Ian McEwan on privacy, world events and the accidents of fortune that shape us

In 2022, Ian McEwan spoke with Eleanor Wachtel about his latest novel Lessons. (Brian Medina)

Chance plays a role in all of our lives.

In his latest novel, Course, Ian McEwan shares his own intimate past with its central character, Roland Baines. That is, until a transformative event takes teenage Roland down a very different path than McEwan himself. From a military camp in the desert in Libya to post-war Britain, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Brexit pandemic, McEwan follows his fictional alter ego through a life marked by upheaval historical.

McEwan is one of Britain’s greatest novelists, known for his provocative and inventive novels that tackle current realities and issues. His 17 novels include the Booker Prize winner amsterdam and the very popular Atonement, which became an award-winning film starring Keira Knightly. Many of his other titles have also been adapted for the screen, including The cement garden, The comfort of strangers, the innocent, lasting love, On Chesil Beach and The Children’s Act.

McEwan spoke with Eleanor Wachtel onstage in September 2022 in front of a live audience at the Toronto International Festival of Authors.

Developing character

“I’ve always been interested in the character.

“It’s an interesting process of going from real people to symbols on a page that generate in your mind a sense of a person’s reality. I think we’ve inherited an amazing 19th century tradition of delineating character on the page – from Jane Austen to Gustave Flaubert, via George Eliot, Anthony Trollope, Dickens, etc.

I thought if we could follow and really live inside a character for a lifetime, it would take away the whole thing of the character and their own sense of self – that changing sense of self.

“I thought if we could follow and really live inside of a character for a lifetime, it would take the whole thing out of the character and their own sense of self – that shifting sense of self.

British novelist Ian McEwan spoke with Eleanor Wachtel in front of a live audience at the Toronto International Festival of Authors 2022. (Brian Medina)

Dreams of what could have been

“I’ve always been interested in the role accidents play in our lives. A biologist once told me, ‘If your parents had had sex two seconds later, you wouldn’t be here.’

“Course is my most factual novel. When I had my first dreamy thoughts about this novel, I thought of the soundtrack, if I could call it that, as a metaphor for how large-scale world events or international crises, great events penetrate our lives and interrupt them. . Maybe even throw them on another course. And even if we are not addicted to news, it can shape the quality of cultural and political optimism or pessimism that is in the air.

“So my first thought about this novel was, ‘What if I fit all the events of my life into the life of a fictional character who is some kind of alter-ego – the life that I could have live if I had left school at 16.?'”

find understanding

“My father was wounded in Dunkirk and was no longer fit to fight, so he was in a small garrison town in the south of England. There he met my mother, who at the time was married and her husband had gone to fight during the war. My mother already had two children and she conceived a child by the one who would one day be my father.

“So she delivered a baby with her sister at Reading Station. And about 60 years later that baby appeared in our lives – my own brother.

“This secret then helped to complete my understanding of the pain that weighed on my mother.”

A grainy black and white photo of a white woman with black hair.  Her little girl is on her left and her little boy is on her right.
The mother of British novelist Ian McEwan circa 1940 with her siblings Margy, left, and Jim, right. (Submitted by Ian McEwan)

A fading image

“In a box in my desk gathering dust is an old brown envelope with black and white photos. Inside is a photo of my mother, taken in 1940, and almost certainly taken for her husband to visit. time carries with it, gone to war in North Africa.

“On either side of her, she has a two-year-old child and a four-year-old child sitting next to her. She has long black hair and she has a very direct and confident look, straight at the camera. Very beautiful , straight and she has a real sense of resilience about her.

“I never knew this woman. This woman disappeared in Reading Station when she gave birth to a baby. In a way, writing the novel was my discovery of her.”

PREMIUM | Ian McEwan reflects on his father’s opinion of his writing career

Writers and Company1:42Ian McEwan reflects on his father’s opinion of his writing career

Famous British novelist Ian McEwan tells Eleanor Wachtel of her father’s support for her writing career.

Life changing events

Purple orange and pink book cover depicting a schoolboy sitting and playing the piano.

“For Roland in Course, the Cuban Missile Crisis is about the feeling that the world could end and it’s still a virgin. The result is a combination of circumstances that could be considered highly destructive for him since at the age of 14 he began an affair with his piano teacher. It lasts two years and it doesn’t destroy it, but it diverts it.

“His life takes another tangent.

“There are a lot of things in this relationship. First of all, I wanted an event that would project over a lifetime. I already had in mind that he would confront her one day. I didn’t know what was going to happen. spend there, but I also knew that I was writing quite a long novel and that it was crucial to keep those stories alive well into her 70s.

“It’s a formative event. It’s very, very intense. One of its important characteristics is that Roland believes that he is the one who is at the agency. But in fact, he has already been treated at the agency. age of 11, three years ago, her mind has already been, so to speak, shaped by her.

“For a long time he runs away. He doesn’t think about it, or somehow he manages to suppress it, then it starts to disturb his relationships with his friends and with women.”

A retrospective life

“I think looking back is something that’s in all of our lives. I think the pandemic has forced that kind of thinking about who we are, how we got here, what our childhoods were like, what our parents – did they love us enough or too much – and so on.

For all of us, there are certain darker times that will inevitably haunt us.

“For all of us, there are certain darker moments that inevitably will haunt us. What interests me is how we write or rewrite them in our heads. They don’t look the same to you when you’re 30 than when you’re 60.

“If you become a parent, you might become a little more forgiving of your own parents, and certain episodes in your life might cast long shadows, just like there are events that cast a lot of light. But they look different. over time, and I think that just as you will die and you will always have socks that do not fit in your sock drawer, you will not have settled your life.

It will always be a work in progress.”

Ian McEwan’s comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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