An Act of the Imagination

Excerpts from an interview with Ian McEwan from The Kenyon Review (Summer 2007):

Ian McEwan "I write to find where I'm going. But sometimes a scheme doesn't emerge very rapidly in the early part of writing, sometimes in the first five or ten thousand words. Sometimes I just blunder into a novel and start out thinking I'm doing one thing that I had asked myself to do in a note ten years before and end up doing another thing that I had asked myself in a not three years before. Sometimes I have to trick myself into doing things. But I do see writing, the actual physical matter of writing, as an act of imagination. And the best days, the best mornings are the ones in which forcing down a sentence might generate a surprise. A combination of ideas, or simply a noun meeting an adjective that suddenly gives me pleasure. Whole characters have sometimes emerged for me simply out of a sentence. Not out of the need to describe a character, but the need to make this kind of pattern on the page. And then I've gone on to build on that and found myself again pleased that something has come up, a little serendipity that's taken me in the direction."


"I like writers generally, and Nabokov is another who is supreme in this respect, who recognize that forty percent of the brain's processing is given over to the visual, and the visual region projects deep into other parts of the brain, of language and emotion. We are visual creatures and the novel, more than cinema, for me is ultimately a visual medium."


"But as for readers, readers are too diverse and the thing we all learn about contemporary literature is that there are no standards; there are no common standards of taste. You can get two perfectly intelligent, widely read people in the room who've read the same book, and one thinks it's a disgrace from one end to the other, and the other thinks it's a masterpiece. How is it that we don't have a common view of what even constitutes a good sentence? There's nothing, our feet can't touch the ground on this, and it's no good to try and sort it out by voting--these sorts of lists that you get in newspapers...Maybe the lists are our desperate plea for some certainty; given that we just don't know what a good book is or we can't agree on what a good book is...How is it we have not taught ourselves in university courses the elements of a good book? is impossible to constitute a reader in your head, except a strange, skeptical, critical, unimpressed one that I have who makes me take things out, generally. It's not about putting things in; it really makes me take things out."