The TNR Q&A

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BOOKS AND ARTS JANUARY 11, 2008

The TNR Q&A

The film adaptation of English writer Ian McEwan’s prize-winning
novel Atonement
opened last month to widespread critical acclaim. Winners of the Golden Globes
will be announced this weekend, and Atonement sits on top of the field, with the
most nominations
of any film. Isaac Chotiner spoke with McEwan about letting go, growing up,
and why atheists need to speak out.

 Was it hard to watch Atonement be adapted to film by other people? Did you
feel possessive?

I’m fairly used to the process. I think this is the fifth or
sixth of my stories or novels that have been made into films. I’m sure I’d be
possessive if I allowed myself to get involved in the writing of the script. There’s
a lot to be said for not doing that. I did it once with The Innocent and John
Schlesinger, and it was a fairly difficult process because everyone--the
director, the designers, actors, everyone--had their own ideas and came piling
in. And you are suddenly knocked off your perch as the God in this machine. It
is better to have someone take a free run at it. But I can’t quite walk away,
so I like to stay involved. I like film sets, and I enjoy the collaborative
process. I’m not sure if I had the worst of both worlds or the best.

 One of the great
things about the book is the way you get inside the head of Briony Tallis, a
13-year-old girl. Were you worried that film is a medium in which it is harder
to get inside a character’s head?

Well, it is impossible for a movie to give you what a novel
can give you, which is the flavor of rolling thoughts and consciousness. But
you have to do the best with what you’ve got, which with movies is a high
dependence on actors to somehow let us feel the illusion that we can follow a
thought process. And I think the casting of Briony with Saoirse Ronan was really astute. She
is a very watchful girl, a completely intuitive young actress.

 Earlier in your
career, you were known as "Ian Macabre.”  Though there is less of what you call the
darkness and violence that was marked your stories 25 years ago, your newer
work still has a level of intensity and discomfort. I’m thinking particularly
of the sex scene in your latest novel, On Chesil Beach.

Some of the dark-hearted stuff from those short stories
still lives on, whether it is the beginning of Enduring Love
or the scene toward the end of Saturday or
even elements of Atonement. But it is bound to change. One passes the usual
milestones in life: You have children, you find that whether you like it or not,
you have a huge investment in the human project somehow succeeding. You become
maybe a little more tolerant as you get older. Pessimism begins to feel
something like a badge that you perhaps do not wear so easily. There is
something delicious and reckless about the pessimism of being 21. And when you
get older you feel maybe a little more delicate and hope that things will
flourish. You don’t want to take a stick to it.

 I want to read you a
quote from James Wood in The
New Yorker
about Philip Roth’s latest
book: “How much of any self is pure invention? Isn't such invention as real to
us as reality? But then how much reality can we bear? Roth knows that this kind
of inquiry, far from robbing his fiction of reality, provokes an intense desire
in his readers to invest his invented characters with solid reality.” A lot of Atonement is about the question of what is real in
fiction, and I was curious for your thoughts about literary realism these days.

The kind of fiction I like and the kind of fiction I most
often want to write does have its feet on the ground of realism, certainly
psychological realism. I have no interest in magical realism and the
supernatural--that is really an extension, I guess, of my atheism. I think that
the world, as it is, is so difficult to capture that some kind of enactment of
the plausibly shared reality that we inhabit is a very difficult task. But it
is one that fascinates me. I have just re-read a couple of Saul Bellow novels, Mr. Sammler’s
Planet
and The
Dean’s December
. I really get a thrill from his engagement with the
momentous task of what it is like to be in the 20th century in Chicago
or even Bucharest,
what the condition is, what it’s like, how it is now. This is something that
modernism shied away from--the pace of things, the solid achievement of weight
in your hand. So I remain rather committed to that. But also to what is
psychologically real--the small print of consciousness, the corners and
vagaries of thinking that when you read them in another writer, and they are
done well, you just know they are right. Not only because you had this thought
to yourself, but because that way of thinking seems so ineradicably human.

 You mentioned Bellow.
Who are the writers you are particularly drawn to now, people you have stuck
with?

Really, your amazing triptych, one now dead, of Bellow, Roth,
and Updike. They have been voices all the way through my writing life, from the
time I started writing. I read Portnoy’s Complaint,
Rabbit Run,
and Mr. Sammler, and there was nothing like that happening in Britain or for that matter in Europe,
so far as I could tell. It has something to do with a largeness of ambition, a
generosity of imagination, and a wicked sense of humor, particularly in Portnoy.
It comes back to that kind of realism, with that wish to engage with conditions
as they are now, to capture the city or the moment in time. We had nothing so
sparkling. So, yes, I have kept faith with those guys.

 What are your online
habits? Do you surf the web?

Well, I like Edge very
much, Arts and Letters is a great
resource for me, and then the whole slew of American magazines. I like that tradition—The New Republic, etc. I get them now quite
regularly.

 Do you read any online
reviews?

I don’t read the blogs much. I don’t like the tone-the
rather in-your-face road-rage quality of a lot of exchange on the Internet. I
don’t like the threads that come out of any given piece of journalism. It seems
that when people know they can’t be held accountable, when they don’t have eye
contact, it seems to bring out a rather nasty, truculent, aggressive edge that
I think slightly doesn’t belong in the world of book reviewing.

 I just read a quote of
yours, “Atheists have as much conscience, possibly more, than people with deep
religious convictions,” and I have noticed that recently you have been talking
a little more about atheism. You also contributed an essay to a new book called
The Portable
Atheist
. What are your thoughts on
the “New Atheist” movement, which has gotten so much publicity and sold so many
books in the last year or so. Do you think it differs from strains of atheism
in the past?

I am a little baffled as to why it is called the “New
Atheism.” There is a very long tradition of free thinking, and the arguments
made against religion tend to be the same but made over and over again. But I
think what has happened is that there have been a number of good, articulate
books--Hitchens, Dawkins, Dennett, Sam Harris, and so on. What they have
discovered to their own great surprise is that in the United States,
and right across the South too, there are an enormous number of people who also
think this way. I don’t think they have suddenly been persuaded by this rash of
books--the feelings were there anyway--but they didn’t have a voice, they
didn’t have a focus. When Hitchens took his book across
the Bible Belt and debated with Baptist ministers in churches, there were huge
audiences, most of whom, it seems, from when they spoke to him afterwards, were
somewhat irritated that the place in the United States that they lived in
was called the Bible Belt. I think there was something there that people had
not taken into account. Quite heartening really, given that America is
meant to be a secular republic with a strong tradition of upholding all freedom
of thought.

 Do you see religion as
ineradicable, or do you think there is a chance to change people’s minds on
religion?

I think it is ineradicable, and I think it is a terrible
idea to suppress it, too. We have tried that and it joins the list of political
oppression. It seems to be fairly deeply stitched into human nature. It seems
to be part of all cultures, so I don’t expect it to vanish. And yet at the same
time, if it is built into human nature, why are there so many people who don’t
believe in it? I think it is important that people with no religious beliefs
speak up and speak for what they value. It is a bit of a problem, the title
“Atheist”--no one really wants to be defined by what they do not believe in. We
haven’t yet settled on a name, but you wouldn’t expect a Baptist minister to go
around calling himself a Darwinist. But it is crucial that people who do not
have a sky god and don’t have a set of supernatural beliefs assert their belief
in moral values and in love and in the transcendence that they might experience
in landscape or art or music or sculpture or whatever. Since they do not
believe in an afterlife, it makes them give more valence to life itself. The
little spark that we do have becomes all the more valuable when you can’t be
trading off any moments for eternity.

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