4 literary artefacts from the Ian McEwan archive

In celebration of Ian McEwan’s 70th birthday this month, archive director Stephen Enniss unearths 4 treasures from the author’s literary archive that give unique insights into his extraordinary career.

Photo of the young Ian in Libya

In 1956 eight-year-old Ian McEwan lived in Libya, North Africa, where his father’s military unit was posted. The young McEwan attended the Army Children’s School in Tripoli.


Early writing - “complete but abandoned”

Some of Ian McEwan’s earliest surviving work was found among his papers in a thick envelope of short stories, plays, and poems which the young writer had labeled “Complete but Abandoned!” That exclamation mark signals his emphatic resolve. The envelope contains typed and handwritten drafts, all composed in 1970 and 1971. McEwan has dutifully dated most of them, as well as noting several changes of address, all around Norwich and King’s Lynn.  

One early story, Hospitality, includes a cover letter submitting the story to Alan Ross at the London Magazine. “I have been doing a kind of ‘critical writing course’ at the University of East Anglia,” he writes to Ross in the letter. “Nothing formally organized – I was the only student and I was given the time and money to write what I wanted.” On the back of the letter, Ross offers his reaction to the story: “You’re trying too hard to be bright about nothing very much – a story needs to develop from something felt.”

This exchange offers a glimpse of the future novelist finding his way. Only one of the stories present in this packet, Conversation with a Cupboard Man, would escape abandonment and go on to be included in McEwan’s first collection, First Love, Last Rites.

envelope - ian mc ewan

An early draft of Atonement

Ian McEwan often begins drafting a new novel in green spiral-bound notebooks like the one pictured here. This early, hand-written draft of Atonement from August 1998 contains a number of reflections on the novel’s development, including  the author’s thoughts on different possible endings. In a passage on this page, he asks himself: “What is good about this story? Only Briony really. That’s where the life is, and where there are roots.”

notepad - ian mcewan

Letters to and from John Updike

The letters between Ian McEwan and John Updike reveal the two writers’ mutual high regard and close friendship. The exchange began in 2004 after they met at the Guardian Hay Festival, and continued until just weeks before Updike’s death in 2009. In this letter from  December 2005, McEwan thanks Updike for sending his recent study of American art, Still Looking, and describes the “cloud of numb inaction” that has overtaken him as he contemplates starting On Chesil Beach, which is itself a novel about delayed inaction. “I get like this when I think I’m about to start writing a new novel – I do nothing.”  He adds, “Looking, with pride of ownership, at the shelves in my library bearing your books, I don’t imagine this sort of delaying thing happens to you much.”

ian mc ewan - letter 1
ian mcewan - letter part 2

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