PW: Your last novel, Atonement, had a historical setting—England before WWII—that's unusual in your work. Is there a reason for the return to a contemporary setting in Saturday, which takes place in 2003 on a day of a mass demonstration in London against the Iraqi war?
IM: The novel definitely came out of 9/11, after a long period of passively watching and listening as people struggled to come to terms with the event. We're living in such appallingly interesting times that they became an obvious and natural subject.
PW: Many reviewers have said that, in Saturday, a sense of general, inchoate anxiety plays the role that violence has played in your earlier novels. Is that a fair appraisal?
IM: Yes, but I was also trying to dig into a state of mind in which people can experience this fear but in other stretches experience great happiness. And my hero has great ambivalence about events, including the Iraqi war. This seemed to me a richer vein to pursue than if he were simply against the war, because that way it doesn't seem that I am telling the reader what to think.
PW: Does your U.S. readership differ at all from the one in England?
IM: The readership in America seems roughly the same as in the U.K. The literary novel is supported by a largely female readership. It was always thus—from the 19th century—and it always will be thus. The range in age is, satisfyingly, from about 20 up to forever, but I'd say 60% to 70% of my readers are female, and mostly college educated.
PW: Do American reviewers react any differently to your work than their English counterparts?
IM: With my earlier books, American reviewers were a little more shakable and horrified, and that stood in the way of sales: I had a reputation for dark material, which hindered things. That changed with Amsterdam, and then Atonement got such an amazing ride on both sides of the Atlantic. I'd never quite had American reviews like I had for Atonement. What differs most is the journalism about me, profiles specifically. I would say that American journalism is far less intrusive. If I'm going to meet an American journalist in London, I'd quite happily have him come to my home, because he isn't going to focus on my private life. I wouldn't let a British journalist through the door. It's always been like that. British journalists like to conflate you with the characters in your work. American journalists tend to be quite literary; they simply don't press you with personal questions.
PW: The BBC has called you the "international voice of modern British fiction," a testament to your popularity among readers outside the U.K. What appeal does your work hold for international audiences?
IM: In countries like France, Germany and Italy, contemporary literature has until recently been so influenced by mid 20th-century modernism that writers have been less interested in character or in trying to understand the world, which is something Americans take for granted. A number of English writers, myself included, waltzed into this gap in the 1980s, with a literature that has plots and tries to deal with life in the 20th and, now, the 21st Century. Though recently, European writers have woken up. Also, I've always favored a strong visual prose that is precise and it thus can translate easily. More lyrical writers, those who use wordplay, have a harder time getting translated.