Q&A with author Lionel Shriver
Lionel's controversial book about motherhood, We Need to Talk About Kevin, was an Orange Prize winner in 2005 and has sold over a million copies. Filming has just started on a movie version starring Tilda Swinton. She's written several other novels, including Double Fault and A Perfectly Good Family. Her writing has appeared in The Guardian, New York Times, Wall Street Journal and many other publications. Born in the USA, she now lives in London. Lionel joined us to answer your questions in May 2010.
Q. Arcadie: Just finished reading it two weeks after my son was born. All hospital midwives telling me to step away from the book but I loved it. Thank you. Was there really supposed to be a sexual / incestuous undertone to Eva's relationship with Kevin? Or was my esteemed colleague reading waaaay too much into it?
Clearly we're not supposed to fully trust Eva's view on events (the rock throwing on the overpass etc). How much of her perspective is skewed? I know you've said that there are hints all the way through the novel but what's the earliest tip off that we can't believe her side of the story? Sequel?
A. LionelShriver: You may read a sexual undertone into Eva's relationship with Kevin if you wish. The masturbation scene is suggestive of this. There is a sexual dynamic between all parents and children - an energy, anyway. Children come from their mothers' bodies, and early childhood is physically intimate with parents. Incestuousness was not, however, meant to be the be-all-and-end-all, the simple explanation of the tension between them.
How much you trust Eva is up to you. There are two events in particular planted in the narrative to demonstrate she's fallible: the overpass incident, as you note, in which it turns out Kevin's creepy friend Lenny was the real culprit; and the disappearance of a cherished photo of Eva, which Eva has assumed Kevin spitefully destroyed, but which instead he has been carrying in his wallet.
On the other hand, I tried to fashion this narrator as factually truthful. That is, Eva lies only in the way that we all do: by leaving things out, by telling stories in a fashion that suits our purposes. For example, I may exaggerate the comic elements of an event that in reality was grim, just because I want you to think I'm funny.
Q. Lulumaam: I bought We Need To Talk About Kevin and found it compelling, repulsive and engaging in pretty much equal measure. I did not think there was an incestous overtone, but there was definitely a love/hate thing going on! For me, I found myself feeling really disturbed by my sympathy towards Kevin, as the only truly honest, consistent character, who was true to himself all the way through everyone else was either a victim/deluded/liar etc etc.
My question: was Kevin's character designed to elicit sympathy, almost as a hero , rather than the villain of the piece, or as there is so much ambiguity, are we ,the readers, 'allowed' to draw our own conclusions?
A. Lionel Shriver: Kevin is deliberately constructed as an enigma. Myself, I began feeling antagonistic to the kid, but in the end found myself beguiled. I like his intelligence, his wit, and his nefarious insight into what makes his parents tick. I resist characterizations of the boy as "evil" or "a bad seed," and especially by the end he is clearly not a clinical psychopath or sociopath, clearly not beyond redemption. Yet as ever with my characters, the degree to which you sympathize with them is up to you.
Q. withorwithoutyou: What inspired you to write Kevin?
A. Lionel Shriver: The newspaper, perhaps first and foremost. When I started the novel, American kids were killing each other right, left and centre, and though this was before the school-shooting novel had become a virtual genre, I thought these news stories were ripe for fiction. They made you wonder what was the story behind the story (why did these boys do it? what was going on in their family lives?), which journalism is never very good at filling in.
Otherwise, I was in my early 40, and still hadn't had any children. I wondered what I was afraid of. By the time I finished the book, I concluded there was indeed a great deal to be afraid of, and I'd written myself out of any further consideration of getting pregnant.
Q. Scrappydappydo: Sorry its been awhile since I read 'Kevin' - I found it a great (and disturbing) book but I do remember feeling frustrated with the fact (as I recall) that the mother never sought some kind of psychiatric help for Kevin (or herself) and that he got to that age without anyone else flagging up his behaviour. Or have I missed the point of the book?
A. Lionel Shriver: 1) Eva is not the type to seek out psychiatric help; she's a rebel, has spent much of her adult life outside the US, and is less likely than most to follow cultural trends.
2) Most of what Kevin does in the run up to "Thursday" is very small, when you step back and look at these behaviours objectively. He did not, necessarily, have anything to do with that little girl's scratching open her eczema. So he vandalized his mother's wallpaper; he was four years old. Many children have trouble with toilet training, and the latest advice on this is lassaiz faire. I don't think Kevin's behavior calls out for psychiatric intervention.
3) They do send Kevin to a psychiatrist when he is 15—though they don't realize that he is plotting to get put on Prozac, which sometimes induces psychosis, and which will form the central argument of his defence at his criminal trial.
Q. Lucysnowe: Ooh, I didn't know there was a movie version, will check it out. I read Kevin before I had my daughter and then I found it hard to know who to blame most, the mother or Kevin. But after having my daughter I found the husband the worst! My question: is he the real villain of the piece?
A. Lionel Shriver: The filming of this book is under way at the moment. So no one's seen it yet, including me.
This novel is not meant to have any single "villain". Franklin is certainly guilty of passivity, and of see-no-evil. But there's a place for giving your kid the benefit of the doubt, and I am sympathetic with Franklin's intense determination to have a happy family life. I am less forgiving of his intolerance of his wife's misgivings. He keeps her from being emotionally honest. He judges her harshly, which means she can't be forthright about what she feels.
Q. Leedsmumof1: Just finished So Much for That and loved it. The Post-Birthday World is my favourite - so clever and well written. Also thoroughly enjoyed Double Fault. My question on We Need To Talk About Kevin is, did you plan to make it as funny as it is? While chilling, shocking, and horrifying, it is also very, very funny, not least through Eva's super-dry sense of humour. The fellow-students are so very annoying, and the attitudes of the school management are so ludicrous. Do you think the humour adds to or undercuts the bleakness?
A. Lionel Shriver: I can't write any whole novel without cracking the odd joke. I have to keep myself amused. That means keeping you readers amused, too. I'm always pleased when anyone finds my novels funny. In Kevin, I thought Eva's dry humour would be her salvation. When things go very dark on you, it's often humour that gets you through. I'd hate to think anyone could get through a novel of mine and not at least crack a smile.
Q. ceeb: Kevin was one of the best books I have ever read (and I am a very critical reader). I'm just interested to hear the author's genuine voice as the voice in the books was very compelling and real.
A. Lionel Shriver: I'm not sure this voice is any more "genuine" than the voices of my books. But thanks for the compliment.
Q. newpup: This is a bit personal really, but after reading Kevin I discovered that you do not have children. How much of Eva and Kevin's relationship is a part of your own fears or ideas about having children?
A. Lionel Shriver: I did use the novel to explore what put me off about the prospect of having kids. Boredom, for example. Constant interruption. Responsibility (eg, being blamed if they turned out badly). Being subject to the moralistic opinions about child-rearing that any parent is bludgeoned with these days.
Still, I never write a novel purely as an exercise in cheap self-psychoanalysis. All fiction writers act out of what personally engages, inspires, or enrages them, and all fiction writers use bits and pieces of their own lives for material. I've generally been upfront about why I think an idea for a book appealed to me. But in general I do not write autobiographical books. The plots are made up; the characters are not knock-offs of real people. I try to tell a good story to a purpose. Along the way, I am obviously going to explore issues and questions that matter to me. I think that makes me pretty standard as a fiction writer. That doesn't mean I'm always producing some bare-all confession, some thinly disguised memoir hastily tricked out to look like a novel.
I raise this because I'm starting to get irked by the way the personal motivation behind my work is highly exaggerated. Female fiction writers are often cast as people who can only tell their own stories and only write from personal experience, whereas male fiction writers are often cast as mysterious shamans who can conjure great art from thin air.
Q. mrsbean78: I read Kevin before I got pregnant and used to talk a lot about it with another friend who was making the decision to have kids/not have kids. It highlighted a lot of our concerns about procreating given that we both had worked with students who had emotional and behavioural issues. It fascinated and repulsed me at the same time.
However, when I came back to your novel having had my son, I found it had changed the experience for me. I could suddenly only understand Eva's reaction to Kevin if I saw it as disordered on her part. I had much more empathy for Kevin than previously. He was no longer the 'bogeyman' to me. I saw his behaviour as a reflection of Eva's failure to attach and bond with Kevin vs an attachment issue mediated by personality traits intrinsic to him.
How much of what you wrote was informed by theories of attachment issues/disorders? Do you ever wonder if you would write Kevin differently if you had children of your own?
I am a great admirer of your work; it fearlessly tackles big issues but at the same time single sentences or phrases can grab me and have me turning them over for days. I have masses of questions but will try to keep it to three. Okay, four.
A. Lionel Shriver: I read up a bit on attachment disorder, although I had already conceived the relationship between Eva and Kevin, so that this research merely gave the phenomenon a name. I found the research dull, and exclusively descriptive.
I think it was not having kids that made it possible for me to write that book. I didn't have to worry about one of my children growing up to read it and then taking it personally. And I wasn't tempted to use a lot of real-life material or scenes that might not have worked literarily; my head was clean, and I could make everything up.
Q. duffpancake: I am really intrigued to read Kevin again as I, too, read it before I had children and was very much on Eva's side - towards the end, chinks appear in Kevin's facade: he admits he admired Eva's travel books and shows anxiety at the prospect of moving to a tougher prison. When I read the book I thought this was supposed to show that there was still some hope that Eva and Kevin might build a relationship but was it just supposed to undermine Eva's version of events up until then?
A. Lionel Shriver: At the end of the novel, I wanted Kevin to show signs of becoming a human being. When he gives his mother Celia's glass eye, for example - and then implores her not to open the box. That's nascent humanity. The most promising suggestion that he's finally growing up is when he can no longer invent clever justifications for "Thursday"; when he considers that what he did may have been stupid; when he is himself mystified, in retrospect, why he did it. So the kid may have a future after all.
Q. Numomma: Hi Lionel, thank you for Kevin... chilling and unforgettable. One of the first books to put motherhood under the microscope and to state honestly that motherhood isn't always a walk in the park and involves lots of sacrifices. Did you write Kevin from a feminist perspective, ie with a conscious political message about motherhood or was it more personal?
Also wondering - with the election coming up, how do you think women should vote and why?
A. Lionel Shriver: No, I didn't write Kevin from a consciously feminist perspective, nor did I have a political message per se. As for the election, I resist the notion that 'women' should vote any particular way, since I reject the idea that women constitute a discrete voting block with a unified set of interests. Even on the childcare front, for example: don't men have children too? Don't they also have to pay for childcare?
Q. Mrspurr: I am huge fan of your work, especially Kevin and The Post-Birthday World. I have always wondered what your friends and family made of Kevin? Was there a division in reactions between your friends who'd had babies and those who hadn't? Did anyone get really cross?
A. Lionel Shriver: Generally, friends and family have been appreciative. I've been surprised, too, that the readership for this novel in general has not cleaved between those who have kids and those who do. Lots of parents have enjoyed the book—those who've had similar problems, and even those who haven't (Kevin makes them feel lucky). Some couples have used it to kick off discussions over whether to have a family and to explore their anxieties about becoming parents.
Q. ChoosyFloosy: Do you know, in your own mind, what it was that Kevin said to the girl with eczema? I'm not asking you to reveal all, but I would love to know if you yourself are sure what he said...
A. Lionel Shriver: No, I don't. You fill it in.
Q. Janx: Have just finished reading Kevin - couldn't put it down - any suggestions on what to read next?
A. Lionel Shriver: If you mean of my work? Try Double Fault, or Post-Birthday, or A Perfectly Good Family; even better, my new novel, So Much for That. They all deal with strong emotions and difficult subject matter.
Q. Elliemental: Do you deliberately set out to make your chief protagonists so unlikeable?
A. Lionel Shriver: No. I like my characters. But I like difficult people, complicated people, people full of contradictions. What is 'likeable' really? That is, do you only want to read about virtuous characters who visit the sick, recycle their yogurt pots, and give generously to the charities of their choice? Besides, I like characters who don't obey the rules. Who say things you're not supposed to say. I like books that say things I haven't read a million times already.
Q. Choccyp1g: Or do you just model them on your own character? Joking honestly.
A. Lionel Shriver: Now that you mention it, I might prefer to be unlikeable if the alternative was to be dull.
Q. minipie: I've read Double Fault as well as Kevin. Are you deliberately seeking to portray woman who display lots of stereotypically 'male' characteristics? And vice versa? (If so, please keep it up, but would be nice if some of them were likeable too.)
A. Lionel Shriver: Enough with the likeable! Though maybe you should read the new book, just to confound your generalizations. The protagonist of So Much for That is - astonishingly - a nice man. I guess I don't tend to write girly female characters, not if they're primary characters. My women are not apt to worry for whole chapters about their shoes.
Q. LovelyDear: I've recently read The Post-Birthday World. Generally, it was really enjoyable and well written. I loved the fact that each character had good and less good traits, and no situation was either ideal or dreadful. However. I'd like to know why on earth no-one nudged you about Ramsey's accent! Very odd, impossible to read as a South East accent, possibly a hint of Yorkshire or maybe Leeds there? Either way, it was a real fly in the ointment for me.
A. Lionel Shriver: Ramsey doesn't have an accent. That is, his accent is not transliterated. He does speak in a South London vernacular - broadly, what's called Estuary English, right? But he's an individual who's travelled widely for snooker, especially all over the UK. He's picked up the odd expression, like calling Irina "pet" - even if that's more of a Newcastle endearment. Little touches like calling her "ducky", which he only uses with sour sarcasm when he's angry with her, are individual choices, and not meant to capture some whole demographic. He knows it's an anachronism; he knows no one says "ducky" in London. You will find that the text makes these eccentricities clear; it's not that your author is ignorant.
Why you would find his dialogue "impossible to read" is beyond me. Had I transliterated the accent, sure, that would be annoying, and one of the reasons I didn't choose to do that is that I personally find transliteration like that slows me down and gets on my nerves. So you won't find "haven't" spelled "'aven't" etc. About the only "accent" transliterated in the book is "innit", which is now so standard in British discourse that I expect it to turn up in the OED.
Q. Choosyfloosy: Another Double Fault question (spoiler alert) - did you know from the start that Willa wasn't going to be able to stay with Eric or did that become clear as your writing progressed?
A. Lionel Shriver: I always know how my books end before I begin.
Q. Jamaisjedors: I read The Post-Birthday World a while ago and was blown away by it, possibly because it was a dilemma I was going through myself in my mind. I was tempted to write to you at the time but never got round to it. I loved seeing two parallel universes and thought it was very cleverly done and I was totally immersed in it when I read it.
I think my question was do you really think that everyone is capable of that kind of passion (have you experienced it yourself)?
A. Lionel Shriver: I have no idea if everyone is capable of passion. Have I fallen in love myself? Yes (my husband will be relieved to hear). More than once (my husband will not be relieved to hear). But I'm interested in how systematically most people retreat from passion over time. It's too scary.
Q. Jamaisjedors: I suppose I tend to think that people who lead a fairly safe and routine life like the main protagonist (with whom I identified strongly), would never really feel that way.
A. Lionel Shriver: It's when you lead a safe life that you can find yourself in danger. Surprise! Life—and the odd gentleman—has a tendency to hit you over the head when you're not looking.
Q. Jamaisjedors: And is a life wasted if you never feel that passion? (I came away from the book feeling that)
A. Lionel Shriver: Wasted? Not necessarily. A host of experiences can make a life worth living. But I'm glad myself that I know what it's like.
Q. ChildOfThe70s: I've just finished So Much For That, I was totally gripped all the way through and imagined all sorts of different outcomes before I reached the end. I don't want to spoil it for anyone but I'm glad Lionel Shriver isn't afraid to tackle these difficult situations. I'm glad it turned out the way it did! I wish Shep had had more of a chance to get into discussion with Gabe about the meaning of life and death though.
I just wondered if the book was written with Obama's healthcare reforms in mind, and whether Lionel Shriver thinks the outcomes for the main characters would have been any different if the healthcare system in the US was more similar to the UK? Obviously it would have made things easier for Shep moneywise. But if life was easier for him, would he have had his dream of the Afterlife in the first place?
The story really struck a chord with me, since my mother developed early-onset dementia which cost both my parents a huge amount in terms of money and plans for their own Afterlife.
A. Lionel Shriver: Glad you enjoyed the book. As for Shep and Gabe, I think you'll find a little dialogue about "the meaning of life and death" goes a long way. Easily degenerates into pretentious waffle.
I started that book before "health care reform" was even an expression in the US. Obama wasn't yet a credible candidate for president. So this wasn't an opportunistic bandwagoning onto a fashionable cause.
Shep's financial plight would be completely different in the UK—though his wife might not have access to the full panoply of chemo drugs that made the end of her life so miserable. In Britain, he would not have gone broke from medical bills. As for whether his attraction to The Afterlife would have taken root if he were British—don't you sometimes want to get away? Is British life so bucolic that no one in London, for example, would ever pine for a simpler, less hectic, less stressful, and less expensive existence?
Q. duffpancake: This is another possible spoiler question about Double Fault, which everyone should read as it is very incisive about competitiveness in relationships. (I love the line about how when men win they gloat and when women win they apologise.) I read in an interview that you said that Willy's action at the end of the book is a "gesture of seriousness about her career", but given the state of her career at that point isn't it more a deliberate stab at Eric?
A. Lionel Shriver: It - we will not say what, to avoid spoilering (if that's a word… ) - is an empty gesture toward the seriousness of her career. She's washed up. Double Fault is a tragedy: classically so, down to the exposition of that Greek "fatal flaw". The ending is wasteful, and sad, and gratuitously destructive.
Q. duffpancake: In The Post-Birthday World, in the Ramsey narrative, Irina is painfully honest with Ramsey; I wondered why you had her take this route with him, to the point that it causes problems in their relationship, such as when she tries to explain why she is sneaking back to her old flat, when she is so self-effacing with Lawrence, who perhaps might have been better-equipped to handle the truth, or Irina's explanations of it.
A. Lionel Shriver: Irina is only honest with Ramsey about sneaking back to her old flat because she was caught red-handed. Still, she does try to be honest about why she goes back there, and the truth doesn't work. Ramsey doesn't believe her.
Lawrence (in some ways like Franklin) is so determined that everything be OK and smooth and functional that he makes it difficult as well for Irina to be honest. He doesn't want trouble. To be emotionally candid, you have to have permission to rock the boat.
Q. Ninah: I would like to know if LS plans out her novels in detail in advance and writes chronologically through the plot or whether they develop organically to any degree.
I'm big admirer, by the way.
A. Lionel Shriver: LS plans out her novels in advance and writes chronologically through the plot.
As for the "btw", thanks.
Q. SmellsLikeTeenSweat: You're female. Lionel - why?
A. Lionel Shriver: I chose my own name when I was 15. I liked the sound of Lionel, and didn't know anyone else by that name. I was a tomboy, and grew up sandwiched between brothers. So it made sense I'd choose a boy's name. Suited me. Still does. I've grown very attached to my name.
One strange little knock-on effect of this selection? If you Google 'Lionel Shriver', every single hit, in my admittedly half-hearted exploration, refers to me. As far as I know, I am the only Lionel Shriver in the world at the moment. I rather like that.
Q. duffpancake:What is your reaction to everyone's interest in the fact that you don't have children? You seem to be quite happy to discuss it in interviews, and I don't suppose you'd come on to a parenting forum with the hope that it wouldn't crop up. I wondered if you had any thoughts on why this topic comes up again and again.
A. Lionel Shriver: I guess it comes up because the decision about whether to have a family is one that, post-contraception, we all have to make. As for me, I don't go all private in interviews regarding this matter, because I am at peace with my decision to give kids a miss. I am not regretful or tortured, and feel certain I made the right determination for me. But I have never been on a crusade; it has never been my purpose to talk people out of having kids.
Q. ChildOfThe70s: Like SLTS said, if you're going to give yourself a male nom de plume why Lionel? I love Ms Shriver's books, have just finished A Perfectly Good Family, which was fantastic (although I did think it all wrapped up a bit too neatly in the end) and am gripped by So Much for That at the moment. Can't wait.
A. Lionel Shriver: Lionel Shriver is not a nom de plume. It's my name. It's on my passport. My bank statements. My telephone bills.
Perfectly Good Family is, though it does have serious subject matter, a slightly lighter novel in tone compared to some of the others. That "all wrapped up" feeling at the end is appropriate to what is in some ways a comic novel. It's also the result of a certain kind of ending that pulls back and telescopes.
Nevertheless, I don't think it's a predictable ending; you couldn't have forecast from the beginning that the characters would end up as they did. A more predictable ending would have been, for example, to burn the house down. (I considered that, but I couldn't bear to torch such an estimable building.)
Q. Marytuda: I was another reader blown away (in a good way) by Kevin. I finished it some four or five years ago, I remember, with a urgent need to share it/discuss it with someone. I was in my late 40s, childless and assuming I would remain so. The book gave voice to my own longstanding ambivalence about motherhood and the suspicion that I was probably "too selfish" to make a good parent.
But (unlike Eva) I couldn't - and can't - lay claim to any kind of successful career, and nor was/am I a "masses of friends" sort of person. I was unmarried, and a part of me regretted my childlessness, feared isolation and lovelessness. But as a feminist I also felt loyal to and bound to defend my right to merry spinsterhood!
Then out of blue - almost - I gave birth to a son; an unplanned but otherwise normal birth and pregnancy except for the fact of my age - 48 (and no, I am not The Guardian's Luisa Dillner). I was stunned, panicked and thrilled, more or less in that order. Now I gaze at the miracle that is my child and wonder what kind of life I could possibly have imagined I might have had without him.
Except that in my soberer moments, I know. I would have packed any regrets away and carried on having an interesting, if not professionally successful, time; possibly much more interesting, to many, than the child-centred life I lead now.
In case you haven't guessed it, Lionel, I am a writer too, though with nothing like your track record. What do you think about motherhood and fiction writing, or childlessness? Do you see your childlessness as a function of your career as a writer?
And not just because of its financial insecurity, which would also, maybe especially, affect young male writers. Is there something about motherhood which mitigates against the broadly objective vision and prolonged self-absorption (if that isn't a contradiction - help!) that writing fiction demands?
Mothers (with the exception of Eva) are the ultimate relativists; committed to seeing only one person's interests, one side of any story; that of our child's. Would welcome your thoughts.
A. Lionel Shriver: I don't think it's impossible to write and have children; plenty of women do both. For myself, I do think much of the energy and time that might otherwise have gone into kids has gone into books instead. I don't mean that self-importantly; raising children well is arguably more important work than writing mere books.
I'm delighted you've discovered motherhood to be so rich, especially when you'd assumed you were going to end up childless. You write very well, btw. Even in this modest forum. You're very articulate.