UEA Live: Ian McEwan’s reflections on an illustrious career

Ian McEwan is considered to be one of the most commercially successful and critically acclaimed storytellers working in Britain, earning the Man Booker Prize in 1998 for his novel Amsterdam and the Jerusalem Prize in 2011 (given to creators who deal with the freedom of the individual in their work), with the jury commending him as “one of the most important writers of our time”.

McEwan describes finding himself at a “curious loose end” after finishing an undergraduate degree at the University of Sussex, where he then decided to study the English Literature MA at UEA in 1971. Upon completing the Masters course, comprising of theory, comparative literature, and American literature, McEwan left “absolutely convinced that what [he] wanted to do was write fiction”.

After reading from “Disguises”, a short story published in 1975 in his first collection First Love, Last Rites, McEwan reflects upon being accused of writing to shock. More profoundly, he considers the conventionality of his teenage boyhood: “somehow wandering into the field of fiction was the first time I could really be wild in my life”.

In the 1980s, McEwan began to publish novels which engaged with more public themes, such as the Second World War and its legacies, or the question of how children are brought up. He speaks on beginning to set individual experiences in a public context, by introducing recognisable social figures and “devising well confined, well limited, well defined situations”.

After taking a break from fiction to write a screenplay called The Ploughman’s Lunch, encompassing the Suez Crisis and the Falklands War, McEwan returned to fiction with a much more nuanced sense of politics and the relationship between the individual and society.

He describes Thatcher era Britain as “quite a stirring time for writers”. In terms of his career intertwining with his personal life, McEwan was also raising children at this time, so “lost the luxury of [his] pessimism” as he wanted the “human project not only to succeed but also to last”. This prompted him to consider previously underrepresented questions in his literature, such as what his novels contribute towards public understanding, driving him towards “thinking socially and thinking politically”.

In McEwan’s later novels, he explores themes of scientific enquiry, which he describes as “an extraordinary celebration of human ingenuity”, a point of intrigue that was “ruthlessly suppressed” throughout his early stories. He speaks on science as part of a quest to find our true selves, arguing “to have no interest in science is to be incurious”.

Revelling in the challenges of his more recent works, McEwan notes a “pleasure, even fun to be had”, as reflected in his Brexit farce The Cockroach, and Machines Like Me, a novel set in an alternative history timeline exploring our relationship with technology. In a reveal of his current work in progress, McEwan details a novel which takes place over a 75 year timespan, knitting together different fates through time and large scale global events. He encourages budding writers to simply “write your way through… into some sense of confidence in what you’re doing”, noting “the pleasure of surprise… is one of the great sustaining facts of writing”.

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Dolly Carter

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September 2021
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