A conversation with Ian McEwan

Miscellania from a novelist's mind


In the spring, your humble correspondent talked with novelist Ian McEwan for the online feature FiveBooks (where I work). Read the full interview here. It was a wideranging conversation across the sofa in McEwan’s London house. In fact, it was so eclectic – two hours of it – that there was some interesting runoff that didn’t make the cut. Here it is for readers of the Anthill.

Let’s warm up with his writing habits. I mention that John leCarré handwrites his novels. McEwan replies:

“I used to handwrite. I wrote my first couple of novels that way, until I had a word processor by the mid 80s. It was a TV. You plugged a keyboard into the aerial socket and it had 7K of memory. So you printed out all the time, because you didn’t have the privilege of anything being held in memory. But even that, crude as it was, was a great advance because it’s a revisioning tool. I remember, for example, writing novels out in long hand and then paying someone to type them up. And I don’t think I would revise as thoroughly the second or third drafts because then I’d have to get the whole bloody thing typed up again. I felt a reluctance to mess with things in quite the same way that I do now.”

But even now, while typing his novels at the computer, McEwan tells me he still holds a pen in one hand, to scribble down words or try out the feeling of a sentence.

After a discussion of Islam and millenarianism, I ask him about his own feelings about faith:

“I’ve no interest in faith. Groundless belief. Transcendant feelings that we might have in relation to landscape or love or friendship or art are all things I strongly believe in. I believe in them because I know them, and I think they’re factors in our delight in existence. But I’m deeply skeptical of the impulse of religions to corral that to their own causes, just as I’m deeply skeptical of religions which suggest that they are the fons et origo of our moral impulses.”

“Surely faith is a cornerstone of human existence, and so a natural concern for a novelist.”

“No I don’t think it is. It’s a cornerstone of great human division and cruelty and misery. No. Men of faith helped to destroy the twin towers ten years ago. I don’t think you’ll find anything good in faith. I’m sure Ghaddafi is a man of faith, and I’m sure some of the slaughterers of Mao’s Cultural Revolution or Stalin’s Reign of Terror or the Nazi holocaust had profound faith in their cause. So I’m deeply distrustful of faith.”

“Have you always been?”

“During the 70s, 80s and all through the 90s, we never spoke of religion in my circles. It was a dead subject. And then what happened? 9/11. Faith was suddenly back with us. We had to start re-examining it. What is faith? A certainty based on a certainty, based on nothing else but a certainty. And then considered a moral quality. Not good enough. As my friend Christopher Hitchens says, if you have these extraordinary beliefs, you’d better have some extraordinary proofs. When Bertrand Russell was asked what he would say if he died and discovered that actually there was a God and he had to come before him, Betrand Russell said, without pause, he would say: “Sorry old boy, not enough proof.” You didn’t give us enough proof.”

“Christopher Hitchens is a polemicist, and Betrand Russell is a philosopher. You’re a novelist. Do you think that more sympathy is required in that capacity?”

“Oh I could get behind a character with faith. I’d be very tempted. And I’d have to do it from the inside so it would be sympathetic. But my own personal opinions are not operative in how I write a character.”

If the protagonist of McEwan's next novel is a religious nut struggling with new computer technology in the 80s, you heard it here first ...