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Saturday, December 1, 2007

Ian McEwan Interview

Happy weekend, Wavers! I have reprinted an interview of ATONEMENT writer Ian McEwan by Deborah Solomon in the New York Times for your weekend enjoyment:


Q: Your novel “Atonement” — the story of Briony Tallis, a novelist who tells a lie in her girlhood and hurts her older sister in a way for which she can never atone — has been made into a film, and I was surprised to see that you are the executive producer. Most novelists run from film, afraid that the care they lavished on their prose will be squandered. I know. Well, it will be squandered whether they run or not.

So why are you the executive producer? So I could stay involved but not write the screenplay. I refused to write the screenplay. I didn’t want people sitting around a table — a producer, a director — telling me that I hadn’t fully understood these characters.

The film is bleaker than the novel, perhaps because the human cost of World War II is depicted with such devastating directness. I hope it’s not entirely bleak. It’s a love story. Like all love stories, the love has to be threatened, and in this case, we see that it’s only the novelist who has brought the lovers together. In real life, they have been separated by war.

It seems to me that the impulse to atone is a religious one, and yet you are a self-declared atheist. Yes, I am an atheist, and probably Briony is, too. Atheists have as much conscience, possibly more, than people with deep religious conviction, and they still have the same problem of how they reconcile themselves to a bad deed in the past. It’s a little easier if you’ve got a god to forgive you.

Not necessarily. Faith in itself is not easy to sustain. Well, we won’t get into that.

Your own life has not lacked for dramatic plot. Just a few years ago you discovered you had an older brother whom you’d never met, a bricklayer. Are you in touch with him? Oh, absolutely, yes. Most months we talk, or have a drink, or sometimes some food in a pub.

He was born before your parents married and put up for adoption with a newspaper ad. Did he like his adoptive parents? Fortunately he was very loved as a child. He was really cherished. It’s not clear to me that he would have a better life or a worse life had he been kept.

And now you have two grown sons of your own. They’re much nicer to me than I was to my parents. I was managed as a child. I don’t think anyone ever said to me, “Are you happy?” I was once on a plane flying from North Africa back to boarding school in England, and a man sat next to me and said, “Do you believe in God?” For the next two hours he engaged me in a conversation about God. I was only 10. I was absolutely thrilled to be taken so seriously by a grown-up.

You were probably already a nonbeliever. No, I was just beginning to see through it all, but not quite.

Your fellow novelist Martin Amis is being shredded in the British press after criticizing various aspects of Islam. He was attacked in The Guardian, in a shrill manner. All religions make very big claims about the world, and it should be possible in an open society to dispute them. It should be possible to say, “I find some ideas in Islam questionable” without being called a racist.

Which ideas do you mean? Well, the idea that any apostate should be punished is revolting. This is completely hostile to the notion of free thought and everything we hope to stand for. I think Martin has suffered terribly at the hands of The Guardian.

Novelists are bigger personalities in England than they are here. Really? You just had Norman Mailer die.

True, but he was probably the last American novelist who was known as much for his antics as for his writing. Boxing and writing were wonderfully confused in his mind.

Are you working on a new novel? Yes.

Can you tell us what it is about? No, it’s too soon. I don’t even tell myself yet.

Is it set in the present? Broadly. Now you’ve ruined it. I’ll have to come up with a new one.

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1 comment:

JPS said...

I've followed McEwan's career from the beginning, and though he started off as an edgy, risky short-story writer and novelist (The Cement Garden is very fine), his work has since settled into being self-serving, mediocre and utterly "safe". I thought Atonement was underwhelming, and Saturday amazingly weak, with perhaps one of the worst, most unbelievable endings in contemporary fiction.