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The Review Show: Interviewing Ian McEwan

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Kirsty Wark Kirsty Wark | 12:00 UK time, Friday, 24 August 2012

Ian McEwan is famous, but it is the mark of someone who treats fame as a by-product of his immense talent and who is comfortable in his skin that when we met for The Review Show interview there was no palaver, no entourage, no demands.

We set up our cameras in the wonderfully shabby, once elegant, University Women's Club in London in the wooden panelled library where a hardback copy of Lisa Appignanesi's Mad Bad and Sad, an examination of women's mental illness across two centuries, had been casually left on a chair.

The crew closed the shutters against the noise of the street, set up the lights and positioned the chairs. We would be ready for Ian McEwan.

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Ian McEwan: "Novels are bound to be imperfect; they're all too human"

He had an hour and we wanted to make the most of it with a long interview and some readings from his latest novel Sweet Tooth.

The book's publication coincided with the Edinburgh International Book Festival and he, and we, were delighted it was to be launched there.

It has given The Review Show an opportunity to interview him ahead of the day and make a special programme about the man whom I think is one of our most thought provoking authors.

(I still think about the opening scene in Enduring Love and the horror in Black Dogs.)

But just as a character in one of his books might slip into a room unobserved and get the measure of the room and its inhabitants, Ian McEwan arrived early and casually and (at least so it appeared) looking forward to the conversation.

I think this is no mean feat for an author who must have notched up hundreds of interviews.

The joy of such an encounter is the preparation as well as the execution.

The day before I sat with my Review Show colleagues discussing his work and giving my and their thoughts a loose-ish structure.

Sweet Tooth is set in the Cold War era of the early 70s and is, up to a point, a spy novel.

Ian McEwan has written novels set in several different decades, so he said he always knew he would mine the decade of his early 20s.

It is a first person narrative in the voice of Serena Frome, who finds herself working in the lower echelons - well the bottom really - of MI5 after her graduation from Cambridge.

She is recruited for a propaganda project to fund young authors who it is deemed might write fiction favourable to the West. Of course the writers have no idea about the identity of their benefactor.

Serena falls for one recruit, Tom Haley a young Sussex graduate making his way with short stories.

Early in the interview Ian McEwan volunteers that Haley is in fact a sort of distorted autobiographical character and of course - his slender frame, the clothes, the music, the period - all falls into place.

This is funny as so many authors rail against the idea which they regard as reductive, that they are writing about themselves.

Actually there are several very humorous aspects to Sweet Tooth and you'll see in Friday's programme that Ian McEwan tells some very funny stories about his writing - not least that he has compiled a lecture about all the mistakes in his novels.

It takes an author who knows he's good, very good, serious and thoughtful, not to take himself too seriously and, as in the clip above, to be candid about his vulnerability as a writer.

Kirsty Wark is the presenter of The Review Show.

The Review Show is on Friday, 24 August at 11pm on BBC Two. For further programme times, please see the episode guide.

Comments made by writers on the BBC TV blog are their own opinions and not necessarily those of the BBC.


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