First love, last writes

FOR A man with a big reputation, Ian McEwan makes a small entrance.

In this room at the top of a Soho club, a conversation with its own rhythm develops. McEwan’s speech beats with a pulse that makes your own heartbeat slow to match it. It digresses into long corridors of thought, quiet corners of droll humour. Indeed, there is often the feeling at the start of his sentences that you’re going on a journey that will not necessarily end with a destination. But it will be an interesting journey. Behind the uhms, ahs and pauses is a certain knowledge that the digression is a sign not of lost thought, but of deep thought.

McEwan is one of the most admired British writers alive. He has won countless awards for his fiction, including the Booker prize for Amsterdam. Many of his books have been made into films, including The Cement Garden, First Love, Last Rites, The Comfort of Strangers and last year’s Enduring Love, which starred Daniel Craig and Samantha Morton. His last novel, Atonement, is regarded by many as his masterpiece. His new book, Saturday, which follows the thoughts of neurosurgeon Henry Perowne over the course of a single day, is published this week. And yet the literary giant confesses himself to be a pygmy in his relationship with language.

If critics think his style cool and clinical, it is because the words were hewn painfully, chip by chip, from granite. "My own wariness of language was very much drawn from my mother. She always had a weird, problematic relationship with language. She mispronounced things, she got the wrong end of the stick, hilariously, and although I shook it all off in a way, or thought I did, something remained. A wariness. I could never quite trust language, because I thought it might not do what I wanted it to do."

His mother, who was from a large, working-class family of Irish descent, left school at 14. His father did too. "It always seems like a sort of wasted generation, these people," says McEwan. His father was highly intelligent, but had to abandon a school scholarship to earn a wage. "He was a hard-working, fairly hard-drinking, working-class Glaswegian Protestant."

The formative influence on his father was walking the banks of the Clyde, looking for work in the shipyards, and hearing men outbid one another for how little they would work for. "The foreman would come out and say, ‘I’ve got a job and the hourly rate is four shillings,’" explains McEwan, "and a man would say, ‘I’ll do it for three...’"

Later, his father rose through the ranks in the army, but he never forgot. "Even though my father became an officer, he was a very staunch Labour man. He felt people had forgotten the pre-Welfare State nature of life. He got into terrible rows with fellow officers, who were automatically Tory voters."

But his son was a source of pride. "My father used to say to me that if someone had told him in 1940 he would have a son who would go to university, he’d never have believed it. I was such a beneficiary of the Welfare State. I had all the things my parents didn’t, that I would not have had if there hadn’t been these changes."

There was tension, though, between his father’s pride and his unease about the content of the books. In his early work, McEwan’s writing was about lifting the stone and watching the beetles crawl. It contained the dark, the gruesome, the macabre. "It was quite amusing, because my first books were not the kind of thing officers in the mess would be reading. But he plumped very energetically just to be proud, and to hell with it. I could tell by the glazed looks when he introduced me to colleagues in the officers’ mess that he had probably pressed First Love, Last Rites on these guys, and that they’d thought, ‘Christ!’"

His father was a drinker and sometimes violent. "I think he was frustrated by a lack of education. He was always a bit restless and bored. In arguments, he would become very impatient if whoever he was talking to didn’t see it entirely his way. He would get furious."

McEwan’s own manner is so temperate, one wonders if it is a kickback against his father. "I’m more like my mother. I think we were both frightened by my father. He was quite domineering. But he was also very loving to me."

As a child, McEwan was a daydreamer. He moved around a lot with his father’s job, and a rootlessness developed that still remains. Books were not part of his house, but he and his half-brother and sister (his mother’s first husband had been killed in the D-Day landings) were encouraged to go to the library every week. McEwan loved children’s books in which parents were absent, and it was to become a theme in his own work. "I remember as a child constantly daydreaming that my parents would somehow painlessly melt away. Nothing horrible would happen to them - I didn’t want them dead. I just wanted the ground cleared, you know, so that I could get on. I would face the world alone. I could see that nothing was going to happen as long as I remained a child. My first book, The Cement Garden, was about precisely that: absent adults."

Perhaps the distance between McEwan and his parents was more than simply that of adult and child; in later years he wrote movingly of the conversational gulf between him and his mother, and there is a constant sense not of estrangement, but of separate worlds. Sent to boarding school in Suffolk while his parents were in Africa, he simply withdrew into himself. "I didn’t weep; I just clammed up for four or five years."

Although his recent books contain dark elements, his writing has become more diverse. Does that reflect changes in him? "I think my writing up to now has been a slow absorption of all my thought and feeling. I came to near crisis point after finishing The Comfort of Strangers. I felt I’d really written myself into a hole. Everything I had written was so dark, and though it represented a certain strand of my thought, there were so many other things that I did, or enjoyed, or thought about. The first books represented a fraction of what I was thinking about at the time. They were not all of me, but I didn’t know how to draw on the rest of me."

Saturday contains more of his life than any other novel. The events take place on a real day - the day of the London marches against the Iraq war. "I wanted to capture the present, to get what would be in the mind of a reasonably educated person in early 2003. So it’s 9/11, it’s Iraq, but it’s also a game of squash, making fish stew. If this novel were to be read in 300 years’ time, if there’s anyone left to do anything, they would have a sense of a slice of existence."

Henry rows with his daughter, Daisy, about the war. It was, says McEwan, the conversation he had within himself. "I was very torn by it, so she represents one bit of me and Henry represents some other bit. It was like two voices in my head."

Did he resolve the voices? "I think time has certainly resolved it in Daisy’s favour. I keep thinking if Tony Blair or George Bush had some genie appear at their bedside out of a bottle of aspirin that said, ‘You can press the rewind button. No one will ever know. All you have to do is press,’ it’s inconceivable that they wouldn’t seize the chance."

Henry and McEwan also share a spiritual outlook. "Henry doesn’t take a religious view. He doesn’t believe in the soul or the spirit." But does McEwan? "No," he says dismissively. "Part of the project of this book is to give such a view not coldness, but warmth. I think there’s great richness in an atheistic view, richer and warmer than any religion could provide. The idea that we have to take responsibility for this brief spark makes it all the more precious, to my mind. So, you ask me what I share with Henry; I share the view that one must take responsibility; that those ideas that Christianity tries to nab for itself, like love or forgiveness, don’t have to proceed from God. They can proceed from the human heart."

He gets uneasy about religious extremism. Essentially, he doesn’t even believe in faith. He talks to Annalena, his second wife, a lot about this. "We go to funerals. Why are the believers sobbing? What’s the problem if they think that the dead have just gone on ahead, as if on a cruise, and that they’ll be joining them in a couple of years? It doesn’t really add up."

But even if you think a person’s soul survives, there is still loss and separation. McEwan disagrees. "We cry because in our hearts we know oblivion waits for us."

Sometimes it waits for us on earth. Lily, Henry’s mother, has neuro-degenerative disease and is based on McEwan’s own mother, Rose. Henry’s sense of love and duty keep him visiting, despite his mother not recognising him, but he feels relief leaving her world and re-entering his own - a bit like McEwan himself. How would he describe his mother? "Physically small and very pretty, a slight, light-boned, nervous, worrying, insomniac person. Part of that class and generation of women who really just gave themselves to housework, totally, completely." And yet Rose had her own skills and ambitions. She won medals for shooting. "The hand that could knit a jumper in two evenings, and thread a needle, could fire a gun."

When McEwan’s father took a retired officer’s job in Germany, Rose was offered a job as librarian. Her husband turned it down on her behalf. "I guess it was no more than 1,000 rather beat-up paperbacks for the troops to read. But she really wanted the job. When I arrived and heard, we had a huge row. There was me, with my hair past my shoulders, 1973, saying, ‘This is a terrible attitude,’ and ‘She has got nothing to do and she’s going crazy.’ Anyway, 18 months later, the job came round again and she did it. And then he was proud of her doing it."

Rose died a year ago. "Her mind was a shell. There was nothing. She didn’t know who she was. She didn’t know anything at all." He could not, he thinks, have written about her when she was still alive. One of his American heroes, Saul Bellow, wrote extensively about his own life, including his divorce. "I don’t think I could do that," he muses.

There would be plenty of material. When his first marriage, to Penny Allen, broke up (she became a spiritual healer, which suggests a certain incompatibility), they shared custody of their two sons. But then Allen went on the run in France with one of the boys. McEwan was later given sole custody. He is still close to his stepdaughters from Allen’s previous relationship, and never talks publicly about those times. "I was very involved with my children. I guess one of the spin-offs of the 1970s women’s movement, and the general shift in the way men and women behave towards each other, was that men were drawn, sometimes against their will, into more involvement with their children. As a result, divorce is messier."

He avoided the guilt trap. "I think what happens to a lot of men is that they form new relationships, have more children, and then it becomes just too painful or guilt-ridden or brings them back into conflict with their previous partner. Like many tasks that are associated with guilt, you avoid them. To give you a banal example, I keep a journal. When I don’t write in it, I feel guilty about it and then do it even less. I think that men who lose touch with their children feel bad about it, and that makes those children all the more painful to approach."

He met his second wife, the journalist Annalena McAfee, when she interviewed him, although it was some time later that they got together. In Saturday, there is something about the sensuous descriptions of physical contentment Henry experiences with his wife, Rosalind, the animal comfort he experiences in waking next to the warmth of her, that suggests McEwan himself is not too deeply hidden there. He is also, perhaps, somewhere in the tenderness with which Henry describes his children. "I have given Henry all sorts of bits and pieces of my life, including a certain amount of private happiness," he acknowledges.

Novel-writing, though, gives away more than you control. "I think it was Kingsley Amis who said no one can write 250 words of prose without revealing something about themselves. That is why it is impossible to say to someone, ‘Don’t take this personally, but your novel is crap. You’re a nice guy, but your novel doesn’t work.’ It’s a great chunk of self that gets systematically laid out."

Does that make him feel vulnerable? "I think novelists have to develop a kind of shell. You have to have a degree of self-belief that protects you, otherwise it would be impossible." Will he care if the critics hate Saturday? He smiles. "It is easy to say no at the moment. Ask me next month."

Surprisingly (and the critics might criticise this), the man known for darkness has turned his entire plot on the most romantic of notions. Henry and his family are threatened by Baxter, an assailant with a knife, in their own home. Baxter has Huntington’s disease (as a neurosurgeon, Henry spots the signs) and suffers extreme mood swings. But he is so moved by the words of a poem Henry’s daughter recites that it leads to him being overcome, and the danger passes.

However wary McEwan’s relationship with language is, only a man who believes in the power of words could consider such an extraordinary notion. Writing is an instinct that continually draws him. "There is a period after finishing a novel when I feel a curious kind of emptiness and ignorance. I feel like I don’t know anything any more. I open up the London Review of Books and see various friends writing and think, ‘God, they know so much. I know nothing.’ There’s a period when I just want to absorb things, read things and travel a bit. But then sooner or later I’ll feel I’m not fully alive unless I’m writing again. Nor am I free."

It’s a mental freedom, a spaciousness, that he misses. He never feels constrained by writing? "It does sometimes feel like a burden. But there is, somewhere, lurking behind it, a kind of... if not the feeling of freedom, the pursuit of freedom." And he no longer fears blank pages. "They don’t make me happy, but I can face blank pages. I now accept them as part of the process. I sit and wait. I sat and waited a year, 14 months, before starting Atonement." But did he know what he would be writing about? "No idea at all. I just blundered into it, but once I began to see how I would be free in the material, I was very happy."

Then he experienced what he believes many writers do. "You are carrying something around in your head and it feels like 40 dinner plates on a stick, and you are terrified you are going to do the artistic equivalent of sneeze. Or I worry that I will step out on the road and get killed before I finish, but I won’t mind after I finish. Of course, once you finish you do mind. But it’s just a feeling that until you get it down, it’s very fragile."

He loves being a novelist, though. His subject is all of life and experience. "It’s always a relief to get back to playing God, to dictating all the conditions." Perhaps this explains his serenity. McEwan has the same life crises as anyone else, but he spends much of his time in a world where he dictates the gales and floods rather than falling victim to them. But it is a created world.

Wouldn’t he like to be something useful - a neurosurgeon, like Henry? He shakes his head. "Henry, in his moments of anxiety, thinks that there must be more to life than saving lives. I think he’s right."

• Ian McEwan is appearing at the Glasgow Literature Festival on February 26 (0854 330 3501)