Writers and Company

Ian McEwan on private lives, global events and the accidents of fortune that shape us

The acclaimed English novelist spoke with Eleanor Wachtel about the inspiration behind his latest novel Lessons.
English author Ian McEwan and Writers & Company host Eleanor Wachtel backstage at the Toronto International Festival of Authors in September of 2022. (Brian Medina)
In 2022, Ian McEwan spoke with Eleanor Wachtel about his latest novel Lessons. (Brian Medina)

Chance plays a role in all our lives.

In his latest novel, Lessons, Ian McEwan shares his own intimate background with his central character, Roland Baines. That is, until a transformative event leads the teenage Roland down a very different path from McEwan himself. From a desert army camp in Libya, to post-war Britain, to the fall of the Berlin Wall and pandemic Brexit – McEwan follows his fictional alter-ego through a lifetime marked by historical upheavals.

McEwan is one of Britain's foremost novelists, known for provocative, inventive fiction that engages with current realities and issues. His 17 novels include the Booker Prize winner Amsterdam and the hugely popular Atonement, which became an award-winning film starring Keira Knightly. Many of his other titles have also been adapted for the screen, including The Cement Garden, The Comfort of Strangers, The Innocent, Enduring Love, On Chesil Beach and The Children Act

McEwan spoke to Eleanor Wachtel onstage in September 2022 before a live audience at the Toronto International Festival of Authors.

Developing character

"I've always been interested in character.

"It's an interesting process how we get from real people to symbols on a page that generate in your mind a sense of the reality of a person. I think we've inherited an extraordinary tradition from the 19th century of the delineation of character on the page — from Jane Austen right through to Gustave Flaubert, to George Eliot, Anthony Trollope, Dickens and so on. 

I thought if we could follow and really live inside a character over an entire lifetime, then it would unpeel the whole business of character and their own sense of self — that sense of self that changes.

"I thought if we could follow and really live inside a character over an entire lifetime, then it would unpeel the whole business of character and their own sense of self — that sense of self that changes. 

A wide shot of a darkened auditorium full of people and an author and interviewer onstage.
British novelist Ian McEwan spoke with Eleanor Wachtel in front of a live audience at the 2022 Toronto International Festival of Authors. (Brian Medina)

Dreams of what could have been

"I've always been interested in the role that accidents plays in our lives. A biologist once said to me, 'If your parents had made love just two seconds later, you wouldn't be here.'

"Lessons is my most factual novel. When I had my first dreamy thoughts about this novel, I thought of the soundtrack, if I could just call it that, as a metaphor of the way that large-scale global events or international crises, big events, penetrate our lives and interrupt them. Maybe even throw them on another course. And even if we're not news junkies, they can shape the quality of cultural and political optimism or pessimism that's in the air.

"So my first thought about this novel was, 'What if I just wove together all the events in my life into the life of a fictional character who's a sort of alter-ego — the life I could have lived had I left school at 16?'"

Finding understanding

"My father was injured in Dunkirk and no longer fit for combat, so he was in a small garrison town in the south of England. There he met my mother, who at that time was married and her husband was away fighting in the war. My mother already had two children and she conceived a child by the man who would one day be my father.

"So she gave a baby away in the company of her sister on Reading Station. And 60-odd years later, that baby turned up in our lives — my full brother.

"That secret then allowed a filling out of my understanding of the sorrow that hung around my mother."

A grainy black and white photo of a white woman with dark hair. Her infant daughter is on her left and her toddler son is on her right.
British novelist Ian McEwan's mother circa 1940 with his siblings Margy, left, and Jim, right. (Submitted by Ian McEwan)

A fading image

"In a box, in my study gathering dust, is an old brown envelope with some black-and-white photos. In it is a picture of my mother, taken in 1940, and almost certainly taken for her then husband to take with him off to the war in North Africa.

"On either side of her she has a two-year-old and a four-year-old sitting close by her. She's got long black hair and she has a very direct, confident gaze, straight to the camera. Very beautiful, upright and she has a real sense of resilience about her.

"I never knew that woman at all. That woman disappeared on Reading Station when she gave a baby away. In a sense, writing the novel was my discovery of her."

BONUS | Ian McEwan reflects on his father's opinion of his writing career

Acclaimed British novelist Ian McEwan tells Eleanor Wachtel about his father's support of his writing career.

Life-altering events

Purple orange and pink book cover featuring a schoolboy sitting and playing a piano.

"For Roland in Lessons, the Cuban Missile Crisis is about the sense that the world might end and he's still a virgin. It leads to a set of circumstances that one could see as highly destructive for him because he, at the age of 14, begins an affair with his piano teacher. It lasts two years and it doesn't destroy him, but it deflects him.

"His life goes off on another tangent.

"There's lots of things about that relationship. First of all, I wanted an event that would project across a lifetime. I already had in mind that he would confront her one day. I didn't know what was going to happen there, but I also knew that I was writing a fairly long novel. And keeping these stories alive right into his 70s was crucial.

"It's a formative event. It's very, very intense. One of its important features is that Roland believes that he is the one with the agency. But in fact, he's already been groomed at the age of 11, three years before. His mind has already been, as it were, shaped by her.

"For a long time, he runs from it. He doesn't think about it, or he manages to somehow suppress it, and then it begins to disrupt his relationships with friends and with women."

A life in retrospect

"I think the backward look is something that's in all our lives. I think the pandemic forced that kind of reflection on who we are, how we got there, what our childhoods were like, what our parents were like — did they love us enough or too much — and so on. 

For all of us, there are certain darker moments that, inevitably, will haunt us.

"For all of us, there are certain darker moments that, inevitably, will haunt us. What interests me is the way we write or rewrite them in our minds. They do not look the same to you when you're 30 as when you're 60.

"If you become a parent, you might become just a little more forgiving of your own parents and there might be certain episodes in your life that cast long shadows, just as there are events that cast a great deal of light. But they look different over time, and I think, just as you'll die and still have socks that don't match in your sock drawer, you will not have sorted out your life.

It will still be an ongoing work in progress."

Ian McEwan's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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