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McEwan Talks Research and Mistakes

British novelist Ian McEwan delivers his lecture “The Lever: Where Novelists Stand to Move the World,” at the inaugural Rita E. Hauser Forum sponsored by the Mahindra Humanities Center.
British novelist Ian McEwan delivers his lecture “The Lever: Where Novelists Stand to Move the World,” at the inaugural Rita E. Hauser Forum sponsored by the Mahindra Humanities Center.
By Virginia R. Marshall, Crimson Staff Writer

“The air of reality, the solidity of specification, is among the supreme virtues of the novel,” said Ian McEwan as he stood in a simple grey suit, calmly shifting papers in front of a concert hall of people. “It’s got something to do with its interiority, with that sort of inwardness that it can capture better than any other art form.” McEwan exuded a sort of interiority himself, as he revealed his writing secrets to the audience like the end of a novel. McEwan visited Harvard last Tuesday to give a talk called “The Lever: Where Novelists Stand to Move the World” at the Rita E. Hauser Forum. He was casual in his address to his listeners and spoke with the literary expertise found in his novels, full of concrete imagery and explanatory passages.

The director of the Mahindra Humanities Center at Harvard, Homi K. Bhabha, introduced McEwan. Bhabha spoke of the “mental freedom” McEwan gives to his readers and the dexterity of his knowledge in integrating heady subjects such as neuroscience or climatology with the experiences of his characters. “McEwan’s works are shrouded in secrets, surprises, and suppressed thoughts,” said Bhabha, referencing the interiority of McEwan’s novels—the unique reading experience of being privy to a lifetime of a character’s accumulated knowledge.

McEwan accomplishes this realistic character perspective by putting months—sometimes even years—of research into the activities and thoughts his characters will engage in. “You need as much research as 10 times what you will actually use in order to feel free, to move with confidence in the world of knowledge,” said McEwan. As an example, he mentioned the research involved in writing one of his novels, “Saturday.” He followed a neurosurgeon and collected information in order to write comfortably about the inner life of his main character, also a neurosurgeon. At one point during his two-year research period, McEwan even found himself mistaken for a doctor. In order to use the situation to his advantage, he tested his own knowledge by explaining to a few students the process of operating on an aneurysm.

Despite his meticulous research to create an “air of reality” within his works of fiction, McEwan has repeatedly found himself in conversation with his readers about the logic and factual components of his novels. Scores of readers have written to inform him about mistaken details which, for them, were jarring and unwanted reminders of the creator’s orchestration. The inconsistencies in McEwan’s otherwise realistic world pulled those readers out of the comfort of a character’s created world. One reader pointed out the lack of a clutch pedal in a specific model of car that McEwan included in his novel, “Saturday,” while another reader voiced concern about the impossibility of a particular constellation’s appearance in the Italian summer sky in “The Comfort of Strangers.” McEwan read aloud a multitude of these often humorous responses. He pondered the possibility of rejecting each complaint given that a novel is by definition a work of fiction. In the end, though, McEwan admitted his mistakes with grace and appreciated that his readers treated his novel as a completely real entity, grounded in the same reality they lived in.

Another writer in the audience, Paul A. Buttenwieser ’60, mentioned a similar reaction from his readers when he described the particular location of a Cape Cod town incorrectly in his novel “Free Association.” “I was abashed, because I was caught out,” said Buttenwieser. McEwan also talked about the embarrassment of being informed of a mistake after millions of copies had been sold and circulated. Instead of responding with anger or indifference, however, McEwan pointed out that these protests from readers are a powerful indication that every part of a story matters to the reader and that the private knowledge, suppressed thoughts, and exterior world of each character combine to form an experience that is real in relation to the world that we know as humans. “The novelist must cross and re-cross the realm of imagination and the general world,” he said. McEwan explained the battle he has had in grounding the lives of his characters in reality, as opposed to attributing his own mistakes to an element of magical realism that other authors, like Salman Rushdie and Gabriel García Márquez, have used artfully.

“I love his eye for everyday life,” said Spencer B. L. Lenfield ’12, another attendee of McEwan’s talk. “I think that any novelist should make you step out into the street and look at the world around you more intensely.” This is an integral aspect of McEwan’s words and works; his realistic, well researched environments allow the reader to delve deeper into the interior of the characters and know that their world is as real as our own. “The novel has allowed us to develop a means of examining our own nature,” McEwan said. “It gives us thought.”

—Staff writer Virginia R. Marshall can be reached at

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