An Interview with Ian McEwan
I have often thought Ian McEwan a writer as unlike me as it is possible to be. His prose is controlled, careful, and powerfully concise; he is eloquent on the subjects of sex and sexuality; he has a strong head for the narrative possibilities of science; his novels are no longer than is necessary; he would never write a sentence featuring this many semicolons. When I read him I am struck by metaphors I would never think to use, plots that don’t occur to me, ideas I have never had. I love to read him for these reasons and also because, like his millions of readers, I feel myself to be in safe hands. Picking up a book by McEwan is to know, at the very least, that what you read therein will be beautifully written, well-crafted, and not an embarrassment, either for you or for him. This is a really big deal. Bad books happen less frequently to McEwan than they do to the rest of us. Since leaving the tutelage of Malcolm Bradbury and Angus Wilson on the now famous (because of McEwan) University of East Anglia creative writing course, McEwan has had one of the most consistently celebrated careers in English literature. We haven’t got space for it all here, but among the prizes is the Somerset Maugham Award in 1976 for his first collection of short stories, First Love, Last Rites; the Whitbread Novel Award (1987) and Prix Fémina Etranger (1993) for The Child in Time; he has been shortlisted for the Booker Prize three times, winning the award for Amsterdam in 1998. His novel Atonement received the WH Smith Literary Award (2002), the National Book Critics Circle Fiction Award (2002), the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Fiction (2003), and the Santiago Prize for the European Novel (2004). He’s written a lot of good books.
Because of the posh university I attended, I first met McEwan many years ago, before I was published myself. I was nineteen, down from Cambridge for the holidays, and a girl I knew from college was going to Ian McEwan’s wedding party. This was a fairly normal occurrence for her, coming from the family she did, but I had never clapped eyes on a writer in my life. She invited me along, knowing what it would mean to me. That was an unforgettable evening. I was so delighted to be there and yet so rigid with fear I could barely enjoy it. It was a party full of people from my bookshelves come to life. I can recall being introduced to Martin Amis (whom I was busy plagiarizing at the time) and being shown his new baby. Meeting Martin Amis for me, at nineteen, was like meeting God. I said: “Nice baby.” This line, like all conversation, could not be rewritten. I remember feeling, like Joseph K., that the shame of it would outlive me.
I didn’t get to speak with McEwan that night—I spent most of the party hiding from him. I assumed he was a little annoyed to find a random undergraduate he did not know at his own wedding party. But I had just read Black Dogs (1992)—that brilliant, flinty little novel, bursting with big ideas—and I was fascinated by the idea of an English novelist writing such serious, metaphysical, almost European prose as this. He was not like Amis and he was not like Rushdie or Barnes or Ishiguro or Kureishi or any of the other English and quasi-English men I was reading at the time. He was the odd man out. “Apparently,” said my friend knowledgeably, as we watched McEwan swing his new wife around the dance floor, “he only writes fifteen words a day.” This was an unfortunate piece of information to give an aspiring writer. I was terribly susceptible to the power of example. If I heard Borges ran three miles every morning and did a headstand in a bucket of water before sitting down to write, I felt I must try this myself. The specter of the fifteen-word limit stayed with me a long time. Three years later I remember writing White Teeth and thinking that all my problems stemmed from the excess of words I felt compelled to write each day. Fifteen words a day! Why can’t you write just fifteen words a day?
Ten years later, less gullible and a writer myself, it occurs to me that my friend may have fictionalized the situation a little herself. An interview with McEwan himself, like the one you are about to read, was of course the perfect opportunity to settle the matter, but it’s only now, writing the introduction after the fact, that I remember the question. I do not know if Ian McEwan writes fifteen words a day. However, he was forthcoming on many other interesting matters. McEwan is one of those rare novelists who can speak with honest perspicacity about the experience of being a writer; it is a life he openly loves, and talking to him about it felt, to me, like talking with an author at the beginning of their career, not at its pinnacle. The fifteen-word thing may indeed be a red herring, but my friend had intuited a truth about McEwan: he is not a dilettante or even a natural, neither a fabulist nor a show-off. He is rather an artisan, always hard at work; refining, improving, engaged by and interested in every step in the process, like a scientist setting up a lab experiment.
We did this interview in McEwan’s house, which is Dr. Henry Perowne’s house in the novel Saturday (2005). It is a lovely Georgian townhouse that sits in the shadow of London’s BT Tower. From the balcony of this house Perowne sees a plane on a crash trajectory, its tail on fire. It is a perfect McEwanesque incident.
I. “IT HAD BEEN A MALEVOLENT INTERVENTION…”
ZADIE SMITH: I’m not good at this. I interviewed Eminem a while ago and when I got home and transcribed it it was more like “An interview with Zadie Smith in which Eminem occasionally says yes and uh-huh.” I talk too much. I’m going to get straight to my first question, which I guess is also the biggest one. I thought we could start there and maybe get small afterwards. Because I read all the books so close together—
IAN McEWAN: What order did you read them in?
ZS: Basically chronological.
ZS: Except In Between the Sheets, which I read only a few days ago. Anyway: there is a line in The Child in Time, when you discuss the traumatic event in that novel, the abduction of a child: “it had been a malevolent intervention.” And much of your past fiction has dealt with that idea, of a malevolent intervention. Then when you read this latest book, Saturday, which deals obliquely with 9/11, it becomes clear that something about the nature of what happened on that day was already a McEwanesque incident. Because the burst of the irrational into the rational was your modus operandi anyway. And so (this is a strange thing to say to the writer himself) when you see a writer moving into his strongest period, and staying there, or at least not losing his previous strength, then I always figure that either the age has come to meet him or he’s come to meet the age. I think it’s the previous case with you, and I remember thinking even before I read Saturday that if there were to be a 9/11 novel which was integrated and serious and soon—because it is quite soon—it was more likely to be written by you than anybody else. Because your fiction was already about the idea of a malevolent intervention. And I wondered whether you knew that consciously or whether you agree with that.
IM: The first thing I remember thinking was that it [9/11] was a heroic moment for journalism. That was my first sense. Perhaps it’s because Annalena [Annalena McAfee, McEwan’s wife] works in a newspaper I take an interest in the sort of thingyness of newspapers, but it happened two o’clock our time, London time. So front pages had to be clear and basically twenty-five pages set out, produced, and this much-hated profession had its sudden noble moment.
ZS: But it was a moment. You talked about that in the two articles you wrote about September 11 for the Guardian. The moment turns quickly and depressingly.
IM: But it was a moment that seemed first to demand accurate journalism before anything else. That was my first feeling. And the best things written about it have been journalism, not fiction. I read a lot of what came out and was impressed by it. Actually I think another instance of this on a much smaller scale was the Dunblane massacre. Hit the wires at about three-thirty in the afternoon. By the time of the London evening papers there were ten, fifteen pages. So my first instinct, my first reaction was that journalists rose to the bar that day, and when I wrote I just wanted to write in that public way, expressing my immediate reaction, the same honorable tide that everyone else was on. Not to write fiction. But even as I was doing that I was thinking the human way into it this would take more than journalism, would be more intimate than that. The thought of so many of these people announcing their love down mobile phones…
ZS: There was a small paragraph—I think it was in the second article you wrote about it—where you say that if the terrorists had been able to empathize properly with these others, with the very idea of otherness, then they couldn’t have done what they did. Now, that’s something I do believe, and it’s a belief I sort of “push” in my fiction—that real empathy makes cruelty an impossibility. But I always assumed when I read your fiction, that that wasn’t at all what you believed. Especially in the earlier work, the opposite, much darker truth seems to be being articulated: mainly, that even after empathy people still can and do perform the most terrible acts.
IM: I’ve always thought cruelty is a failure of imagination. And I know that I include within that the possibility that some people do empathize with their victims very much, in fact, that’s the reason they harm them—they get some erotic charge out of harming what they love. But that’s a special case. That’s still about pleasuring the self and not heeding to the true terror of the child that’s being tortured or whatever it might be.
At least since the early ’80s, it’s began to fill out for me as an idea in fiction, that there’s something very entwined about imagination and morals. That one of the great values of fiction was exactly this process of being able to enter other people’s minds. Which is why I think cinema is a very inferior, unsophisticated medium.
ZS: Absolutely. Because you get surfaces only.
IM: Right. And with the novel we have happened to devise this form, this very elastic, mutable form that can allow us moments of real human investigation. Milan Kundera says very wise things in this context. He lays a lot of stress on the novel as a mode of investigation. It’s an open-ended way of looking at our own image, in ways that science can’t do, religion’s not credible, metaphysics is too intellectually repellent on its surface—this is our best machine, as it were.
ZS: You use that machine quite differently from your peers. Yours are different English novels than the English novel as I was brought up to think about it.
After I read your back catalog I Googled you and I found this website for kids—because a lot of kids are studying you at the moment, you’re on the A-Level list. It was a messageboard of kids freaking out because they didn’t know how to read you. It was very interesting. I think the barrier they kept coming across is that they come with their ideas of an English novel, the classic English novel, where character is revealed through dialogue for a greater part of the book, where action is laid out along a basically stable idea of linear time, where the tone is lightly ironic and your job as a reader is to perform a kind of ethical investigation. They particularly rely on a pretty muscular narrator to nudge them in the direction of correct judgement. So Austen never leaves us in any doubt that Mrs. Bennett is not a person to be respected, for example. But your books screw with time, they use very little dialogue, and the narration is ethically ambivalent. It’s all a bit metaphysical when you’re sixteen and you’ve got an essay crisis on. They were freaking out.
IM: Why are they freaking out? I don’t understand. Because they’re being told too much?
ZS: Well, lets take one of those aspects. Time in McEwan. Most of your contemporaries dealt with time in a pretty traditional fashion. If Rushdie was interested in it, if Amis was interested in it, if Barnes was, it was usually historical time. And partly politicized historical time in the case of Rushdie and when Amis spins time backwards. Flashbacks and historical jumps are used to cast the present in a new, challenging light. But the idea of what does it really feel to be in time, to exist in it—this is not something that English A-Level students have to face up to very often.
IM: Well, I don’t have any conscious design on time, I don’t think—except when I was thinking about it as a specific element of the novel, as with The Child in Time. But apart from that, if there’s anything going on about time in my novels it’s really a spinoff of some other concern. Something to do with the fine print of consciousness itself. I mean, I’m interested in how to represent, obviously in a very stylized way, what it’s like to be thinking. Or what it’s like to be conscious, or sentient, or, fatally, only half-sentient. And how difficult it is to see everything that’s going on and understand everything at one time and how much our recollections can play into what we accept as reality—how much perception is distorted by will. That’s something I find very interesting. The ways in which we convince ourselves, persuade ourselves of things, either to settle some notion of our own or an intellectual position. That’s why I’ve liked the evolution of psychology, they talk a lot of about self-persuasion… In my fiction I’ve tried to indicate my sense of how interestingly flawed we are in the ways in which we represent ourselves and “what we know” to each other. So if time gets fractured or refracted along the way, that’s an offshoot. I don’t do that consciously.
ZS: Maybe it’s “the malevolent intervention” that messes with time. Like the car crash in The Child in Time, where a four-second moment seems to last forever. I thought when I read Saturday that your audience, through 9/11, now has a mass experience to mirror exactly that strange sensation, when time elongates. The towers fell in slow motion. Time was warped by this insane event, and we all felt that communally. Prior to that my only experience of time trauma was when I was fifteen and fell out of my bedroom window—timewise, that was a deeply surreal experience. I knew that privately but to share it with anybody was a bit—
IM: You fell out of your bedroom window?
ZS: No, no, no, trying to smoke a fag.
IM: Oh my God.
ZS: Yeah, comedy story. I almost died, but the point is, that fall and the slowness of it, literally the days of it—I couldn’t find a way to talk about it without sounding a little loopy. But several times in your fiction that feeling is expressed, very accurately I think.
IM: Yeah, but isn’t it also something to do with demands of narrative—so let’s say we’re looking at a fifteen-year-old, balancing a buttock on a window ledge, doesn’t want to breathe smoke back into the bedroom—
ZS: Yeah, that was it.
IM: Suddenly you’re dividing the moment with much more intensity. Even in describing it you’re slowing the movement. Because you think this is high-value, rich experience, therefore only two seconds are 1,200 words. And you’ve done it for the reader, already, without having any notion of time, you would have conveyed this slowing instinctively. And probably, one mistake I regret in The Child in Time was the way I harangue the reader, telling everybody that “TIME IS SLOW.” You don’t need to say that. The prose slows it down.
ZS: But I think in the car incident the two are quite well meshed, the description and the feeling, it’s a pretty amazing passage.
IM: Yeah, all I need to do is cut away from the bits where it says “time slowed.”
ZS: Now, what about repudiating previous work? I’ve been trying not to read the reviews of Saturday because I want to have my own feelings about it, but I presume a few people picked up on The Child in Time reference and also the magic realism references in the book. You satirize that kind of writing, and also the magic realism in your earlier work. And actually, reading your back catalog, I realized there’s quite a lot of it. More than I remembered.
IM: Yeah. I wouldn’t do it now, I must say. And although I never really trusted any magic realist literature, very far, I was at least able to—you know how it is, you give characters views you can’t or wouldn’t condone.
ZS: Yes, exactly. It’s fun to do that. It makes you brave.
IM: Yes. But I suppose I do have a sneaking sympathy with the view that the real, the actual, is so demanding and rich, that magical realism is really a tedious evasion of some artistic responsibility.
ZS: Because the magic is in the real. I was trying to pick out some of my very favorite lines in The Child in Time—and there’s the one about the neck. Do you remember this?
IM: No. Neck?
ZS: Yeah, it’s a lady’s neck: Emma Carew.
IM: Oh, right. ‘‘The fan of tendons round the neck of Emma Carew, a cheerful, anorexic headmistress, tightened like umbrella struts when her name was remembered and spoken aloud.”
ZS: Exactly. Now, for me, that brings wonder already, there is no need for the rest. But was there a switch in your mind, a point where you decided to stop writing stories about women in relationships with monkeys, for example?
IM: Well, as I say, I never had much time for it.
ZS: The short stories have quite a bit of it, though.
IM: There’s some.
ZS: There’s a lot of different approaches: there’s hyper-realism, there’s allegory, there’s the supernatural, the grotesque—there’s a whole raft of techniques used to introduce the incredible.
IM: Yes, but those were short stories and I think they’re great to try, to “put on,” like trying on your parents’ clothes. When people ask, “Is there any advice you’d give a young writer?,” I say write short stories. They afford lots of failure. Pastiche is a great way to start. But I was never really a great one for that kind of extreme Angela Carter magic realist stuff… although actually I got to know her and admire her and was kind of a neighbor in Clapham.
ZS: Oh, really?
IM: I liked her really on the basis of those stories she wrote in Japan. But then the further she got into fairy tales and then into Nights at the Circus—that wasn’t for me.
It seemed to me such a narrowing down of all the possibilities. The real, the actual, they place heavy demands on a writer—how to invent it, how to confront it or pass it through the sieve of your own consciousness. So I was never a great Márquez person, I admired the Tin Drum but never really admired it the way I did Kundera, say. And it seems to me now that that style has become a bit like the international style in furniture, this sort of lingua franca that really defies the central notion of the novel which is that the novel is local. It’s regional, it’s a bottom-up process, and somehow these international styles seem to have a top-down process. They are too similar to each other.
ZS: They have trademarks. One of their trademarks is a kind of kinetic energy. Energy at the expense of everything else.
IM: Yeah. It’s tennis without the net. There’s no fun.
ZS: Nothing at stake.
IM: Yes. But then I thought if I’m taking a sideswipe here at that kind of fiction [in Saturday], I’d better include myself!
II. “SOMEONE ONCE ASKED ME ‘IF YOUR LIFE COULD BE EXTENDED TO 150 AND YOU COULD START ANOTHER CAREER, WOULD YOU?’ AND I SAID ‘NO, THANKS, I THINK I’LL STICK AT THIS.’”
ZS: I still feel this technical difference between you and the generation you came up with, not just in quality but in kind. I found a quote of yours: “What drove me was an impatience with the English fiction I read. It seemed like a polite talking shop of which I was no part” and I wanted to think about that in reference to dialogue, because I do think your dialogue is different and serves different purposes than, say, Amis’s. There’s a lot less of it, for starters.
IM: Well, Martin would have his roots more in Dickens, in a love of the absurd and caricature.
ZS: And dialect plays a more serious role with Amis, as it does for me. Less so with you.
ZS: Only, recently there’s more dialect in yours than there was before.
IM: Yeah. Martin used to sit around with his dad and take a lot of pleasure in looking, with some kind of hilarious scorn, at the way people spoke and how these phrases passed into the language, and he would come back with a fresh nugget and say, “Yeah, Kingsley and I were talking about the way people say”—whatever it was—and he’d be able to impersonate it exactly.
ZS: He still does that?
IM: Yeah. Wonderfully accurate, but there is some distancing going on there, too.
ZS: Well, there will always be a little difference in someone like Martin’s comfort in the language, his kind of flippant freedom with it, and your own, possibly more hesitant, approach. You spoke a little bit about that in “Mother Tongue,” and linked it with class.
IM: There is all that. My mother’s hesitancy in language was a crucial element of my English class position. But like anything to do with English class, my exact position was complicated. My parents were working class but when I was fourteen my father was commissioned as an officer… He was one of the British army officers who’ve come up through the ranks; they’re not Sandhurst, they don’t have university degrees and they’re not posh, and all his friends were similar people. And I know looking back that all the other officers sort of looked down on them. They respected them, too, because they knew an awful lot about the army. And when my father became an officer, we were immediately posted somewhere else, so we went from being part of the sergeants’ mess world to the officers’ mess world. And that was a kind of rootlessness right there, which was partly about language, the way we spoke and the way we did things.
ZS: It’s like you had a kind of impersonality thrust upon you—and of course there’s a lot of English criticism about that idea. That the less rigidly placed you are in this society the more conceptual space you have to write.
IM: It’s the business of class but also, for me, a question of rootlessness in terms of location. I spent my first three years of life in Aldershot in a garrison town and then it was the Far East and then it was North Africa, so I know, even when people say where do you come from, well, I can say Aldershot, but I know that I’m not rooted in any particular place. And then I went to a strange boarding school, a state boarding school where the kids were largely working-class kids from central London from broken homes, they’d take a few kids from lower-middle-class parents like myself, an officer but not grand, not Sandhurst. The idea was to take those kids from central London, working-class kids, give them the kind of education they would have got at a public school and send them to university. And that’s what they did. It was an old-fashioned, ameliorative view which is now long out of fashion. So that was another kind of rootlessness, I was with all these boys, there were three hundred of us in what was once a stately home on the Essex-Suffolk border, beautiful countryside. It was hilarious, a wonderful school in many ways. Everyone stayed in the sixth form, they sent a third of the sixth form to Oxbridge—
ZS: That’s pretty impressive.
IM: Yeah, everyone went to university. And then I went to sort of a bright, plateglass type university in Sussex and then another one in East Anglia.
ZS: Were you conscious of wanting to be a writer or of taking it seriously from that early stage? Your first stories are so unerringly confident.
IM: I think I was making a strength out of a kind of ignorance. I had no roots in anything and it was almost as if I had to invent a literature.
ZS: One of the other striking things about your stories is the absence of—I don’t know what to call it—let’s say a “judging consciousness.” The narrator who guides your judgement as you read—that idea is completely evaporated. The reader is absolutely out on a limb. There’s no help given, and English readers, like those kids on the internet, are used to at least being pointed in the direction of what they should disapprove of. And that’s not there.
IM: I wanted to write without supports. I was very impressed by a quote from Flaubert:
What seems beautiful to me, what I should like to write, is a book about nothing, a book dependent on nothing external, which would be held together by the strength of its style, just as the earth, suspended in the void, depends on nothing external for its support.
ZS: Christ. You need ambition for that.
IM: But I was writing tiny little stories, certainly not novels. Those kind of remarks impressed me, I liked them and there still is an element of that remaining. At the beginning of Saturday it’s there in the idea of the character getting naked out of bed and standing unencumbered in the dark. It’s as if he’s just being born.
ZS: It does have that form, of the whole day being made with nothing taken for granted, no quick flashes into the past, every single block of it is built, as if by hand. You go through the day with Henry. That’s an enormous amount of work, I would think, to write.
IM: Yeah. But to go back to this business of roots and stories and what I didn’t like in fiction—
ZS: Right, because I thought you meant Iris Murdoch at first and that kind of conversational fiction, “chattering classes” or Hampstead fiction, or whatever.
IM: There are many of them still alive, like Margaret Drabble, and I actually was inclined to change my view later, because there’s good stuff there… but at the time, in describing a world about which I knew nothing and had no interest, I was impatient. I thought writers ought to be hippies. I did have a rather romantic sense of what it should be. I got a bit hot under the collar about all the politeness and the overstuffed quality.
ZS: Furniture everywhere.
IM: Furniture. All of it described, you know, the names of everything. But it was exactly this: too much already taken for granted. It was a world and the reader was meant to have already filled in a lot of the colors, assuming a bond between writer and reader—a class bond, often—and I didn’t share it. Whereas with people like Roth there seemed to be an energy about the prose. It had this wonderful self-invented, handmade, watermark quality, and that’s why I liked both Roth and Updike. They’ve loomed over my writing life, even though nothing in my stories reveals that.
ZS: That intrigued me, too, these influences of yours that can’t quite be detected, or at least not directly.
IM: But it’s about reading something while you’re working and your heart is just longing for your project, and the joy of reading this book by somebody else is actually what makes you turn up at the desk the next day in the broader sense, you see. If I can just generate the same feeling in the reader that this writer generated in me then I’ll have succeeded. And that is probably the biggest influence.
ZS: What about some of the things that have been said about your progression as a writer? Usually the story is from good to bad to worse, but you’ve moved forward and consistently got stronger and stronger and I’ve heard a lot of quite lame dinner party suggestions as to why that might be so. But I wondered how you felt about it yourself. My feeling is that being slightly outside a privileged literary class tends to make you more artisan-minded, the way Keats was, the idea of working and working and working until it’s right.
IM: I had a long apprenticeship. I started writing in about 1970. It was 1978 before I published a novel and even that was just sort of an extended short story. As was my second one.
ZS: But you have always been a writer—I mean, you’re working life has been a writing one. And this is a subject which honestly concerns me, not a little, because it’s my life and it’s likely to be my life for a really long time. And I’m terrified by the stultifying effects of being a writer and staying a writer. But you don’t seem to feel it, or not as strongly as I do.
IM: No, not at all. Someone once asked me “If your life could be extended to 150 and you could start another career, would you?” And I said “No, thanks, I think I’ll stick at this.” And the reason I gave, I quoted Henry James on fiction. He said that the concern of the novelist, the subject material, is all of it, all of experience. And you don’t run out of experience by being a writer.
ZS: That’s true. Sometimes it feels endless. But to me I have other days where I feel like it’s a corrupt, intellectually finite, and stupid way to live, with nothing real in it—I can feel myself cannibalizing my own life and I think “how long can this go on for?” There is a lot in Saturday of the details of your own existence.
IM: It is the first time I’ve really cannibalized my life.
ZS: It is the first time. And I wondered what happens next.
IM: Next, I will almost certainly have an entirely invented set of circumstances.
ZS: There’s always a difference, though. Certainly I find the more I carry on at this lark the less I have time for imagined, physical detail. I just don’t do it. If I need a sofa, I look across the room and there’s a sofa. If I need a lamppost, there’s a lamppost in the street. I can’t conjure lampposts out of nothing. Maybe when I was fourteen. That’s completely beyond me now.
IM: No, quite. And also how much furniture does one need any more? In answer to your question, having cannibalized my life for this novel, it makes the next one easier. I’m left with everything that’s not this [points around the room], and that’s a hell of a lot. I have no idea what it will be. There’s also all the past which I’ve never really borrowed—my childhood. But I don’t know. Naturally when people say “You’ve got better” I get a bit pissed off and say “Well, what was wrong with the others? What was I doing wrong before?”
ZS: Well, it’s not that the earlier stuff was worse, but it’s that the tools and machinery of this one work so very smoothly, one feels completely confident as a reader. You’ve no problem at all anymore with “making a novel.” When I think of both my novels the second halves of both are rubbish because of basic, technical inability. When you’re younger every page is still a struggle. And when I read Saturday I just felt: well, “making a novel” is the least of your bloody problems, mate. Same with Roth. There are other things that are being developed—ideas, themes, larger ambitions to do with a canon of work—but the “making a novel” bit feels like it’s done effortlessly. Maybe that’s not how it is at all. But I wondered whether the autobiographical stuff makes the composition process a slightly smoother process.
IM: I have to say I thought it would be. I made this decision, OK, I will blatantly use my life in this next novel so that will save me an awful lot of time. Actually it didn’t. It was just as much a struggle. Even when I was actually using the internal layout of this house for the scenes, it rarely occurred to me as I walked about this house that this was the same house in the book. It’s somehow a map of a parallel house.
ZS: Talking of parallels, there’s a paragraph in Saturday about surgery, apparently, but it seems to me to be about writing.
IM: Oh, well done.
ZS: I read it and thought it can’t be about anything else. You know the paragraph I mean? “For the past two hours he’s been in a dream of absorption”—it’s such an exact description of what it’s like to write when it’s going well. And my favorite line is when you talk about him feeling “calm and spacious, fully qualified to exist. It’s a feeling of clarified emptiness, of deep, muted joy.” The events you put next to it, as comparative experiences—the lovemaking and listening to Theo’s song—are two human states which are often advertised as bringing similar pleasure: basically, personal relations and art. But the book seems to suggests that there is a deeper happiness that one can only find in work, or at least, creative work. And I felt that joy coming off the book in every direction. Joy at being a writer!
IM: I’m glad that you found that paragraph. I knew I wanted to write a major operation at the end but it would really be about writing, about making art. So it starts with him picking up a paintbrush. Or rather, I was so sure, when I went for the operation, that Neil Pritchard, the surgeon, when he paints the marks on the patient, was using a two-inch paintbrush. And when I sent him the last draft, just to check it one last time he said, “I don’t use a paintbrush,” and I said, “But surely surgeons do,” and he said “No, no.” I was so disappointed personally. He dips the paintbrush in yellow paint and as the Aria of the Goldberg Variations starts, he makes his first stroke and it is a moment of artistic engagement… But very, very reluctantly I had to replace it with a sponge on a flap.
ZS: The joy of the extended analogy is that it allows you to write about writing as work. Usually when you read books about being a novelist, all you really get is the character at lunches and his publishing routines, and that’s nothing to do with the process of writing. It’s so hard to sit down and write about that procedure, but I feel that metaphorically it’s done here.
IM: The dream, surely, Zadie, that we all have, is to write this beautiful paragraph that actually is describing something but at the same time in another voice is writing a commentary on its own creation, without having to be a story about a writer.
III. “I’M NOT AGAINST RELIGION IN THE SENSE THAT I FEEL I CAN’T TOLERATE IT, BUT I THINK WRITTEN INTO THE RUBRIC OF RELIGION IS THE CERTAINTY OF ITS OWN TRUTH. AND SINCE THERE ARE 6,000 RELIGIONS CURRENTLY ON THE FACE OF THE EARTH, THEY CAN’T ALL BE RIGHT…”
ZS: I want to ask you about the optimism in Saturday. There’s this recognizably Updikean enjoyment in the book, which I love; you seem to relish the things of the world. And you’re right; it is an amazing thing to be able to go and get a glass of fresh orange juice in England—these supposedly normal things that would have been revolutionary even sixty-odd years ago. But surely one of the problems we have with all this progress is that it has been at the expense of foreign places and foreign people who do not partake of the progress, and that’s kind of exactly the reason we’re in this shitstorm/“war-without-end” nightmare scenario right now. So I found it hard to celebrate with Henry Perowne, knowing what his privileges are based on.
IM: Yeah. Well, I guess this is writing against the current in as far as I would take your view to be one of the conventions of liberal intellectual anxiety, one of the spectral opponents of the pleasures of life in the West. Perowne has these, too. He has all these marvelous advantages and yet he finds himself in a state of anxiety—we have all the pleasures and yet we’re looking behind our back. And the reason I wanted to make Perowne a wealthy man is because, actually, that’s what the first world is.
ZS: But by any comparison, he’s pretty damn wealthy.
IM: The fact that he’s wealthier than some but not all journalists…
ZS: You knew you were going to be set up by that. Some people were always going to find the descriptions of Perowne’s luxurious life distasteful.
IM: Yeah. That doesn’t touch me at all. Because I know that these journalists are wealthy by any planetary standard. That’s precisely why I had him gazing at the locks on his door, thinking about the bad people, the drug dealers who want to get in—there’s an embattlement. They’re on the other side. You block these people out of your world picture. It’s a kind of framing. You cease to see a patient on the table because you only see the little square, the mole—
ZS: Exactly. But then you are saying that happiness is based on unreality or a bubble of unreality.
IM: It’s a kind of framing, yes. But great things are achieved within that frame.
ZS: The other thing about championing progress is the danger that we go too far in the “celebration of all things Western” direction. I’m reading articles by Rushdie recently which rigorously defend Western thought, and because I’ve just reread Black Dogs (in which the character Bernard is a great defender of the principle of “rationality”), it did strike me that Rusdhie has become Bernard Extraordinaire. He’s defending the Enlightenment against all comers now, bravely and viciously, but very strongly. I understand his emotion, exactly. But it’s strange when you consider where we were fifteen years ago when some of the more confident Enlightenment assumptions, the quasireligious worship of the rational, for example, were being radically questioned. And now we’re at this point where it’s three cheers for Descartes because we’ve got these mad men in their planes. It’s like we’ve all become radicalized in response to that.
IM: When the Enlightenment was being sort of undermined by the theorists in the academies, that was done with a general sense of security about the ultimate cultural victory of Enlightenment values, and now I think that victory is a lot less assured.
ZS: And so would you say you’ve lost patience, if you’ve ever had any patience, with the idea of religion?
IM: Absolutely. I agree with Salman about that. I have no patience whatsoever.
ZS: I suppose I feel the same, but I feel strange about feeling it.
IM: I’m not against religion in the sense that I feel I can’t tolerate it, but I think written into the rubric of religion is the certainty of its own truth. And since there are 6,000 religions currently on the face of the earth, they can’t all be right. And only the secular spirit can guarantee those freedoms and it’s the secular spirit that they contest.
ZS: You were asked once what you believe, truly believe though you can’t prove it, and you said: the absolute belief that there’s nothing after consciousness. But something about Saturday and its joy in the world and, again, that kind of Updikean pleasure, made me wonder whether you’d ever imagined yourself moving in that vaguely Christian direction…
ZS: Never? No change as you’ve got older, no inching fears or hopes…
IM: No. I don’t see any paradox in that which celebrates all things within the context of the extremely brief gift of consciousness.
ZS: See, for a lot of writers even the phrase “brief gift of consciousness” is enough to send them into a fit, and I’m one of them. As a breed, we tend to harbor quite severe death fears.
IM: And gift, by the way, is a metaphor because—
ZS: Nobody gives.
IM: Indeed, there’s nobody there.
ZS: But I think amongst English writers it’s quite unusual to have such a solid, non-death fear.
IM: I have an absolute death fear! I don’t want this thing to end. [Philip] Larkin expresses that feeling so beautifully.
ZS: But I think with Larkin, he’s the kind of man who would have taken any religion that seemed even vaguely convincing, he wasn’t fussy. He’d take anything—he didn’t believe in being brave… but as it happened everything was too stupid to be acceptable to him. Anyway: enough about death.
IV. “I WAS TRYING TO SAY… THE EROTIC IMAGINATION DOES NOT NECESSARILY NEED CRITICAL MANIFESTOS, THAT IT CAN’T BE GOVERNED IN THAT WAY.”
ZS: I want to talk to you about sex and women. You said something once about The Female Eunuch being revelatory. I think that about that book a lot as well—as weird as it is to talk about that now, given all that’s happened in the past six months. [Germaine Greer appeared as a contestant in Britain’s Big Brother TV show.]
IM: Yeah. Is that the same Germaine?
ZS: It’s hard to imagine. Anyway, I wasn’t there in ’75 to see the first book come out, but I would imagine the word “feminist” was not one often used much in the context of your short stories. But the women in them and the care and concern with women all the way through your fiction is really interesting to me. And there’s a lot of honesty about the deep, masculine hatred for women.
IM: “About it.” That’s the key.
ZS: Right. Almost every dimension of it is looked at. Silent women, damaged women, sexually vulnerable women, little girls, everything.
IM: I got a good kicking over all that. I was trying to write about the very things that I felt the feminist discussion was involved in, and also to have some fun writing about them. The first story you get is of a man who falls for a shop window dummy and then I just let this man project every fantasy on to her, just see what happens.
ZS: There’s an idea in those stories that sex is where things can go most right and most wrong. That seems to be a very McEwan idea. It’ll save you and also completely destroy you.
IM: But also it seemed to me at the time, in the ’70s, that there needed to be a huge realignment in the way men and women would talk to each other. And I’m absolutely certain if you were to get into some time machine and go back to the early ’60s, the condescension and also the apartheid would completely amaze you.
ZS: It’s like when I’m reading Kingsley Amis. Whatever the attitude is to women is not really the interesting thing, it’s that the women are so other. It’s as if they’ve come off a different planet. There’s no communication at all. You want to say, “Go on, Kingsley, poke her with your finger, she’s real!”
IM: There was no game about it, either. People lived it. I used to talk to Martin Amis about thinking of girls as real people and then he married Antonia and I think then he got it, he suddenly saw something he hadn’t seen before and actually his books have changed. Meanwhile I was going in the other direction. I remember going to a conference on the erotic, I don’t know why I’d been invited, it was a time when the left, they were tough cookies, there were many separatists. Anyway, I gave a very good talk and what I was trying to say was the erotic imagination does not necessarily need critical manifestos, that it can’t be governed in that way. The erotic imagination can be very interested in unkindness, for example. In sadism. I was booed offstage. I said, until you take that on board, then your picture of this is not accurate. I said, let’s talk about masochism for example, male and female masochism.
ZS: That’s the basis of The Comfort of Strangers.
IM: Yeah. So that’s what I then went on to write. I felt: Oh, well, there must be other terms for discussion about what takes place between a man and woman beyond sociology and critical manifestos. What about the sort of thrilling notion that you could test love, test trust, that you could experiment with un-freeing yourself?
ZS: So the stories are news in a way, news from the male consciousness. And the news is: male consciousness ain’t always the happiest place to be. And it’s news unattached to dogma, which in 1985 I would imagine was a pretty out-there thing to do.
IM: But, yes, and actually within a year or two there were American feminists writing about the erotic in ways that were really much closer to what I was trying to write about. British feminism is very rooted in Marxism, so it was very much about wages and matters of real concern, but it sat very uneasily in any discussion about the erotic.
ZS: Certainly in the past ten years feminism has become much more willing to talk dirty. There’s a kind of cheap, fetishized version that you get in the women’s magazines, trumpeting women who are able to say, “Yes, I am a feminist, but I still quite like being tied to a doorknob for three days.” It’s easy to satirize that stuff, but I feel you really believe in the underlying argument that there’s no point in feminism ignoring the female instinct for the perverse. And then you get the other side of the argument, typified by my husband, who believes masochism and sadism will always be found to have its root cause in some kind of emotional damage, that there’s no other reason.
IM: No, he’s absolutely wrong. Madonna famously said being tied down gave her the thrill and comfort of being strapped into a car seat when she was three. I thought, Ah! She’s said it.
ZS: The quote at the end of The Comfort of Strangers: “She was going to tell him her theory, tentative at this stage, of course, which explained how the imagination, the sexual imagination, men’s ancient dreams of hurting and women’s of being hurt, embodied and declares a powerful single organizing principle, which distorted all relations, all truth.”
I’m a writer who never writes about sex. It’s so far from my own fictional world, and it unnerves me when you say “powerful, single, organizing principle.” You mean that sex is the pole that everything else moves around—in which case, I’m really missing a trick. That seems to be what you were saying in 1982. And I wonder if you still feel that.
IM: No, I don’t.
ZS: Because it’s a very a big thing to say.
IM: That’s a very big thing to say especially in a tiny novel. But it’s something that someone who had just gone through what the character had gone through might well feel. But no, I have now reached the stage where as soon as anyone says life moves around a single, organizing principle I stop listening to them. I don’t feel that life organizes itself around any single principle. It’s a religious impulse to only grasp at one thing, one explanation.
ZS: I understand.
IM: That’s interesting, though… I don’t know where things stand now in the sexual debate. I’ve just started reading Villages [John Updike’s new novel]… plenty of sex in there.
ZS: I know. It’s unbelievable. I don’t know how he stays interested. I find it amazing, not just purely technically, but the virility of the man, the continued interest.
IM: The virility of the man!
ZS: You know what I mean. He’s still bothered. He loves women and he says, somewhere in that book, that he can’t believe that women “tend to us” or “care for us at all” or something like that. As if to say: what a miracle it is. He doesn’t seem to have ever gotten over the idea that women don’t mind making love to men.
IM: I like the bit at the beginning when he’s being shaved, the hero, and it’s like: the girls all worship us but of course they don’t have enough intellect to be able to worship us. If only they knew how vast our consciousness is… But seriously, it still remains difficult, more difficult now than it was, to understand what the true relation is between men and women. Back then everything was being stirred up, it was a blizzard, it was an argument you had to get involved in. Now it all seems to have slowed and settled. A sort of muffled silence.
ZS: In a lot of the chick lit, depicting women slightly older than me, the sexual maturity is that of a nine-year-old, maybe. The sex is just this giggly and ridiculous activity one is subjected to in order to make a man stay in your house and marry you. There’s no honest expression of female sexual desire, the kind you find even in those old cheesy feminist manuals like Our Bodies, Ourselves. We’ve gone backwards. I mean, if you had a daughter who believed this stuff they’re printing now, you’d be devastated.
IM: I keep hearing that song “Too Drunk to Fuck”—have you heard that?
ZS: Yeah. Things have not gone well in the past ten years.
IM: What a shame.
ZS: What about your two boys? Are you conscious of bringing up different kinds of men from the ones I had to date?
IM: Yeah, I think so. They’re both very rapid in their development. When they got to the age of about sixteen or seventeen, they had their first girlfriends, and stayed with them for two or three years. I think it was enormously healthy. And they remained friends with them afterwards. And now Will is in his second long relationship and Greg has just finished his first, but they still meet and it’s very touching. Three-hour phone conversations still go on and they seemed to have had lots of sex. Far more sex than I’d ever imagined at the same age. I find it deeply enviable.
ZS: One of the critical standards I remember being levied at all your generation of male writers was: does he write women well? Can he write a convincing bird? Do you think about that still? Does it concern you? Do you think you’ve improved?
IM: I think I’m sort of gender-blind on this. I think it was Fay Weldon who said that a man could never write a woman properly, which I thought was ludicrous. Taken to its logical extension, novelists could only write about themselves; you couldn’t write about an old person, a young person, a person you didn’t know. Henry James said that in the contract between writer and reader one thing we must accept as given is the subject matter. I accept that wholly. It’s a great contract. There’s nowhere you’ll not let your imagination go.
V. “AS YOU GET OLDER YOU FEEL THE NEED TO MAKE YOURSELF CLEAR…”
ZS: Ah—I wanted to talk about the places you let your imagination go. Dark places. The most striking thing in Saturday, I think, is the final scene, in particular, the sadism of it. Now, either I’m an idiot or—well, I just didn’t expect it, I was caught out completely. I was having a lovely time in a lovely world with lovely people and I went upstairs to read the last hundred pages—Nick [Nick Laird, Smith’s husband] was downstairs watching TV with friends—and was sitting alone with this book feeling like I was being attacked. My scalp was prickly, I was sweating, I kept wanting to shout downstairs but then there’s no point trying to explain what’s happened in a book if somebody’s not reading it… I felt physically assailed. And maybe there’s a lot of fiction which does that and I just don’t read it. I’m always reading this flowery literary fiction. But I’d never had that feeling before. And I never expect that response from my readers, I never expect anything physical from them. I know I can’t make them cry and I can’t make them go [sharp intake of breath] like I was doing with your book, yesterday. So I wonder if you sit down and aim for that response and how you can possibly pace a novel, bargaining on that result? Because what if it didn’t happen? What if I just read that scene and went, “Uh, yeah,” and moved on?
IM: I knew what I wanted to get, I had no idea exactly how I was going to get it. I leave blanks in my planning, and there are bits it’s best not to think about till you get there. I didn’t know whether he had a knife nor did I know what he wanted. I had to write it to find out what was going to happen. I mean I knew that he would end up being thrown down the stairs, and that the operation would happen but I was looking for my… well, to go back to where we started this conversation, to 9/11, and the sense of invasion, one can only do it on a private scale. If you say the airliner hit the side of the building, a thousand people died, nothing happens to your scalp. So I, in a sense, tried to find the private scale of that feeling.
ZS: But what advice would you give regarding how a writer might earn that moment? Because when I finished reading I thought you’d done exactly what you needed to do, to earn that moment. I didn’t feel that you’d tried to scare me in a cheap way or you’d taken a backdoor. More could have happened in that scene, in fact. I was interested, in my mind, as to how far you could have gone with that narrative before I was angry with you for a manipulation. All the narrative decisions you make in a scene like that are ethical decisions, and also aesthetic, and you have to make them, they’re serious. And someone who can’t write makes them very badly.
IM: Especially if you’re going to have a young woman with no clothes on, being looked at in that way. How long you dwell on it is key. And I felt I was taking a risk having Daisy naked. And the risk was—well, first I got it completely wrong, I didn’t make it frightening enough and the reason I didn’t make it frightening was I didn’t want to humiliate her. But then it was unreal. So I had to go back and I made her defiant. But it just didn’t stand up.
ZS: I would never be defiant in that situation.
IM: There’s no way anyone could be defiant with this man holding a knife to your mother’s neck. But again the question of the amount of time one dwells on the nakedness. And I thought if I was Updike now Perowne’s gaze would be relentless and we would have to have Daisy’s body described. And I thought: there Perowne cannot go. So I went to fear and fear did what I thought a brother and father would have to do in an emergency. Look to the floor, think of a way of attacking. And in a sense so did I, I looked to the floor. Apart from the swell of her pregnancy. The whole thing is four pages. It’s narrative time enough but not particularly long to dwell.
ZS: In the past you worked more on the complicit nature of the reader-writer relationship. That story about the father with the two little girls, “In Between the Sheets,” makes you complicit by constantly allowing—without authorial comment—these descriptions in which the father makes the children sound older than they are. Several times they’re described as looking older, speaking like women, moving like women. This makes the reader complicit in the pedophile’s idea, or potential pedophile’s idea, that these girls could be his. And that’s an incredibly uncomfortable experience as a reader.
IM: Yeah. I was very keen on making readers uncomfortable. I think I’ve lost that ambition now, it doesn’t interest me so much as a project.
ZS: It’s a kind of cruelty.
IM: Yeah. Leading the reader into siding with the murderous pedophile or rapist. It’s not so interesting.
ZS: Or offering the reader an extreme, antihumanist perspective on a human being. In the story “Homemade” you describe a young boy running a race as a “tiny amoebic blob across the field… staggering determinedly in its pointless effort to reach the flags—just life, just faceless, self-renewing life…”
IM: Yeah. I was trying to be funny. Because he comes home thirteenth.
ZS: But the reader is also being forced to see people from perspectives the novel as a form doesn’t usually encourage.
ZS: Do you think your taste for that has lessened a little?
IM: It has lessened a little. Because I think death anxiety or numbers-of-days-left anxiety make me keen to make sense of the human, rather than to distort it. I think there’s a wonderful recklessness you have in your twenties and thirties as a writer, you can do terrible things because although intellectually you know your time will end, you don’t yet feel it in your blood, in your gut. It’s a recklessness I think one should really enjoy, relax into it, spread out. As you get older you feel the need to make yourself clear.
IM: There are a couple of things. One is you have children and as you age, there’s some growing sense of wanting the human project to succeed. Not fail. Or you no longer wish to dwell quite so much on the possibility of it all going wonderfully, horribly wrong. You begin to wish it would go right.
ZS: So, in conclusion: what are you going to do about your mellowing coinciding with the world’s hardcore radicalization and madness? That’s a strange mix. You feel it in Saturday. The collision of somebody in that moment of their life where they’re feeling satisfied and fulfilled and unfortunately that moment’s happening on a planet that’s losing the bloody plot entirely.
IM: Yeah, it is an extraordinary moment. It’s like we’ve engaged ourselves in some medieval struggle. We had our Diderot and Voltaire and now you’d hope we’d at least now investigate the structure of DNA, and the origins of the universe, and the possibility of understanding more about ourselves with a new metaphysics—but that’s not the focus right now. The struggle is a medieval one between faiths.
ZS: Yeah. It’s all gone wrong. When I was in America around all these classic left-wing intellectuals, the feeling was one of literal despair. They just run through the streets screaming. That’s basically their only reaction to the moment they’re in, as if this moment were unprecedented. But that’s the interesting thing—it’s nowhere near unprecedented. I liked the fact that in Saturday you seemed to be saying, instead, what we were getting here is a madness that, in truth, has always accompanied progress.
IM: You know, twenty-five years ago or twenty years ago, all we talked about was the possibility that the Soviet Union and the United States were going to have a global conflict and do it in Europe. That was the unprecedented moment.
ZS: You wrote your own apocalypse story at the time as well.
IM: It felt like a real possibility. And we got very indignant, caught between two empires, we thought we might all die. Martin Amis famously said that if the war started he would drive home, shoot his wife, and then shoot his children.
ZS: He doesn’t do things by halves.
IM: As a humane act. So the liberal Left went around saying “Dear sir, in your interview, you said you’d shoot your wife and children. Do you really think that’s an appropriate response?” But anyway it was on our minds. And madness was in the air.
ZS: In Saturday, Henry Perowne wonders whether the madness and trauma of 9/11 will take a hundred years to resolve itself. Do you believe that?
IM: At the end of Saturday, I think of a figure like Perowne but a hundred years earlier, 1904, and of what terror lay ahead then. We’ve almost forgot the First World War, Stalin, and then the Second, the Holocaust—if we had a fraction of that we’d be very fortunate. At least we know what we’re capable of. But the moment is not unprecedented.
ZS: Maybe everything takes a hundred years or more to play itself out. Look at the bloody Treaty of Versailles. Now: next question is utterly unrelated.
ZS: I read your back catalog over a month or so and I felt very satisfied merely having “read all of McEwan.” And then I thought, fuck, imagine having written all of McEwan. So I was wondering what it feels like to look at your own bookshelves and see this nice little backlog of work. This little stack. I don’t know what that would feel like. Amazing, I would think.
IM: It’s not amazing because you get there by very slow increments. If you think of Updike—that’s amazing. Updike’s “Also by” page is now a few pages long in itself. An insane amount of books.
ZS: That is insane. He has a condition I think. It’s a disease with him—he can’t stop.
IM: Graphomania. Well, it would be easier to dismiss if it wasn’t so good.
ZS: Does it give you pleasure, though?
IM: It’s like a family album, the consciousness of your own past—well, you must find this already. I certainly find it. People say what were you doing in such and such year, and I know exactly what I was doing. I know I was publishing a particular book, or halfway through one. These books are the spoonfuls with which I’ve measured my existence.