He could be anyone. Blue shirt open at the collar, old-looking blazer, a shock of thinning white hair, and clear glasses. Or rather, he could be a professor in the literature corridor, furiously tapping away on his latest manuscript before elegantly lecturing on some fine point of a novel no one has heard of. He could easily fit the English literature lecturer mould, except he isn’t one of them. Nothing out of the ordinary, especially not at a university.
He’s just given a talk to a room of MA Creative Writing students. It’s a room full of him 44 years ago. He’s made it now, ascended to the heights of worldwide literary superstar, who somehow manages to be both critically acclaimed and wildly popular. The people in the room want to be him.
We stand at the end of a corridor, grabbing a brief moment after his talk before he shoots off to a lecture hall full of people waiting to hear the person they’ve been reading for over thirty years talk about his latest novel, The Children Act. He shifts on his feet as we speak. He talks slowly, intelligently, thinking in paragraphs that wouldn’t seem out of place in one of his novels.
“I always like coming back”, Ian McEwan says. “My whole life seems to unravel along the railway line because I went to boarding school near Ipswich, and when the train comes past Manningtree and those muddy flats, there’s a sort of sinking feeling about the beginning of term, my parents two thousand miles away in Africa. Then it lightens as I come here”.
As everyone at the University of East Anglia knows and is constantly reminded of, McEwan studied the MA in Creative Writing. He was its only student at the time. It does help to be taught by the great Sir Malcolm Bradbury though. “Most of the MA was in fact academic work, with a tiny provision for writing fiction which I seized and had a very productive year”, McEwan says. Arguably the most famous creative writing graduate on a list that includes Kazuo Ishiguro and Anne Enright, McEwan’s novels have always been very highly praised.
To some horror (angry middle-class person on the Guardian website kind of horror), The Children Act was left off the Man Booker Prize long list. McEwan has been nominated before, and won for Amsterdam in 1998, but not even being nominated this time seems like a glaring oversight. McEwan’s win and nominations came before the prize was opened up to novels written in English, not just English novels (a semantic difference if ever there was one).
“I was very much up for it”, McEwan says. “I don’t see why English or Commonwealth writers can’t stand up to the American scene”. He agrees with most critics and writers, that the second half of the 20th century belongs to American writers. “It seems inevitable to me that Richard Ford would have won the Booker Prize. His marvellous novel Canada would have swept the board. There’s a strong sense among the writing community that if you got five different people to judge you’d come up with a different winner.” He recalls his friend Julian Barnes’s phrase ‘posh Bingo’.
Let’s not count literary prizes out altogether though. McEwan is winning them all the time, the first in a long list being the Somerset Maugham Award in 1976 for his debut collection of short stories, First Love, Last Rites. More recently, he accepted the controversial Jerusalem Prize in 2011, though did use his speech to criticise Israel. A compromise, perhaps.
Literary prizes obviously have a point, otherwise there wouldn’t be such a fuss over something as little as letting some more people enter, and McEwan wouldn’t accept the ones that come his way. “Winning has a huge effect, especially if you’re young and not very well known. Richard Flanagan [the 2014 Man Booker Prize winner for The Narrow Road to the Deep North], whose work I’ve admired for years, was hitting the buffers in his career. He was thinking of going to work in a mine. Now he’s a planetary celebrity”.
The same can be said of McEwan’s status now, though he was already well known before his Man Booker Prize win, which safely saw his transition from his younger, radically gothic work (he was given the nickname ‘Ian Macabre’) into a part of the literary mainstream. His novels are a staple at A Level (Enduring Love, On Chesil Beach), he often tops polls of most important British writers, which isn’t to mention the colossal achievement that is Atonement. He’s the first introduction many of us get to ‘proper’ literature.
“It’s wonderful to be read by more and more people. At the same time I worry about people being forced to read me”, McEwan says. The curse of literary fiction indeed. McEwan’s work doesn’t easily fit into that category, whatever it even means. Sure, he’s institutionalised and taught across the board but he’s not only the reserve of university students. Writing literary fiction and a bestseller is the stuff writers dream about. McEwan has always had both the academic and the popular readers on his side. Writing bestsellers and critically acclaimed novels isn’t that easy for everyone, especially when they have to fight with things as reductive as genre labels.
“Categories can really obscure good writers”, he says. “There was a wonderful novel called Tony and Susan by Austin Wright. Hardly anyone reads it because it gets stuck in the thriller section when it could easily have been a major literary novel.” This isn’t a problem for McEwan, who’s always on the literary fiction shelf.
He’s currently reading Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl. Despite its cleverness, it could easily be relegated to the thriller shelf. Perception of it as nothing more than a trashy beach read has changed with the release of David Fincher’s dark film adaptation. McEwan hasn’t seen it – he’s read the book, why bother?
When his own works are adapted, McEwan clearly likes his voice to be heard in the process. “If I’ve written the screenplay, I get a lot of say, or I make myself an executive producer and at least pitch in with it”, he says. Though he doesn’t write with a mind to adaptation, his detailed prose lends itself to the screen. “I always think of the novel as a visual form. I think of people as visual creatures. It’s our strongest sense. The key to an important scene is to get the visual details correct”, he says. His precise, lyrical style is easily adaptable, down to the details you probably won’t even notice when they’re filmed. That’s not to say he’s unwilling to let someone else take over his projects. His claws aren’t in so deep he can’t let the director and director of photography do their jobs: “There comes a moment when you just have to back off. Once it goes into pre-production, all the big decisions are made and you really don’t want to be lurking around saying ‘it’s not like this in my novel!’ ”
So what plans for the future, Mr McEwan? It’s unlikely he’s going to slow down in his increasing age. A screenplay for The Children Act is in the works, as is trying to find funding for his already-written screenplay of On Chesil Beach.
Ian McEwan is a rare writer, who is no longer the dark wonder-child of angry intellectuals, but one can still speak to those who were with him when his first novel came out. Younger people, reading him in a dusty classroom on a rainy Thursday afternoon in double English, might find him dull. That’s reductive.
McEwan’s themes have changed considerably, but who is going to be the same in forty years’ time? The dark subjects of First Love, Last Rites have been replaced with a serious study of the darkness of everyday life, of peaceful middle-class suburbia interrupted by a nightmare, of the cruellest thing one person can do to another. Ian McEwan explores the blackest corners he can find of seemingly mundane life. He understands what it means to be human, and there’s no greater gift for a novelist to have.