Lit for Life

‘We need to talk’

It’s almost part of publishing lore in the West, that Lionel Shriver’s seventh novel had no takers when it was completed in 2001. Coming as it did in the year of 9/11, literary agents were certain that America had no intention of reading a dark, violent book on a mother who disliked her son from birth, and a son who is singularly responsible for a high-school massacre. And, so, Shriver’s We Need To Talk About Kevin languished till the author found a small firm willing to publish it. The book won the 2005 Orange Prize, was adapted for a feature film starring Tilda Swinton, and ‘Kevin Katchadourian’ (a name Shriver chose from a phonebook) went on to symbolise all that was wrong in suburbia.

The journalist-author read, with much emotion, from this book, and her latest, The Mandibles, at a session with Nilanjana S. Roy, award-winning author of The Wildings, who asked her about cultural shifts, gender and her range of writing. Excerpts:

The New York Times critic, Michiko Kakutani, thinks highly of your writing. We Need To Talk About Kevin is an unusually frank, but not a popular look at motherhood...

Both mothers and non-mothers tend to have a not-so-beautiful view of motherhood. There are moments of despair, boredom... The book made for national conversation in Britain, and I was pleasantly surprised to find so many women and men (laughs) writing to me on the fleeting joys of motherhood.

Do your characters in fiction address parts of yourself?

The fictional format is good when you want to say things that could be construed as politically incorrect, or when you need to explain unexplored ideas. Fiction gives freedom to access issues considered ‘unpleasant’, such as a high-school massacre. It is a good way to put in other people’s mouths what you want to say. In fiction, you can have your cake and eat it too.

You’ve written on a range of subjects... immigration, rock-and-roll drumming, first love, inheritance, problems in Northern Ireland, the U.S. healthcare system and even tennis. These are not trivial at all, yet you invest so much in your characters...

I don’t think I get enough credit for my happy endings (laughs). I’m motivated to write about subjects I have strong feelings for, and I want the reader to have strong feelings about them too. I prefer to create characters that are hard to love, and despite the gravitas of the books, I want them to be funny. I don’t distinguish between genres... each is as good as the other.

Tell us about Big Brother...

My elder brother died from morbid obesity. And it was the experience of losing him – not the death itself but the events leading up to it – that seared me. I missed the feeling, that generous sensation, of looking up to him. Big Brother, though taking its cue from this, is heavily fictionalised. Any book should live outside my experience... it should function as a good story.

You have said that the years of failure were actually years of tremendous happiness. What are your thoughts on success, failure and owning that space?

You must learn to own your success... My years of struggle were the happy years because I had somewhere to go. Nothing significantly changed, but you have this trajectory, this sense of are in a state of motion and that brings happiness. People must realise that they are in good shape already.

You were born Margaret Ann... What is the story of your name?

I hated the name. When I was a teen, I chose Lionel, because I felt gender was unimportant to me... I am still gender neutral and increasingly so, at a time when everyone seems to be obsessed with it.

Our code of editorial values

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

Printable version | Jul 30, 2021 7:55:52 AM |

Next Story