On writing: authors reveal the secrets of their craft
How do you set about writing a novel? What inspires a poem? Pencil or computer? Pain or pleasure? Listen in to interviews with some of our most celebrated writers recorded for the British Library. 'I always felt something of an outsider' ... Ian McEwan on the writing life. Photograph by Alfred Eriss/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images
What is it that makes a writer?
Ian McEwan: Ancestors, distant relatives and the past really were not part of my sense of family as I grew up. Something of my father's exile from Scotland – self-exile really – and then exile from Great Britain, has rubbed off on me and probably affected the way I write. When I started writing, I didn't feel that I was quite part of the English literary world or its systems of class or whatever – I always felt something of an outsider in it. That's faded over the years, but I think it has made quite an impression on me, this sense of not being deeply connected to all the branches and roots of family. I could make a narrative of my writing which goes something like this: that I began as a kind of existential writer, much more interested in casting characters almost, as it were, outside of history and outside of identifiable places, and as the years have gone by I've become perhaps a more traditional writer, or at least a writer much more aware – consciously, expressively aware – of the traditions of the English novel, the treasures that are laid up for us by the great 19th-century expositors of character and psychology. And so the gap between my early short stories and a novel like Atonement, with its country house – a novel that looks partly back over its shoulder towards Jane Austen, but also back towards the hallowed traditions of Agatha Christie and crime novels, in that you set up a scene, you have a stranger arrive and everything follows from that. So there's an enormous gap from Atonement to the earliest short stories with their very dispossessed, alienated characters who are living in a city with no name, often in a time that's not fixed.
Listen to Ian McEwan