Ian McEwan's new novel, The Children Act, gauges the friction between religious dogma, individual freedom and protecting children from harm. But it is also the haunting story of a transgressive relationship between a high-court judge and the vulnerable teenage boy she wants to nurture. As McEwan and I talked about make believe on the telephone, a real-life scandal was playing out in England about the pernicious and long-standing sexual abuse that hundreds of working-class girls have suffered in the town of Rotherham under the chilly neglect and averted gaze of local authorities. It could be the germ of a McEwan novel, if only he could figure a way to leaven it with some humanity.
I've wanted to interview Ian McEwan ever since I was jolted by his risky and macabre writing in First Love, Last Rites, the closest punk rock ever came to the page. More than a dozen novels later, McEwan has evolved from a literary shocker into an innovative and compassionate novelist – more Nadine Gordimer than Johnny Rotten – while remaining ineluctably himself.
Do you agree that there has been an evolution in your writing from a desire to make the reader feel uncomfortable to a mellower understanding of the human condition?
One can't go on writing in his mid-60s as though he is 19 years old, as I was when I wrote some of those stories. The young Ian McEwan would probably have wanted Fiona Maye, the middle-aged judge, and Adam Henry, the young Jehovah's Witness, to have an affair in The Children Act and that would have ruined everything.
It would certainly have ruined the book you wanted to write.
Exactly, because this is a story about an unspoken love that is partly maternal, partly about the child she never had and partly something stirring in her – a woman who is so far removed from passion, to her husband's dismay. But yes, I do regard the novel as an investigation into the human condition. I found myself reading law judgments and beginning to think how religion plays such a large part in family-law cases. And then an old friend, who was a very eminent judge in his day, Sir Alan Ward, told me about a case he had judged about a Jehovah's Witness, and I thought I could change all the characters and the circumstances, but it would still retain the core of something deeply human in the law.
The title, The Children Act, seems so weighted, with act serving as both noun and verb.
That's why it was so appealing to me. The Children Act did not protect the children of Rotherham, so I don't think it is a perfect piece of legislation, but its core is very civilized.
And the title has two purposes because when the children become 18 they can make choices for themselves.
Exactly. I have been tracking this for almost three years and every so often a Jehovah's Witness teenager is refusing a blood transfusion and the hospital goes to the court and the court gives the hospital authority to treat the child against his or her will and a few months later that child is back in hospital, again needing a transfusion, and the courts can do nothing because he or she is now an adult. There is a great waste and a great tragedy there, but there is nothing anybody can do. The courts won't let religion martyr a child, but they can't stop adults martyring themselves.
Nothing is simple and that is true of this book, too. Fiona, a magnificent character, is full of contradictions: a family court judge who is childless, a woman at the top of her profession who writes eloquent and incisive judgments, and yet somebody who is emotionally fragile.
I wanted to lay out a simple tale in the style more of Chekhov than a postmodern disquisition on writing, of which I have done my fair share in Sweet Tooth and Atonement, and so on. I was more concerned here with a highly intelligent, rational, compassionate woman who finds herself extremely vulnerable in the private sphere. Having had so many divorced couples in front of her, she makes exactly the wrong move when her husband visits his lover. She changes the locks, which is what often happens at the beginning of divorce proceedings, and is the one thing you are told not to do. So she is swimming in those desolate tides, but with a good heart.
The strengths of the law that she believes in are showing stresses too.
Like everybody else, Fiona can't compartmentalize. She makes a judgment in the interests of Adam Henry, but having released him from the closed community of his religious sect, she offers nothing else. Yet she knows he has sparked something in her and she has released powerful emotions in him.
Why did you have Adam play Benjamin Britten's score for W.B. Yeats's poem Down by the Salley Gardens for Fiona in the hospital?
Judges don't usually go to bedsides but there are some strange precedents. Alan Ward told me he suspended court proceedings and crossed London in a taxi because he wanted to know the teenage boy's wishes and a little bit more about him. They spent all their time talking about football. That didn't seem to me quite good enough. Fiona's singing along with Adam, while he plays rather wonkily on the violin, seemed the right amount of emotionally charged emergence into all of literature, all of music, all of the things that make the top of his head explode as he begins to discover there is so much else beyond a strict and literal interpretation of the Bible.
I did think back to my own 17th or 18th year when exactly that happened. I was in a kind of sleep and then round about 16, I started to get passionate about poetry, and music – classical, jazz, rock 'n' roll, rhythm and blues – everything I could lay my hands on. Poetry, especially the poetry of Yeats, and music were what propelled me and I took off like a rocket. Suddenly I saw that there was the adult world, rich in all its accumulated parts. It seemed to me so exciting.
Your early life sounds a bit like a Victorian novel, especially the part about discovering a brother you didn't know you had because your parents had given him up for adoption before you were born.
David is a nice fellow and I have got to like him very much, so that is a plus. The downside is the sadness in my mother, that I had never really understood, and now that I do, she is gone. David went to see my mother to tell her that he was loved as an adopted child and that he bore her no bitterness. But she was too demented. She had Alzheimer's. That is the real sadness.
And yet, you, who once described your novels as like spoonfuls of your life, used that sadness to great effect in Perowne's visit to his demented mother in the novel Saturday. A superb set piece, by the way.
Those disjointed sentences are words she actually used.
And so it comes back, inevitably, to the human condition.
This interview has been condensed and edited.