Author Lionel Shriver on her early writing, politics, essential reading list and persevering out of 'sheer spite'
Before her best-selling We Need To Talk About Kevin, Lionel Shriver had already written seven novels (and published six). In this interview, she looks back on a 30-year literary career.
Lionel Shriver is the author of the best-selling We Need To Talk About Kevin (2003). Before Kevin, Shriver had written seven novels (of which six were published) — beginning with The Female of The Species (1987). Property, a collection of short fiction, was published in 2018.
Beyond her books, Shriver is also known for her forthright (and not always politically correct) opinions on current issues, in her avatar as a columnist for The Guardian and The Spectator.
Shriver was among the star writers at the just-concluded Tata Literature Live! Mumbai LitFest 2018, where she said she found it "useful to talk to Indians who live here about national politics, whose febrile nature bears so much resemblance to what's going on in the US and UK". In an interview with Firstpost, she looked back on a three-decade literary career.
Thirty years of being a novelist later, what would the Lionel Shriver of today tell the Lionel Shriver who was writing The Female of the Species?
"You idiot, don't simply ignore the proofs!"
Would the Lionel Shriver of 1987 have heeded that advice?
Of course not. But I imagined when I was publishing my first novel that everyone did their jobs right, and I didn't read through the various iterations of the text sent to me for review — called the first, second, and third pass pages. I let the photocopies sit on my desk untouched. Everyone doesn't do their jobs right, and that's why my first few novels are still full of mistakes. Typos, misspellings, bad punctuation, you name it. These days I read every version of the text I'm sent as the manuscript advances toward publication, even if the downside is that by the time it sees print I'm absolutely sick of it.
What does the Lionel Shriver of 2018 wish she still had, of the Lionel Shriver of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s?
I miss the unquestioning faith in myself I enjoyed when writing the first few novels. I have grown much less self-impressed, and less confident in the work while I'm in the process of producing it. That might make me a better person, but the experience of being self-impressed is actually quite fun.
You knew by the age of seven that you wanted to be a writer. Did you ever feel that intention waver? You’ve mentioned that you almost moved to doing more journalism when We Need To Talk About Kevin was turned down by numerous publishers.
Being a novelist is an insecure profession. I went through a good 12 years of my career living quite hand-to-mouth and never being sure what I was writing would ever see print. By the time I wrote Kevin, I was starting to wonder if I'd have to find a new career. But I am bloody-minded. By the end, I think I persevered out of sheer spite.
You’ve covered pretty much every ‘hot-button topic’ of the modern age through your novels — from school massacres to the American medical care system to immigration, with The Mandibles in 2016. What’s a contemporary issue you’d like to tackle through fiction next?
The cult of exercise.
To the mind of Lionel Shriver, who makes for an ideal protagonist?
I like characters who don't follow the rules, who refuse to feel and believe what they're expected to, and who don't care what you think of them.
In your columns for The Spectator or Guardian, or your speeches at public events and comments during interviews, you’ve never shied away from stating an unpopular opinion. At the same time, your views have also invited a strident backlash from the literary community and commentators in general. More importantly, it’s brought an added scrutiny to your fiction (especially The Mandibles and Property), where your characters are viewed through a certain lens. Does that scrutiny and the backlash ever get exhausting, and how do you move past it?
I move past this picking over my fiction and nonfiction alike for thoughtcrime by ignoring it. Twitter storms are as passing as any other kind of weather. In the end, the work survives, and in short order no one will remember all that pissy carping. Besides, my views are actually quite moderate. It's not my problem that the far left has become so hysterical that common-sense positions become "offensive".
Do you ever regret being quite as forthright as you are?
Nope. Life's short.
Has your writing process changed at all over these past three decades?
Mostly, I'm interrupted much more these days. I do too many literary festivals like this one!
What do you think is the role of the novel and the novelist going forward into the 2020s? What do you think will be the critical functions of fiction in the time to come?
Right now, the novel is increasingly a stepping stone to the television series. It worries me that everyone still wants to write novels, but very few of these would-be novelists actually want to read them.
If you had to come up with an ‘essential reading list’ — something that helps individuals navigate the anxieties of our current and impending times — what are the 10 titles that would make it to your final selection?
I'd say that navigating any times is easier if you have a good book at your bedside, and the topic of the book is secondary. So here are a few of my favourites:
Revolutionary Road, by Richard Yates
Age of Innocence, by Edith Wharton
House of Mirth, by Edith Wharton
All the King's Men, by Robert Penn Warren
The Forgiven, by Lawrence Osborne
The Sheltering Sky, by Paul Bowles
English Passengers, by Matthew Kneale
The Collected Short Stories of John Cheever
The Collected Short Stories of William Trevor
A Bend in the River, by VS Naipaul
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