Guardian Live: An evening with Ian McEwan (Monday 29th August 2016)


When a novel has as its a narrator an unborn baby in the womb who happens to discover the murder plot of its father by its mother and uncle then you know that your on to an instant hit. This latest plot comes from Booker Prize winning author, Ian McEwan, from his latest short novel – Nutshell. The narrative’s murder plot comes from William Shakespeare’s Macbeth while the remaining themes of the narrative are derived from Hamlet. So, how did McEwan come up with such a crazy idea? “I am a huge fan of Shakespeare (this year marking the 400th anniversary of his death) and had been reading Hamlet,” says McEwan. He continued: “I had a bit of a day dream but then soon after, my first sentence came and from there I didn’t look back.” Speaking to a sell out crowd of Guardian Members at the Royal Geographical Society, McEwan, author of bestsellers like Atonement (2001) and The Children Act (2015) shared his thoughts on his latest creation and life work. 

In a nutshell

Nutshell by Ian McEwan

The premise of Nutshell involving the unborn child narrator who quickly learns of his mother and uncle’s plot to kill his father is an interesting one. The mother is having an affair with Claude (the unborn child’s uncle) and together they devise a plan to kill Claude’s brother (the unborn child’s father) so that they can continue their secret relationship in peace. Unknown to the pair is the discovery of their plot to murder by the unborn child who is dead set on somehow putting a stop to their plans. In reference to these Hamlet and Macbeth inspired themes McEwan says: “Leaning on someone else’s plot allows you to be free to take the story somewhere else. This novel is preoccupied with notions of the self. Everything has to be heard and this narrator takes a privileged position in the narrative.”

Foetus talk

Guardian Live with Ian McEwan

McEwan’s highly interesting and unusual narrator takes readers on an almost detective like journey as he thinks of ways to thwart the plans of his cheating mother and uncle. Where he is similiar in character to Hamlet is in his obsession with himself along with his questioning of the world around him (albeit through the confines of the womb). McEwan explains this further: “Narrating from the foetus, the unborn child projects himself forward to an older age. Like Hamlet, he often has suicidal thoughts but also a strong sense of social justice while also being alarmed at some of the twists to be found taking place in intellectual life.” Besides fighting (in the womb) against his mother’s deadly intentions, the unborn child listens to the news she has playing on the wireless in the background from BBC World Service. 

On writing

McEwan addresses Guardian Members

Nutshell is a short novel – a form which McEwan readily admits he likes, as he can experiment and have more fun with it while also keeping true to some of its more serious content. For McEwan, a novel such as this, where the story is told from a character inside the womb and which enacts a plot from Hamlet is an idea that can only work in short story form because the stucture of it is so intense. As for writing in general, McEwan has no plans to stop any time soon: “I write everyday. If i’m not writing then I’m reading. I don’t believe in writer’s block. I think a novella is hard to write because it places great demands on the writer such as in Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis. The novel too, is a very personal form which makes it hard to write without giving yourself away. It therefore becomes partly an expression of who you are.” McEwan also had some valuable advice for those who struggle with writing, particularly school children: “I encourage writers, including children who struggle with it, to keep a journal, record what you do each day and from this you will begin to gather some useful ideas which not only shape your experiences but which will also help you in your writing.”

Final Act

Hollywood bound: The Children Act

Before leaving the jam packed auditorium to great applause, McEwan had time to reveal to Guardian Members the production of another of his novels into a potential Hollywood blockbuster: “The Children Act will be hitting the big screen soon and is being directed by Richard Eyre whom I’ve worked with before. So watch this space.”

Nutshell (2016) is published by Jonathan Cape and is available now in all good bookstores.

Ian McEwan

(C) Copyright 2016, Darell J Philip


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