an interview with Ian McEwan   introduction  

photo of Ian McEwan

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How did you first come up with the idea of creating a character who is afflicted with de Clérambault's syndrome?

Stalkers have been in the news a great deal in the past few years. I was intrigued to discover that some stalkers are convinced that the object of their obsession is in love with them. De Clérambault sufferers also believe their loved ones are sending them signals--via the television set or by, for example, the arrangement of the clouds. It's a peculiar mental prison. What intrigued me was the manner in which this syndrome holds up a distorting mirror to our most valued experience--that of falling in love.

A recurring theme in your work seems to be that of ordinary lives that are rocked by the unthinkable. What inspires you to place your characters in these situations?

Moments of crisis or danger represent a means of exploring characters--the strengths and defects of personality--while at the same time offering a degree of narrative interest: it's a matter of having your cake and eating it.

In both this novel, and your last novel, Black Dogs, you focus on the conflict between the spiritual or emotional and the rational sides of human behavior. What interests you about this struggle? Which characteristic do you most identify with?

Even for atheists, the question of faith has to be an issue of importance. I regard irrational belief as being the essence of faith. It's also an enduring quality of being human--perhaps even written into our natures. No amount of science or logic will shift it. We are all magical thinkers one way or another.

Your books suggest a strong grasp of psychology; what is your background?

I assume you're asking about my education. I studied literature at university. I've always had a strong interest in science. What I know about psychology I've learned like everybody else: by making mistakes.

The novel is filled with strong visual images, is film a strong influence on your writing?

Film is not an influence. I've always liked my writing to have a visual quality. I like to think my reader can see what I can see. Clarity is a great virtue in writing. There are certain scenes that can only succeed if the visual elements are attended to first, all else (the emotional aura, the conflict, the love, etc.) then follows, or even grows out of the visual detail. It's important to remember that visual processing takes up a third of our brains. Our language is saturated in visual metaphor. Literature was a visual metaphor long before film!

If your art form wasn't the written word, what would it be? What appeals to you most about then novel as a medium?

I wouldn't mind being the lead guitarist in an incredibly successful rock band. However, I don't play the guitar. I value the word for its power to take a reader inside another person's mind, inside a character; we discover what it might be, to be someone other than ourselves.

What do you enjoy most about being a writer?

Having the whole world, everything that has happened, might happen and could happen, as one's subject matter.

What publications do you read religiously?

I am neither devout enough,n or organized enough, to read anything religiously. I'm an average glutton for daily newspapers. I often read The New Yorker, The Nation, and occasionally Scientific American. I also read the TLS, the New York Review of Books, and the London Review of Books.

Who are some of the writers that you admire most?

Shakespeare, Kafka, the American biologist E.O. Wilson.

What book have you read most recently that you truly loved?

I recently re-read Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five.

What is your favorite word?


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