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British Writer Ian McEwan, on 'Saturday'

Ian McEwan is the author of the best-selling novel Atonement. His latest novel, Saturday, takes place during one single day of a neurosurgeon's life. It is set in a post-9/11 world.

27:13

Other segments from the episode on April 11, 2005

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, April 11, 2005: Interview with Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez; Interview with Ian McEwan.

Transcript

DATE April 11, 2005 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A

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Interview: Ian McEwan discusses his new book "Saturday"
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest Ian McEwan is regarded by many as the best British novelist of his
generation. Several of his books were adapted into films, including "The
Comfort of Strangers," "The Cement Garden," "The Good Son" and "Enduring
Love." His new novel, "Saturday," was a best-seller in England and just hit
the best-seller list in the States. It tells the story of 24 hours in the
life of a neurosurgeon in London.

On this day, shortly before the invasion of Iraq, a huge anti-war
demonstration is filling the streets. Even upon waking, he's reminded that
he's living in a post-September 11th world. He looks out the window, sees a
plane in flames flash across the sky and assumes it's an act of terrorism.
Later in the day, he'll learn it's not. But here's what he's thinking as he
looks out the window in the early morning, imagining what the passengers are
experiencing.

000 - reading
Mr. IAN McEWAN (Author): (Reading from "Saturday") `Plastic fork in hand, he
often wonders how it might go, the screaming in the cabin partly muffled by
that deadening acoustic, the fumbling in bags for phones and last words, the
airline staff in their terror, clinging to remembered fragments of procedure,
the leveling smell of excrement. But the scene construed from the outside
from afar like this is also familiar.

30 start reading here?

It's already almost 18 months since half the planet watched and watched again the unseen captives driven through the sky to their slaughter at which time they gathered round the innocent silhouette of any jet plane, a novel association everyone agrees. Airliners look different in the sky these days, predatory or doomed.

Henry knows it's a trick of vision that makes him think he can see an outline
now, a deeper black shape against the dark. The howl of the burning engine
continues to rise in pitch. It wouldn't surprise him to see lights coming on
across the city or the squares fill with residents in dressing gowns. Behind
him, Rosalind, well-practiced at excluding the city's night troubles from her
sleep, turns on her side. The noise is probably no more intrusive than a
passing siren on the Houston Road.

The fiery white core and its colored tail have grown larger. No passenger
sitting in that central section of the plane could survive. And that is the
other familiar element, the horror of what he can't see, catastrophe observed
from a safe distance, watching death on a large scale but seeing no one die,
no blood, no screams, no human figures at all, are entered as emptiness, the
obliging imagination set free, the fight to death in the cockpit, a posse of
brave passengers assembling before a last-hope charge against the fanatics.

153
To escape the heat of that fire, which part of the plane might you run to?
The pilot's end might seem less lonely somehow. Is it pathetic folly to reach into the overhead locker for your bag or necessary optimism? Will the thickly made-up lady, who politely served your croissant and jam, now be trying to stop you?'

220
GROSS: THAT'S IAN MCEWAN READING FROM HIS NEW NOVEL "SATURDAY."

THIS BOOK OPENS WITH WHAT THE CHARACTER DESCRIBES AS `CATASTROPHE OBSERVED
FROM A GREAT DISTANCE.' WHAT INTERESTS YOU IN THAT IN THE SENSE OF OBSERVING
CATASTROPHE FROM THIS DISTANCE, A DISTANCE FROM WHICH YOU CAN ONLY SEE THE
OUTLINE OF WHAT'S HAPPENING AND YOU'RE HELPLESS TO REALLY DO ANYTHING TO STOP
IT?

Mr. McEWAN: Well, I suppose in the sort of community of our anxiety, that's
something we all share. I mean, I'm sure that most of the planet watched
those events of 9/11. And to me, one of the most sinister aspects of it was
both seeing things happen from a distance and having to set your imagination
free into, you know, the terror that you couldn't actually witness, I mean,
what was going on in those cabins in those last minutes. So it's that sense
of dreamlike distance where you can only guess at the human terror and it's
all sort of safely concealed from you by the very fact of distance.

330
GROSS: I'VE SEEN SEVERAL REVIEWS THAT DESCRIBE YOUR NOVEL, "SATURDAY," AS A
POST-SEPTEMBER 11TH BOOK. AND I'M WONDERING IF YOU SEE THE BOOK AS TRYING TO
RESPOND TO THAT QUESTION, YOU KNOW, LIKE: WHAT KIND OF ART MATTERS AFTER
SEPTEMBER 11TH? WERE YOU TRYING TO RESPOND TO THAT OR DID THE SUBJECT COME
OUT OF A DIFFERENT QUESTION?

Mr. McEWAN: It really came from a different direction for me. I had written
a novel called "Atonement," which was a historical novel, and I'd already
decided, you know, long before 9/11, that I was going to set a novel very much
in the present. I wanted to get a flavor of the days we live in. I then
discovered we're living in days that were horribly interesting, and the
invasion of Afghanistan following the events of 9/11, then the long, drawn-out
march, as it were, to Iraq through the UN and a great nervousness descending
on Western countries especially in the cities. And I guess I was lucky, if
you could call it that, that right near my house in central London, many of
the marchers gathered to protest against the upcoming invasion of Iraq. More
than a million people marched in central London that day. And that suddenly
gave me my focus. I thought, `Well, this is the day. You know, this march
will be the background for my man, my neurosurgeon, as he goes about his
business, playing squash, visiting his dying mother and so on.

510
GROSS: BUT, YOU KNOW, THIS HUGE MARCH PROTESTING THE IMPENDING INVASION OF
IRAQ IS ALL KIND, LIKE, BACKGROUND NOISE FOR HIM, YOU KNOW? HE'S NOT
PARTICIPATING IN IT. HE'S THINKING OCCASIONALLY ABOUT HIS POSITION ON
INVADING IRAQ. HE'S NOT FOR WAR. HE'S AN ANTI-WAR KIND OF PERSON, BUT HE
THINKS, `YOU KNOW, MAYBE IN THE LONG RUN, THIS WON'T BE A BAD THING.' SO--BUT
MOSTLY, THE PROCESS IS BACKDROP. IT'S A TRAFFIC JAM. IT'S CROWDS.

Mr. McEWAN: Yeah.

GROSS: IT'S NOISE IN THE BACKGROUND. WHY TAKE SOMETHING THAT MOMENTOUS AND
PUT IT IN THE BACKGROUND?

Mr. McEWAN: Well, it's very much in the foreground of Henry's thoughts.
It's in the background of where he physically is. But, I mean, he has a
passionate rowel towards the end of this novel with his daughter. Anyway,
he's furiously against the war. Henry is ambivalent. You know, he can see
that this could be a disaster. At the same time, he's treated an Iraqi
professor of history who's been tortured under the regime, and that's led him
to read up a great deal about the nature of this, what one friend of mine
called an abattoir state. And from the point of view of a novelist, I think,
a rich state of ambivalence is more productive really. You know, it's not my
interest, for example, in this novel to tell people what to think about events
in Iraq.

So it moves in and out of his anxieties in a very strong way indeed. I mean,
it's always there. It's part--in other words, it gives a focus to all his
anxieties about the state of the world we're in.

655
GROSS: YOUR MAIN CHARACTER'S A NEUROSURGEON, DOESN'T MUCH LIKE LITERATURE,
THOUGH HIS DAUGHTER, WHO IS A YOUNG POET, LOVES FICTION AND IS KIND OF
ASSIGNING HER FATHER BOOKS TO READ...

Mr. McEWAN: Yeah.

GROSS: ...FOR HIM TO CATCH UP ON. AND, YOU KNOW, HE READS HIS ASSIGNMENTS
BUT DOESN'T FEEL PARTICULARLY MOVED BY WHAT HE'S READING. THERE'S A FEW LINES
I'D LIKE YOU TO READ ON PAGE 65.

Mr. McEWAN: (Reading) `He doesn't want to spend his days off lying or even
sitting down nor does he really want to be a spectator of other lives, of
imaginary lives, even though these past hours, he's put in an unusual number
of minutes gazing from the bedroom window. And it interests him less to have
the world reinvented. He wants it explained. The times are strange enough.
Why make things up?'

GROSS: NOW HOW DID YOU COME WITH THESE REASONS TO NOT APPRECIATE FICTION?

Mr. McEWAN: Well, I mean, I suppose one of the pleasures and privileges of
writing a novel is you can take a tiny shred of your own impulses or thoughts
and sort of irresponsibly pass them off as someone else's. And I guess in
those immediate six or nine months after 9/11, I found myself reading anything
but fiction. I didn't want the world invented at that point. I wanted to be
informed about it, so I read books on Islam. I read books on imperialism, the
economics of the Middle East and so on. And I don't think I was alone in
this, too. I think there was a huge sort of thirst for explanations or, you
know, for ways of trying to understand what had happened and what we were
heading towards. And then, of course, out of that, I began to passionately
want to make things up.

But what I've given here to Henry is a sort of little game I play, because the
poor fellow, he's trapped in a novel by me. You know, whatever he thinks
about novels, you know, he's in one. And also the logic of his day is going
to bring him through a series of events that suggests, in fact, that
literature has far more power than he can dream of.

I suppose, too, I mean, I wrote in all about a little girl, Briony Tallis, an
ATONEMENT, who's so passionate about literature, couldn't really see the world
in any other terms but the terms of fiction and romance. And I thought,
`Well, I'm going to write an anecdote,' you know, have someone who not only
loathes--you know, he doesn't loathe the book. He tries hard, but he's very
suspicious and thinks I'm rather overrated. Actually, one of the books he
dislikes most is by me. So, I mean, he doesn't like magical realism, for
example, and he's very dismissive of writers, like Angela Carter and Paul
Auster and Gunter Grass. There's one...

1005
GROSS: LET ME QUOTE HIM FOR A SECOND. `HE SAYS, "NO MORE MAGIC MIDGET
DRUMMERS," HE PLEADED WITH THIS ORDER.'

Mr. McEWAN: Yeah.

GROSS: `"PLEASE, NO MORE GHOSTS, ANGELS, SATANS OR METAMORPHOSES. WHEN
ANYTHING CAN HAPPEN, NOTHING MUCH MATTERS. IT'S ALL CATCH TO ME."'

Mr. McEWAN: Yeah. He feels really that fiction, if it's got to have any
role at all, nothing gaged will be actual with the plausible and plausibly
reinvented. And, again, I'm giving to him in very extreme form a kind of
impulse of mine, which is, you know, I want to engage in this novel--well, not
necessarily in all novels that I write. But in this particular novel, I'm
engaged with the actual this time, now, this man, you know, this city, this
century.

1100 - floater
GROSS: My guest is Ian McEwan. His new novel is called "Saturday." We'll
talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is novelist Ian McEwan and his new novel is called
"Saturday."

1140
ONE OF THE FUNNY THINGS ABOUT YOUR MAIN CHARACTER, THE NEUROLOGIST, IS, YOU
KNOW, HE'S A VERY RATIONAL, ANALYTICAL PERSON. HE DOESN'T LIKE FICTION. BUT
IN A WAY, HE HAS THE MIND OF A WRITER BECAUSE HE IS ALWAYS THINKING AND ALWAYS
DESCRIBING. AND THAT NEED TO ALWAYS DESCRIBE IS SOMETHING--I MEAN, THAT'S
JUST INHERENT TO HIM. DON'T YOU THINK IN SOME WAYS HE HAS A WRITER'S
INSTINCT?

Mr. McEWAN: Well, I suppose, too, that...

GROSS: That's because of you.

Mr. McEWAN: Yeah, I'm not sure there's any way around that.

GROSS: Right.

Mr. McEWAN: But, you know, I had to describe his day, and I have to do it
over his shoulder really in a third person. But, yes, I mean, the novel ends
with a longish description of a piece of neurosurgery which actually Henry has
to perform on the very man who's intruding into his house. And I think it was
behind that I was maybe disquieting not only the focus and the attention and
concentration of writing itself but maybe of a kind of happiness we don't, you
know, have a word for in English or maybe perhaps not in any other language
but peculiar kind of muted joy when you're so focused on something that all
time and all self worth goes from you. You're not even conscious of being
happy at the time. You're just sort of weightless doing the thing that you
are engaged in, maybe using some learned skills, maybe trying to overcome
difficulties, maybe working with other people but you are absolutely liberated
into a sort of timeless sense. And you can get that with a game of tennis or
doing a bit of carpentry or even gardening.

I noticed that neurosurgery allows practitioners to almost of necessity
experience it by the day for hours on end, it is so demanding that your mind
cannot be anywhere else. And certainly, my guy, my sort of guide, Neil
Kitchen, who's a senior neurosurgeon in London, said once he got into the
operating room, everything else dropped away, whatever else was going on in
his life, in his work, in his home and whatever else. He was set free with no
sense of passing time. And I suppose that's the state that many writers would
love to get to with their writing, you know, to have one of those mornings
where three hours can go by, you don't even look at the clock, you don't crave
coffee, you don't divert yourself with phone calls or e-mails and you just
live in this sort of timeless joy.

GROSS: The main character's mother in your new novel has dementia and she's
living in an institution for that. I know your mother had a form of dementia.
Did you base this character on your experiences with your mother in the last
years of her life?

Mr. McEWAN: Oh, very much so. I mean, she had a form vascular dementia
which is exactly what Lilly--I call her in this novel--has. And like many
people in their 50s, you know, I've watched a parent empty out in that sort of
horrifying way. The mind, that emptying out process, is really like a sort of
death really and you end up finally with the body but not the personality and
it's very tough for everyone around. Strangely, my mother, it wasn't
Alzheimer's which has a much bigger component of sort of mood swing and
aggression. This was relatively benign for her once she had crossed the line
and could no longer remember who she was and lived in a sort of constant
present, a tiny window of the present, no sense of what happened a minute ago.
And she would speak these extraordinary sentences and I would come away from
some of the visits thinking, `I can't make up those sentences. They are so
fragmented and appended and yet so grammatically correct.'

So the next time I saw her, I said, `Look, do you mind when we're speaking
that if I, you know, write?' And she said, `Fine, go ahead.' I mean, she
didn't know who I was but--at that point. And I started to write down some of
her conversations and nearly all of the things that Lilly says in the novel
were things said by my mother and it felt to me like a kind of, I don't know,
tribute catching the last days of her life.

GROSS: What's one of those lines that you remembered that you gave to Lilly
in the book?

Mr. McEWAN: Well, shall I read one?

GROSS: Sure.

Mr. McEWAN: (Reading) `Lilly suddenly speaks up. Her mood is anxious, even
a little querulous and he knows that this--"You know, aunty,"--she calls
everyone aunty. "You know, Aunty, what people put on their shoes to make
them--you know, shoe polish?" He never understands why she calls him Aunty or
which of the many aunts is he--"No, no, no. They put it all over their shoes
and rub it with a cloth. Well, anyway, it's a bit like shoe polish. It's
that sort of thing. We had side plates and God knows what all along the
street. We had everything but the right thing because we were in the wrong
place." Then she suddenly laughs. It's become clearer to her. "If you turn
the picture around and take the back off like I did, you get such a lot of
pleasure out of it. It's all what it meant. And the laugh we had out of it."
And she laughed gayly, just like she used to. And he laughs, too. It's all
what it meant.'

So there was sort of a strong emotional content to what she was saying, but
she really was talking of squeezing herself through certain gaps between
people and things. And you felt you almost knew what she was talking
about but never quite.

GROSS: It's almost like there's a surrealistic philosophy.

Mr. McEWAN: Yes, it's all what it meant is something that, you know, she
certainly did say.

GROSS: How important was it to you to see her knowing that she wouldn't know
who you were anyway?

Mr. McEWAN: It's odd because I, like Henry Perowne, used to not look forward
to going and try and put it off, and even then said to myself, `It won't make
any difference because, you know, she's not expecting me 'cause she don't
remember me and she won't remember me the minute after I've gone.' But I don't
know. I think it's just habits, you know, of love and human association, you
know? Your mother is ill, she's in hospital or in a home, you've got to go
and you've got to see her. And this was rather a chilling thought. Maybe
it's not about the present anyway, it's about the past that actually he's
trying and I was trying still to keep alive or capture associations of when
she was fully conscious, when she was fully herself.

GROSS: Toward the end of your book, your main character is looking ahead and
is looking ahead and is looking ahead to what he thinks will be a life of
constant diminishment as he gets older. He's approaching his 50th birthday,
and he's thinking ahead to, you know, him losing his physical powers and
mental powers and becoming dependent on children and so on. And as you go
through middle age, I'm wondering what it's like for you to think about those
things yourself and at the same time try to avoid all the kind of cliches--Do
you know what I mean?--that people promise themselves they won't fall into?

Mr. McEWAN: Well, I don't know. It's difficult. You reach a certain point
in life and suddenly you're stash of days is looking finite. And they always
were finite, but you didn't actually feel that when you were 27. And in
theory, at least, that should make you approach each day with a kind of
renewed determination to make the most of it. And--but, in fact, you know,
habits form and things solidify. And so, yeah, I mean, it's difficult. I
think mortality tends to become a writer's subject as he or she gets to a
certain age, although I think, you know, there a trillion ways in which that
subject can be addressed, and sometimes, it comes through in a writer's work
not head on but in a sense of valedictory quality, sense of a--you know, it
could be over several novels a sense of a long goodbye.

GROSS: My guest is Ian McEwan. His new novel is called "Saturday." We'll
talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Ian McEwan. His new best-selling novel is called
"Saturday."

In March of 2004, you were delayed from entering the United States from
Canada. You were coming here for a series of speaking engagements. And that
got a lot of attention in the newspapers. How has that affected--well, maybe
you could very briefly describe the reason why you were detained. I shouldn't
say detained but--maybe I should say detained. What would be the right word?

Mr. McEWAN: Well, the right word--no, turned back.

GROSS: Turned back, OK. There you go.

Mr. McEWAN: Yeah. I was trying to come to the States. I was giving a
lecture. Actually, 3,000 people were waiting for me the next day in Seattle.
Because I was being paid for the lecture, the Homeland Security guy eventually
after many hours turned me back, and I had to enlist the help of the State
Department plus the British Consulate in Vancouver and they got me in the next
day. I got a fulsome letter of apology from Homeland Security saying that,
you know, they'd made a mistake. But having said that, I mean, you know, for
this visit, I was then told I should reapply for a visa. British citizens
don't usually need visas but now my passport in the computer has the memory of
me being denied entry, refused entry. And I got in by the skin of my teeth.
And I have to say...

GROSS: This time around?

Mr. McEWAN: This time around and this may be the last time I ever come to the
States because it is--I don't know, I've fallen into a bureaucratic mess. A
nine-month application to visa only just succeeded on the day I was leaving.
It arrived at 8:00 in the morning and it only allows me into the country for
the time that I'm, you know, here to talk about this book. We had asked for a
five-year visa. So it's become very difficult, and I know I feel rather
perplexed with the country I have deep love for. And I find I'm not welcome
by its bureaucracy, and I hope we'll get this sorted out. But it's become
very, very difficult indeed.

GROSS: There's a scene in your novel in which your main character is at--I
forget whether it's a party or--it's some kind of reception and Tony Blair is
there. And Tony Blair introduces himself and starts joking about how much he
likes this guy's paintings. And, of course, he's not a painter, he's a
neurologist, but there's no polite way of correcting Tony Blair.

Mr. McEWAN: Yeah.

GROSS: Has this ever happened to you, while we're on the subject of identity?

Mr. McEWAN: Actually--well, it was at the opening of the Tate modern art
gathering, and I was there with my wife and we went for a little stroll with
our champagnes through the newly opened--well, we were looking at the Rothkos.
Then we came to another room, and there was Tony Blair and the art director of
the gallery doing a photo opportunity and lots of journalists and
photographers standing behind him, a braided rope taking pictures. And the
gallery director sort of waved at my wife. He knew her and brought the prime
minister over to meet us. And this 60-odd strong retinue surrounded us, you
know, flunkies and security men and journalists and diarists with their pens
ready. And when the prime minister shook my hand--he said hello to my wife
and then he shook my hand and he said, `I really admire your work.' And I
said, `Oh, thanks very much.' He said, `Yeah, we've got two of your paintings
hanging in Downing Street.' And I said, `No, no, no.' And he said, `Yes,
yes,' and he went on shaking my hand. And then someone said, `Prime Minister,
we've got two minutes to be at the front door,' and the whole lot of them just
swept on leaving us standing there like white rabbits in headlights. And then
the diarists clustered around me and said, `So what did he say? So what did
he say?' And I thought quickly and I said, `The prime minister said he really
liked my work.' And I left it at that cause I thought, `No, I'm having this
story. I'm not giving it to you guys.' So I, you know, two or three years
later used it in this novel.

GROSS: Well, Ian McEwan, thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. McEWAN: It's been a pleasure.

GROSS: Ian McEwan's new novel is called "Saturday."

(Soundbite of music)

(Credits)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.

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