an interview with Ian McEwan   interview  
photo of tim o'brien

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  First, congratulations on the Booker Prize. How does it feel? What does it mean to you?

It does have an extraordinary power, this prize. I think my experience must be just the same as more or less everyone else's who has won. I have a literary following and people have known about my books for years, but now the potential readership suddenly leaps. The Booker somehow has caught everyone's imagination, and you find that worldwide there's an interest in your writing from people who otherwise wouldn't be reading it. That's the overwhelming difference.

Americans don't really have a prize that's equivalent to the Booker, in terms of furor and public interest. Can you enlighten us about the meaning of the Prize in Britain?

I think a series of accidents have made the Booker very powerful here. The fact that it has a shortlist that is announced and left in place for about a month allows interest and tension to build up about it. Second, the dinner at which the prize is announced is televised live, which has turned into something of a public horse race among writers. And it is very, very tough. I can tell you. I've done it three times now--this was my third--and it's tough being one of the other five, preparing that grin of good will on your face towards the winner when you're hoping to win yourself. The whole thing is quite a nerve-wracking procedure. However wretched it might be for the other five, this has contributed enormously to the power the Booker has exercised. It's become a bit of a British institution.

Speaking of British institutions, what effect or influence have the political changes in Britain over the last few years had on the British literary community?

I don't like to think that governments have that large an impact in a democracy. But clearly, changes in government are seen to mark cultural changes, and certainly this is going to be a very different time from the Thatcher-Major years, but I don't think it's time enough yet for novelists to react. Government actions need to percolate down more, or the spirit of the age needs to percolate up, for this to become a little clearer. My overwhelming sense, still, is of an era that has just come to an end. And really Amsterdam is my farewell to that time. And I'm very glad to say good-bye to it.

Does winning the prize affect your role as a writer or your relationship to writing?

Well, I should hope it doesn't affect it at all. It's important to recognize that your book is exactly the same book as it was an hour before the winner was announced. The Booker committee changes every year, and you can have no doubt in your mind that a different committee would have chosen a different book. For that reason, this committee, had it been in place last year, might well have chosen Enduring Love or something else completely different. It' s perfectly possible for me to contemplate Amsterdam not only not winning, but not even being considered. And I therefore think you have to really separate out the outward manifestations of this--which is all great fun--from the business of writing books and not be deluded into thinking that you are necessarily suddenly promoted and that you are any different kind of writer. I think you have to welcome it, but not quite be too impressed by it.

Amsterdam was a a different kind of novel from your recent work. It's much shorter, for instance, than Enduring Love. What inspired the change?

For a long time I wanted to get back to the kind of form, the short novel, that could be read in three or four hours, that would be one intact, complete, absorbing literary experience. I wanted you to be able to hold the whole structure in your mind so that you could actually see how it works. Part of my ambition for Amsterdam is that the reader would share in the plotting of the book. It's a fairly elaborately plotted novel; it's meant to take pleasures in its own plotting, and I hope the reader is drawn into that. I always had it in mind as almost a kind of a theatrical experience. Its original subtitle was a comi-tragedy, and it was therefore in five acts, which remain in place. There were any number of ways I could have padded it out, but in fact successive drafts involved a process of making it leaner and leaner until I really couldn't lose any more of it.

It's also a departure in other ways.

It's also a departure in it that it's a social satire, heavily influenced by the early novels of Evelyn Waugh. And it is quite distinct from my novels written over the last ten-year period, which I think all belong together, beginning with The Child in Time and really ending with Enduring Love: novels of a sort of crisis and transformation, rites of passage of great intensity for characters. And although it's somewhat dark in its humor, Amsterdam is meant to be lighter in tone, and much more based in a recognizable, shared social reality.

Was it the writing process much different, too?

It was a real pleasure to write Amsterdam. If I had to characterize my mood, I wrote in a state of glee. It was a very different kind of writing experience from Enduring Love, which was full of almost nightmare intensity--which in itself was exhilarating. But this had a quality of...I kept thinking, "If nobody else likes it, I don't give a damn, because I really am having fun." One of my principal pleasures was writing in the world of work. I liked evoking both the work of a newspaper editor and the work of a composer. I have a great deal of regard for the short stories of Kipling, for example, which are so steeped in the different kinds of work that people do. I admire it in John Updike. He's very good at getting into the process of particular kinds of work.

The book is sure be read here in light of the Clinton scandal. It's an awkard comparison, but do you think it's a valid way to consider the book?

Well it's bound to be read in light of some sex scandal or other. We had a big one break here just about the time of the Booker Prize and there was a real media feeding frenzy about it. The issues really were the same as in Amsterdam: to what extent is a politician's--a public figure's--private sexuality the property of everyone else? In the case of Amsterdam it's a particular kind of sexual preference, so it's moved beyond a bit of groping in the office or a pick up on a park bench.

The press and political culture have been trapped in something of time-warp. A near-Victorian morality has held sway in newsrooms and sex scandals are run against an implicit set of moral values, which actually nobody in the country is living by. I think perhaps there has been a change, that that's now crumbling. I think something of the kind is happening in the States. It's not quite parallel, it's a much longer and more complicated issue, but a bit of extramarital sex is not quite the impeaching matter that the Starr Commission had thought. It was as if the political culture and the press had each other by the throat where neither could move. I think if that does crumble completely we'll all be amazed that it lasted so long, so long after the trial of Oscar Wilde and the rehabilitation of Oscar Wilde.

Are you at work on a new project?

I've got all kinds of notes and leads and possibilities, but for the moment I'm just enjoying all the business with the Booker. I think I'll go crazy if I pretend to myself right now that I'm really writing a novel. But at some point I'm going to have to close the door on it all, empty my mind, and get on with another book.

Does the prize affect your future literary goals?

I just want to write a very good novel, one that's different from all the others.

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