Ian McEwan’s early success came hand in hand with a lurid reputation: his books were said to be twisted and dark. And in fact, his earliest work—two collections of short stories, First Love, Last Rites (1975) and In Between the Sheets (1978), and two slim novels, The Cement Garden (1978) and The Comfort of Strangers (1981)—contain many painfully vivid, highly disturbing scenes, quite a few involving children. These books earned him a nickname in the British press—Ian McAbre.
The tags that attach themselves to writers can prove annoyingly sticky. McEwan’s next four novels, The Child in Time (1987), The Innocent (1990), Black Dogs (1992), and Enduring Love(1997), are more ambitious than the earlier books, more thoughtful—and equally vivid. They’re often remembered, respectively, for a snatched child, a dismembered body, a pair of terrifying canines, and a horrific ballooning accident. And yet the sensational elements, and the strikingly effective writing that makes the shocking episodes memorable, should not obscure the fact that this was a new, more mature phase in McEwan’s career. Amsterdam (1998), a black comedy with a cruel satiric bite, signaled yet another change of direction: here was a playful McEwan novel devoid of attention-grabbing set pieces. It won the Booker Prize, and thereby helped pave the way for the huge commercial and critical success of his next novel, Atonement (2001), which is both McEwan’s best book and conclusive evidence that novelists evolve. Atonement is as much a novel of ideas as Black Dogs or Enduring Love, as socially acute as Amsterdam, as dangerously violent as The Comfort of Strangers, as sexy as Cement Garden—yet in Atonement these diverse elements are masterfully integrated.
McEwan has written one book that can be enjoyed by adults and children alike, The Daydreamer (1994); several screenplays, including The Ploughman’s Lunch (1985); and several scripts for television. When he’s not writing, he likes to hike.
A trim, handsome man, careful, exacting, and (for a writer) curiously un-neurotic, McEwan lives in a sparklingly clean Georgian-style row house in a quiet, well-tended neighborhood in Oxford. His wife, Annalena McAfee, is a prominent newspaper editor.
This interview began on a day in 1996 when McEwan had a terrible cold (the tape of our conversation is punctuated by thunderous nose blowing). We met thereafter whenever McEwan finished a book—thinking each time that we were done. Our last session was in the winter of 2001, when Atonement was high on the British best-seller lists, a few months before its triumphant reception in America.
In your third novel, The Child in Time, we meet the parents of the narrator, and I suspect that they resemble your parents. How true to life is the portrait?
Fairly close, though somewhat idealized. My parents had a difficult relationship without ever conceding the fact, and it was hard to write about when they were both still alive. I was born in 1948 on the edge of Aldershot, a rather ugly Victorian garrison town. My father at that time was a sergeant major. He was a Glaswegian who had lied about his age and joined up in 1933 to escape the unemployment along the Clyde.
He makes an appearance in Atonement. In 1940 he was a motorbike dispatch rider and he was wounded in the legs. He teamed up with another soldier who’d been shot in the arms, and between them they worked the controls of a motorbike. They pass Robbie on the road into Dunkirk.
David McEwan was very handsome, erect, with a dangerous look about him. A hard-drinking man, quite terrifying. He was a great stickler for all the spit and polish of traditional army life, and at the same time he adored me as I grew older. But my earliest recollections are of weekday idylls with my mother interrupted at weekends by the loud appearance of my father, when our tiny prefabricated bungalow would fill with his cigarette smoke. He didn’t have much talent for communicating with small children. He was a man who liked the pub and the sergeants’ mess. Both my mother and I were rather frightened of him. She grew up in a small village near Aldershot and left school at fourteen to go into service as a chambermaid. Later she worked in a department store. But for most of her life she was a housewife, with her generation’s fierce pride in the orderliness and gleam of the family home.
There’s a scene in The Child in Time where the mother is weeping. We don’t know quite why—all we get is the vague sense that there’s something wrong.
My father’s drinking was sometimes a problem. And a great deal went unspoken. He was not particularly acute or articulate about the emotions. But he was very affectionate towards me. When I passed exams he was very proud—I was the first one in the family to get any tertiary education.
What were you like as a kid?
Quiet, pale, dreamy, very attached to my mother, shy, average in class. There’s something of myself in Peter of The Daydreamer. I was an intimate sort of child who never spoke up in groups. I preferred close friends.
Were you a reader from an early age?
My parents were keen for me to have the education they themselves never had. They weren’t able to guide me towards particular books, but they encouraged me to read, which I did, randomly and compulsively. At boarding school in my early teens I had more direction. When I was thirteen I was reading Iris Murdoch, John Masters, Nicholas Monsarrat, John Steinbeck. L. P. Hartley’s The Go-Between made a huge impression on me. I was also reading popular science—Asimov on the blood, Penguin Specials on the brain, and so on. I thought seriously about studying science. When I was sixteen I came under the influence of a very effective English teacher, Neil Clayton, who encouraged wide reading and had the knack of making writers like Herbert, Swift, and Coleridge seem like living presences. I thought of Eliot’s The Wasteland as a highly accessible rhythmic Jazz Age poem. Clayton was something of a Leavisite. I began to think of literature as a kind of priesthood that I would one day enter.
I went to the University of Sussex, one of the new universities. It had a lively, radical sense of what an educated person should be. You were encouraged to read across subjects, in an historical context. Reading Kafka and Freud in my final year made a big impression on me.
What were you in university for? What did you see yourself becoming?
I’d abandoned the priesthood idea after the first year. I simply thought I was getting an education. But I was beginning to feel excited about writing. As is often the case, my wish to be a writer preceded any clear notion of subject matter. After graduation I found out about a new course at the University of East Anglia, which would allow me to write fiction along with the academic work. I phoned the university and amazingly got straight through to Malcolm Bradbury. He said, Oh, the fiction part has been dropped because nobody has applied. This was the first year of the program. And I said, Well, what if I apply? He said, Come up and talk to us and we’ll see.
It was a wonderful stroke of luck. That year—1970—changed my life. I wrote a short story every three of four weeks, and I’d meet Malcolm in a Norwich pub for half an hour. Later on I met Angus Wilson. They were both generally encouraging, but they did not interfere at all, and gave no specific advice. That was perfect for me. Meanwhile, I was expected to write papers on Burroughs, Mailer, Capote, Updike, Roth, Bellow—and they were a revelation. The American novel seemed so vibrant compared to its English counterpart at the time. Such ambition and power and barely concealed craziness. I tried to respond to this crazed quality in my own small way, and write against what I saw as the prevailing grayness of English style and subject matter. I looked for extreme situations, deranged narrators, obscenity, and shock—and to set these elements within a careful or disciplined prose. I wrote most of First Love, Last Rites that year.
How did those short stories get from the pub to the publishing house?
Transatlantic Review published my first story sometime in 1971. But by far the most important editor at the beginning of my career, and the first to take me on seriously, was Ted Solotaroff at New American Review. He started publishing my stories in 1972, and he was a very helpful and perceptive editor. His Review was a quarterly in the form of a paperback book and every issue contained gems by writers I had not heard of. I think of him as a key figure in American letters. I’m much in his debt. The thrills of publication early on in a writer’s life can never really be repeated. Solotaroff once put my name on the cover of the Review along with Günter Grass, Susan Sontag, and Philip Roth. I was twenty-three and I felt like an impostor, but I was also very excited. About this time I took off on the hippie trail with two American friends. We bought a Volkswagen bus in Amsterdam and we drove it to Kabul and Pakistan. On the road I often dreamed of being back under undistracting gray skies, writing fiction. After six months I was desperate to get to work. Soon after I returned, Tom Maschler at Cape offered to publish a collection of my stories. In the winter of 1974, I moved to London from Norwich. This was about the time that Ian Hamilton’s New Review was getting going. He died in December of 2001, and all of us who knew him are still in mourning for him. The magazine was also a milieu—the unofficial office was the Pillars of Hercules pub in Greek Street. Ian presided over a lively, chaotic, drink-fueled scene. I met many writers who became lifelong friends and whose work I have followed closely since—James Fenton, Craig Raine, Christopher Reid. I met Martin Amis around that time and Julian Barnes, who was writing a column for the New Review under the name of Edward Pygge. All of us were about to publish our first books. It was a delightful entry for me—a kind of literary country mouse—into a metropolitan literary scene that seemed extraordinarily open to newcomers.