Ian McEwan's 'On Chesil Beach' Though it's set in the bygone pre-Sexual Revolution era of 1962, British novelist Ian McEwan says his latest book, about a disastrous wedding night, still manages to connect with a younger generation of readers.
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Ian McEwan's 'On Chesil Beach'

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Ian McEwan's 'On Chesil Beach'

Ian McEwan's 'On Chesil Beach'

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

Ian McEwan, the British novelist who wrote "Saturday", "Amsterdam" and "Atonement", has just published a short novel called "On Chesil Beach". It's about the disastrous wedding night in 1962 of Edward and Florence. Edward had studied history and likes American rock and roll. Florence is a violinist in a string quartet. He is eager to consummate their relationship. She is terrified.

Here is the start of the novel read for us today by Ian McEwan.

Mr. IAN McEWAN (Novelist, "On Chesil Beach"): (Reading) They were young, educated, and both virgins on this, their wedding night, and they lived in a time when a conversation about sexual difficulties was plainly impossible. But, it is never easy. They had just sat down to supper in a tiny sitting room on the first floor of a Georgian inn. In the next room, visible through the open door, was a four-poster bed, rather narrow, whose bed cover was pure white and stretched startlingly smooth, as though by no human hand.

SIEGEL: You have written a story here from out of the pre-Sexual revolution days. It seems to define the time that you're writing about. 1962?

Mr. McEWAN: This is right in '62.

SIEGEL: Why? What's the allure of that time to you?

Mr. McEWAN: Well, it stands on a kind of cusp of that huge shift in sexual relations but also social relations. Recognizably not modern - I mean, this is just on the edge of the Cuban missile crisis, remember? And the Berlin Wall had gone up the year before. Britain itself awash as, I think, United States was in sort of new supermarkets, new roads, new cars - very strong beginnings of a youth culture, pop culture.

I mean, to be young was not quite yet a biologically blessed state, and to be married young was quite common. And yes, a lot of young people at that time would go into marriages knowing very, very little about sex. So these two arrive on a south coast of Dorset, in this famous beach, Chesil Beach, knowing very, very little about what's going to happen. So they really have to sort of invent it for themselves.

SIEGEL: This is a reminder that one of the great misnomers of our time is the '60s, which describes most of the things that happened in the '70s for most people.

Mr. McEWAN: I know. I mean my '60s started in about 1970. I don't know about yours.

SIEGEL: Sounds about right.

Mr. McEWAN: But there was a shift. There's no question that there were certain things that Edward or Florence would have felt free to do if the story was in -set in 1969 or 1970, which they don't feel free to do here.

SIEGEL: When you present younger audiences today, the story of the fumbling newlyweds in the Dorset Hotel 1962, are you wondering whether it's registering? Whether it feels like it's a story from Venus for them or whether they can relate to this?

Mr. McEWAN: From Venus rather than Mars.

SIEGEL: Whichever I don't (unintelligible)

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. McEWAN: Well, I did worry or at least speculate, but I have read it now to quite a lot of young kids and they speak rather tenderly of the character, and in rather compassionate terms too. And it suggests to me that there was something universal about crossing this line. The terms in which we do it might be strongly influenced, mediated by the times we live in. But still, it remains one of the universals of all human life, crossing that moment from innocence to experience, or childhood to adulthood. And I've been rather touched by the accounts and rather relieved.

SIEGEL: "On Chesil Beach" is a story in which one moment alters the lives of people. I have read you saying elsewhere that that's an idea that you find intriguing, this notion of the accidental or contingent moment in which...

Mr. McEWAN: Yes. I'm not a religious person. I don't believe in fate or supernatural entities moving our lives along, and I think the accidental, the random, plays a very large part in our lives.

In this story, the young couple end up out on the beach in a confrontation, which for me always was the set piece I wanted to get to. And there, concentrated into one particular moment is the whole manner in which these two fates will separate.

SIEGEL: And as a novelist, you're not there to judge his behavior?

Mr. McEWAN: Oh, absolutely not. No. I try to distribute sympathy equally between these two. No, I don't want to blame them. It seems to me this is a -there are all kinds of bad things happening in life without villains, and it's often driven by misunderstanding or the inability to know your own mind even before you could speak your mind to someone else. So, it's that, really -confusion, ignorance, inexperience.

SIEGEL: And you - when you construct a novel, obviously - in one very brief moment, whether that's a moment of making love or whether it's a moment of looking out a window or whatever it might be, chapters can unfold during that time. I mean, you're using the single moment as a prism into all of these things that have happened.

Mr. McEWAN: Absolutely. I mean, this is a short novel with quite a strong sort of unity of time and place. It happens almost in real time as it were. And, I think one of the first things I wrote about this novel before I started it was simple piece of arithmetic. Five times eight: five chapters, 8,000 words.

SIEGEL: But you had the structure in mind, I mean, as you were just starting to write, or did it fall into shape as you were writing them?

Mr. McEWAN: I need to know the shape. It would be rather like writing a sonnet without knowing that that was the form you were going to write a poem in. With a short novel like this, architecture I think is everything because it's so apparent to the reader. One of the pleasures I think, for me anyway, of reading a short novel is to be able to really feel - fondle - the form, the shape of it. You don't get that with longer novels. They're great baggy monsters.

SIEGEL: Right.

Mr. McEWAN: So, very important for me to know - I was writing five acts and I've begin to built up a sense of how this five acts related to each other.

SIEGEL: In your writing, are there false starts, that is, are there a dozen other novels that were begun over the past 20 years that just ended and are somewhere in a drawer someplace?

Mr. McEWAN: When they falter, I tend to end them very quickly. I mean, I do have, maybe six, seven - even as many as 15 I had once - possible novels in my mind that I might write. And sometimes, I've started writing one and ended up writing the other. But I don't - I know quite a lot of novelist friends who have in their drawers 40,000 words of abandoned novels. I seem to be able to cut out fairly quickly, you know, within a few pages. And I do keep those pages and I do think that perhaps I will return to these abandoned sites. But I haven't done the sort of colossal journey down a cul-de-sac that I know writers have.

SIEGEL: I'd like you to talk about something that I read about in one of the British interviews with you, which was you were setting the record straight on something. I gather, someone asked you what as a writer you considered a good day's work or how much you had to write in a given day? And do I have it correct that you answered 500 words?

Mr. McEWAN: Yes, I said 500 words. But that's about right for me, 500, 600, 700 words. Someone wrote this down as 15 words.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. McEWAN: And it's been on the Internet ever since. There's nothing I can do about this so I have this reputation, especially in places like Germany, as being a sort of real lapidary worker.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. McEWAN: And I keep saying to the Germans, look, even if I was a stone cutter, I could do more than 15 words per day. But they - people are rather impressed by this in Germany.

SIEGEL: They think you're writing novels one haiku at a time, one haiku a day.

Mr. McEWAN: Yeah. And I say it would take me about 25 years.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. McEWAN: But you know how it is with the sort of press-file nature of the Internet these days. It's a bit like the roach motel. I mean, you can put things in, you can't get them out.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIEGEL: So, you're out there in the Internet as 15-word-a-day McEwan no matter what you do at this point.

Mr. McEWAN: Yes. That is quite - that's it.

SIEGEL: Ian McEwan, author most recently of "On Chesil Beach". Thank you very much for talking with us today.

Mr. McEWAN: A great pleasure talking with you.

SIEGEL: And you can read an excerpt from Ian McEwan's novel and hear him talk about the role of music in his stories at npr.org.

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