Wednesday 17 January 2018

We need to talk about Lionel - Shriver on how her feelings are hurt easily

Ahead of her appearance at the Dublin International Literature Festival, best-selling author Lionel Shriver tells Katie Byrne why perfect people bore her and why she can't take criticism on the chin

Author Lionel Shriver
Author Lionel Shriver
The film of 'We Need To Talk About Kevin', starring Jasper Newell and Tilda Swinton.
Katie Byrne

Katie Byrne

Lionel Shriver doesn't mince her words. We're chatting by phone as she heads towards the BBC studios in London during rush hour traffic when she realises that the cab driver has taken an unfamiliar route.

"I have to tell you - your Sat Nav is ridiculous," she says to the driver in unflinching monotone. "This is the strangest route I've ever taken to the BBC. I realise the timing is terrible."

Shriver doesn't have time for window-dressing or sugar-coating. This tartness is amusing when she's berating taxi drivers, talking politics or describing the US as "pretty low on the curve evolutionarily".

It's less amusing, however, when the despair is leveled at the interviewer. I swear I almost heard her eyes roll when I posed a question that didn't interest her.

The author, who's in Dublin this weekend for a talk as part of the city's International Literature Festival, is as efficient with her answers as she is with her driving directions. There are no cul de sacs or roundabouts; no backtracking or afterthoughts.

She's also the interviewee who always delivers, mainly because her books tend to have back stories that are just as compelling as the prose on the page. Shriver famously fell out with her family after writing a thinly veiled account of their dynamic in her fifth novel, A Perfectly Good Family.

In later years, November 2009 to be specific, she wrote a column about the rise of America's "fat pride movement" for Standpoint magazine in which she reflected on the heartbreak of watching her 24-stone brother eat himself to death.

A few hours after she filed the column, her brother suffered sudden respiratory crisis and was rushed to hospital. He died 10 days later. (The loss inspired her next novel, Big Brother, a fictionalised account of a woman living with her obese brother.)

Her most popular - and arguably most controversial - book was the Orange Prize-winning We Need to Talk About Kevin, which told the story of a mother whose son murdered nine people at his high school. The book provoked an incendiary reaction, partly because it was published in the post-Columbine climate and partly because it explored maternal ambivalence.

Shriver dared to imagine a mother who felt anything other than unconditional love towards her child and the reaction prompted her to observe that she had stumbled upon "the last taboo". Does she still feel that way?

"I take that back now because we seem to be generating taboos right, left and centre," she says. "They're mostly from the left. You can't call someone with five o'clock shadow who's wearing a skirt..."

Shriver's latest book, The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047, is another uncomfortable read, but for very different reasons. It is set in the not-too-distant future of 2029-2047 and while it has been described as dystopian, the future she imagines feels forebodingly plausible. The dollar has collapsed. Water is scarce. Robots have made most jobs redundant. The alarmingly perspicacious novel is no beach read, not least because the characters aren't particularly likeable people.

"Well, I like them," she rails when this is pointed out to her. "I get my back up when I'm characterised as only writing about people who are dislikable. I like to think of them as complex and having sometimes infuriating qualities.

"I'm bored by perfect people," she adds. "I don't believe in them - and I'm very suspicious of virtue, especially people who are trying to be recognised as being virtuous."

It's this attitude that helps Shriver excavate the darker side of human nature with ease. Like the rest of us, she isn't perfect - the difference is that she's okay with it.

This aspect of her writing has no doubt informed her reputation for being austere, misanthropic even. Interviewers often mention the fact that she wears gloves indoors (she suffers from Raynaud's, which makes the extremities overreact to cold temperatures) before bringing up her supposedly regimental calisthenics workout routine.

In a world of 6am spin classes and FitBit Flex-wearers, it's curious that much is made of Shriver's at-home workouts.

"People seem to be very suspicious when it's just something you do by yourself," she agrees. "You're supposed to go to a gym - or you're supposed to have a trainer and somehow this isn't strange. "It's something very private that I have always pursued. I wouldn't say fanatically. I would say steadily and with some resolution. Now that Sunday newspapers come with whole exercise supplements, this is not something to make fun of me for."

Her answer betrays a shade of vulnerability, a chink in the armour so to speak. People who are portrayed as misanthropic are often especially sensitive. Would that apply to her?

"I think my feelings are easily hurt - which is not how most people would probably think of me," she concedes. "That misanthropy is protective. It's a little shell. I can be very easily hurt and it's one of the reasons I can be in two minds as to whether I should be reading my reviews or not."

Her "policy varies" in this regard. Right now she's reading them.

"What happens is that I get a bunch of good ones and I think 'oh, this is fun - why did I ever think that I shouldn't read them?' and then I get a couple of stinkers and I remember.

Shriver knew she wanted to be a writer at the age of seven. She recently hummed and hawed about taking part in Radio 4's My Teenage Diary - "you find samples of your tear-stained pages and read them aloud and talk about them" - but she was ultimately impressed by how well written her teenage diary entries were.

Born in North Carolina, she has lived in Nairobi, Bangkok and Belfast. She initially visited Northern Ireland for a nine-month stint as a reporter during the Troubles. She stayed for 12 years.

"I confess I got a little addicted to the politics, even though they infuriated me. I think I'm a sucker for infuriation.

"I was very unsympathetic with the IRA from early on. I just didn't like them as people. I didn't find that their arguments came together and I didn't like their tactics. I ended up becoming a Unionist by default. Of course, I didn't have any time for Unionist paramilitaries either."

Today she lives in London with her husband, jazz drummer Jeff William. Does her nomadic existence make her feel like an outsider in the literary world?

"In London, at least, I'm probably not an outsider and I'm probably not perceived as an outsider, but it's a sensation after all and I still have it. It doesn't bother me. Maybe I cling to it.

"I like the idea of not being centrally located. In the US I'm definitely an outsider but it makes sense. And I really shouldn't complain about it because I don't choose to live there three-quarters of the year so how on earth would I expect to be everybody's friend?"

Shriver, now 58, had written six novels before We Need to Talk About Kevin made her an internationally recognised author. And it wasn't without dogged persistence. The manuscript for the best-selling book was widely rejected, with many literary agents telling her that her main characters were "unattractive".

"I wasn't sure if I could get myself to keep at it as that would have been two books in a row that didn't sell."

Nowadays her books are almost guaranteed best-sellers. Does she ever worry that she has peaked?

"I find that prospect deeply forbidding because if there is a peak, there is a high likelihood that I've already reached it," she says. "It makes it easier to produce if you feel that you're still riding on the learning curve. That may be delusional, however. I went through of brief period of feeling that I was getting sick of writing novels or that I had lost the relish that I used to take in writing them and then I started writing this book and I discovered that I was having a wonderful time. So it turns out that it was the subject matter of the previous book [Big Brother] that was getting me down.

"I generally really enjoy my work and I don't understand people who talk about how much they suffer when they're writing. Why don't they do something else then?"

Lionel Shriver will be giving a talk in the Smock Alley Theatre on Saturday at 8pm as part of the Dublin International Literature Festival. Tickets €12 / €10. See for more

Irish Independent

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