Even the greatest writers aren’t always the best speakers—many prefer soundless solitude to adoring crowds—so it was a welcome surprise when Ian McEwan smoothly strode to the podium in Mead Chapel on a beautiful September evening and began his talk by thanking everyone for coming when they’d “surely rather be lounging outside in that delicious dusk.”
From that moment, the filled-to-capacity crowd was cued up to relax and savor an ensuing hour of the award-winning Englishman’s graceful wit, rolling metaphors, and evocative turns of phrase.
McEwan is often referred to as one of the finest living writers, and he has indeed won nearly every prize an English author can win. Nearly half of his novels have been made into films—most recently the Oscar-nominated and critically acclaimed Atonement—and many remain on college and high school reading lists worldwide. He is well known for his fictional forays into the seamier side of human nature, with novels that reach uncomfortably into lost childhood, deviant sexuality, and disjointed family life. From orphans who hide their mother in a grave of concrete to the deeply perceptive horror of Nazi camps to innocent mishaps with malevolent consequences, McEwan’s characters look nothing yet everything like ourselves.
Speaking to a crowd of mostly students with a fair showing of faculty, staff, and community members, McEwan read from his latest novel, Solar. The scene he chose focused on the main character in a way that was both intensely humorous and sadly tragic. The audience laughed uproariously one minute and sat as still as stones the next. The younger faces, especially, were a mixture of awe, tension, relief, and hilarity. McEwan’s voice boomed with narrative force and then suddenly shrank to a whisper; he enlivened the space between his words on the page and true human nature unfolding, and no one wanted to miss a moment.
When finished, McEwan smiled and reached for his water, then quickly stepped down from the podium to take questions. After the typically slow start, with a few questions called out from the crowd, students soon hurried from their seats to line up behind the microphone halfway up the center aisle.
Questions ranged from the expected—“How did you first know you were a writer?”—to the more random—“Do you like salt and vinegar potato chips?”—to the technically fundamental—“How do you do your research?”—and McEwan answered each with sincerity. He discussed his diligent approach to detail, his broad experience writing for television and the stage as well as novels, and his obsession with research: he followed a neurosurgeon for an entire year before writing one word of Saturday. Overall he advised young writers to read anything and everything they could get their hands on to learn the art of using detail to make a story. Referring to the passage he had just read in Solar, he said, “You can write that he took a train home after a long day at work, or you can take 23 pages and describe every single important moment of that commute.”
Earlier in the evening, as students were filtering in from dining halls and late athletic practices—one young man rushed in still carrying a soccer ball—a brief poll revealed a range of familiarity with the author. Some had read a book or two for a class, nearly all had seen Atonement, and others didn’t have any idea at all who the speaker was. “I could tell he was someone important from the way people were talking about this,” said one wide-eyed first-year. “I knew I’d be crazy to miss it.” From behind, a prudent upperclassman chimed in to say, “We get some pretty interesting speakers here, but this is big, really big.”