Interview with Lionel Shriver

Posted by Goodreads on April 2, 2012
American journalist and author Lionel Shriver's latest novel, The New Republic, is a biting satire that trains its sights on the world of terrorism. The book languished on Shriver's computer for 14 years before being published, a result of its subject matter and the events of 9/11. Set in a fictional terrorist hotbed in a remote area in Portugal, it's also a comical send-up of charismatic, larger-than-life personalities (not to mention foreign correspondents), a difficult balancing act, to be sure. But that's Shriver's specialty. Her previous novels include So Much for That, which was shortlisted for the National Book Award in 2010, and We Need to Talk About Kevin, which earned the prestigious for-women-writers-only Orange Prize in 2005 before going on to sell more than a million copies and be adapted into the Lynne Ramsay-directed film starring Tilda Swinton and John C. Reilly. Not bad for a title that was initially rejected by 30 publishers. Shriver, who speaks with a disarming hybrid of Southern twang (she grew up the daughter of a Presbyterian minster in North Carolina) and formal British elocution ("I can app-ree-ce-iate that iss-ue"), chatted with author interviewer Michael Mraz about the endangered species of newspapers, why terrorists take themselves so seriously, and how humor can be the most effective weapon against them.

Goodreads: Why is The New Republic being published now?

Lionel Shriver: It was my idea. I did want to publish it when I first wrote it, and it's impossible to measure to what degree my inability to do so was due to my sales record being in the toilet—and I wouldn't underemphasize that. But also I do think there was an element of sheer disinterest in the subject matter in the U.S. I gave it a good effort, and I gave up and went on to write another book (We Need to Talk About Kevin), which was the one that definitely improved the sales record. By the time I was in the position to publish just about anything I wanted to, 9/11 had come along, and publishing this in the post-attacks climate would have just been stupid and potentially tasteless. I was never happy with just consigning it to my hard drive. It was a book I was proud of, and it was the distillation of what I learned living in Northern Ireland.

GR: Were you living in Northern Ireland when you wrote it?

LS: Yes. I didn't want to write specifically about Northern Ireland, though I was happy to employ some of the intelligence that I had gleaned from the experience of living there. I felt it was really important to remove the argument and the story from a context that had grown so loaded and complicated and divisive, and that's why I felt that making a completely new place up, really inventing a territory, was the way to go.

GR: Was your life ever impacted by terrorism while living in Belfast?

LS: No, not really. The dirty little secret about Belfast is that it was a nice place to live. Though I was shot at once—my claim to fame. I was there when Michael Stone opened fire on the mourners at Milltown Cemetery, because I used to go to political occasions to see what was happening. But he didn't actually shoot me. Things did blow up, just not while I was in them. I can hardly say I was personally scarred by it, but of course plenty of people were. I don't want to portray it as one big joke, it wasn't, but it was a pretty cushy situation to cover conflict. In my book, the early part of the history of Barba [the Portuguese peninsula Shriver invents for the novel] that I chronicle tries to get at that, the sense of this place actually being kind of hokey. It was not so much an experience of being put in danger all the time; it was more the dismaying experience of watching people who were real shitheads yank everyone's chain and get what they wanted.

GR: The New Republic follows a foreign correspondent's path from rookie to insider on a rebel-controlled peninsula that wants to secede from Portugal. Terrorism is an uncomfortable topic, even in fiction. How did you approach it?

LS: I did not want to write a very heavy, moralistic, indignant novel. I didn't think that was the right approach to the subject matter. I was more interested in insinuating, in the lightest fashion possible, that terrorism can be insidiously effective. I think that intellectuals have had a hard time with this topic, because it's just so self-evidently wicked. We can pretty much be in accord here that blowing people up to get your way is not a good idea. It's the moral obviousness, it gives you nothing to say when you're hungry for complexity and subtlety—you can't find it in terrorism. That's the real point of vulnerability with terrorists—they take themselves so seriously, so the key is to make fun of them.

GR: You've said before that you enjoy writing about characters who are hard to love. Is that still the case?

LS: Roughly. My concept of character has to do with what's wrong with people. I don't generally write about paragons—I don't think that they're very interesting. I also think that they're mythical. I like writing about difficult people. This novel takes a look at a particular phenomenon—that kind of character we feel attracted to but also feel we shouldn't be. I think that what attracts us to people is rarely virtue.

GR: What was it like going back and rereading a novel you wrote almost 15 years ago?

LS: One of the things that stood out to me when I reread it, which marks the book as belonging to a generation ago, is the importance of journalists. The way in which people who were aspiring to be adventurous and well-regarded would want to become journalists. Edgar [the novel's central character] wants to be a journalist like his former friend in high school whom he really admired and was envious of for the experiences he'd had. This is not commonplace now. It made me feel nostalgic and incredibly sad. I grew up in a time when becoming a journalist was an important thing to aspire to, and you should be so lucky—there was a lot of competition. If you wanted to be a foreign correspondent, you better be a crack journalist because everyone would want to do that. And now we're in such a different era. Reading that broke my heart, because what's happening with newspapers is breaking my heart.

GR: Is there one book prior to We Need to Talk About Kevin that you're particularly proud of that you might suggest readers take a look at?

LS: I think my most neglected book is probably Game Control. I still think that is an ingenious book. And it's on another topic that everyone was ignoring at the time and is now back on the radar, which is population growth. It's similar to The New Republic in that it has one grand idea behind it. For readers who were especially fond of Kevin, I would say Double Fault, which is also very emotional and looks at the underside of intimate relationships.

GR: Do you ever worry that you're going to run out of big ideas for your novels?

LS: Yeah, of course I do. I'm terrified! [laughs] There's a way in which you use yourself up when you write fiction. There is a certain natural territory that you occupy, and you start consuming it. If I run out of ideas or areas I want to explore, I hope I have the integrity to quit. I think one of the problems of my profession is that people just keep churning them out.

GR: Goodreads Author Beverly Akerman asks, "What can we do to help make sure women writers and the tastes of women readers are not systematically discounted and disparaged?"

LS: One of the bizarre things about recent times and this whole phenomenon of "most fiction readers are women" is that we have somehow flipped that around to being insulting to women. "Oh, those women, they just have a bunch of time on their hands?" In the olden days, literature was a man's pursuit, and women shouldn't worry their pretty little heads about it. It was about serious, philosophical issues and grand drama, and literature was a man's world and a man's concern. And now that it is a woman's world and a woman's concern, it's considered kind of pathetic. Nobody in publishing ever says that, but there is definitely an element of condescension going on here. I am also insulted by the way publishers feel they have to package fiction now. It all has to be girlified. It has to have women on the front, which defies the statistics that women don't have to read about women—women are interested in reading about everybody. I'm in despair about what we can do. And the other problem is, the really heavy hitters—and this is worse in the U.S. than here in the UK— the writers who are trotted out as the voices of their generation are always men, and I don't know how to crack that. That nonsense The New York Times Book Review did with Franzen? They'd never do that with a female author. I'm at a loss. All I know to do is to write the best books I can. And women readers need to get it across to publishing companies that they don't want to be patronized—they don't want to be patronized in packaging, and they don't want to be patronized in content.

GR: Goodreads member Lisa asks how you research your novels and the "niche communities that the mainstream population doesn't normally get to see—professional tennis players, professional snooker players, international development workers, etc."

LS: It varies from book to book, and I used to do more research than I do now because I got a little tired of doing all that work only to throw most of it away. Before I started Game Control I spent a solid year reading demography and epidemiology on AIDS. I never regretted that homework, but then it was a lot of work to claw all the homework out of the book once I finished writing it, because you don't want to burden your reader with you getting credit for having done all this research. Like a lot of writers now, I'm of course quite reliant on the Internet, but I still don't think there's any substitute for personal experience and personal contact. In So Much for That, for example, I have a teenager who has a rare genetic condition called Familial Dysautonomia, FD for short, and although I did a whole lot of online research for that condition, it just wasn't doing it for me, and I did end up tracking down a couple of families with kids who have that condition because there was absolutely no substitute for the real thing. I couldn't write the character without meeting a couple people who had the disease and talking to the families about some of the problems they face. I think writers these days have to fight the agoraphobic inclination to stay home and get all their information online. It's just so seductive. But there are limits to what you can find.

GR: Describe a typical day spent writing. Do you have any unusual writing habits?

LS: I have one new, unusual habit: I stand up all day. I didn't start doing it out of choice; I had a running injury, and it hurt to sit down. But I read an article in The New York Times's health section on the revelation that if you spend a large portion of your time sitting down—even if you get a lot of exercise—you elevate your risk of everything: heart disease, stroke, cancer, everything. And so when I got this injury, I decided that I'd probably used up all my sitting-down time already for my entire life. When I get up, I read the paper at the kitchen counter standing up, and then I go up to the office and have the computer on top of my Oxford English Dictionary, and I stand in front of the desk 12 hours a day.

GR: What authors, books, or ideas have influenced you?

LS: I love the way Edith Wharton is able to combine the domestic with larger social observations, so I'm a big admirer of her style, which is elegant without being fussy. I recognize a kindred spirit in Richard Yates, all of whose work I would highly recommend. I think that he's got the same complex relationship with his characters, with a clear eye on their faults but still feels affection for them. He can be brutal but he's still sympathetic.

GR: What are you reading now?

LS: The book I just finished, which I quite like, is Russell Banks's Lost Memory of Skin. I think it's an unfortunate title, but I'm always sympathetic with authors who don't come up with the right title in time. I know what it's like. But I think it's a brave book, the subject matter is brave. He's writing about sex offenders, and most writers wouldn't touch that material.

GR: What are you currently working on?

LS: I'm working on the final draft of my "obesity book," which right now is called Big Brother. It's been harder to write than I anticipated. It's very difficult to write about weight issues in a way that doesn't seem trivial, though I don't believe it is trivial, not socially and not personally. It's an important issue.

Interview by Michael Mraz for Goodreads. Previously the managing editor of Men's Vogue and an editor at Grand Street, Michael is now a writer and screenwriter based in Los Angeles, where he lives with his wife and their one-year-old son.

Learn more about Michael and follow what he's reading.

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Comments Showing 1-7 of 7 (7 new)

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message 1: by Elyse (new)

Elyse Walters Ive the most respect for Lionel Shriver!

Great interview!

Thank you

message 2: by Cara (new)

Cara Bertoia I discovered Lionel Shriver when I went to visit my husbands family in Glasgow. The first book I read was The Post-Birthday World. I loved the fact that the story was told about one person two lives but neither life was better both were just different. One path didn't lead to greater happiness. I love her characters, they are like real people with real faults, not just the bland, earnest people I had read in so many other novels lately. She made me love reading again.
Cara Bertoia

message 3: by Cheryl (new)

Cheryl Looking forward to reading Ms. Shrivers latest. I thought it was interesting and coincidental that in both the Anne Tyler interview and this one, both writers had just finished reading the Russell Banks novel Lost Memory of Skin, which they both liked. Which now makes me want to read his book.

message 4: by Sunny (new)

Sunny Sodday I am just overwhelmed to see goodreads doing an awesome work in keeping the art of reading so fresh by indulging with the authors personally. Thanks again.

message 5: by Anthony (new)

Anthony Caplan Thanks for the interview and the great comments. It's refreshing to hear that an author's work can renew readers' faith in writing and reading. I want to read this book and the Russell Banks book, Lost Memory of Skin.

message 6: by Elyse (new)

Elyse Walters Great interview

message 7: by Kr (new)

Kr Ashwin Thank you admin for allowing me at this Homepage,i am so impressed and also play minesweeper wants to share this game Junction with interested players.

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