POSTED ON DECEMBER 1, 2010:
Author McEwan honored with Helmerich Award
No Need to Atone. “For my first three books, it didn’t even occur to me to ask how many were sold,” he said. “I guess I would have considered it vulgar. Reviews in certain papers were what you cared about.”
Barely into his teens, Ian McEwan had his first experience with a book that would leave a lasting impression on him.
The novel was "The Go-Between" by L.P. Hartley, published in London in 1953. Its main character is an elderly man who rediscovers an old diary and uncovers long-buried memories about a scorching summer he spent at a home in the country when he was just 13. The book derives its title from the boy's role as the unwitting accomplice to an illicit relationship between the daughter of his host family and a nearby tenant farmer.
"I suppose that novel about a boy out of his depth was important to me because, 35 years later, it helped inform my novel 'Atonement,' " he said. "It was a point of contact."
The similarities between the two works -- each relies heavily on such themes as class distinction, loss of innocence and repressed memories, to name but a few -- are unmistakable, though "Atonement" ultimately became much better known. The 2002 novel has sold more than 4 million copies worldwide and in 2007 became an Academy Award-winning motion picture featuring Keira Knightley, James McAvoy and Vanessa Redgrave.
It also helped seal McEwan's reputation, earning him several prestigious awards and international attention, and placing him among the ranks of England's most revered writers.
But it is McEwan's entire body of work -- which includes such novels as "Amsterdam," "Enduring Love," "The Cement Garden," "The Comfort of Strangers," "The Child in Time," "The Innocent," "Black Dogs," "Saturday" and "On Chesil Beach," as well as his latest effort, "Solar" -- that will be recognized in Tulsa this weekend when he accepts the 2010 Peggy V. Helmerich Distinguished Author Award, presented annually by the Tulsa Library Trust. A black-tie dinner in McEwan's honor will be held at 7pm Friday, Dec. 3 at the Central Library, 400 Civic Center, while a free public presentation is scheduled for 10:30am on Saturday, Dec. 4 in the same location.
The award consists of a $40,000 cash prize and an engraved crystal book. The Englishman will join the company of such other winners as John Grisham, Shelby Foote, Joyce Carol Oates, William Kennedy, Margaret Atwood, Dr. John Hope Franklin, Ray Bradbury, Norman Mailer, Toni Morrison, John Updike and Larry McMurtry.
McEwan described his reaction to learning of the honor as "a bolt from the blue -- a very nice bolt."
Though he welcomes that bit of positive reinforcement, McEwan doesn't struggle to find the motivation to continue writing -- even as his career approaches its fourth decade.
"I don't find it any easier, but I think I take more pleasure in it," he said. "I think I tolerate the pauses better than I used to. It used to drive me crazy."
McEwan said he can't imagine a life that doesn't include writing.
"It's become an essential part of myself and the way I feel about the world -- and the way I move through it," he said.
Occasionally, McEwan said, he finds it necessary to rearrange his "mental furniture" and look at things from a new perspective.
"Sometimes, I envy other people who work in teams or in groups or who have an office," he said, "although other friends of mine have told me stories about the people they work with in offices, so I guess I'm glad I don't." Nevertheless, he said, "The solitude of it can be oppressive if you don't find other kinds of work to do on occasion."
McEwan has had little trouble doing that, transitioning into screenwriting and developing a serious interest in film. The author served as executive producer of the film adaptation of "Atonement" and was a regular visitor to the set.
"I was not crucial to the process," he said. "But I had been kept on board about the casting, and I gave some notes during post-production. I was not the screenwriter, but I was confident in the screenwriter (Christopher Hampton) and director (Joe Wright). So I kept an involvement, but at a distance."
McEwan hopes to someday narrow that gap substantially.
"I think one day I'd really like to direct a movie," he said. "I think I'd like to direct a movie I'd written."
That's not something he's ever seriously pursued, McEwan said, and he's not optimistic about getting the chance.
"No one is kicking down my study door and dragging me off to do it," he said. "I know it's very hard, but it intrigues me."
Part of that fascination stems from the costly nature of filmmaking and the need to get things right in a short amount of time, he said.
"It demands speed and competence from people at every level," McEwan said. "I'm impressed with the movie-making business."
He is not quite as excited about the future of publishing, a dying industry in the estimation of many observers. Some have gone so far as to forecast the death of physical books -- and bookstores -- within the next several years. McEwan doesn't necessarily share their pessimism, though he said there's no denying changes are on the way.
"It's going to take a fair bit to dislodge the hard copy of a book," he said. "I don't think it's going to happen in my lifetime. I'm a romantic, so I love to have a book in my hand.
"That being said, I do have a (digital) reader, and I especially like it when I can take that and travel with it. It's great to have two or three books in a tiny little slab. Not only that, but it's going to save some trees, as well."
McEwan said he's not sure that it really matters to readers what physical form writing takes, relating that he began reading a Jane Austen novel recently on his digital reader.
"I was engrossed and soon forgot how it was coming to me," he said. "When I got home, I reached for the same copy off my shelf and continued reading, but that was only out of habit."
McEwan said his introduction to the publishing world in the 1970s made him feel as if he were stepping back in time. In that era, he said, publishing -- particularly in London -- still had a dusty, gentlemanly air, largely immune to the corrupting influence of mass culture.
"The action was in movies and plays and journalism," he said.
It was such a refined field, he said, that sales figures were something that was never discussed in polite company.
"For my first three books, it didn't even occur to me to ask how many were sold," he said. "I guess I would have considered it vulgar. Reviews in certain papers were what you cared about."
Critical acclaim isn't something McEwan has had to worry about for a long time, though his latest novel has drawn a mixed reaction. It's been very well received in the United Kingdom, less so in the United States. Its plot -- an arrogant, philandering former Nobel Prize winner develops a plan to harness the power of the sun in response to the threat of global warming -- veers into satire. The author said he had been interested in the subject of global warming since the 1990s but he was unsure about how to proceed.
"I didn't want to be preachy," he said. "That's a good way to kill a novel."
McEwan describes his protagonist in the book as a scoundrel, someone who takes another man's ideas and tries to capitalize on them. The character had loomed in McEwan's mind for at least five years before he took shape in the book.
"It occurred to me a way in might be humor, but that's always dangerous," he said. "One man's laugh is another man's groan."
Nevertheless, he forged ahead, and the result is a book that skewers the collective ego, petty jealousies and self-importance of many in the scientific community. McEwan acknowledged that approach might put him at odds with many on the left, though he hardly counts himself among those described as global warming deniers.
"I think it's important to make a distinction between deniers and skeptics," he said. "The skeptics play a useful role and keep everyone up to the mark. That's had a good effect.
"And the case for outright denial is very weak," he said. "Even the most skeptical scientist acknowledges there's warming going on ... But there's still a lot of work to do, and we still don't know the speed at which this is happening. But it is a matter of empirical science. We just need good, thorough, detailed science."
McEwan said he was not aware of U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe, a Tulsa Republican, who has been perhaps the most outspoken critic in Congress of the idea that humans are responsible for global warming. He seemed amused at the idea of his coming to Inhofe's hometown to accept the Helmerich Award and quipped, "Perhaps he'll come to the banquet, and we'll be seated next to each other."
No doubt that would spark some interesting small talk between the clearing of the entrees and the arrival of dessert.
At Saturday's public presentation, McEwan will talk about his life and works, then answer questions from the audience and sign books. Copies of his works will be available for purchase.
Dinner tickets are $125 each. For more information, visit helmerichaward.org or call (918) 549-7323.
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