Interview: Ian McEwan, author

Try as I might, there’s a question I can’t get out of my head while I’m talking to Ian McEwan, and it’s the simplest question there is. Once, after he had given a reading in Dublin, a young girl in the audience asked him it. “What is it like,” she inquired, “being you?”

Try as I might, there’s a question I can’t get out of my head while I’m talking to Ian McEwan, and it’s the simplest question there is. Once, after he had given a reading in Dublin, a young girl in the audience asked him it. “What is it like,” she inquired, “being you?”

The audience laughed. He didn’t. It was, he reassured her, an excellent question, what every novelist asks about other people. Even though I wasn’t there, I can imagine him saying that, because in person he is every bit as unassuming and considerate as that answer suggests. And though my own questions about his latest, hugely enjoyable novel, Sweet Tooth – arguably his cleverest and certainly his most autobiographical – are framed rather differently, what I want to find out is similar to what the girl in Dublin did: not what is it like being him now, but what was it like to be him in the 1970s.

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He is sitting sideways on to me at the boardroom table of his London publisher’s, greying hair and eyebrows framing a soft-featured, slightly feline face. If you mistake his prose style for his personality, you might expect a certain sharp, clinical coldness. Instead, although there is a watchful precision about his answers, he is charm personified.

Finding out about McEwan in the 1970s, of course, means briefly setting aside his greatest achievements – novels like Atonement, Enduring Love, On Chesil Beach or his 1998 Man Booker winner, Amsterdam, books that sold in their hundreds of thousands, some of them turned into films and all of them adding up to make him, in the words of a 2009 New Yorker profile, “England’s National Author”. In the early 1970s, all of that lay ahead: instead of being contemporary fiction’s eminence grise he was still its emerging enfant terrible.

Sweet Tooth is set in 1972, when the cultural Cold War was still raging: only five years previously Stephen Spender had resigned as editor of the intellectual journal Encounter after revelations that it was funded by the CIA. In the novel, a low-grade MI5 officer, Serena Frome, is asked by her bosses to check out whether they should fund the work of Tom Haley, a promising young writer. What follows is an engrossing story about their relationship, about betrayal, and – fascinatingly – about the writing process itself. Daringly, it betrays readers’ expectations too, with a coup de theatre of a last chapter that will send most straight back to the beginning.

Whenever he is writing a novel, McEwan explains, he never draws up a plot diagrammatically or in any other outline form, but for each one he keeps a notebook in which he writes down relevant facts, odd snatches of dialogue and ideas that might find their way into the book. Alongside that, he keeps a green ring-bound A4 notebook full of plot ideas, some of which have turned out to be the first flickerings of novels, but most of which are the abandoned husks of ones he couldn’t face living with for the three years they would take to write.

“For years, I had thought about the cultural Cold War, where – as with the Encounter controversy – intelligence agencies realised that the best people to fight it for them were the anti-Communist Left. I also had a note about a man who writes a novel to get a woman out of his system and ends up falling in love with her even more. I didn’t think that had anything to do with the first idea, but they turned out to converge.”

After finishing his climate change comedy Solar, he hadn’t a clue what to write next. That’s where the green ring-bound A4 file came in. “I thought this is a way in which I can write a disguised autobiography.”

Because he doesn’t plan his novels – “it’s like being a painter: everything happens in the actual doing” – their beginnings matter disproportionately, and he spends a lot of time getting the tone right: whole months pass in reworking the first 5,000 words. For Sweet Tooth, he knew he had to start with Serena, a bishop’s daughter and young Cambridge maths graduate who is a compulsive reader of novels and who passes an interview to work for MI5.

Normally he hates writing in the first person – “I’ve always felt it’s a bit of a cop-out” – but here he realised he had no choice. He could, however, at least rein back Serena from always writing about her feelings, instead immersing her in her new job, which turns out to consist largely of boring secretarial work in an organisation still dominated by men, with all hints of excitement firmly offstage. He could, too, always try to indicate that hers wasn’t the only voice that counted, and that something else was lurking even within her own narrative.

McEwan has long admired John le Carré’s novels – in the acknowledgements he thanks him for his “irresistible reminiscences” – but Sweet Tooth is unashamedly smaller-scale and more personal. “Yet aren’t all novels spy novels?” he asks. “They should all be about deception and the first person you want to deceive is the reader. Aren’t they also about the office life, about the intrigues, hierarchies and procedures? And what was MI5 back then but a towering Kafkaesque cascade of paper?”

Serena’s first mission, we are told in the opening paragraph – if we are not being deceived, that is – was a failure. It’s 40 years on and she is looking back on Sweet Tooth, the code name for an operation in which a handful of writers who have already shown a willingness to criticise Communist regimes are to be funded by a front organisation. Because she is such an avid reader of fiction, she is given the job of approaching Tom Haley, an English academic at Sussex, and assessing his suitability for a covert grant that would allow him to write his first novel.

“What I wanted to do was to reflect at length on the way that she could lie consistently without being truly wicked,” he explains. “I wanted to coax the reader to staying on her side.” That’s why, he adds, the book opens with an epigraph from Timothy Garton-Ash’s 1997 book The File, in which he confronted the various neighbours, friends and indeed lovers who had informed on him to the Stasi when he was a student in East Germany nearly two decades earlier. “If only I had met, on this search, a single clearly evil person,” Garton Ash wrote.

On a personal level, McEwan has had his own experiences of deception. “I used to be bothered by diary writers – especially from the Evening Standard, though I think it has changed now. They used to have young bright things down from Oxford who would write the most despicable things that they knew weren’t true, just to please their masters – and I suppose to rise to within the paper. They’d meet you at parties, would tell you who they were. Probably at heart they were decent people.” Literary journalists are a lot more straightforward, he adds, eyes crinkling into a smile behind his rimless glasses. (Of course they are: he’s married to one of them).

So Serena Frome goes down to Sussex to interview Tom Haley. He has already written essays criticising the East German repression of the 1953 rising and about the failure of West German intellectuals to write about the Berlin Wall. There are also, her bosses tell her, a few stories he has already published in magazines such as the New American Review, and she should read them. If they are good, MI5 funding might allow him to write his first novel; that in turn could make him influential in the battle of ideas. That’s what we need, she is told, a good writer – with luck, even a prize-winning one – who is sound on the Soviet Union. A role model. Someone we can count on.

It’s at this point that McEwan really starts to have fun with his readers, slicing and dicing his own fiction, published and unpublished – and, intriguingly, dragging in some of those exoskeletons of unwritten novels from that green ring-file notebook. These are the stories Serena is starting to read as she heads down to Sussex to interview him, but they are not at all like the ones she is used to: for all the width of her reading, Serena is a traditionalist. “All I wanted was my own world and myself in it, given back to me in artful shapes and accessible forms.”

Haley’s work, however – just like McEwan’s in the early 1970s – is almost the antithesis of that: here are stories about millionaires falling in love with and murdering a mannequin; about an atheist Labour MP who stands in for his sick clergyman twin and gives a sermon on love; a story about a teacher who catches out his wife in an unpardonable deceit that only intensifies his desire. A version of the mannequin story appeared in McEwan’s second short story collection Between the Sheets in 1978. The story about the atheist preacher was an idea he was toying with four years ago. The one about the teacher “is one I would have liked to have written in the 1970s”. Even the novel Haley finally writes thanks to the covert MI5 funding turns out to be a post-apocalyptic dystopia – and the extracts she reads are quoted word for word from a JG Ballard-influenced novel McEwan abandoned in the 1970s.

So to what extent are you Tom Haley? I ask. The question is as simple as that of the girl in the Dublin audience , yet it could fuel scores of PhD theses in McEwan studies (which is, incidentally, almost a separate category in literary criticism: there are at least two dozen books analysing his work). “A fair bit,” he admits.

Confession time. It is a weakness of interviewers (me anyway), rather than critics and academics, that we are intrigued by such an answer. To us, it’s catnip. We are fascinated, just as Serena is, by that overlay – no matter how tangential – between the writer and the work. We always overemphasise it. So it is important to stress that McEwan’s novel isn’t a self-indulgent mash-up of his early work but one of his finest novels and one that, in his own judgment, turned out even better than he had imagined.

Unlike his earliest novels, it is firmly and specifically rooted in time, and its plot isn’t there just to shock: Serena’s job, for example, might be engagingly 
humdrum (itself an engaging subversion of the traditional spy novel) but she has already had a passionate affair with Tony Canning, a worldly Cambridge tutor whose secrets lie even deeper. All the time, too, there are trails that lead into the (with hindsight, fervid and violent) politics of the Seventies, along with entirely plausible paths that lead Serena to suspect 
the motives of her colleagues. This is a richly textured novel, and I am now only going to look at one tiny aspect of it – the extent to which it reflects McEwan’s own life.

Let’s start by joining Serena on that first visit to Tom Haley at Sussex: a Cambridge graduate, she is quite sniffy about the campus, then only a decade old. Most interviews with him emphasise his subsequent postgraduate year at the University of East Anglia, when he was taught by Malcolm Bradbury and Angus Wilson. In reality, he says, it was Sussex that opened his mind to European fiction in a way that a hidebound Oxbridge English course probably wouldn’t have done. “It is only now,” he says, “that I realise what a good education I got at Sussex. It wasn’t just Kafka but Thomas Mann. It was quantum mechanics as well as a bit of contemporary art history from Quentin Bell and some serious academic philosophy. It was an intellectually vibrant place.

“I didn’t write anything that was any good while I was at Sussex. I wrote a film adaptation of a Thomas Mann short story and a play about a character who knew he was in a play but all the other characters didn’t. He was the messiah come to tell them that they were all in a play and it would soon be over.” He smiles apologetically at the mention of such obvious juvenalia. The first key turning point in his writing career was not, however, too far away.

“At UEA, I wrote a story called “Home Made” about a boy who longs to lose his virginity and who practises on his sister. Malcolm Bradbury wrote me a little note about that, which made me glow. There was no mention about how terrible incest was, he just said something like, ‘There are touches of comic genius in this story and I really love it.’” He sent it to Ted Solotaroff, editor of the New American Review – at the time widely held to be the world’s finest literary magazine, and as we have already noted, one which Tom Haley also contributed a short story.

After his year at Norwich – where the country cottage of Serena’s lover Tony Canning is a detailed recreation of the one belonging to his tutor and friend Angus Wilson – McEwan headed out with friends in a psychedelically painted campervan on the hippie trail to Afghanistan. “I was 22 and although I was well aware of all the crises in British politics, I really didn’t care about any of that. I had two pairs of jeans, five shirts lived in rented accommodation and had no children. I had no stake in the edifice at all. If it collapsed, I’d just get a backpack and head off.”

In 1972, the year Serena is being signed up by MI5, he returned from Afghanistan bored with hippie culture. He cut his long hair short, though he didn’t really need to do so for a job. “I just wanted to write. My [Glasgow-born army major] father’s work ethic prevailed. I didn’t want to hear any more stories about dope, and I put a bit of that in this novel. I remember thinking that whereas our generation were always talking about the size of a joint, my parents’ generation were talking about fighting the Second World War. What a frivolous bunch we were …”

Frivolous, perhaps, but when he returned to Britain from the hippie trail, there waiting for him was his second story in New American Review, his name right there on the cover alongside Susan Sontag and Philip Roth. With that, and the stories in First Love, Last Rites, which won the Somerset Maugham Award in 1975, he had already started to carve out a reputation as the shocking, dark writer of a new generation.

Tom Haley, too, was a rising star, his post-apocalyptic novel From The Somerset Levels winning the Jane Austen prize. Tom Maschler signed him up at Cape, as he did McEwan. Haley started to hang out with Ian Hamilton and the New Left Review crowd at the Pillar of Hercules pub in Soho – again, as did McEwan. At one stage, Haley goes to Cambridge to give a reading alongside that other “new generation” stylist Martin Amis, who went on first and gave a brilliant reading from The Rachael Papers, while Haley’s own reading falls depressingly flat.

“That was a true experience, except it was ten years later, and in New York, and Martin was reading from one of his 1980s novels. Christopher Hitchens was the compere, Martin had gone down a storm, with people still rolling about in their seats. I was about to go on when Hitch put his hand on my shoulder. ‘Don’t go on,’ he said. ‘I’ve got to talk them down. They’re not going to listen to you.’ And he went onstage and extemporised on literature and darkness and got the seriousness back into the whole thing, so actually it all went extremely well. But I could easily imagine it otherwise, as it is in the novel.”

By now McEwan, with his cold, unshowy style and with subjects such as sadism, castration and paedophilia in First Love, Last Rites, is well on his way to that “Ian Macabre” tag that dogged his early work.

“I always thought that being a novelist was to embrace a mental freedom. That’s probably why those stories were so weird and dark, because I thought I had the freedom to do that, so I was taken aback by the reaction to them.”

There is, he concedes, a huge gap between those novels, when he was wanting to subvert the pokey, grey world of British fiction in stories that were essentially rootless in both time and place, and his later work.

From Atonement (2001) onwards, there hasn’t been a McEwan novel that isn’t clearly grounded in time – the present for both Saturday (2005) and Solar (2010) and a still-repressed 1963 for On Chesil Beach. With Sweet Tooth, he takes us back to the beginning, in a plot that constantly makes the reader wonder to what extent the fiction can be taken as a key that unlocks our understanding of any author’s mind. These are, after all, just stories – but is a story just a story? If we read it are we spying into what its creator really thinks, the core of their personality? Or is the writer deceiving us, a spy himself who knows all the tricks that make us think he is telling us the truth?

In decades to come – say another 40 years – in whatever university library has bought Ian McEwan’s archive, future academics will pore over that green ring-bound A4 notebook and piece together its contents and do their best to try to answer questions like that. They will read the ideas that never made it into his fiction and they will analyse the ones that did. They’ll have a field day with Sweet Tooth, working out how Tom Haley was different from his creator. But at the end, they’ll still be stuck answering the question the girl in the Dublin audience asked McEwan. What was it really like, being him?

• Sweet Tooth is published by Jonathan Cape next week, price £18.99. He is at the Edinburgh book festival on 22 and 23 August.