Author Ian McEwan talks to Katherine MacAlister as he prepares to return to his beloved Oxford
Ian McEwan is in fine form when we speak, if slightly preoccupied, his first grandchild having been born a few days before. Despite being in the middle of an enormous publicity circus over his new book The Children Act, the new addition to the family has quite rightly “taken precedence.”
Having just returned from visiting his new descendant, Ian McEwan is profoundly affected and, as a result, perhaps more reflective than normal. “It was such an emotional moment. It makes life seem so short because my son’s birth was as emotional and doesn’t feel that long ago and now here’s his daughter. It’s like with his own analogy, “and amazing that it’s come around again so quickly.”
His wonder at life, the passing of time, the minutiae of people’s daily lives have long fascinated McEwan, alongside the topical issues he tackles concurrently. The Children Act is no different, revolving around a senior judge deciding the fate of a 17-year-old Jehovah’s Witness with cancer who is refusing treatment, while at home the judge’s husband is having a mid-life crisis, hot potatoes having always been McEwan’s preferred genre.
“Minefields are more interesting,” he tells me non-plussed. “And The Children Act isn’t the first time I’ve featured reason versus profound religion. It crops up in Enduring Love and Black Dogs, although maybe not so starkly as in this.....”
Neither does McEwan concede that the subject of Jehovah’s Witnesses and blood transfusions is ironically topical. “Oh you mean the case about the child in Spain? I think you’ll find that’s a case of seeking the right treatment. Blood transfusions weren’t involved. It’s not an issue anyway because it’s not different or divisive and most Christians agree that life is precious.”
Still, Jehovah’s Witnesses with a cancer-stricken child in the courts and news mirrors the plot in The Children Act on several counts. “Faith is an extreme thing, and very powerful ideologically. Look at Iraq where men have seized on such incredible ideas and used them to slaughter in the name of religion,” he answers patiently.
“Of course it’s a big deal, but I did lots of research and couldn’t find one case where the courts had said ‘OK let the child die’ and yet it goes against their will, so I approach it very warily and try to make the subjects as sympathetic as possible, although their arguments don’t add up to much – let a child die based on a questionable point? Life is more precious.”
That he’s unsympathetic to the Jehovah’s Witnesses viewpoint is barely concealed, and yet McEwan always offers both sides of the story. “I give the best arguments they’ve got.” Not that the storyline is wrapped around the ideology, or vice versa. “One drives the other.”
At work: Ian McEwan
With so many of his books being turned into films — Enduring Love, Atonement — I wonder if this has affected his prose, whether he can’t help but imagine The Children Act on the big screen as he wrote it? “No, because I think of every novel as a visual thing anyway. If I want to get a scene right, I have always thought the visual is the best way into it, perhaps that’s why they have worked so well.”
It did open up a whole new world however to the award winning writer, Hollywood beckoning, invitations to film festivals across the globe pouring through his letterbox. “It’s like a strange hyped-up opera where the actors do a padded dance to the colluding world of TV, journalists and film crews, but it’s fun and then its nice to come back and shut the door.”
His front door was of course Oxford for 18 years, living contentedly in Park Town, North Oxford until his children grew up and the bright lights of London beckoned in 2002. And yet McEwan doesn’t try to hide his fondness for Oxford, or his regret at leaving.
“Oxford was my beat. I raised my children there and they were so wonderfully free, going everywhere by bike and enjoying the big spaces like Port Meadow or Cowley Road. It has all the advantages of town and country so, although I’ve moved many times in my life, Park Town was my favourite home.”
Was it where he first made a name for himself as an angry young man alongside the likes of Martin Amis and Salman Rushdie? “No, I was 35 when I moved to Oxford so already pretty well known, but I had a lovely room to write in, and lots of literary friends there, it was a great community.”
Returning tonight to discuss The Children Act at The Sheldonian Theatre, his old friend, the poet Craig Raine will interview him on stage and then field the Q&A session afterwards, something McEwan enjoys. “I like standing up in front of people in bookshops or theatres, it means less time alone with the ghosts and I get to come out and interact. I’m quite good at not writing you know,” he smiles. “Between books I like to travel, see friends, walk, read.”
And then? “It’s necessary to undertake some desk and mind clearing to make space for what comes next. You have to turn on ideas, they don’t just pop into your head, so I have to go through the rituals when I start a new book, unplugging the phone, turning off my emails...”
Does he actually do that? “Yes. My wife has installed software called Freedom which has everything on a timer, so you can’t go online for 4-6 hours or snoop on the internet. It means I get a lot of work done,” he smiles.
I hear that he has notebooks full of ideas, waiting to be used in his next novels? “If I didn’t write my ideas down it’s not that I’d forget them, but that I’d never even had them. It’s not an age thing, I’ve always been like that and had to learn the hard way. I still think writing a book is a bit like doing a degree, and takes the same time — about two-and-a-half years of your life.”
Once completed, McEwan is then forced out into the relentless light of the publicity machine. “Publicity is quite tidal, you do what you can and then after a few months you begin to hate the sound of your own voice until it stops, and goes from noisy to silent again.”
Still in the noisy phase, Ian values the public’s perception of his work the most. “Absolutely because its easy to get abstract about sets of figures while real flesh and blood brings it to life. For example, a girl in Dublin got up and very nervously asked what it was like to be me. Everyone started laughing at her and I felt very protective because it was a very good question.”
So what did he tell her? “That it’s like always being someone else.”
The Children Act is published by Jonathan Cape. Ian McEwan appears at the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford tonight at 7pm. Tickets are available for £5 from Waterstones. Further details: 01865 790212 or www.waterstones.com