Lionel Shriver by Jenefer Shute

BOMB 93 Fall 2005
093 Fall 2005 1024X1024
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Lionel Shriver accepting the Orange Prize, 2005.

Before Lionel Shriver and I met for the first time, in London in 2002, she described herself over the phone so I would recognize her when she arrived for our lunch date. (She was interviewing me for The Economist, where she regularly writes about books.) Short, badly dressed, and dirty blond hair are the three attributes I recall her mentioning—and, sure enough, they turned out to be true, if only in the most limited and literal of senses. Shriver is physically small, yes, but wiry, tough, and athletic. She has dirty blond hair, but the kind other women pay vast sums of money to acquire. And if she’s badly dressed, it’s only because Shriver insists on bicycling everywhere, in all weathers, and dresses accordingly. The attributes she didn’t mention, and that I quickly discovered for myself, include ferociously intelligent, uncompromising, independent, opinionated, driven, scorchingly funny, contrary, passionate. And, at the time, horribly underrated as a novelist.

This latter attribute has at last been eliminated, with the success, on both sides of the Atlantic, of Shriver’s seventh published novel, We Need to Talk About Kevin. Despite—or perhaps because of—its hot-button subjects (school shootings, and the far greater taboo of maternal ambivalence) the book was selected for ABC’s Good Morning America book club. Then, in the UK, it rapidly ascended the best-seller list and scooped the 2005 Orange Prize for Fiction. Now Shriver is receiving a long-overdue avalanche of recognition, and, as she herself puts it, “I don’t envy those writers who make it with their first book. I am grown up. I am ready for this now.”

Shriver and I began the following conversation somewhere in cyberspace, in the wake of her Orange Prize, and continued it one muggy summer evening over a bottle of wine in the East Village. It was a great excuse for a reunion, and this time, no self-description was required: woman on a roll would pretty much sum it up.

Jenefer Shute Okay, I know you hate this question, but for the sake of all those who have ever been taken aback by your author photo (or by the fact that one Lionel Shriver just won the for-women-writers-only Orange Prize): How does a nice girl from North Carolina come to be called Lionel?

Lionel Shriver (rolls eyes) A friend tells me that if I am so perverse as to change my name to Lionel, then I deserve the tedium of having to explain it to everyone I meet. That said, she is so sick of listening to this patter that when it rears its ugly head, she has to leave the room. Personally I wish I could leave the room, too.

The explanation varies, if only to keep myself amused. I’ve been known to shorten it to “My parents wanted a boy,” which, while untrue, gets the curious off my back. It’s moderately true that maybe I wanted to be a boy; certainly my having grabbed a traditionally male name out of the air at 15 is no accident. Not because, as British papers have crudely abbreviated, “I thought men lead better lives,” but because I hated wearing dresses as a kid, having to grip the skirt tightly between my legs on the swing set, and, when my precautions were unavailing, being subjected to my brothers’ taunts that they could see my underwear.

I always felt alienated from my given name, Margaret Ann (always, in my family, the whole double-barrel), which sounded girly and—especially in the American South, where I grew up—a little hick. I recognized that if I didn’t do something about that name I’d be stuck with Margaret Ann for life. The nice thing about choosing your own name is that it’s not an appellation that you’re simply resigned to; it’s one that you actively love.

JS And why do you love Lionel—as opposed to, say, Fred?

LS I like the assonance of Lionel Shriver. And the joke’s on me, since Lionel sounds to my ear like the name of a woman. Ls are feminine consonants.

I take the naming of my characters in fiction with equal seriousness. In fact, I could see the merits in everyone being given the option of selecting the name they will go by for the rest of their lives as a coming-of-age ritual. Naming is an act of creation, choosing your own an act of self-creation. In that sense, my impulse to christen myself was supremely American.

JS True, but ironic, surely, given that you, as an American, have chosen to live outside the US for most of your working life. What’s the impulse behind this expat existence—or this bicontinental existence that keeps you shuttling back and forth between Brooklyn and London?

LS Yes, I’ve been an expat since 1985. I suppose that’s a point of pride—whether or not it should be. I do return to New York most summers, which helps me keep a finger on the American pulse. While some of my time abroad has been in exotic places—Nairobi, Bangkok, Tel Aviv—the abundance of those years has been spent in the comparatively unadventurous United Kingdom. My dozen years in Belfast only qualify as exotic to those who’ve never been there. (Even during the Troubles, Belfast was secretly a sleepy, pleasant, provincial town with, if you will, a visiting circus.)

JS But don’t you feel that, as a writer, you sacrifice something—some sense of language and culture, some sense of place—by not being deeply rooted in a single location? Or do you feel that this very lack of rootedness gives you a wider perspective, a more lucid distance from which to work?

LS Well, ironically, living outside the US translates into being “an American” all the time in a way that when you live stateside you’re never “an American.” My nationality is self-conscious, and it would be nice once in a while to forget about it.

Another drawback is that I’m not as culturally up to date on American matters as I might be. I don’t have the same ear for changing American colloquialisms. (It was only this last year that I figured out that Americans do not have “mobiles” but “cells.”) If that sounds boastful—oh, I’m so British now—this is a considerable disadvantage for a fiction writer who needs to be able to write credible American dialogue. I think in British expressions, and sometimes find myself designing characters or whole books in such a way that I can convert that handicap to an advantage. Otherwise, this anglicized voice in my head slows me down. You know—what’s the American equivalent of a “one-off”? Or how do you call someone “wet” in the US? It’s a problem, and hampers my lucidity.

JS For your information, I think “one-off” is slowly creeping into the US vernacular, but “wet,” no … . What’s the upside, then, of being a perpetual outsider?

LS The upside is that I live in a larger world, emotionally, politically, and intellectually. Events outside US borders are real to me, especially those in countries I’ve lived in. On returning to New York, I have a precious (though very brief) fresh window on my own country and can see and hear things to which I’d otherwise be inured. For example, did you realize that American newscasters shout? They do; they yell the news at you, like Garrett Morris on Saturday Night Live in the corner of the screen screaming the news for the deaf. I only noticed this on my return to New York last month, after nine months of the soothing tones of Jeremy Paxman on BBC2, a channel less given to bellowing. Furthermore, as a journalist with fingers in pies on both sides of the Atlantic, I’ve carved out a niche for myself, interpreting each shore for the other. It’s a nice position to occupy, and it makes me feel useful.

JS But how, then, from your place “in between,” do you identify? As an American? As a European? As a Londoner? As a New Yorker? Or does the whole question of national identity seem irrelevant to you, in an age of rampant globalization?

LS My work—an expression that always sounds unbearably pretentious to me—has had too much to do with nationality for me to find it irrelevant. Globalized or not, we all still hail from countries, and think in countries; we still regard a person’s nationality as a crucial piece of information about them. Certainly the fact that I’m an American who has chosen to live outside the US is an important piece of information about me.

I did realize on 9/11 that New York is still dear to me, and it is the single part of the US that I’ve annexed for myself. I suppose I’ve long felt alienated from the rest of America in much the same way as I felt alienated from “Margaret Ann.” Being “only” American has seemed to impose constraints similar to the constraints of that name, and I’ve consistently tried to expand my borders in a literal as well as a metaphorical sense. Something about the US makes me uncomfortable, and I don’t find it easy to put into words what that is. It’s not as simple as not caring for the Bush Administration. Nor is it as simple as seeing Americans as crass, or arrogant, or ignorant—the standard accusations. Rather, Americans seem desperate. The US is on the existential cutting edge; that is, no people has ever had it so good, and hence the country presses the question of what having it good amounts to. The desperation I sense is an undercurrent of, “Is this all there is? Is this as good as it gets?” I don’t feel it’s a very happy place. Yet Americans, most of them, are working terribly hard for a “good life” that seems eternally just out of reach. Beneath all the frantic shopping and selling and dragging the kids to yoga lessons, I detect a pervasive, soul-destroying disappointment.

JS This sense of pervasive disillusionment is something that I sense at the heart of We Need to Talk About Kevin—in a way, it’s the emotional climate of the novel, isn’t it?

LS Yes, the high-hopes-crushed theme is embodied in the narrator’s husband, Franklin, who is the novel’s self-willed optimist about the possibility of a happy family.

JS In an interview, and in many of our conversations at the time, you said that Kevin was a make or break book. It had to do something. “By the time of Kevin I have to admit I was depressed and very tired.” Given that Kevin was your seventh novel, and that none of the previous ones had achieved the kind of recognition that a novelist needs to survive commercially, what did keep you going?

LS It’s true that I went through, what, I’d say a solid 12 years of nonstop professional disappointment. The novel before Kevin—my real seventh novel—is still sitting on my C drive; it never saw the light of day. That panicked me, too—that after publishing six novels I could fail to get the seventh into print.

What kept me going? Sheer bloody-mindedness, for one thing. That up-yours feeling, a determination that other people will not come between me and my purpose that sometimes crops up when I’m going running and some wanker is loitering dully on the path—a kind of rage, really: get out of my fucking way. On the other hand, a poverty of imagination—a difficulty in reconceiving myself as something other than a novelist. I set out to be a novelist from childhood. In much the same way that when I go for a nine-mile run I run nine miles and not a yard less because that’s what I told myself at the outset I would run, I’ve long been trapped by my own career edict. By Kevin, on my last literary legs, I was beginning to imagine, foggily, that I might be able to adapt to being a full-time journalist, but I couldn’t help but feel that this would be the equivalent of calling it quits at five miles.

To be faithful to someone who deserves the acknowledgment, the other thing that kept me going was a man. From 1993 to 2002, I lived with a man who believed in me even more than I believed in myself, and whose determination not only in his own life but on my account was also more ferocious than my own. This was a man—is a man—who doesn’t take no for an answer, and he wouldn’t let me do so either. I owe him a huge debt. I do not believe I’d have been able to keep writing in virtual obscurity nearly as long as I did without him.

JS Given that virtual obscurity, plus the all-too-real need to make a living, I’ve always wondered how you avoided the peculiarly American trap of teaching creative writing for a living (given that you did fall into the peculiarly American trap of getting an MFA)?

LS Nuts, you know, that MFA is the source of enduring shame, even if I didn’t mind the process of “earning” it (re: those quotation marks, an MFA, academically, is a joke). Granted, since I got my first agent under the helpful aegis of one of my Columbia workshop leaders, Scott Spencer, that degree wasn’t, logistically, foolhardy. But I’d have more respect for myself for having gotten a degree in history, for example. At that time, though, I wouldn’t have had the discipline for a degree in history or anything else. I primarily wanted attention.

JS That’s a great way of putting it. I think that might be the real, hidden reason that so many people end up in MFA programs.

LS Still, the prospect of ending up teaching creative writing has always made me feel suicidal. (I have done the odd one-off gig—just enough to discover that I hate it.) I haven’t minded teaching freshman comp, funnily enough, or even remedial English. Instructing students on the proper use of “who” and “whom”—a losing battle, I concede—at least seemed useful. But most creative writing workshops are glorified therapy sessions, and very few of your students will go on to publish anything more than their phone number. Moreover—and Jenny, I don’t know how you can stand it—teaching creative writing kills my enthusiasm for writing it. The whole enterprise just starts feeling indulgent, spoilt, embarrassing and pointless.

So instead of going the academic route, I opted to subsidize my income with journalism. I’m pleased with that choice. Book reviews keep me current with what’s out there, as does editorial journalism in the broader sense.

JS Journalism also seems to fit with your aptitude for being out and about in the world, researching something new. For someone whose job description is essentially “sitting alone in a room and making stuff up,” you certainly cover a lot of ground. I’m really struck by the wide range of subjects that you tackle in your novels with, it seems, equal authority. You’ve said that you make a point of not repeating yourself—

LS True, my subject matter has been disparate. In order: anthropology and first love, rock-and-roll drumming and immigration, the Northern Irish Troubles, demography and epidemiology, inheritance, tennis and spousal competition, terrorism and cults of personality (that’s the phantom seventh), high-school shootings and motherhood, and now, believe it or not, the trade-offs of one man versus another and snooker. In fact, I’m starting to get nervous, since when you cast a wide net as a fiction writer you cannibalize your own fascinations, and pretty soon I’m going to run out of them.

JS Why worry about that? I can’t see you running out of passions and prejudices anytime soon … .

LS I have many interests (and even more prejudices). I have a limited number of obsessions.

JS What are those obsessions, then? What, in other words, are the subterranean relationships that you yourself perceive among your books? What’s your signature as a writer, the part of your own sensibility that you can’t escape when you sit down to write?

LS A certain perversity, for one thing; I like to craft characters who are hard to love. You know, it’s easy to make a character kind to animals, and in a stroke he can speak five languages and sign to the deaf. But characters have to be interesting more than nice, and often interesting, to me, is not very nice. My characters all have something horribly wrong with them, which is probably of a piece with my perception of myself as deeply flawed. I use my characters to examine aspects of myself of which I’m suspicious, or with which I’m not terribly comfortable.

For example, in Game Control my demographer protagonist wants to kill two billion people overnight. Over the top, sure, but what underpins the impulse to slaughter large numbers of people on paper is my own resentment of the needy, of the imposition of guilt on Western liberal life. I grew up in a family where I was told over and over that other people were less privileged than I, and I was obliged to donate ten cents of my 25-cent allowance to the church, and therefore (supposedly) to the poor. I’m not a natural altruist, and have more an I’ll-take-care-of-myself-if-you-take-care-of-yourself mentality, which has a cruelty to it.

I like wickedness, I like saying things you’re not supposed to say, and I probably value the quality of humor over any other—a quality that, in my opinion, is intrinsically amoral.

Lastly, I think there’s a consistent tension in my books between optimism and cynicism. In my more “mature” books, the latter seems to be getting the upper hand. A book like Checker, my ebullient rock-and-roll fairy tale, I may never be able to write again. Good God, it even has a happy ending.

JS Good God indeed! But every novelist has, I believe, a secret favorite, a work she believes hasn’t received due recognition, a work in whose skill and craftsmanship she takes particular, private pleasure. Which of your novels would that be—and why?

LS Excellent question, and you’re right, I do take particular, private pleasure in one novel more than any other: Game Control. I hold that book close to my chest in a protective way, for in hardback the poor thing only sold as many copies as there are days in a year. It needs me, like a retarded child. The novel was published with Faber in the UK, never in the US. But I worked harder on that book than any other before or since. I could have earned a master’s degree in demography for the amount of reading I did for that novel, and I moved to Nairobi for over a year to set the thing. (No regrets on either count, by the way, though I will never do that much work for any book again. Part of the work was eliminating from the finished manuscript virtually all the research that I’d put in.) And that book is the supreme example of my proclivity for perversity and wickedness. It’s generally read as a satire, but what many readers don’t seem to get is that there are some days that its author really would love to murder two billion people overnight, if not 6.3.

JS What?!

LS I have a misanthropic streak a mile wide. Whether or not they admit it, so do many people—on some days—which may be one reason I’ve gradually garnered an audience.

JS Speaking of unpopular subjects: can you say something about why you decided to tackle the (virtually taboo) issue of maternal ambivalence in Kevin? I remember, a couple of years ago, the absolute horror with which some New York agents rejected the manuscript, as if the very subject would contaminate them.

LS Right before I wrote Kevin, I was as close as I was ever to come to having a child (which, in retrospect, was still not very close). The notion of having kids has long struck me as a prospectively intolerable imposition. Too, I form strong affections and aversions, not only for other adults but also for kids. So Kevin was a thought experiment. What if I felt the same dislike for my own kid that I sometimes feel toward someone else’s?

You will note this is one of my shortest answers, since I’ve been talking, as a matter of promotional obligation, about this novel for two-plus years and I’m pretty played out on the subject. I always knew that if I were ever successful I’d still find a way to complain.

JS I would expect no less … but, if you’ll allow me, a few more questions about Kevin. You’ve said, of ordinary readers’ reviews, that they “divide almost straight down the middle into what seem to be reviews of two completely different books.” In brief, one camp sees Kevin as a novel about a well-intentioned mother who is saddled from the outset with a “bad seed”; the other sees a novel about a mother whose coldness is itself criminal, and who bears full responsibility for her son’s murderous rampage. You also say, if I understand you correctly, that this ambiguity is purposeful, and ultimately unresolvable. Which raises, for me, a technical question: did you conceive Eva as an unreliable narrator?

LS I didn’t set out announcing to myself, “I’m going to use an unreliable narrator.” It was more a matter of inhabiting the mind of a woman who, by dint of circumstance if not character, was compulsively self-justifying, even in the process of being self-excoriating. (Psychically familiar territory, for me.) She’s not a liar, except in the sense that we’re all liars. We all choose to remember some events more often than others, because they play to our version of the world, and of ourselves, whereas the memories that challenge who we are to ourselves have a funny tendency to seep away. So naturally Eva remembers all the scenes in which her son did (or seemed to do) something nasty, and never the day he drew her a Valentine.

JS Did he? I don’t remember.

LS If he did, we’d never know, would we?

JS As someone who doesn’t have children, I also wondered whether you’d noticed significant differences in the way the novel has been received by readers with children versus readers without. Have you received any flack for “daring” to write from the point of view of a mother when you yourself have chosen to remain childless?

LS I’ve been surprised to note very little difference between the reactions of parents and childless readers. Some parents who’ve had sour experiences are relieved to see motherhood de-sentimentalized. Others who’ve had perfectly cheerful experiences with kids enjoy feeling lucky. Childless readers are gratified to find their decision not to have kids validated. I’ve had couples tell me they’re wrangling with the question of whether to have children, and that the novel has provided a useful springboard for this discussion. Something for everyone!

It’s funny, the only people who have expressed dismay at my chutzpah in writing about motherhood when I obviously don’t know what I’m talking about are journalists, usually radio interviewers, who haven’t read the book. That said, I feel as if I’ve gotten away with something. I don’t know what I’m talking about. I made it all up. But I guess when it comes to something that terrifies me (in this case, motherhood), my imagination is vivid.

JS For sure. With Kevin, you definitely seem to have touched a cultural nerve—not so much on school shootings, which would have seemed the obvious hot-button issue, but on the issue of contemporary motherhood. Which makes me wonder: do you consciously consider questions of topicality when deciding on a subject for a novel, or do you simply follow your own instincts and passions of the moment?

LS More the latter, I think. If I’m interested in something, I convince myself that other people are too. Sometimes I’m wrong. I thought I’d hit on a very timely subject in Double Fault —professional competition in the two-career marriage—and the bloody thing sold a meager 5,000 copies. Go figure. In fiction, second-guessing what’s going to be the next hot-button issue is probably a waste of time. Better just to go for whatever amuses you at the moment.

JS So what does amuse you at the moment? What’s in the works?

LS You should know, since you more or less gave me the idea for my new book. (Where were we? Having dinner at Spring Street Natural?)

JS I know, but I still have my obligations as an interviewer.

LS Okay, then: It’s an exploration of the implications for your life, depending on the man (or, of course, woman) you end up with. It’s a parallel universe book, all hinging on whether the protagonist does or doesn’t deliver one kiss. At the moment, my main concern (aside from the length; it’s in first draft right now, and a monster) is that anyone might think that I think this Sliding Doors structure is my own formal innovation. It’s not. It’s been done before, and that doesn’t bother me, either. I do not regard myself as formally avant garde. In fact, I’m a traditionalist. I do not chafe at the boundaries of classic novel structure. I’m perfectly happy telling stories the way they’ve been told for centuries. In this case, I am contentedly availing myself of an established format.

JS And how, if at all, is the act of writing different these days? Do you find that your “sudden” fame has affected your daily, solitary experience at the desk, struggling with the words?

LS So far the main effect my “fame,” if we can call it that, is having on my “solitary” experience is that I don’t get no solitary experience. I have barely been able to touch the manuscript since the Orange a month ago. Not only have I spent much time giving interviews (I mean, what am I doing this afternoon—working on Chapter 7B? No! talking to you for BOMB), but more journalistic opportunities have opened up—enough that, should I wish to, I could spend all my time writing articles. Thing is, I have for many years lived a terribly insecure financial existence, and have never, ever passed up work, no matter how lowly or poorly paid. A habit I may have to break if I’m ever going to finish this novel.

JS Finally, I suppose we should talk about the latest cultural nerve you’ve touched: your response to being awarded the Orange Prize, which was, shall we say, decidedly unladylike. You prepared for victory, reveled in your success, and didn’t pretend you didn’t deserve it (what cheek!). As you wrote in The Guardian, “Throughout the whole Orange Prize experience I was confronted with evidence that women are uncomfortable with naked ambition, trained to have low expectations, embarrassed by head-to-head competition, and virtually obliged to act abashed when they win. In contrast to a certain other sex that will go unmentioned.” Can you say a little more about this issue (to my knowledge, you’re the first novelist, male or female, who’s addressed it head-on) and any fallout from your refusal to play the “what, little me?” game?

LS You should check out the profile of me in the Sunday Times (London) that came out the weekend after the Orange. Man, that was a study. I think I gave him a decent interview, considering I’d had one hour’s sleep. (It was the day after the Orange Prize was awarded, and I was running on adrenaline—albeit a lot of it.) Something about my attitude rubbed him the wrong way, and I’m certain it was this refusal to act undeserving. I’d been writing bloody good books for almost 20 years for practically no money and with very little recognition and yes, I did deserve that prize, thank you very much. (No, I was not nearly so up-in-face in the interview, but I didn’t act embarrassed at my astonishing good fortune, either.) In the published profile, he neatly eliminated anything I said that was warm, compassionate, or humble. I come across as an arrogant, pushy, vain American jerk. If you read it, you’ll see where he took exception: that I admitted to being very ambitious, and implicitly to having been underestimated, and under-rewarded, for a long time. As you said, it wasn’t ladylike. We’re accustomed to male authors who toot their own horns, and we allow them to be as pretentious and inflated as they like. But women writers are supposed to be demure. I’d like to fancy that I’m not an arrogant, pushy, vain American jerk, but I ain’t demure.

Nevertheless, I’m nervous of referencing my current circumstances in too sunny a manner; all glory is fleeting, and it’s always possible to slip backward. I may be holding on the best-seller list in the UK (not to “little-ol’ me,” but really, being on that list does astonish me, far more than finally winning a literary prize) but I’m no household name in the US. Still, to the degree that I am more of an established writer post-Kevin, I always knew that if I ever became a literary luminary I would hate it. That is, very little in the furniture of the successful novelist’s life interests me—literary festivals, speaking engagements, prize judging, blurb giving, creative writing gigs, authors’ tours, or being asked to mouth off on subjects you’re completely unqualified to declaim about. At the least, it’s all a waste of time; at the worst, too much admiration, and a disproportionate ratio of blather to product, turns you into an insufferable prat. (Important British vocabulary lesson. No American term I know of quite substitutes for prat.) My agent recently advised me to “say yes to everything now, so that you can say no later.” Not bad counsel, except how do you determine when you’re sufficiently successful that you can say no? It is very easy in this business to turn into someone you don’t like.

Jenefer Shute is the author of the novels Life-Size (Houghton Mifflin, 1992), Sex Crimes (Doubleday, 1996), Free Fall (Random House UK, 2002), and User ID (forthcoming, Houghton Mifflin, 2005) as well as numerous essays and articles in publications such as Harper’sThe Nation,, and The Guardian. Born in Johannesburg, South Africa, Shute is a professor in the English Department of Hunter College, New York, where she teaches in the MFA Program in Creative Writing.

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BOMB 93, Fall 2005

Featuring interviews with Arturo Herrera and Josiah McElheny, Jennifer Bartlett and Elizabeth Murray, Lincoln Perry, Anthony Downey and Yinka Shonibare, Eliot Weinberger and Forrest Gander, Lionel Shriver, Noah Baumbach and Jonathan Lethem, George Lewis and Jeff Parker, and David Rabe and Evangeline Morphos. 

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