Interview: Ian McEwan

Nicola Venning

The Booker prize-winning author on his career, growing up in the Sixties, and the upcoming film adapation of his novella, On Chesil Beach.

Sex was tricky in 1962. The Sixties weren’t yet swinging and it was a buttoned up, repressive time. It was therefore, the perfect era for On Chesil Beach, a new film about two newlyweds whose marriage very quickly goes wrong once they step into the bedroom.

“Because it’s set in 1962, it (the story) gathered implications about urban and social attitudes to sex, affection and emotional truthfulness and so on,” says Ian McEwan, who adapted the screenplay from his 2007 Booker shortlisted-novel.

The 69-year-old author, dressed in a slightly rumpled suit, is chatting to me affably over a coffee. “There was a lot of hypocrisy and a lot of misogyny and it was very difficult for young people to even begin to talk frankly to one another. It was very difficult to be emotionally truthful”, he says adding that the film also has an additional relevance for today’s audience. “We never thought of this until it was on us, but it is also trying to point out that those who would campaign for Brexit, see the Fifties and Sixties as a golden age, when it wasn’t”.

On Chesil Beach is about two sexual innocents in an uptight and snobbish world: earthy, brooding working class Edward Mayhew played by Billy Howle (who made his mark in Dunkirk and starred in the TV series Witness for The Prosecution) and repressed, middle-class Florence Ponting, played by a luminous Saoirse Ronan (of Brooklyn and Lady Bird fame). “I think she has this lambent beauty and then she can just turn her head and become the girl next door”, says McEwan.


Image via Urszula Soltys

Through a series of flashbacks, the film looks at how the couple fall in love, explores their backgrounds and emotional baggage, and the devastating consequences this has for them on the first night of their honeymoon.

"There was a lot of hypocrisy and a lot of misogyny and it was very difficult for young people to even begin to talk frankly to one another"

Born shortly after the Second World War, from a working-class family, McEwan knows a thing or two about hypocrisy and the heart-breaking effects of social conformity.

In 2002, McEwan discovered he had a brother, David who had reluctantly been given up for adoption by his mother after an affair during the Second World War. When her husband died, she married her lover, David McEwan and Ian was born a few years later.

From a military family, McEwan grew up in North Africa before being sent to a secondary grammar and boarding school Woolverstone Hall, in Suffolk, when he was 11. By all accounts it was a lonely time which McEwan gradually turned to his advantage by becoming a complete bookworm. It was “through being a reader” that he decided to become a writer, he says.

“It really started for me in my last year or two at university. I was beginning to realise that this was a conversation that anyone could join, so I began to pipe up. Also, back then in 1968/1969, I really didn’t want a job”.

Not having “a job” has worked out rather well. Five years after starting to write “properly”, McEwan’s first book First Love, Last Rites was published, winning the Somerset Maugham Award. Ten years later, after interspersing writing with journalism, he was able to support himself entirely by writing fiction. Several novels followed, including, in no particular order, the Man Booker prize- winning Amsterdam (1988), Nutshell, Saturday, and the critically acclaimed Atonement, which was turned into an equally acclaimed film starring Keira Knightley and James McAvoy. “No other novel of mine has done as remotely as well as Atonement,” says McEwan. “That peak really stands out in 2001.”


Image via Urszula Soltys

And yet for all his success there are professional concerns. In the era of Netflix and Amazon, book sales in general are falling and even best-selling authors such as McEwan are not immune. The sale of his novels have dropped, he believes, by between 20 and 30 per cent.

“I don’t really understand what is happening. Certainly when you go to literary festivals, they are packed with people wanting conversations with writers about literature. Maybe it will shrink to a niche concern that it always was. It’s never been overwhelming, even in Dickens’s time,” he shrugs. “We might have to take our holidays in Britain rather than abroad, but I am alright with that”, he smiles.

McEwan is rather fond of the English countryside. He’s a keen hiker (the southern Chilterns have been a favourite haunt for more than 40 years, as well as far flung destinations such as Slovenia and the Pyrenees) and although he has a flat in London, his main home is in the Cotswolds. There’s nothing he likes more, you suspect, than holing up in his gracious honey-coloured manor and writing.

“As I was leaving my study this morning, I glanced towards my desk and I saw spread out my A4 notebook and all the notes I made yesterday evening and then the computer sitting there, and I thought, oh, I want to go there. But I’ve got to go out. Got to do some interviews. However, it did make me remember what a privilege it is not to have an office and a boss and all those politics.”

He lives with his second wife, the novelist and former journalist Annalena McAfee. “She loved journalism but she would come home with the most horrific stories of people’s behaviour and byzantine office politics,” says McEwan. Did he ever miss office gossip? “Oh yes,” comes the swift reply. So much so in fact, that McEwan “locked on” to what he was hearing “and got a novel out of it: Amsterdam (which went on to win the 1998 Booker prize). So I did get a bit of office envy”. Writers, it seems, never stop working. McEwan nods genially. “We are quite parasitic.”

On Chesil Beach is in UK cinemas from May 18