Luminous Novel From Dark Master

Ian McEwan began his career in the mid-'70s in Britain with a series of short, sharp shocks. His dark, chilling stories and novels made "Lord of the Flies" look like a weekend retreat and were consoling only insofar as they were lean, brilliant and addictive. McEwan wrote a story about a 14-year-old boy who loses his virginity by molesting his 10-year-old sister ("Homemade"). He wrote novels about kids who bury Mother in a trunk in the basement ("The Cement Garden," later a movie from which Madonna plucked the dialogue sample that opens "What It Feels Like for a Girl") and young lovers caught up in an older couple's murderous sex games ("The Comfort of Strangers," later a movie with Rupert Everett and Natasha Richardson).

McEwan has long since left the macabre behind--in 1998 he won the Booker Prize for a knowing, mordantly comic novel about creativity, morality and middle age, entitled "Amsterdam." But no one could have predicted how far afield he would travel for his latest novel, "Atonement," which has spent the past six months on best-seller lists in England. "Atonement" is a rich, meditative World War II-era novel about a headstrong 13-year-old girl named Briony Tallis who witnesses a rape at her wealthy family's country house, sends an innocent working-class man to jail and ruins more than one life in the process. The novel is part Jane Austen (nuanced portraits of "polite" society), part Virginia Woolf (prob-ing interior monologues) and part Hemingway (gripping reportage of soldiers and nurses). There's no earthly reason such a literary meeting of minds should work, but it does--superbly. Recently NEWSWEEK's Jeff Giles spoke with the author about his dark early work, the luminous "Atonement"--and the dreaded M word.

GILES: Based on the articles I've read, journalists seem scared to meet you because you wrote such unsettling stuff early on--and then they seem shocked that you're just a nice intellectual. MCEWAN: Yes. They're all disappointed that I'm not, you know, dripping in blood.

Did you ever figure out what drew you to such dark material as a young man?

I can't give you a very profound answer. What I can say is that there was something quite reactive about those early stories. In my early 20s, when I was reading a lot of contemporary English fiction, I felt very stifled. It was so nicely modulated and full of observation about class and furniture. And round about that time I started to read, quite intensively, a number of American writers: William Burroughs, Philip Roth, Henry Miller.

That'll loosen you up.

Yeah. Also Bellow and Updike. And I was really struck by the sort of vigor and sexual expressiveness--even obscenity. So then I saw what I wanted. I wanted much more vivid colors. I wanted something savage. I always used to deny this, but I guess what I'm really saying is that I was writing to shock. I did feel impatient with the kind of fiction that was being written in England. It seemed to lack all ambition. All these freedoms won for fiction by people like Joyce and Lawrence and Virginia Woolf seemed to me forgotten. We were back with a rather unambitious kind of realism--sociology, almost. So I felt impatient. And I dug deep and dredged up all kinds of vile things which fascinated me at the time. They no longer do particularly, but they did then.

I imagine no one could continue writing about murder, incest and dismemberment forever.

No, you couldn't go on doing that--then you'd really need some psychoanalysis.

You won the Booker Prize for your last novel, "Amsterdam." I remember you once said that you imagined winning the Booker would really screw up a writer's life.

I'd had friends who had won the Booker Prize, and they'd spent the next 18 months on the road, promoting the book in Norway and Israel and North Africa and South America. One person who always finds it hard to say no and is always polite is [Kazuo] Ishiguro.

What did you do when you won?

[Laughs] Well, I'm not so nice. It's a balance all of us have to strike between doing public appearances--explaining yourself, giving readings and having your picture taken a thousand times over--and drawing up the drawbridge. Sometimes you just have to, as I put it, Say No to Drudge. You've really got to go home and write.

"Atonement" is not a book that I expected from you.

In my notebooks I called it "my Jane Austen novel." I didn't have "Northanger Abbey" or even "Mansfield Park" specifically in mind, but I did have a notion of a country house and of some discrepancies beneath the civilized surface.

Did you make a conscious decision at some point to write something longer and grander this time around?

When I was six months into the book and its scheme was more or less clear to me, I knew that it was going to be larger and more ambitious than anything I'd written before. And that pleased me, but I didn't think, "Well, it'd be a good career move now to write my symphonic novel."

Briony witnesses a rape and wrongly sends Robbie to jail. What do readers make of her? Do they think she's a monster?

People really do diverge. Some people write to me saying that they love the novel but that they absolutely loathe Briony--even by the end of the book. They're not prepared to forgive her, even as she's not prepared to forgive herself. Others identify with her because it's not a crime she commits--it's not a malicious act--but an error. I can't help loving her because I spent so much time making her.

After Robbie gets out of jail, he finds himself in the Army at Dunkirk. Your father was at Dunkirk, wasn't he? Did his stories fascinate you as a kid?

You know how it is--your parents' stories are just sort of there, like the weather. My father died in '96, and in his last years of life he returned to those three or four years obsessively. He makes a fleeting appearance in the novel. He himself was a dispatch rider on a motorbike. He got his legs shot up, and he teamed up with another fellow whose arms were shot up, and between them they worked the controls of the bike.

How do you read the reviews of "Atonement" and not let them go to your head? I read one the other day that used the word "masterpiece."

Yeah, that word got used a lot here [in England]. I think that's always a judgment for other people, not for me. Of course, the publishing industry is always looking for those words--those intensifiers. When people use that word, I think all they mean to tell you is that they like it a lot.

The book's a best seller in England. Does it feel like it will be a breakthrough in the States in terms of sales?

Well, I certainly hope so. I mean, I've got a long relationship with a readership in the States, which has slowly grown but not logarithmically. And the relationship feels quite sort of intense. Very warm. And rather knowing--when people ask questions in bookstores, they seem to know all my books. There's always the feeling that they know the novels from the inside, and I'm always gratified by that.

So no one accidentally calls you Ian McKellen or Ewan McGregor?

No, that hasn't happened for a while. Or Rod McKuen. Someone did come up to me many years ago and say, "I do so admire your poems."