Ian McEwan was ranked by the Times of London among the 50 greatest British writers since 1945. His novels, including Amsterdam, which won the 1998 Man Booker Prize, and Atonement, a 2001 novel made into a 2007 Oscar-winning movie, have attracted a large worldwide audience.
McEwan visits the Free Library on Wednesday for a conversation about his new novel, Nutshell. The book is based on the story ofHamlet, told from the point of view of a fetus. McEwan talked about his new book and his writing life.
Am I counting correctly that this is your 17th book?
It’s my 17th book of fiction, my 15th novel. My first two books were short-story collections.
You write in a variety of genres, including screenplays and television adaptations.
Yes. I’ve been very caught up with screenplays lately. I’m in preproduction with two based on my books The Children Act and On Chesil Beach. Saoirse Ronan is in that one.
Can you tell us about what you are like while you are in the midst of writing a book: how you work, how quickly you write, your general approach?
I’m pretty obsessive once I get going. I tend to throw everything at it, and I’m generally rather happy if I’m making progress of 450 to 500 words a day. I work from 9:30 in the morning. If things are going, I see no reason to stop, because I know there’s a point I’ll get to, a moment of hesitation, and a day or a week will pass before I see the way through.
Sometimes, I work late at night, sometimes into the early hours if things are going along. I spend a lot of time at the beginning of a day looking over things from the day before. I was a very early adopter of word processing back in the early ’80s. Being able to constantly correct is good for writers.
I think you do need to come away, somewhere along the line, and let it sit, so you can come back with a completely fresh eye and almost regard it as the work of a stranger.
Do you ever teach?
I’ve chatted to seminars and groups of students, including MFA students, usually when I’m passing through the morning after giving a reading. Long before I even published my first book in the States, I taught at [the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop]. I had a very enjoyable time. My sense is that anyone who is good arrived good and left good. They surely picked up a few things. The most useful is when someone has expectations of you. You’ve got a reader, got an audience. The difference between having a handful of people [reading your work] and having no one is infinite.
A lot of readers tend to use the same word in describing your books: “devastating.” Would you say that word is an accurate description of your stories? Is that something you are consciously trying to do, to have that kind of powerful emotional impact?
I don’t set out necessarily to devastate people. I hope that all my readers are going to fall under the spell of some kind of curiosity. Reading a novel without curiosity is a deadly process – we all remember it from high school. Curiosity can be intellectual or emotional or a mix of the two. Something has to arouse you to keep reading. Henry James said the first duty of a novelist was to be interesting. I sort of know what he means. For myself, if my own interest or curiosity is not aroused, then I tend to put a novel aside.
I like something to happen. It doesn’t have to be these set pieces that I have some notoriety for. I just want my reader to feel that she or he cannot so easily walk away without coming back.