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?
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.