The Daily Gamecock

Ian McEwan discusses writing process, childhood

Author of 'Atonement' offers advice, insights to aspiring writers

Award-winning novelist Ian McEwan, author of the widely-acclaimed "Atonement," offered insight into his writing process Wednesday evening and gave one piece of advice to creative writers.

"A bad idea for fiction writers is worth having," he said.

McEwan spoke to a packed audience of students, faculty and community members in the Law School Auditorium in the culminating event of the 10-night Open Book series presented by the College of Arts and Sciences, which featured a total of five novelists over the course of five weeks.

The British penman used his discussion of "Atonement" to reflect on the representation of children in fiction, the "free and direct" style of writing and the creative writing process as a whole.

McEwan read several passages both from earlier and finished drafts of "Atonement" and said that as he began to realize and understand the purpose of his characters, the direction of the story unfolded quite differently than he originally expected.

"As soon as you get one character relating to another, I saw that all my (original) ideas ... were irrelevant," McEwan said. "(It is the) introduction of a character's intention that creates the sense of the work."

The author focused much of his lecture on the novel's character Briony, who, as an over-imaginative child writer with a dramatic and flawed understanding of adult affairs, accidentally destroys the romance of the story's two lovers.

McEwan described how he used Briony's character as a vehicle for much of the novel's voice. He said he knew the story was "going to have things in it that I would never bother to describe, like sunsets — sunsets! — and frocks."

McEwan said that he paid certain attention to and had a particular interest in his representation of the child character and that he feels that childhood is a subject that, historically, has been underrepresented in fiction.

"I think childhood progresses ... by little leaps and jumps of coming into consciousness," he said when describing his development and portrayal of Briony.

McEwan described the way he colored much of the third-person language of the story to reflect Briony's young, imaginative conscience.

In this way his "free and direct style" of writing allows the reader to project him — or herself onto the character.

"The novel has become a refined form of what we do all the time — ... mind-reading, (or) seeing ourselves reflected in others," McEwan said.

McEwan said he was granted the opportunity to reflect when he recently rediscovered his original notes and drafts for the novel.

Looking back on his early ideas for "Atonement," McEwan said he was "able to attempt to answer the question that novelists always dread: Where do you get your ideas from?"
The ideas he started with were born out of the "determined stupor" of a writer, but his original notion of some sort of futuristic novel proved to be largely irrelevant as the characters and story developed.

"You have to have a bad idea sometimes to get a better one," McEwan said.