How to Describe a Life
"If I didn't write, I'd go nuts because I wouldn't have a single reason to exist. The pleasure of bringing something together is so intense."
British Ian McEwan is considered one of the most important British novelists alive today. When he writes, characters and plot are difficult to separate because “often characters arise out of plots, often plots drive characters into existence”, he says. Read more …
What is crucial to McEwan when writing is that “circumstances make the character and the characters generate possibilities. That sense of possibility is always so important. So characters can create their own waves.”
The novel Lessons (2022) is McEwan’s most personal novel. It was written in lockdown when he was entering his 70s and beginning to take a look back at his existence. People who know him well can always connect what he is writing with things in his own life, he says. In Lessons, McEwan wanted to create “the emotional truth of certain rather sad, tragic, disturbing things that happened in my family”, he says. “And the reflective element was also the movement towards trying to understand the circumstances, not only of my life but my generation’s life.”
Ian McEwan enjoys reading biographies, but “if you want to know everything it’s possible to know about a great poet, you’ll need to read three or four biographies written over maybe a century or two centuries”, he says. He admits that fiction does not influence him like it did when he was younger. “We have very little sense of how to generate on the page an open-ended character until the writing of Jane Austen” and he adds that it was the great Russian writers who taught us how to write characters as if they were real people. By the turn of the 19th to the 20th century, there was a great artistic revolution; McEwan points out and emphasizes that it was especially James Joyce who taught us “to understand characters from the flow of consciousness, right from the very inside”.
Because McEwan thinks memory is not linear, “any life story that grabs my interest has to have a lack of linearity,” McEwan says, “And if you walk down the street just lost in your thoughts, I mean, your mind is going all over the place. Quite hard to direct your thoughts. Sometimes what we think about is not under our control”. This is why Ian McEwan tried “to make the novel (Lessons) almost like the act of memory itself. ”
“If I didn’t write, I’d go nuts because I wouldn’t have a single reason to exist. So there’s one underlying reason. But the pleasure of bringing something together is so intense. We all talk about the agony of it, but the pleasure of it is like nothing else. And every now and then, you hit these moments of sheer release where you don’t exist and time doesn’t exist. The place doesn’t exist. It’s just you and the thing you’re doing. And you come around after an hour or two hours, even three hours. Oh, yeah, you remember the rest of your life is back. You hear a dog bark or something brings you back to the world. These are some of the most pleasurable moments, I think in all human experience and it’s not only to do with writing, it could be a game of tennis, cooking a meal for family or friends or, gardening or doing something that requires focus where you become absent.
Ian McEwan (b. 1948) is an award-winning English novelist and screenwriter. McEwan has been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize for Fiction six times, winning the award for the novel ‘Amsterdam’ in 1998. In 2001 he published ‘Atonement’, which, apart from winning numerous awards, was also adapted into an Oscar-winning film. Among his other books are ‘Saturday’ (2005), ‘On Chesil Beach’ (2007), ‘Solar’ (2010) and ‘Sweet Tooth’ (2012) The Children Act (2014), Machines Like Me (2019) and Lessons (2022). He was awarded the Jerusalem Prize in (2011). Read more about him here: http://www.ianmcewan.com/
Elisabeth Skou Pedersen interviewed Ian McEwan during the Louisiana Literature festival in August 2023 at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Denmark.
Camera: Simon Weyhe
Edith: Signe Boe Pedersen
Produced by Christian Lund
Copyright: Louisiana Channel, Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, 2023.
Louisiana Channel is supported by Den A.P. Møllerske Støttefond, Ny Carlsbergfondet and C.L. Davids Fond og Samling.
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