Ten minutes with Ian McEwan

17 May 2019

Author Ian McEwan gives Saga Magazine ten minutes of his time to answer some probing questions...

What time did you get up this morning?

I’d love to be a crack-of-dawn person, but it’s usually 9-ish. I do a lot of hiking and sometimes have to get up early for that, which always makes me feel very virtuous. And amazingly scornful of anyone who’s still in bed!

Time features heavily in your books. If you had a time machine, where and when would you go?

London in the early 17th century. It would be nice to sit down and have a drink with Bill Shakespeare. This will sound rather low of me, but I’d like to know a bit more about his personal life. His close friends, what they used to talk about. I’d ask him about the sonnets and the relationship between his subjective self and the incredible array of characters he formed.

Would he be famous today? Even back then, he was only famous within a circumscribed theatrical, London circle. The average Instagram ‘star’ is far more famous than Shakespeare ever was.

What’s the weirdest place you’ve had an idea for a book? 

That’s hard to answer because those ideas are all-embracing. It’s more like a condition of being. I’m sure we’ve all experienced that extraordinary feeling of the mind having a mind of its own. We can’t plan what we’re going to think about. I suppose the difference is that a writer pays attention to his or her consciousness. They listen out for their thoughts. 

A book’s going well… how long can you sit at a computer?

As I’m working on a book, I teach myself how to write it. By the last third, I know what I’m doing and will always seize the opportunity to ‘go with the flow’. On those days, I can easily do 18 or 20 hours. With toilet and meal breaks, of course!

Which literary character do you wish you’d come up with?

We’re back with Shakespeare again. A character that everyone knows, even if they’ve never seen a Shakespeare play: Hamlet. Up until the early 17th century, characters were types, often representing a particular virtue. Hamlet springs out of nowhere, fully-formed, clever and riddled with self-doubt. He was a revolutionary moment in the representation of consciousness. The dawning of the modern age.

What is love?

Another tricky one. We can talk of an extraordinary sense of closeness… a merging. Taking a constant delight in that person’s presence. Sensual feelings. And other important elements, like trust. I’m not sure I can define it because that immediately puts limits on it, but I know what love feels like.

In interviews, you’ve said that you’re not a fan of comic novels. So, what makes you laugh? Morecambe and Wise, The Two Ronnies, Fawlty Towers?

It’s quite hard to make me laugh and I very rarely laugh at comedy on TV. I just don’t ‘get’ those deliberately scripted funny sketches and jokes. I was on the pro-EU march earlier this year and a man got up on stage in Parliament Square and rather pompously introduced himself by saying, ‘I am the Labour MP for Tooting’. Someone standing close to me had a whistle and quickly went, ‘Toot-toot’. That had me in stitches. I could see people looking at me thinking, ‘What’s up with him?’

When was the last time you went to a concert?

I enjoy classical music and go to Wigmore Hall in London several times a year, but the last gig was March. Van Morrison at a small club called Subterania in Ladbroke Grove. He never spoke to the audience, refused to do an encore and stomped off the stage in a huff, but it was a fantastic show. 

Music often brings me to tears, but it moves me in a fundamentally different way to literature because literature is so specific, and music is so abstract.

You’re worth a bob or two, Ian. What do you spend it on… fast cars, yachts, rare first editions?

Yes, I collect books. If I look around my study, I’m surrounded by them, but they’re all books I want to read. They’re not for show. I treated myself to a nice pair of hiking boots last year. I like to go on holiday with the family; my grown-up children and the grandchildren. Do I need a yacht? No! A Lamborghini? No! I suppose I’ve got a nice house, with wonderful views across a wooded valley. That beats a Lamborghini any day of the week.

What was your first car?

An Austin A35 van. I had this dream of arriving at university in my own vehicle, so I spent the summer working as a dustman in Melton Mowbray, which was where we were living at the time. It cost me 50 quid and, on the way down to Brighton University, the brakes failed. Not far from Brighton, I was finally stopped by the police and thought they’d find it funny that I’d driven all those miles with no brakes. They didn’t. I got fined seven quid.

Tell us about one thing that you’ve kept from your childhood.

There isn’t much, really. Probably some photographs. Because my dad was in the Army, we used to move house every three or four years, and my mother threw away anything that we didn’t actually need. When I was at boarding school, my parents were living in North Africa and I would write to them twice a week. As soon as my mother read my letters, she would tear them up. Maybe she thought they made the house look untidy.

What were you wearing when you were 20 years old?

That would have been 1968. My uniform was jeans and T-shirt. Some people might have thought I was a hippie because I grew my hair, but I never owned a pair of loon pants. Having said that, I did listen to the Grateful Dead and hit the Hippie Trail to Kabul. Unfortunately, I missed the rain and grey skies of home. That was where I felt like the real me.

Did you always want to be a writer?

From about the age of 19, yes. As a young boy, I did think about being a vet, but then I saw a picture of a man with his arm elbow-deep in a cow’s backside. Suddenly, it wasn’t so appealing.

You were 70 last year. What did that mean?

A great big party. As long as you’re healthy, who cares about the numbers.

Town or country?

I need both. I live in the country and I can happily be there for weeks at a time, but there is a point where I miss London. I miss the energy and the physicality of it. I miss its cultural fresh air.

How often do you use social media? 

We have a small, family WhatsApp group. Does that count? I have a Facebook page, too, but I don’t have anything to do with it. Yes, I send the occasional text, but I prefer a proper conversation!

What was the last thing that made your heart sink?

All this toxic nationalism and xenophobia that Europe and the US seem to be indulging in at the moment. Can’t we just enjoy living in a community of nations. And Brexit, of course. If it ever happens, no good will come of it.

Glass half-full or half-empty. 

Personally, it’s half-full. If I look at politics, climate change and nuclear policy, it’s not even half-full. In fact, the glass has been smashed and stamped into the dirt!

Machines like Me by Ian McEwan is published by Jonathan Cape; Order at a discount from the Saga Bookshop.

Ian McEwan will be appearing at the Hay Festival on 1 June, 2019.

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