Ian McEwan is one of Britain’s foremost contemporary writers, and is speaking in Oxford on the 4th September after the release of his new novel, ‘The Children Act’. He won the Man Booker Prize for ‘Amsterdam’ in 1998 and many of his books have been made into films, most recently ‘Atonement’. I spoke to him about his latest book, researching for novels, and literary audiences.
What is the premise of ‘The Children Act’, and how did you come to choose this topic?
More than one premise, in fact. Firstly, (much neglected by crime fiction), to investigate the character of the judge, and how that influences the course of a case.
Secondly, to explore an encounter between the courts, whose assumptions are generally secular, and deeply held religious belief. A stark example of this is the Jehovah’s Witness refusal for themselves and for their children, of blood transfusion.
Thirdly, I wanted to embark on a character study of a childless woman, professionally successful as a High Court judge, haunted by regrets as she comes to the end of her fifties and finds herself overwhelmed by marital conflict. The Children Act is, in part, a story about unspoken love.
How do you balance research and narrative – is it important for artists and writers to engage actively in scientific discourse?
I let the research shape the narrative. Sometimes they’re inseparable. Sometimes, I’m researching without knowing it. That is, I follow my own interests between novels and find myself being drawn into starting to make a fictional representation of what I’ve learned. As for science etc, the most important thing writers can do is engage in whatever interests them. I resist prescriptions for others. Science interests me, but obviously, it’s possible to describe a world (of intimate relations for example) without any reference to it.
You’ve said elsewhere that reading literary fiction is more widespread than previously – what defines ‘literary’ fiction for you?
I have no empirical evidence for my remark. Just a suspicion. Perhaps the extension of university education to almost 40% of the population is having an effect. I resist the ‘we’re-all-going-to-hell-in-a-handcart’ view of the world that’s so tempting for my generation. I was listening to a high-level ‘literary’ interview with Evelyn Waugh, recorded in 1953. The ignorance and stupidity of the questions would cure anyone of the view that the past was golden.
As for a definition of literary as opposed to pulp fiction – you know it when you encounter it. It’s more of an instinctive readerly recognition of a certain kind of seriousness of intent, pursuit of originality, awareness of literary precedents, (even it means rejecting them) and some hard-to-define spring in the prose, the invisible lever that moves the world.
You’ve said elsewhere that you’re ‘interested in how to represent … what it’s like to be thinking’. In which novel do you feel you achieved this most successfully?
Yes, capturing the flow of thought, however artificially, is endlessly interesting. I think it worked well enough in Atonement, where I tried to sustain a number of different points of view. I was also happy with the way it came out in Solar, which was related in a subjective third person. It’s not only scientists who stand on the shoulders of giants. Novelists have been the lucky beneficiaries of the sustained development since Jane Austen and Gustave Flaubert of free indirect style – a liberating means of representing subjective states while also letting those states colour our shared world.
What are you currently reading?
I’ve just read my friend Martin Amis’s The Zone of Interest – it’s superb. Now I’ll go back to John Williams’s Butcher’s Crossing. In non-fiction I’m reading Paul Bloom, a Yale psychologist. His book, Just Babies, is an attempt, and a very good one, to understand the origins of morality.
Ian McEwan will be discussing ‘The Children Act’ at the Sheldonian Theatre on 4th September, 7pm. Tickets can be purchased via the Waterstones website, priced £5.