Best-selling author explains the research he did for his latest novel, Solar, and the message he wants the book to convey.
April 12, 2010
Author Ian McEwan
Ian McEwan is a best-selling author, whose work has earned worldwide critical acclaim, won numerous awards and been the basis for several star-studded movies, including Atonement. Born in England, the son of a military officer, he traveled the world during much of his childhood and began his career writing short stories while teaching English as a second language. He's also written several screenplays, children's fiction and a play. McEwan's latest effort, Solar, is a satirical novel focusing on climate change.
Tavis: Ian McEwan is an award-winning novelist whose many notable books include “Atonement” and “Saturday.” His latest is called “Solar,” which his in stores now. Ian McEwan, good to have you on the program, sir.
Ian McEwan: Thank you very much.
Tavis: I read somewhere that you don’t want this referred to as a comic novel. I would assume that you don’t want me to refer to it as a skeptic novel. So how shall I refer to this?
McEwan: Well, this is a novel that I hope will cause some laughter, but it’s not funny throughout and its intention is pretty serious. I guess you could call it a novel about human nature struggling with a big issue like climate change and finding some farce in this.
Tavis: Given that you don’t want it to be called a skeptic novel, how does one, how will one read the narrative on climate change?
McEwan: I think, for my own point of view, it’s real, it’s happening, we’re causing it. I think skepticism is a very welcome process. Science needs skeptics. What it doesn’t need is deniers. That’s another whole issue. Nor does it need catastrophists.
If you say that the planet’s going to hell in a handcart next week, everyone’s just going to party. So it’s a serious issue that requires measured judgments. But public opinion lately has swung very much the whole process and people are very, very cautious about the scientists, and maybe that’s a good thing. It’s a young science and it needs skepticism. It needs rigorous peer review and I think it’s certainly getting it.
Tavis: What do you make, to your now, Ian, what do you make of that pendulum swing?
McEwan: Well, I think there was Copenhagen, which ended in farce, and my character ends up being invited to Copenhagen at the very end. That was a great shame. There were the UEA emails. Probably a little more running made of that than – I think people think that scientists are like high priests. In fact, science is a messy business and science labs are full of competition and bristling egos, just like any other human institution.
So possibly this public disappointment is part of the fact that we have almost too much faith in scientists. Then there was a moment in an IPCC report, the climate change body that reports every few years that exaggerated by a factor of 10 ice melt up in the high Tibetan plateau. That at least was pointed out by a climate scientist. So the science is having to deal with itself. It’s having to be rigorous with itself.
Tavis: I want to come back to – well, there are two things I want to pick up. First thing is this: How do you decide to take a very serious issue, an issue, to your point, that’s being debated now, like climate change, and fictionalize it?
McEwan: It’s really difficult. I thought about this from the mid-’90s onwards. I was thinking I’d like to write a novel around this subject. But it’s so full of morals, ethics, politics, statistics, hard science, and I couldn’t see a way in until five years ago I took a trip up to the arctic with some artists and scientists, and we were living on board a ship that was frozen into a fjord.
We spent a week there. There was a lot of passionate discussion about climate change and what to do and how we’re going to fix the whole Earth, and I took part in those. I noticed that the little changing room where we had to keep taking off all this heavy gear so that we didn’t bring ice and snow onto the ship, a rather dark, cramped space, it was becoming so chaotic.
A couple of times I was out on the ice with two left boots. I just couldn’t find my stuff and maybe reached for someone else’s, and someone took their own helmet and put it somewhere else. I began to be rather touched, amused, by the great gap between our idealistic notions of how we were going to fix the Earth and the fact that a space that was a trillionth the size of the Earth, we couldn’t control.
I thought, ah, maybe that’s the way in – human nature. We’re clever monkeys but we’re also very foolish, and I think Copenhagen was a perfect demonstration of that.
Tavis: Then you end up, if I could advance the story – so you end up making your protagonist a Nobel laureate, of all things.
McEwan: Yeah, I took another trip the same year, went to a conference that was addressed only by Nobel Prize winners – physicists and mathematicians.
Tavis: Sounds like fun.
McEwan: Well (laughter) the evenings were fun. When you get 40 of those guys in a room, and these were 40 alpha males, you’ve never seen egos bristling like this. (Laughter) You know those medieval portraits that have halos, right? These were big, beefy, bull scientists. But the comedy and the tragedy of this is that they were powerful men but their work was far behind them, especially in math.
You do it – it’s a bit like a soccer player. You peak in your mid to late twenties, so their grandeur rested on something 40 years back. It was at that point I thought, well, if I get round to writing this novel, here and now I’m awarding him a Nobel prize and letting him coast for the rest of his life never quite doing any more science, doing the politics of science, making the grant applications and so on, but never actually having an original thought ever again.
Tavis: Without giving too much of the story away, the protagonist in the story “Solar” is a Nobel laureate who has, to your point now, his heyday is really behind him. But he finds himself in a particular space and time where he has a shot at doing something contemporary.
McEwan: Yes. I have to say my main character, Michael Beard, is a complete scoundrel, not above thieving another man’s work. So one of his very gifted students is in an accident, dies, and Michael Beard steals that work, which is artificial photosynthesis, where you copy the process, the very complex process, the way of a leaf grows.
One of the things it does is split water into hydrogen and oxygen. If we could copy that – this is actually based on real science and this pursuit is going on – if we could copy that we would solve our energy problems right there. If you can split water cheaply you would have all the hydrogen you needed to run a power station.
So he takes this idea and he ends up in the deserts of New Mexico with an industrial scale opening for his power station. But then all the chaos of his life has come trailing behind him. Two of the women in his life, because he’s a real philanderer, a lawyer, because he’s stolen some patents, various other things all come pouring into this little corner of New Mexico in a sweet little town called Lordsburg, where I went and researched this, and it ends in something of the same chaos that the Copenhagen meeting ended in.
Tavis: I want to come back to your research tactics and strategies in just a second, but since you slid right past this I’ve got to go back and resurrect this.
You refer to Michael Beard as a scoundrel in the text, in the novel. Indeed he is. But the first few pages of this book, the way you start this book (laughter) is like, you come out the gate – you come out the blocks so fast in the opening of this book. I assume that that was by design.
Tavis: The first third of the book, you’re like, “Oh, my.” You’ve got death, you’ve got thievery, and that’s just in the first few pages of the book.
McEwan: Well, in the first few pages of the book his fifth marriage is disintegrating, and for once in his life, he is the cuckold. It’s his wife who’s having the affair, and having it with the builder.
This builder actually is a man who is going to play an important part in the plot. He is going to be spending 16 years in jail for no good reason other than that he’s got on the wrong side of Michael Beard.
So yeah, it’s important, I think, with a novel to arouse the readers’ curiosity and come in with something strong.
Tavis: You mentioned in this conversation two or three things that really fall into the category of research. You’ve literally spent time with Nobel laureates; you have literally spent time on this ship, frozen in the middle of nowhere. You literally went to New Mexico to research the setting of the novel.
Why? I’m not naïve in asking this, but why is all of that so important? It’s a book, Ian. It’s a book, and you’ve approached this like you were trying to win a prize for it.
McEwan: You’ve got to create for the reader a sense of authority, and to do that you need the smoke and mirrors of knowing what you’re talking about. To have been there, to have talked to the people, to have a real sense of what it’s like.
Also, the research often gives you ideas. It’s not as if you already know where you’re going when you’re writing a novel. It’s often like a journey with a sketch map but no clear instruction as to what to do every day.
So yeah, I went up to – you have here in the States a wonderful lab up in Colorado, in a little place called Golden, just outside Denver. A fantastic lab called the National Renewable Energy Lab. I spoke to scientists there, where they’re actually working on this artificial photosynthesis, and I hung out with physicists, had dinner with physicists.
I wanted to know about the jealousies of science. (Laughter) So while this was all happening, the UEA stuff was – so it didn’t surprise me and shock me as much as it shocked others, and in fact their crimes were fairly small; trying to stop a paper being published by a rival.
Well, the paper was published anyway. Extrapolating a bit of data. It’s a standard technique. You don’t have all the information on your curve so you extrapolate the curve. Not quite as great a sin as people made out, but still it is important now and then to wear out some shoe leather just to find out what’s necessary.
Tavis: For you, finally, here, when this subject matter is so serious, like climate change, even though you said it in this novel so you fictionalized this, is there a message that you want to empower readers with, or is this purely entertainment?
McEwan: No, I think it’s more than entertainment, although I hope that it will entertain a reader.
Tavis: There’s no proselytizing, though.
McEwan: No, you can’t do it. Novels just collapse under the weight of that. If you want to proselytize, you then write a nonfiction book and tell people how you think they want to live. Fiction has to have the lifeblood running through it of the real world and not of your intentions.
I’d like the reader to take away from it a sense that this was an extended reflection on our human nature. I don’t just think we’re fools, we’re incredibly clever. We make amazing machines. We’re capable of extraordinary acts of love and kindness. Yet we’re so riven by self-interest and short-term thinking.
So it’s exactly that – a reflection on human nature.
Tavis: It is the new one from perennial best-selling author, Ian McEwan. The book is called “Solar.” Ian, good to have you on the program.
McEwan: Thank you very much, Tavis.
Tavis: Thanks for coming to talk to us. I appreciate it.
Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:28 pm