10 things about... Ian McEwan: The Booker Prize-winning author on how he writes
'I only feel as good as the last page I've written,' says Ian McEwan at Tata Literature Live! The Mumbai Litfest.
The 11th — and for the first time, virtual — edition of Tata Literature Live! The Mumbai Litfest was inaugurated on Monday evening, 16 November, by festival director Anil Dharker, who delivered an ode to books, “our ever-present companions in the midst of a pandemic-induced isolation”, admitting he missed the “milling crowds at the NCPA”. Then he introduced the writer whose session kicked off the week-long proceedings: Ian McEwan.
The Booker Prize-winning McEwan is the author of such acclaimed works as Atonement, Amsterdam, On Chesil Beach, Saturday and most recently, Machines Like Me. McEwan was seated at his desk, a white bookshelf (too far to read the titles from) visible in the square frame of his video calling app. Dharker, from his desk (also framed by his white bookshelf; again, titles of volumes indistinguishable), engaged McEwan in a conversation about his books, the storytellers’ art, and squash.
We’re distilling the conversation — marked only slightly at the beginning with some stiltedness courtesy the physical remove — into 10 things that we now know about Ian McEwan.
1. The pandemic hasn’t made its way into his writing — yet.
McEwan’s been hard at work on a new book, but says the coronavirus crisis hasn’t seeped into his writing so far. “Public events take some time to filter through our consciousness,” McEwan noted, even as he commiserated with passionate readers who would be deluged in a tsunami of pandemic-influenced literature in a year or two. He observed, however, that the dark mood of 2020 has reflected in a penchant for gallows humour in conversations with his literary friends.
2. Black Dogs is among his favourite books from his own repertoire.
He’d previously shrug off questions about his favourite book with the standard “it’s like asking a parent to choose from among their children” line, but McEwan says he’s grown rather fond of his 1992 novel Black Dogs, which the Literary Encyclopedia describes as “a meditation on the nature of good and evil”. Its setting — mid-century Europe, the Holocaust and World War II — along with the question of “will the virus of xenophobia and racism return?” brought Black Dogs back to McEwan’s mind. “I remain pleased with Saturday too,” he says. “It’s held up well.”
3. He would never consider rewriting any of his books.
McEwan’s been writing for 50 years, and admits that when he reads some of his earlier work — especially things he wrote in his early 20s, when he was “under the spell of this or that writer… Beckett, or Roth” — his hand twitches, and he wishes he had a blue pencil to run through the words. But — “I do believe that what [or when/how] you write is part of the story, so you have to stand by that,” McEwan says. What he does retroactively reprimand himself for though, is that not enough of the high spirits, fun and adventure of his early 20s found its way into his stories. “I think I wanted to shake things up. Be dark and outrageous, explore the underside of human nature,” he says. “It took some time to allow myself to put all of my interests into my writing.”
4. He's very good at not writing.
“I mulch,” McEwan says. Sometimes McEwan stops writing for months — “I really enjoy that,” he says — and then he travels or attends literary events. But when he is writing, he follows some rules.
5. He has to write in a green-covered notebook, in longhand.
Something about putting pen to paper allows McEwan to connect the words he’s writing with the ideas in his subconscious mind. The process he describes sounds like a mix of accretion and serendipity, of the conscious and the subliminal. As he writes, he will find that his notebook now contains something he wants to discard, or stay with. As for why it has to be a green notebook: “Well, the first one I bought was green and it [the writing] went well. Red would be ruinous!”
6. He'll write 25,000 words before committing himself to a novel.
“It’s a lot of words, but it’s enough to know — I do want to live here… for the next two, three, four years.” He’s abandoned drafts after writing 10,000-12,000 words, and has often suffered “storms of doubt” at 20,000. “I’m always ready to press the cancel button,” McEwan says. His advice to aspiring writers is to start with a short story. “Waste six weeks rather than three years,” he says. “Short stories are a great place to fail. To explore, to throw off the influence of other writers, to find your own way…”
7. He keeps writing — even on the bad days.
“You’ve got to show up, no matter how you feel,” McEwan asserts. He writes for 4-5 hours a day, then “it’s time to walk away”, even if it’s to unload the dishwasher or to read, go on a hike, spend time with family.
8. He loves reaching a writing plateau.
McEwan says you reach a point — “a plateau” — where the novel teaches you how to write it. It won’t teach you how to write the next novel, “but this one, if you’ve done it well — you know the characters, no one can finish this novel but you”.
9. He only feels as good as the last page he’s written.
McEwan says he can write the darkest of scenes, but if he’s doing it well, he’ll come away from it with a spring in his step.
10. The third person is his default position to write stories in.
While the material ultimately dictates the POV of his books, McEwan’s default position is the third person. He admits to being suspicious of the first person: it makes too many novels by young writers too subjective, such that you can’t really judge the prose. “It’s a screen beyond which mediocrity can flourish,” McEwan says. “Many fine novels have been written in the first person of course, but the third is the bolder, braver position.”
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