Booker Award-winning author Ian McEwan is on a roll. His last novel, "Atonement," received dream reviews, and he was called the best novelist in English, even compared in psychological astuteness with Jane Austen.
"His latest novel, "Saturday," might be a textbook example of how to generate a growing sense of disquiet with the tiniest finger-flicks of detail -- a broken mirror, a flash of red, two figures on a park bench. Slowly, readers may start to guess what will happen, but not how or when or to whom. McEwan makes us wait, lulls us into thinking we might be mistaken, and then -- just as we're feeling relaxed, bathed in well-being as after a big glass of wine -- he springs"
Shattered, (Book World, March 20)
Join McEwan for a discussion of his books on Tuesday, March 29, at 3:30 p.m. ET.
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A transcript follows.
Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.
The events of 9/11 inform the narrative of "Saturday" in a peripheral way, rather than the novel addressing 9/11 directly. Do you think this is this the best -- perhaps the only -- way for fiction to absorb and portray an event as monstrous as 9/11? In other words, would addressing that day in a direct way in a novel doom the novel, making it automatically inadequate to the task?
Ian McEwan: I would never rule out anything possible for a novel given the right novelist. Everyone must choose his or her own route into this subject if they're going to address it. Clearly this event will take some years to percolate through the literary culture and it could well be that the great 9/11 novel -- if there ever is one -- will be written half way through this century.
I'm sorry to say that far worse things have happened and the literature of the Holocaust is a witness to the capacity of the novel as a form.
New York, N.Y.:
Where, if anywhere, would you like people to place your works, in the context of categories of great works? What do you think of how others are placing your works (which is, as most know, among the best works of the modern era and perhaps of all English-written works), or do you not care to think of such things?
Ian McEwan: I don't care too much about this ranking business. I'm delighted when people respond with passion and readily intensity to my work. Literature is not as the economist would put it a positional good; in other words, there is infinite space for good literature.
Dear Mr. McEwan:
While I enjoyed the plotting of "Saturday", I had a little trouble making sense of Perowne, the main character. It seems to me that Perowne is someone constantly trying to build a perfect world for himself, even as events in his life undo his efforts. I also find his materialism nihilistic--even as he at times aggrandizes its ability to "see" the real, underlying bio-chemical reality behind everyone's destiny. He's the modern shaman, the "director" of his surgical "theater"--that's where he has control, at least temporarily (like Briony did with words). So, my question is: how sympathetic a character did you intend Perowne to be? I find the narrator of the novel totally fascinating; the main character, at times, repulses me. Am I misreading?
Ian McEwan: I hoped he would appear warmer than you found him. My ambition was to give materialism a richer and warmer hue. I regard him as a man who should not be criticized for his happiness -- he's filled with anxiety about the state of the world.
New York City:
There's a wonderful scene in "Saturday" when some lines of verse disarm a menace. Was there a time when you believed a poem -- or a novel -- could transform people, or were you just having
fun with the notion?
Ian McEwan: This poem triggers a mood swing in a man with a neurodegenerative disease. I do not suggest you repel intruders into your home by reading aloud Matthew Arnold. Clearly literature has a power to enlarge consciousness but only rarely does it ever change the world.
Many of your works, though fictional in nature, are deeply rooted in modern and historical reality. What type real-life events most inspire you to put pen to paper? Also, are you working on a book now?
Ian McEwan: Among many, I would list the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War; the rise of religious fundamentalism; the events of Sept. 11, 2001 and closer to home, the Suez crisis of 1956 and the Thatcher government of the 1980s. These kinds of large-scale events have often penetrated into the private lives of individuals and it's this interplay that fascinates me.
What did you think of Paul Schrader's film of "The Comfort of Strangers" -- or other adaptations of your work?
Ian McEwan: I've been generally pretty fortunate with the kind of directors who set about my work for film. I liked Schrader's version of "The Comfort of Strangers." I thought it was elegant, cruel in an almost beautiful way and had something of a mandarin quality -- it was as if he was delivering a master class to fellow filmmakers.
One of my favorite adaptations of my work is "The Cement Garden," directed by Andrew Birkin.
How do you pronounce ...:
Mr. McEwan, Please help!
Sorry to be 'such an American' but I know I'm not the only one with this question: the character in "Atonement," Briony -- how do you pronounce her name? No one in my book club knew how.
Ian McEwan: First part of her name rhymes with "lion." Stress is on the first syllable.
Your novel is set in a relatively little noticed patch of London (Fitzrovia) but one that has strong literary connections (e.g. where Sylvia Plath committed suicide).
A deliberate choice on your part?
Ian McEwan: The novel is certainly set in a part of London with literary associations. Both Virginia Woolf and Bernard Shaw lived in Henry Perowne's Square and George Orwell was a regular in the pub just down Charlotte St. However, Sylvia Plath killed herself in another neighborhood a little to the north, not in Fitzrovia but in Primrose Hill. Your confusion might arise from the fact that she lived in Fitzroy St.
I find 'Saturday' to be more overtly social/political than your past works. Social themes are a more present in the characters and story.
Was this deliberate? Did you want to write a book that explicitly explores the themes of 'our times'?
If so, what are your thoughts about 'our times'? Are we adrift?
Ian McEwan: Yes, I certainly wanted to attempt to catch something of the spirit of these times. I think a reader of Saturday would have a fairly clear idea of my sense of the age and our response to it: baffled and fearful.
How long did it take you to write your latest novel? When you write, do you outline the entire novel beforehand or do you just start writing with a basic idea and see where it leads you?
Ian McEwan: It took me about three years with a very long waiting period at the beginning. I have a general scheme but I like to surpise myself along the way. Writing a novel resembles a journey with only the sketchiest of maps.
Greetings! I haven't read McEwan yet although I have "Atonement," but I like when people ask this because it yields interesting results sometimes: what books have you been reading and your favorite authors offhand? Thanks.
Ian McEwan: I'm currently reading Mosby's Memoirs and the new novel by John Updike, Villages and I'm also reading Charles Dickens's Tale of Two Cities.
Regarding Bush and the neocons's invasion of a sovereign Iraq, supported by Blair (I otherwise liked the novel's Blair cameo), is it fair to assume your feelings are more aligned with Daisy's than with the neurosurgeon's or the American anesthesiologist's? Also, you wrote in the novel (presumably prior to the war): "And still the Americans remain vague about their post-war plans. Perhaps they have none." Sounds prophetic to me. Your thoughts? Thank you.
Ian McEwan: I think the Americans are dying to leave Iraq. I was against the war but longed for the fall of Saddam; the decision to go to war clearly was taken long before the matter reached the U.N., given its inevitability. I kept my fingers crossed for the emergence of democracy in Iraq even if that would mean victory for a man whose politics I have little sympathy with.
Speaking of euthanasia, would the current spate of press coverage regarding the Schiavo family have influenced your writing if you were to start Amsterdam now.
Ian McEwan: No, the ending of Amsterdam to which you refer is basically comic and mischievous. The Schiavo is a profounder matter -- and in fact would be very suitable in my view to exploration by the right kind of novelist. It would need very delicate sensitive handling.
Do you write in longhand or on a computer?
Ian McEwan: I do a bit of both. I keep a large notebook and try out sentences and paragraphs but a lot of the composition takes place on a computer.
I was caught completely off my guard by the ending of "Atonement." I found myself weeping, but I couldn't decide if I was weeping for more for Robbie and Celia or for Briony. For whom did you intend the reader to weep?
Ian McEwan: The reader must weep at his or her discretion. I certainly intended even a dry-eyed reader to feel some sympathy for Briony's long moral journey towards her conclusion.
What ideas do you have, that you may share with us, for future works you are planning to write?
Ian McEwan: I find it very difficult to talk about unwritten works. It's never useful to start putting words casually around the flimsiest of notions. I finished Saturday only in late November and I'm now in the rather pleasant stage of traveling, reading and waiting.
By looking at the acknowledgements, one can assume the most challenging part of writing "Saturday" was having to look through a neurosurgeon's eyes. One assumes you much enjoyed doing the research, and the learning. Did you find the fact that the novel had a "Mrs. Dalloway"-kind of novel-in-a-day frame made it any easier?
Also, in regard to the poetry, I liked the Criag Raine lines you gave to Daisy. How far back have you and poet Raine been friends? Did you consider any poems other than "Dover Beach" for the Baxter scene? It seemed a nice pensive choice. Thanks again.
Ian McEwan: Yes, I enjoyed the research. The 24-hour novel has a long literary provenance. I was certainly not thinking at any point of Mrs. Dalloway though the readers have noticed a correspondence or a parallel.
Craig Raine have been friends since the early 70s. We were part of a group of writers who used to hang around the "New Review" magazine in Soho, London. It was always going to be Dover Beach, one of the most beautiful in the English canon and it has a number of echoes within the novel itself.
Ian McEwan: Thank you for all your questions. It's deeply gratifying to a writer to have readers engaged not just with the themes but with the fine detail of a novel.
I'm currently on the 40th floor of a tower in Manhattan in the glorious afternoon. I'm reading at the Union Square Borders tonight in New York and on Thursday, March 31, I'll be at Politics and Prose in Washington at 7:30 and on Friday, April 1, I'll be in Boston at the Brattle Theatre on 40 Brattle St., Cambridge.