At age seven, Lionel Shriver decided she would be a writer. In 1987, she made good on her promise with The Female of the Species, a debut novel that received admiring reviews. Shriver's five subsequent novels were also well-received; but it was her seventh, 2003's We Need to Talk About Kevin, that turned her into a household name.
Beautiful and deeply disturbing, ...Kevin unfolds as a series of letters written by a distraught mother to her absent husband about their son, a malevolent bad seed who has embarked on a Columbine-style killing spree.
Interestingly enough, when Shriver presented the book proposal to her agent, it was rejected out of hand. She shopped the novel around on her own, and eight months later it was picked up by a smaller publishing company. The novel went on to win the 2005 Orange Prize, a UK-based award for female authors of any nationality writing in English.
A graduate of Columbia University, Shriver is also a respected journalist whose features, op-eds, and reviews have appeared in such publications as The Guardian, The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times, and the Economist. Since her breakthrough book, she has continued to produce bestselling fiction and gimlet-eyed journalism in equal measure.
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In our interview, Shriver shared some interesting anecdotes about herself with us:
"I am not as nice as I look."
"I am an extremely good cook -- if inclined to lace every dish from cucumber canapés to ice cream with such a malice of fresh chilies that nobody but I can eat it."
"I am a pedant. I insist that people pronounce ‘flaccid' as ‘flaksid,' which is dictionary-correct but defies onomatopoeic instinct and annoys one and all. I never let people get away with using ‘enervated‘ to mean ‘energized,‘ when the word means without energy, thank you very much. Not only am I, apparently, the last remaining American citizen who knows the difference between 'like' and ‘as,‘ but I freely alienate everyone in my surround by interrupting, ‘You mean, as I said.' Or, 'You mean, you gave it to whom,' or ‘You mean, that's just between you and me. ' I am a lone champion of the accusative case, and so –- obviously -- have no friends."
"Whenever I mention that, say, I run an eight-and-a half-mile course around Prospect Park in Brooklyn, or a nine-mile course in Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens in London, I inevitably invite either: ‘Huh! I only run five! Who does she think she is? I bet she's slow. Or I bet she's lying.' Or: ‘Hah! What a slacker. That's nothing. I run marathons in under two and a half hours!' So let's just leave it that I do not do this stuff for ‘fun,' since anyone who tells you they get ‘high' on running is definitely lying. Rather, if I did not force myself to trudge about on occasion, I would spend all day poking at my keyboard, popping dried gooseberries, and in short order weigh 300 pounds. In which event I would no longer fit through the study door, and I do not especially wish to type hunched over the computer on the hall carpet."
"My tennis game is deplorable."
"Most people think I'm working on my new novel, but I'm really spending most of 2004 getting up the courage to finally dye my hair."
"I read every article I can find that commends the nutritional benefits of red wine -- since if they're right, I will live to 110."
"Though raised by Aldai Stevenson Democrats, I have a violent, retrograde right-wing streak that alarms and horrifies my acquaintances in New York. And I have been told more than once that I am ‘extreme.' "
"As I run down the list of my preferences, I like dark roast coffee, dark sesame oil, dark chocolate, dark-meat chicken, even dark chili beans -- a pattern emerges that, while it may not put me on the outer edges of human experience, does exude a faint whiff of the unsavory."
"Twelve years in Northern Ireland have left a peculiar residual warp in my accent. House = hyse; shower = shar; now = nye. An Ulster accent bears little relation to the mincing Dublin brogue Americans are more familiar with, and these aberrations are often misinterpreted as holdovers from my North Carolinian childhood (I left Raleigh at 15). Because this handful of souvenir vowels is one of the only things I took away with me from Belfast -- a town that I both love and hate, and loved and hated me, in equal measure -- my wonky pronunciation is a point of pride (or, if you will, vanity), and when my ‘Hye nye bryne cye' ( = ‘how now brown cow') is mistaken for a bog-standard southern American drawl I get mad."
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In the summer of 2004, Lionel Shriver took some time to talk with us about some of her favorite books, authors, and interests.
What was the book that most influenced your life or your career as a writer -- and why?
Catch-22, by Joseph Heller. The first "grown-up" novel I ever read, at 12, which convinced me that fiction for adults needn't be humorless, or laborious to read. I had read it eight times by the time I hit the tenth grade. There's an amoral, anarchic quality to Heller's satire that struck a chord. After all, in the end Yossarian goes AWOL in WWII, which is hard to make sympathetic.
What are your ten favorite books, and what makes them special to you? The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton -- I love virtually all of Edith Wharton, but this one's my favorite. Why Wharton, in general? I admire her prose style, which is lucid, intelligent, and artful rather than arty; she is eloquent but never fussy, and always clear. She never seems to be writing well to show off. As for The Age of Innocence, it's a poignant story that, typically for Wharton, illustrates the bind women found themselves in when trapped hazily between a demeaning if relaxing servitude and real if frightening independence, and that both sexes find themselves in when trapped between the demands of morality and the demands of the heart. The novel is romantic but not sentimental, and I'm a sucker for unhappy endings.
A Flag for Sunrise by Robert Stone -- Again, I'm a big fan of most of Stone's work. This one's the best, though -- grim and brutal. Stone has a feel for politics in the gritty, ugly way they play out on the ground. And his cynicism about what makes people tick, and how badly they behave when either desperate or given free rein to do what they like, jibes – alas -- with my own experience of the species.
As Meat Loves Salt by Maria McCann -- I include this more recent title if only because, especially in the U.S., it didn't get the attention it deserved. A historical novel -- which I don't usually read -- set in Cromwellian England, it's about a homosexual affair in the days that same-sex marriage was hardly in the headlines; rather, man meets man was a hanging offense. I relished the radical sexual tension McCann created, without ever becoming squalid or even very blow-by-blow (so to speak) -- and the story is sexy even for hetero readers. In fact, this riveting story works partly because it's told by a straight woman, and so isn't tainted by the faint self-justification of many gay authors' work.
Paris Trout by Pete Dexter -- I'd recommend all of Dexter's books. But he may never have topped this one. He writes about race and bigotry without the moral obviousness that this subject matter often elicits. His prose is terse and muscular, but not pose-y and tough-guy.
Atonement by Ian McEwan -- His best novel by a mile. It's a terrific examination of guilt and exculpation -- or, as for the latter, lack thereof. He writes about childhood in a way that isn't whitewashingly sweet, and he doesn't endorse cheap forgiveness, of yourself or anyone else. There's a powerful sense in this book that sometimes seemingly small sins have enormous and permanently dire consequences, with which you're condemned to live for the rest of your life. I read this while writing We Need to Talk About Kevin, and I think some of McEwan's and my themes must intersect.
English Passengers by Matthew Kneale -- Once again, I include this novel for its relative commercial obscurity in the U.S. -- though it did, justly, win the Whitbread in the U.K. (and should have won the Booker). Seven years in the writing, English Passengers follows the hapless journey of a ship bound for Tasmania in the mid-19th century to find the original Garden of Eden. The novel demonstrates the value of good research, which is seamlessly integrated into the text, and it's hilarious.
For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway -- Not my most original inclusion, I admit. But this novel made me cry. While even as a kid bawling over The Little Princess, I realized that I was shedding tears in a tawdry vein; Hemingway makes you cry from a sorrow that doesn't feel shameful.
Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates -- Yates was able to look at the disturbing underside of so-called ordinary life and even more successfully than John Cheever exposed the angst and dissatisfaction that teems beneath the placid suburbs. I don't think anyone's life is simple or easy, even with enough food on the table, and Yates was depressive enough as a person to appreciate this fact.
The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoevsky -- Of Dostoevsky's novels, most writers would cite The Brothers Karamazov, which I also adored in latter adolescence but found I could not bear when I tried to read it again in my 30s. I hadn't the patience. By contrast, rereading The Idiot as an adult rewarded the return. At that time, I was writing my second novel, Checker and the Derailleurs, and also grappling with how difficult it is to write about goodness. Virtue in literature, as it is often in real people, can be downright off-putting. The secret, I discovered, was to put virtue at risk -- the guarantee that our hero is misunderstood and persecuted. I preferred to confirm this with Dostoevsky, though if I hadn't acquired an allergy to all things religious during my Presbyterian childhood, I might also have located the same ingenious fictional strategy in the New Testament.
All the King's Men by Robert Penn Warren -- As I scan these (hopelessly arbitrary) selections, I note that a number of novels that have made a big impression on me have somehow managed to incorporate a political element -- without being tiresome or polemical. In my own work, I've often tried to do the same. Penn Warren's loose fictionalized biography of Huey Long has stayed with me for intertwining the personal and the political and exposing the distinction as artificial. Unfortunately, when I tracked down all his other books -- and there are not that many -- they were all disappointing in comparison. Read All the King's Men and forget the rest. Years hence folks may be dismissing most of my own novels in just this manner, but if they're still touting one title, and it's as good as this one, then I'll still be very lucky.
What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you? Dumb and Dumber -- Because it's the most juvenile film ever made.
Lawrence of Arabia -- Since I fancied Peter O'Toole when I was 12.
Doctor Zhivago -- Since when I was 13, I moved on to Omar Sharif.
It's a Gift -- With W. C. Fields. I've seen it five or six times, enough to confirm that no matter how many times I watch the blind man smash through the glass door of the general store with his cane, it will always crack me up.
Goodfellas -- By far the best of the Mafia films. And if I didn't include it in the list, a certain someone would never speak to me again.
The Age of Innocence -- One of those rare films that faithfully adapts a fine book, and is –- almost -- as good as the novel.
The Hustler -- Great acting, with Jackie Gleason demonstrating for once how sweet it's not.
Cool Hand Luke -- Okay, so I have a thing for Paul Newman. Not bad salsa, either.
Blood Simple -- Because I still want that certain someone to keep speaking to me.
The Browning Version -- Importantly, the Albert Finney remake. A wrenching examination of life-scale disappointment.
The Set Up -- With Robert Mitchum. Along with virtually every noir movie ever made.
Raging Bull -- While we're on fight flicks.
Patton -- Since, by and large, I like my heroes to have something wrong with them.
The Pianist -- While we're on war flicks -- and to include something made in the last 20 years.
Last Exit to Brooklyn -- The scene with Jennifer Jason Leigh in the back of the car is something you never quite get over. And the soundtrack, especially played at neighbor-offending volume at three in the morning, is fabulous.
Splendor in the Grass -- For all the smut we're force-fed, this is one of the only films I can think of that truly takes on the subject matter of sex.
What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
I don't listen to music when I'm working, since if I'm doing what I'm supposed to I can't hear it. After hours, since I'm married to a jazz drummer, the j-word features prominently. He cannot bear the schlocky, simplistic eclecticism of my wider tastes, and I only listen to Tori Amos, Rickie Lee Jones, R.E.M., and the soundtrack to Chariots of Fire in secret when he's not home.
What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
Dictionaries -- of slang, medical terms, synonyms, rhymes, surnames, whatever.
Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
Rituals -- fixing cups of coffee, paring fingernails, and all manner of variations on staring blankly out the window -- are all forms of delay, and therefore don't constitute magical evocations of one's muse, but distraction. Writing is fundamentally dull, and there are no real secrets to it: You sit down, you type something out, most of the time if you have any self-respect you throw it away. My desk? Is usually towering with huge piles of paper. This is not a mountainous topography I can promote. The piles represent everything I am ignoring -- finances, magazines I think I should read but don't really want to, and odious little tasks like filling out this very questionnaire.
Many writers are hardly "overnight success" stories. How long did it take for you to get where you are today? Any rejection-slip horror stories or inspirational anecdotes?
No, a 25-year slog probably wouldn't qualify as "overnight." And I'm not sure how "inspirational" it is to publish six novels in a row that didn't earn out for their publishers (Kevin is No. 7), except as an object lesson in how easy it is to squander other people's money.
What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
I gather that the number of readers in this country is going down, while the number of people who aspire to write is going up. The best thing you can do as a would-be writer is to read other people's work -- and as an ironclad rule of thumb, never write anything that you wouldn't want to read yourself.
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