Sunday, 17 December 2017

Running through wheat

Ian McEwan

THE author of Atonement gave the audience at the Cliveden Literary Festival an enjoyable glimpse into the life of one of England’s most celebrated novelists.

After studying at Sussex University he decided to become a writer. “I saw writing as a way of not having to get a job.”

He was taken aback by the horrified reaction to the dark and disturbing nature of his early novels The Cement Garden and The Comfort of Strangers, confessing: “I don’t know where it all came from. I was a well-behaved teenager. I hadn’t transgressed. I hadn’t run through a wheat field — not even a wheat field — so my early short stories were my wheat field.”

McEwan admitted to struggling when he first started out. “Writing didn’t come to me easily to me back then. Not because of the subject matter, but because of the voice and the prose.”

He offered some insights for budding novelists. “Henry James said ‘The first duty of the novelist is to be interesting.’ I always come back to this advice — try and be interesting.”

He clarified that by interesting he wasn’t referring to pulp fiction — “not suspense or dread”— but rather “emotional interest or intellectual interest — the quest for curiosity in the reader”.

He added: “The novel is always interested in things going wrong.”

McEwan also admitted to being taken by surprise when writing his own novels.

Talking about On Chesil Beach, he said he didn’t know the novel would have its unique ending when he started. “Part of the pleasure of composition is the element of surprise.”

His talk ended on an optimistic note.

When asked by an audience member whether the novel can survive in the social media world of today where people have increasingly short attention spans glued to their tablets and iPhones he responded with a resounding “Yes!”

“How much we can hold in short-term memory is not changed by Facebook folk. I think it’s biological, not functional. Almost 40 percent of our neural processing is linked to the visual and literature is visual. So our world is drenched in the visual and we shouldn’t worry about our attention span.”

Hopefully he will be proven right in time for publication of his next novel, which he is currently writing. “It’s a science fiction novel set in the past.” Nothing less interesting and experimental could be expected of the celebrated Whitbread and Man Booker Prize winner.

Banny Hay

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