Ian McEwan’s last novel, 2002’S critically acclaimed Atonement, proved both a joy and a curse. A commercial smash that sold more than 3 million copies worldwide (joy), the book undoubtedly left critics, readers, and publishing house accountants with high expectations for a repeat performance (curse). ”The only thing I knew for sure,” McEwan, 56, says of his own low expectations for his new novel Saturday (Nan A. Talese, $26), ”was that I wanted to get as far as possible from anything historical.
”Saturday is much closer to my life than anything I’ve written,” he says in the kitchen of his home as he prepares a fish stew, the very meal Saturday‘s protagonist, neurosurgeon Henry Perowne, cooks for his own family on the day in which McEwan’s novel is set. ”A lot of writers use circumstances of their existence to weave a novel, but I’ve always avoided it. I’ve made the man younger than me, but [we share] the slow decline of physical prowess, a real sense that Sunday is coming.” They also share a London neighborhood, and a stately Georgian town house; Perowne’s wife, Rosalind, resembles McEwan’s second wife, Annalena McAfee, editor of The Guardian‘s literary supplement (and, it should be noted, a close friend of mine); the son, Theo, favors McEwan’s younger child, Greg, 18. (Will, 21, is studying genetics at university.)
McEwan’s obsession with the randomness of danger — a sense that an orderly world can be suddenly upended by catastrophe — and the resulting issues of guilt and responsibility seem particularly suited to Saturday. Set on a single day in 2003, the novel follows a contented, successful man whose existential fears of terrorist threats to his family’s security are amplified after a confrontation with a menacing stranger.
”Perowne’s kind of an alter ego,” McEwan says, blithely chucking saffron into the stew pot (he prefers instinct to cookbooks). ”I’ve lent him great chunks of my own thoughts and interests. I mean obviously I don’t share his views on a lot of things, but music, cooking, playing squash. . .”
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY . . .driving a Mercedes S500 with cream upholstery?
MCEWAN I don’t have one of those yet [laughs]. But I did get a case of a very nice wine mentioned on the first page of Enduring Love, so I’m hoping to find a Mercedes crated outside my front door.
EW What was your ambition for Saturday?
MCEWAN I really wanted this meditative style, fairly digressive. I wanted to capture the white noise of someone’s fairly focused thinking, to have a parallel set of anxieties about the world, but tied in with the pleasures. It’s a huge challenge to write happiness in an extended way, and that was another premise for this book: that I could write about something that celebrated wine, sex, love, friendship, children. So oddly enough, for a novel about a country on the verge of war, it’s meant to be a celebration of life.
EW Why a neurosurgeon?