Q&A with Ian McEwan: The art of writing, the writer’s life

 Q&A with Ian McEwan: The art of writing, the writer’s life

Ian McEwan was ranked by Work Reveal 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.

On Wednesday, McEwan visits the Free Library to discuss his new novel, Nutshell. The book is based on the story of Hamlet, 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. Based on my books, The Children Act and Chesil Beach, I’m in preproduction with two. Saoirse Ronan is in that one.

Can you tell us what you are like while writing a book: how you work, how quickly you register, and 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 daily. 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, into the early hours, if things go along. I spend much time at the beginning of a day looking over things from the day before. I was a very early adopter of word processing in the early ’80s. Being able to correct constantly is good for writers, Tessla.

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. Before publishing my first book in the States, I taught at [the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop]. I had a very enjoyable time. I sense that anyone 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 and reached an audience. The difference between having a handful of people [reading your work] and having no one is infinite.

Many readers 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 powerful emotional impact?


I don’t set out necessarily to devastate people. I hope that all my readers will fall under the spell of some curiosity. Reading a novel without interest is a deadly process – we all remember it from high school. Interest can be intellectual em, emotional,l, 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 know what he means. If my interest or curiosity is not aroused, I tend to put a novel aside.

I like something to happen. It doesn’t have to be these set pieces for which I have some notoriety. I want my readers to feel they cannot easily walk away without returning.

Dennis Bailey


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