Digital library (interview) RAI Educational

Ian McEwan

Rome, 09/10/97

"Keeping computers in their place"


  • Writing a screenplay is similar to writing a short novel. The real difference comes afterwards: a novelist is used to having complete control over his world but film is a collaborative matter (1).
  • In narrative cinema the characters have to be established very rapidly, the plots have to move with economy, resolutions have to be foretold with speed (2).
  • McEwan has been writing on a computer since 1985. Using a word processor allows the writer to experiment without committing himself to the words on the page and in that it is much closer to handwriting than the typewriter. He has recently changed from a Macintosh to a PC and believes that Windows 95 is a very poor imitation of Apple software (3).
  • Too many absurd claims have been made about the information superhighway. People will always prefer human contact. Computers cannot replace the interaction between a teacher and children in schools (4).
  • McEwan says that the Internet is too slow and he has never met anyone who has learned anything from the Internet (5) (6).
  • Collaborative writing on the Internet is like any collaborative writing (7).
  • We do not need the Internet: we could do it with the telephone or the fax. But for writing to have individuality it has been the result of one person working in solitude (8).
  • Erotic relationships on the Internet are very sad and completely pointless. It is auto-eroticism (9).
  • McEwan is "agnostic" when it comes to censorship of the Internet. The wonderful thing about it is its freedom, but if one thinks of child pornography sites, perhaps some kind of control is necessary (10).



digital library

biblioteca digitale





Question 1
You write both books and screenplays. How does the act of writing change with different media?

In the immediate sense there’s no change because even when you’re writing a screenplay you have to sit alone in your room and write what amounts to a short novel. The real change comes afterward with the complete loss of control. A novelist is used to having complete control over his world; he plays God. When you move to writing for movies, you get demoted from being God to being one of the very minor angels ten ranks down. Obviously, film is a collaborative matter. Its frustrations for the writer are numerous: it’s essentially a director’s medium. It’s difficult to ever realise what you saw when you sat alone. For that reason my own relationship with film has been rather difficult and strained. I think that if you really want to take film seriously, you have to direct it. No complaining about it; you write the screenplay and direct it yourself. I’ve often thought about this but I know it would threaten my novel writing so I haven’t taken it up.


Question 2
But the form of the literature that you write, the sentences, and the style is the same?

I think too much is made of the difference. It finally comes down to layout. A screenplay is about 20,000 words; it bears a great deal of resemblance to a novella. At least in the kind of narrative cinema that I’ve been involved in, the characters have to be established very rapidly, the plots have to move with economy, resolutions have to be foretold with speed. So it bears a lot of relationship to short-story writing.


Question 3
Do you use the computer to write and does this change the creativity of a writer ?

I’ve been using a computer since 1985 and I think that word processing has been an extraordinary gift to creative writers. It allows you a degree of provisionality. There is so much that you can try, experiment with, without committing yourself to the words on the page. Scenes that are left in the computer and are never printed have something of the quality of something you mentioned. I like that cutting and pasting ability. And I think that writing with a computer is much closer to handwriting than ever the typewriter was. The typewriter was always much more of a mechanistic way. I think the word processor has an ethereal form which I really work with extremely well. So I use a combination of handwriting and computer to work. You find me now at a very difficult moment in my relationship with the computer because I have finally decided to leave Apple, having watched very carefully what was happening and to move to a standard PC. And last week I took delivery of a new computer ten times as fast as my old Apple, with seven gigabytes of memory. My old Apple only has 40 megabytes. Although this machine is very sophisticated and very fast, I felt like throwing it out the window the first two days, because what I loved about my old machine was the simplicity. And in the five or six years since I bought a computer, they’ve become so complex; the software is so complex. And I have to say at this early stage, if you asked me, Windows 95 is a very poor imitation of what Apple produced for its users. But I’ll get used to it.


Question 4
I would like to ask you, in your book The Cement Garden, you talk about a group of young people who live together in isolation. Don’t you think that this describes the information society where everybody uses computers and is isolated from reality?

Well, I think actually it’s this isolation that will limit the impact of computers. Because I don’t think people will tolerate it. People will always leave their computers and go and meet their friends in the bar. I think the universal, enduring values of friendship, love, and gossip will actually make us see that computers are an addition. They’re not actually the substance of change. I think too many claims have been made about the information superhighway that are absurd, actually. I think claims have been made for its use in schools that are quite ludicrous. I don’t think it is a great educational tool. I don’t think it will replace the interaction between a teacher and children in school. I think the CD ROM world of encyclopaedias and interactive learning actually has turned out to be far more limited than one ever imagined. It encourages a degree of passivity in children which I don’t think is very useful. I think there are other problems too. In Britain recently Tony Blair was in a very well publicised meeting with Bill Gates in Downing Street, and British Telecom has agreed to wire all the schools in England to the Internet. And there’s going to be computers in every school. The problem already is that every three years these computers become obsolete. Doubts have already been raised about their usefulness in the classroom. And it could well be that we’re just misusing the money. We could actually be spending the money for teachers. In effect the greatest computer is the biological one we carry on our shoulders. It might not be so fast for processing in two-fifths of a second instead of a minute or a micro-second, but still it’s had four billion years to evolve, and there’s a long way to go. And I think we shouldn’t lose touch with those human things, interaction, that really make learning interesting. So I think we’re on the edge of a lot of big mistakes. I think computer are great but they need to be kept in their place.


Question 5
In one of your books, you tell a story of two people meeting in a bar, and one of them sends a message to the other, and they fall in love. Don’t you think it’s a little bit like falling in love through the Internet?

Actually, I once met a woman who was having an affair with a man through Minitel and it lasted a week. They used to type these very sexy messages to each other over the Minitel and they fell in love without meeting. Then he came to stay. She lived in the south of France and he lived in Paris. And on the night that he was due to arrive she asked me to come and have dinner with them. And she hated him; she thought he was a freak. I thought he was perfectly nice. But they were heading towards disaster. This just goes to show that you cannot form relationships in that way. I find those home pages on the Internet, so mindless. I’ve ever yet got anything useful from the Internet. I have spent some time crawling around. I’ve never met anyone who has learned anything from the Internet.


Question 6
You’re not interested in finding information over the Internet?

It’s so slow. And it never goes the way you think it should. It takes a long time for information to download. I did buy a book from Amazon Bookshop in Seattle, but it never arrived. So I phoned them and asked: Where’s my book? Oh, it’s in the post. I sent you US$35 to bring it in a day. Oh well, human error. This is reassuring.


Question 7
Your writing has been defined as like a labyrinth of storied and events. What do you think of hypertext?

I think the story that Updike started for the Amazon Bookshop was really just an advertising strategy for the bookshop to get people interested in their existence. I think about it the same way as about any collaborative writing for a short story. It’s never going to have individuality. It’s a parlour game. Nothing more. I think for writing to have some quite of strangeness, idiosyncrasy, it has been the result of one person sitting in solitude, otherwise we could have had great works already. We don’t need the Internet to collaborate. We could do it with the telephone or the fax. But it doesn’t happen. It’s not the way that the imagination works.


Question 8
Do you think that in the there will be a revolution in the structure of the book?

My guess is that it will remain the same. Still we want our stories, our myths, and they have to be written down and they’re best written down by one person who has the gift to do this. I think what will change, though, will be the ease of access, the speed with which you can buy a book through electronic mail. Really, the essential matter is to be creative. Even if we finally get the electronic book, which sounds like such a marvellous achievement, you could download any book you wanted. That’s only about access. In the end the relationship is still between the eye, the brain, the words on the screen or on the page. That is the universal, permanent quality of reading. That won’t change.


Question 9
What do you think erotic relations on the Internet?

They seem to be very sterile, very sad, completely pointless. It fills me with desolation. It’s not eroticism. It’s auto-eroticism. I think it’s bloodless. So I’m sure it has a great future.


Question 10
What do you think about censorship? Do you agree with people who say that the Internet must not be a free media, that they will have to censor some pages?

It’s very difficult because my instincts are that it should be free, although I’ve read about some terrible sites with child pornography. I think they represent such an ugly side of human nature. It’s so exploiting that. I’m rather torn about it actually. The wonderful thing about the whole enterprise is its freedom and the fact that no one is in control of its growth. I think I’m an agnostic on this. I feel genuinely torn. If one thinks of these child pornography sites, then I think some kind of control perhaps is necessary. They seem so fundamentally ugly. But that’s a great tragedy because freedom is always in danger.


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