“She had an unequalled gift…of squeezing big mistakes into small opportunities.” –Henry James
On April 17, 2012, Ian McEwan gave the inaugural lecture for the Rita E. Hauser Forum, presented by the Mahindra Humanities Center at Harvard. I’m no stranger to events that fall into the realm of the Mahindra Humanities Center. I just went to an all-day workshop on ancient Near Eastern studies for novel research, and the Center provides amazing programming. The renowned Norton Lectures now are part of the Center—presentations by this year’s lecturer, artist William Kentridge, are now available online. When I first saw the ad for the title of his lecture (“The Lever: Where Novelists Stand to Move the World”), I wondered what the overarching theme was going to be.
The title had to do with the Renaissance. In that era, the lever was considered one of six essential “simple machines.” (The screw, pulley, inclined plane, wedge, and wheel, and axle are the others.) Using this metaphor, McEwan explained that ancient Greek scientist Archimedes once said with a lever, he could move the world—and to this end, in view of the novelist, can they not also do the same? He went on to recount numerous mistakes that appeared in his own novels, and how astute readers contacted him overt the years to point them out. With each passage of a novel, he ended by reading the letter that pointed out the error. Topics included astronomy, cars, neurosurgery…a theme emerged: An author must be a polymath.
During the Q&A session that followed, someone asked how much research one needs to do to be credible. The answer echoed in my own experience. A lot. Vast amounts. Ian McEwan said that if minimal research is done, it will appear so to the reader. Bits of detail feel pasted in, and in order to be successful in the craft, an author must be able to move comfortably within the knowledge needed to tell the story. An author may set out to write a specific scene, but as it develops, it may turn in another direction. He related many amusing anecdotes to provide examples. As he researched Saturday (2005), he sent a neurosurgeon an excerpt. In it, McEwan envisioned a paintbrush used to cover a patient’s skin with Betadine. The surgeon said it was impossible, as there is no way a paintbrush can be sanitized properly. They use clamps with a sponge, because the clamps can be boiled for the requisite amount of time to be sterile.
People often ask me how much research I do for the historical fiction I write. For The Veiled Mirror, my bibliography stretched to a dozen books. For my new novel, Dark Lady of Doona, to be released later this year, it started out with six and went up to about seventeen. Reading about Ireland wasn’t enough, and that’s why the novel floundered when I started it in 2005. It took reading about England and Spain before the whole picture came together, in addition to books about everyday life in medieval times. As I continue to write, I’m always doing research for some future project. As it currently stands, research is complete for three more novels. It continues, and spans a massive range of topics: Arabic, ancient history, ships and sailing, cartography, cooking and brewing, mysticism/Sufism, astronomy and space travel, and these interests expand all the time. On a recent thread in a favorite author group on Facebook, several other authors claimed the polymath title and interesting experiences were shared.
I sometimes look back on the choices I made in the past and wonder whether there were too many missteps in the decisions I made. From beer brewer to international sales at a record label to being an editor and writing instructor and so on. Turns out they were all useful for me as a writer. All those years as an introverted, outcast kid in that small town in central Massachusetts, where I spent countless hours in the small brick library reading every book I could find—they set the seeds for my research methods. The fact that I changed majors in college every other month it seemed—from journalism to linguistics to German language and literature, and studying music theory and piano and philosophy and history and art. Yes, I was thoroughly scattered. Maybe even a dilettante to some. But it’s all useful for me as an author, so I too, like some of my author colleagues out there, can claim the title of polymath.
It was a refreshing experience to hear an author as well-known as Ian McEwan talk about life as a writer, recounting the mistakes and relating what had been learned as a result of the correspondence with readers across the world. He was relatable and down to earth, and that made him so much more than the legendary icon revered by the literary world. Like every other “type” out there, writers are a unique breed. Always curious, we seek knowledge in a breadth of subjects. Always tying to figure out how the world works, and how to represent it in our stories.
And since he kept mentioning Henry James, I’ll end with another of his famous quotes:
“It takes a great deal of history to produce a little literature.”