I come to you hotfoot from the Oxford Literary Festival where, in the domed confines of the Sheldonian Theatre, Ian McEwan was presented the Bodley Medal by Richard Ovenden the current Librarian of the Bodleian Library. Before the presentation of the medal (which is made from copper from the old roof of the Bodleian, and has been awarded to around a dozen people so far including Hilary Mantel last year), the two sat in conversation. McEwan was both witty and erudite, as was Ovenden and it made for a great event…
Ovenden started off by asking McEwan about his writing process… firstly – the physicality of it. McEwan said he was an early adopter of word processors – he likes the way they allow a ‘dynamic of constant revision’. He sometimes writes trial paragraphs longhand and then tries them on the screen.
When quizzed about his writing environment and sharing his house with another writer, his wife, it’s one upstairs, one downstairs – but I can’t remember which way round. He told us he had a marvellous piece of software called ‘Freedom’ – you set a time, and it blocks the internet for you!
Talking about the development of his novels, and the research that goes into them. McEwan said he has a ‘duty to some kind of truth’, to do the research properly. For instance for Saturday, his most-researched novel, he shadowed a neurosurgeon for two years and got mistaken for a proper doctor by some students, so at home was he with the subject.
Going back, Ovenden asked him what got him on the literary path towards being a writer. McEwan said it was whilst he was at Sussex university when he was about 20 that he discovered Kafka and Polish author Bruno Schulz. They seemed ‘off the planet’ and excited him enormously when he realised that literature was a conversation that anyone could join in.
The conversation moved on to screenplays – McEwan said they are ‘very much like novellas’ in the need to establish characters quickly, and having few sub-plots as they will only be around 100 pages long. He described some of the ‘pleasure and anguish’ of working with others, and within the Hollywood system. The screenwriter is very much a lowly position, the director has long been the auteur. He’s glad that there is much writer-led TV now, especially coming from Scandinavia. Ovenden asked about Christopher Hampton’s adaptation of Atonement. McEwan felt he’d done an excellent job getting into his mind. He praised Hampton and director Joe Wright, and the casting of Saoirse Ronan as Briony in particular.
Then we got onto the subject of McEwan’s new book, which he finished this week! The Children Act – is a novel about a judge who is undergoing tough personal times, and the effects that a particular case is having on her. Fiona, 59, is a judge in the family court and had to rule on a case involving the separation of Siamese twins. To save one, the doctors had to kill the other, else they would both die within a few months. She overrules the family’s wishes to leave it to God, and rules for separation being the choice of the lesser evil, but as her own marriage is failing, she obsesses over the decision – the legal vs the moral vs the religious.
McEwan read a couple of passages from his manuscript – we were the first audience to hear any of it. It sounds like vintage McEwan tackling big issues, with some visceral language highlighting the plight of the child in bad family break-ups, and then a passage about the twins. Can’t wait for the book!
Then a few audience questions before the presentation. The first questioner almost accused him of schadenfreude – being rather ‘chirpy’ when he read the extracts from his new novel – he was hamming them up a bit to inject some drama – this did make the book sound irresistible when it comes out. McEwan replied seriously, there was no intention of being chirpy!
Another question was about McEwan’s predilection for explosive plot devices, (which don’t happen in all his novels). He replied ‘I quite like novels where something happens.’ He sometimes feels the need to put his characters through something extreme to see what happens to them,exploring their different viewpoints and memories. He has a strong belief in character.
After the presentation, McEwan moved over to the festival tent outside to sign books, but in the end I decided not to indulge – I own copies of most of his novels already, but it was also wet, and just about the Oxford rush-hour, so I opted to go straight home instead. He was an entertaining speaker, although this was one of the more expensive events at the festival, it was interesting to hear what makes one of the best modern British authors tick – I really should read more of those books!