How does it feel for you to know that, when you finish and publish a novel, it gets to live outside your mind, it starts an independent life, begins to travel and change in the world? maria
Do you know the sweet and celebrated dedication poem Chaucer wrote for his tragedy, Troilus and Cressida?
Go litel book … He expresses the earnest hope ‘That thou be understonde I god beseche!
Well, I share in that and in the recognition that there is nothing one can do – the book must set out on its journey and take its chances. I accept that years later I might have forgotten whole passages and won’t remember how the whole thing came together. But I’m sometimes asked about fiction I wrote 50 years ago and it’s cheering to know that for readers there is no time dimension. Books live in a form of the perpetual present.
Are there topics that you self-censor and avoid including in your books? Do you think you (or other authors) will be more cautious/afraid after Salman Rushdie’s attack? carol
Over the years many have been attacked, persecuted or killed for what they have written. Freedom of expression is now a shrinking asset around the world. It is therefore very important for all of us, not only writers, to honor our freedom, defend writers like brave Salman and exercise our privilege of freethinking and use it judiciously. Everything that lies within human experience and everything that can be imagined should be available for our consideration.
What would you be if you weren’t an author? Laura
I’ve often wondered. In a limited sense, I wrote [my latest novel] Lessons to find out. When I was 21 in 1970, I was certain that I never wanted a fixed career or an office job. If I hadn’t discovered a life in writing, I think I would have likely lived on the margins, like my central character Roland. He writes a bit of journalism, is a part-time tennis coach and plays piano in a hotel lounge. To some it might sound like failure but I suspect that many who make a mosaic life of such pieces can be freer and happier than others who strive for years on a career ladder.
Most creative people have crippling doubt when it comes to their work, abilities and ideas. What have been some of the greatest risks you’ve taken in your work by ignoring that doubt, and how has it paid off? carmen
Novels are long and during their composition there’s much opportunity for moments of debilitating self-doubt. Then the question arises: am I only writing this because it would be too painful and time-wasting to admit failure and abandon the whole thing? As for risks – they can be irresistible. If the prose has the momentum, then leap! An example: towards the end of my novel Saturday, I decided to have a naked and pregnant young woman recite Matthew Arnold’s poem Dover Beach to disarm a thuggish man with a brain disorder who is holding a knife. impossible Did it pay off? For me, absolutely, but for some, most certainly not! That’s the reasonable price of taking risks.
If you were to write a memoir, would you cover your whole life in the one book, or would you write several? Kate
Generally, a memoir in several volumes asks too much of a reader. The art of compression is called for. Strictly one volume, although I loved Leonard Woolf’s three-tiered autobiography. My novel Lessons squeezes a whole life into 500 pages. The trick, I think, is to follow certain themes and characters to the exclusion of much else.
Apparently Goya’s dying words (translated) were “and still I learn”. What are the key things you have learned about human nature during the Covid experience? jane
I learned about the kindness of strangers; the extent to which our well-being and even sanity is dependent on the company of family and friends; how time speeds up when the days become indistinguishable; how solitude brings the distant past to life; how lockdown was always the writer’s lot; how cooking, red wine, TV series, long-form journalism, moody strolls and the constant presence of a friendly dog are fabulous assets when under house arrest.
A couple of years ago, Howard Jacobson was quoted in the Guardian saying that big books are not the problem, the “problem is the reader”. Bernardine Evaristo has said that Joyce’s Ulysses was “too long” to read. Do you think long books can be justified in this anxiety-filled age of slack attention spans? Neil
I’m not sure I buy the attention-deficit description of our digital selves. People spend hours at a time playing Fortnite etc. We may even have extended our attention spans. Certain long books, like Ulysses, need not be read sequentially. Keep it by your bedside and read the occasional five pages. Buy a good guide and be led to the passages that appeal. The problem is that many long novels don’t earn their keep. This is why architecture, structure is so important in an extended fiction. Also, the writer has a duty towards the reader’s curiosity.
Your early short stories were macabre and “deviant”. I especially loved The Cement Garden. Do you have any more short stories/novellas of this ilk likely to be published? steve
Here is one that is sure to disappoint you. I was asked to write a short story that was somehow optimistic about the future. How about that for deviance? It was a massive challenge I found hard to resist. I think it will be published soon.
What drives you to write now and, what still fascinates you about the process? glen
I’ve been immersed in writing fiction for 52 years. What still lures me is the sense, probably an illusion, that just ahead of me, always just out of my reach and completely without definition, is the perfect and beautiful thing, probably a novella, that unwraps everything around it, the ultimate human story that illuminates our brilliance and stupidity. Could be the siren that drives me on to the rocks.
What is your favorite Christopher Hitchens anecdote? Daniel
This was about 20 years ago. We were giving dinner for a few friends in London. Christopher arrived later than the rest and he was in an exalted state. He told us that there was a gang of 10 or so young men out in the square, gathered around a bench. They were shouting obscenities and abusing women as they passed. We had to get out there and confront these yobs.
Confront them? I knew those guys. Our square was notorious for the dealing in hard drugs that went on every evening. People carried knives. I wasn’t minded to get into a fist fight or be stabbed in the chest just as I was about to serve dinner. I turned to Martin Amis. Coming? I shrugged. So we went out, Hitch striding ahead, Martin and I, his Falstaffian army, shuffling reluctantly behind. Three men in their mid-50s, off to do some confronting. When we got to the bench I almost passed out – with relief. There was no one there. The lads had moved on. We went back to the house, Martin and I striding ahead, Hitch shuffling behind, shoulders slumped in disappointment.
With the benefit of hindsight, have your views on Brexit changed? John
The great false promise of the Brexit campaign was the Cummings-Johnson slogan “Take back control”. No such control has been returned. The things that matter to most of us in our daily lives – education, housing, policing, the NHS – were never under the control of the EU. They were the UK government’s responsibility. There was never any plan to distribute control. Other matters close to us – water, trains, electricity, gas – ended up in the hands of equity funds etc around the world after the decisions by the political right. These services remain well beyond our control. For ideological reasons it won’t be returned. So, no, I still think Brexit was a bad idea whose depredations have been partially concealed by the pandemic and now the energy crisis. “Take back control” was cynically intended to mislead people.
Join Ian McEwan at a Guardian Live event, live in London and livestreamed, on Wednesday 9 November, when he will discuss his new novel, Lessons. Visit our website for more details