained thought. But no, I
find music a distraction a bit at the point of creation. It’s often hard to
recapture the pleasure in music that I had when I was 17. I’m always
looking for it again. I feel as if it were a garden, a poor old garden
somewhere.

Are you talking about rock ‘n’ roll?

Not only rock ‘n’ roll. Classical music too. It could thrill me and
overwhelm me in ways that I can only remember — there was a sense of
awe. It seemed to lift me literally off the ground. Now I just take
pleasure in it. It doesn’t make me ecstatic anymore, and I guess that’s
just sort of sad.

Does the world of rock music mean anything to you now?

My 11-year-old son is learning to play the guitar, so to help him and
encourage him I’ve been learning too. It’s suddenly touching an old
groove. I’ve gotten to become horribly familiar with the work of Oasis
and Verve. I hear things. The trouble is, to someone my age, everything
sounds like a version of something I’ve heard before. I don’t stay current.
I bought the
latest Blues Traveler because I’d heard it once when I was skiing and
thought it was great skiing music. I liked it, and I think the harmonica
is extraordinary. But again it all just sounds like a kind of mishmash of
Led Zeppelin and several other things. It never gives me any real
pleasure, so I scurry back to keyboard music of Bach, things like that.
And I wonder a lot about tonality and how we can live without it. I
increasingly think that we can’t.

I’ve read that when you began writing, you were reacting negatively to
what you perceived as a certain literary climate in the U.K. …

The published writers then seemed a sort of postwar generation — Kingsley
Amis, Angus Wilson — the latter I came to know and respect enormously.
They showed me a world that seemed to be too tied to a form of social
documentary. Too concerned with those things that the English novel has
often done well — the nuances of class, the perils and attractions of
social mobility, the furniture well-described. I think I was trying to make
a strength out of my ignorance. I didn’t know that world. I was a very
déclassé sort of young man. I’d been tucked away in a country boarding
school where most of the boys were from a working-class background in
central London, but the idea was to give them the kind of education that
wealthier kids would have had. I was there because there was a small
intake of army brat kids …

Which you were.

Which is what I was. Both my parents were from working-class backgrounds.
Paradoxically, reading Kafka was a liberation despite the claustrophobic
quality, the sense of entrapment that many of us feel we’re in. I loved the
sense of this
disembodiment — it could be anywhere at anytime and in there I saw a
possibility for me. And then I suppose I just indulged myself in
fantastic imaginings ’cause I wanted fiction to be bright. It drew not
from autobiography so much as a sort of willed extravagance.

Did you look to some American writers for inspiration?

Reading Philip Roth’s “Portnoy’s Complaint” seemed to offer amazing life
– brilliant use of embarrassment, in terms of paralyzing the reader. For
an American writer such as Roth to address something so commonplace as
masturbation, and wrapped around it is an extraordinary meditation of what
Jewishness is about. It was bold and
profoundly apt. I took something from that. And “Naked Lunch” — something
in the kind of scamperous cruelty of it, again was like a jolt. So I guess
I did want a kind of garishness. And I thought that since I was writing
short stories, which offer a kind of laboratory — they really were my
training grounds.

Did you detect a difference in how American writers dealt with class?

They dealt with poverty. Class didn’t seem such a crippling concern.

Does America feel to you, now, as class-obsessed as Britain?

Well, the realities of class are there because the realities of possession,
of poverty, are quite self-evident. But it doesn’t grip the American mind
in the same way as it does the British. Its badges, its signals are not so
clear. I can’t easily tell an educated American from someone less schooled
at age 14 simply by the way they speak.

You once called fiction “a higher level of gossip.” What did you mean by
that?

Well, I’m thinking really of the social novel. And I think of gossip in
high terms. I do think — just coming back to what I was saying about
anthropology — one of the things you’ll find in all humans is that
people stand around and talk about each other and judge each other and
take great delight in examining their motives. It is perennially
fascinating. I don’t think it’s a low thing. I think it’s human. We
identify ourselves by it, our groupings, and we bring to bear all that
emotional intelligence, talking about someone’s motives or how they
crossed the line of acceptability or how they didn’t pull themselves back
from disaster. Novels, in a focused and more articulate way, do many of the
same things. So it’s not to denigrate either the novel or gossip, both are
vital methods.

Speaking of gossip, are you surprised by the media’s interest in the
private lives of writers — particularly in the U.K.?

It’s gone out of hand lately. I have all sorts of theories about it. One is
that people are putting too much into journalism and not enough into
writing fiction. That the gossip that they should be putting into comic
novels is actually appearing in columns in
the newspaper. The generation younger than ours, guys in their 30s,
should be writing novels.

Don’t we have enough novelists?

There are way too many. But I think there are far too many gossip
columnists. I don’t know. I can’t conceive of how the average reader of a
newspaper could care about the comings and goings of a London novelist. I
don’t like
it when I’m the object of it. It’s very intrusive. It’s generally
extremely nasty. It’s always slanted in some way to make you look
unpleasant as
possible.

How have things changed under Tony Blair? Is the climate different for
artists, writers, intellectuals?

The gestation time for art is long so — it’s too soon for anything to
have happened of that nature. Blair’s honeymoon period is, as they keep
saying, over, but it was very long. Memories are short, so I think we
seem to forget how appalling the government was. On the
whole, that this is the least bad government we’ve had in my adult life.
There are some very serious projects under way — the constitution, and
we’re about to get the Freedom of Information Act which will soon exceed
yours. I’m impressed by both these things; they do devolve power outlets
from the government. On the downside it really does seem to be a highly
centralized decision-making machine. Britain is a far more governmental
place than America could ever
be — it’s highly centralized. So there is always a problem with what one
former judge called “an elected dictatorship,” and it is so keen to push
it’s project through that it’s
very intolerant of dissent.

My hope is that it will relax a bit, and allow that dissent. I
think Blair’s heart is in the right place. He’s popular still. He’s got
some very able people in his government. And I think the constitution
project might be his making, to modernize the democracy itself. We’re
also, like you, in a boom cycle, which makes it a lot easier. The rest of
Europe is in bad shape — rising unemployment, rising inflation.

I have one last question. It’s about an image from “Enduring Love” that
really haunted me — the story you tell about the football players who
die in a blizzard. Is that something that actually happened?

I was in Toronto last week and a Canadian said to me, “I really like the
novel but I really think it’s down on Canadians.” I said, “What could you
mean by that? I’ve never even written about them. Oh, the football
players!” Well, it was in the London Times. The Queen was visiting in
Canada — this was 1995 — and she was going to visit a place called
Yellow Night in the Northwest Territories. They gave her a bit of
background information that said rather unfairly: “In this vast territory
there are only 57,000 people, most of them hoodlums.” Come on! Not worthy
of the newspaper of record. And I thought, well, a third of them are
children, surely. But it did say that a blizzard enveloped a
football soccer game, and both teams and the referee couldn’t, in the
white-out, find their way to the edge of the pitch, and all of them died.

I can’t believe it.

Well, it was in the paper.

Dwight Garner is Salon's book review editor.

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