Why we do need to talk about Kevin
Lionel Shriver doesn't like to discuss the book that's now an Oscar-tipped film -- but, as Judith Woods finds out, this contrary nature is central to her success
Prize-winning author Lionel Shriver doesn't really want to talk about her book. Or the film of her book which went on general release yesterday and is being tipped for an Oscar.
Or even the explosive debate over parenting that she precipitated when her novel was published in 2003 and which will be reignited as cinema audiences watch, with open-mouthed dread, the ultimate nature-versus-nurture conflict unfolding.
"I'm sorry about this, but We Need to Talk About Kevin." I say. Shriver, watchful, intense, doesn't crack a smile. Not even a tiny one.
"I suppose we do," she sighs. "But let's get it over and done with because in my head I've moved on and I'm somewhere else and it all feels so distant it could be a book written by someone else."
But We Need To Talk About Kevin, an utterly unforgettable, devastating study of maternal ambivalence, wasn't written by someone else, it was the work of the physically slight yet quietly powerful Shriver, who, although childless by choice, dared to prise open the darkest secrets of motherhood and expose them to the unforgiving light.
The book is epistolary in structure, taking the form of letters from Eva, the mother of Kevin, to his father and her estranged husband, Franklin, expressing grave concern about their monstrous child and her possible role in his creation.
The film, in which Tilda Swinton gives a faultless performance of brittle, operatic scale and swoop, is at once excruciating and mesmerising.
"Tilda courageously allows herself to look haggard on screen, when she's actually very beautiful in an unconventional way, and surprisingly warm -- she tends to be cast as an ice maiden, but in person she couldn't be more different."
Ironically the same could be said of American-born Shriver (54) whose deadpan, desiccated manner conceals a wry sense of humour -- mischief, even -- although she is at pains to keep it hidden beneath a carapace of cool detachment.
When she talks about the contrast between her career pre- and post-Kevin (her eighth published novel) there's a note of bitterness that she chooses to accentuate.
Not for her the easy, throwaway conversational quips designed to put others at ease. On the contrary, she seems to relish the uncomfortable silences that most of us strain to avoid.
Married to American jazz drummer Jeff Williams, who divides his time between the US and Britain, she has lived in London for the past 12 years. Prior to that, she lived in Belfast, Nairobi and Bangkok; unexpected places for a person of introspection.
Subjects she has written about include the jarringly eclectic mix of terrorism, rock'n'roll, inheritance, love, tennis and the Northern Irish Troubles.
Witnessing her book being made into a movie wasn't the trauma often endured by authors who are prone to feeling protective and proprietorial. A film, she says, crisply, is self-evidently a different sort of creation altogether and must be viewed as such.
"The film is absolutely gripping and it was interesting to watch it in a cinema and be part of a communal experience," she says.
"I saw it at a huge cinema in Cannes which was about the size of Leicester Square and accompanied by the red carpet dazzle, but I also watched it in a small cinema in London and I was really struck by the fact that when it was over, the audience started filing out without saying a word."
The denouement may leave sensitive souls speechless for hours -- until that is, the arguing starts over whether Kevin was born bad or made bad; is his malevolence inherent or a result of his mother's sub-standard nurturing?
Shriver makes no secret of the fact her own mother failed to bond with her eldest child, a son, resenting the fact that she fell pregnant within a month of marriage. Having watched the family dynamics from the sidelines, by the age of eight she was repelled by the idea of childbearing: "Having a baby is like leaving the back door unlocked. Anyone could walk in."
Granted it's a singularly creepy interpretation of what most of us would consider to be the glorious, random lottery of human life, but no less true for that.
In Kevin, as she refers to the book, her portrayal of a fractured family unit in extremis tapped into the modern paranoia about parenting and Shriver -- who was christened Margaret Anne but changed her name to Lionel at 15 as she felt it suited her tomboy nature better -- remains on direct dial whenever a teenager goes berserk with an AK47 at a US high school.
"I haven't had the experience of being mother," she says flatly. "But I have had the experience of being a child and I think that all the angst surrounding parenting hasn't really improved how children are raised, other than to have a mildly negative effect. I do think we've gone a bit too far in putting children in the driver's seat of families. I grew up in the backseat. And I would get car sick, but that was how things were."
This is said in what could, at a push, be described as a tone of wry amusement, but the moment for levity passes.
"We weren't consulted about major decisions, I wasn't the centre of my parents' life and I wouldn't have wanted that pressure."
Despite her best efforts to appear cranky and difficult, Shriver is rather likeable; when she does laugh, it's a generous sound, which brings an attendant feeling of reward at having momentarily melted her froideur. She also confesses to a fatal fondness for frothy Jennifer Aniston movies.
But frothiness is a private pleasure, generally reserved for transatlantic flights. She advocates a cut in developing world birthrates through education and female empowerment; if women can boost household income by working, there is less incentive to have a large family.
She would like state-sponsored fertility treatment axed. "In the current climate of spending cuts we can't afford to fund anything that's elective.
"We need to focus on the treatment of injury and disease, not the treatment of disappointment."
It's hard to know whether Shriver takes a perverse delight in stirring things up or if it's simply a by-product of her plain talking. Most probably it's a combination of the two; either way she faces the backlash without flinching.
After We Need To Talk About Kevin, her next novel, So Much For That, was a scathing dissection of how illness destroys relationships. Her latest book, still at first draft stage, tackles yet another 21st century taboo: obesity.
Her elder brother, who had the IQ of a genius, died in 2007 of obesity-related disease. Shriver will run into trouble for her fierce determination to speak out against the Fat Pride lobby, a powerful campaigning group in the US.
She believes it is wrong to claim that the overweight should celebrate their condition as though it were an immutable given, or to insist that obesity be placed on a par "with being black, female or homosexual".
"I have a huge amount of sympathy and I believe it inexcusable that fat people should be ridiculed and discriminated against, but I have also seen up close the damage obesity causes. I don't judge, it doesn't make me feel condemnatory, it breaks my heart."
A childless woman who has the temerity to criticise parents, a thin woman who dares confront the overweight. If a writer's role is to say the unsayable and reveal what the rest of us hide, then long may Shriver continue to court controversy, through accident or design.
We Need to Talk About Kevin is on general release