The New Yorker called Ian McEwan England’s ‘national author’ in a recent profile of him. The praise is high for McEwan comes from a distinguished literary generation that has produced Martin Amis, Julian Barnes and Salman Rushdie. His latest novel Solar a black comedy about Michael Beard, ‘a Nobel Prize-winning physicist of Falstaffian appetites, whose fifth marriage is floundering, as his career appears to be drifting towards comfortable, well-paid irrelevance’, is another extraordinary achievement. This last weekend saw almost every major British newspaper devote pages to it. The Financial Times has called it, ‘a stunningly accomplished work, possibly his best yet’; The Sunday Times hailed it as a ‘stellar performance’ saying that it blazed with‘ imaginative and intellectual energy’; The Mail on Sunday gave it five stars. Indian fans of McEwan might have caught his interview with The Hindustan Times on 5th March, but here to whet your appetite is a short conversation he had with Random House.
The science in Solar is impressive. How long did you spend researching the science of climate change?
Most of my research for Solar was in the reading – a lot of papers, a lot of books. There’s a huge amount of material on climate science now. I also had to find a technology that was still just a little out of reach to give the novel its forward movement. I spent some time travelling in New Mexico looking for the right location for the end of the novel. And I spent time in Colorado at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and that helped me devise a rather dowdier version of that lab here in England. I talked to a few physicists and I was lucky on a journey in Ecuador last year to run into a Cambridge physicist, Graeme Mitchison, and he checked all my science, such as it is, especially the quantum mechanics. I asked him to reverse engineer for me Michael Beard’s Nobel Prize citation. Graeme rose to this challenge magnificently, with a humorous paper by a fictional academician from the Swedish Academy of the Sciences.
You also went to the Arctic with a group of scientists. Did this expedition inspire your writing of Solar, or did the idea for the book come first? How did your experience in the Arctic differ from that of Michael Beard?
It didn’t really change my mind about climate change. We were only there a week and obviously I wasn’t doing any scientific research, but I did find a way into the subject. People were gathered together, bound by their concern about climate change. We spent our evenings discussing it, talking about how the world needed fundamental changes of approach and culture, and at the same there was this growing chaos in the room next door – the boot room, where all our outdoor gear was stored – our snow mobile suits and so on. It was this disparity between the self-made disorder in our lives on the ship, and our aspirations, our ideals, that suggested that one approach to this subject was through a kind of forgiving humour. Climate change is a real challenge to human nature.
How have you felt about how the events in Copenhagen played out?
Like most people I’ve been rather cast down by it. I had high hopes. We didn’t know that the Americans were going to be so unprepared. The US system of government is such that the President is not free in the way that many other heads of state are, or that prime ministers are. We never calculated that the Chinese were going to drag their feet in the way they did, or that the Europeans were going to be so weak. So it was a disappointment. At least we can say that 190 odd countries came together to address the problem. I guess this was a conflict – a head on collision – between our capacity for reasoned argument and science on the one hand, and our tribalism expressed in terms of national interest on the other. The tribalism won out, but my hope for the future is that first of all the conference will reconvene, and that the process will continue at the government level. Secondly, I think there are many developments and transformations taking place in technology, in businesses, in the attitude of individuals, and that it could well be that the process of change, clean energy and decarbonising economies will come about significantly from a bottom up process. And there are other forces at work. Oil will run out sooner or later. There’s a demand for energy security and at national and even city levels all around the world there are administrative, beauracratic drives to encourage local initiatives. This is the hope that we have to cling to, that the process will partly move out of governments’ hands.
The ‘bag of crisps’ incident on the train is hilarious. Have you personally encountered this type of incident or is it indeed folklore as Beard’s colleagues believe it to be?
There is a point in the novel when Michael Beard boards a train. He’s something of a glutton and his special predilection is for salt and vinegar flavoured crisps. He eats the crisps that are on the table in front of him and to his amazement a young man sitting opposite helps himself to the packet. There’s a silent stand-off between them. It’s only when Beard gets off the train and he puts his hand in his pocket that he discovers his own crisps are there and all along he’d been eating the other man’s. I think the story is pure urban legend. It has spread much in the way jokes do. The anecdote is known in contemporary urban legend studies as the Unwitting Thief. It pops up in novels, in movies. People like to appropriate the experience, so they will often tell the story as though it happened to someone they knew, or to themselves. When I read my account at a literary festival, in the signing queue afterwards more than six or seven people said that had happened to them, or to someone they know. I decided to describe an encounter between Michael Beard and an urban legend professor, who insists that Beard’s experience is inauthentic – which of course makes him very indignant.
People have suggested that some of your books appeal more to women (Atonement, On Chesil Beach) and others towards men (Saturday). Do you agree with this and if so, where does Solar fit on that male/female spectrum?
I don’t know if I do agree. My sense of novels is that they mostly appeal to women. If there were no women readers I think the contemporary literary novel would collapse. I had my own experience of this when I went out into the gardens in front of my house with my son Greg. We had 100 paperback books we were trying to get rid of. Some of them were mine, but mostly they were just paperback versions of hardbacks we already had. Office workers were out on the lawn – it was a hot summer’s day – having their picnic lunches from the various offices around. We went around saying ‘Would you like a free book?’ and every woman we encountered said ‘I’d love a book’, and went through the pile saying ‘Can I have more than two? Can I have three?’ and every bloke we approached said ‘No sorry mate, no, not for me.’ We couldn’t give one book away to a man and if one wants to make a gender distinction about novel reading, it’s right there. Mostly book groups, mostly signing queues, and a larger proportion of audiences in readings are female and it was always thus. The novel in the 18th century had its roots in educated women readers and it’s a wonder really that there are men writing them.
Solar is out in bookshops in the next ten days.
Ian McEwan is the author of two collections of stories and ten previous novels, including Enduring Love, Amsterdam, for which he won the Booker Prize in 1998, Atonement and Saturday.
Read William Sutcliffe’s review of Solar here.