Lionel Shriver, an American writer living in London who is a guest at this year's Festival of the European Short Story, is renowned for being a somewhat tricky person – much like her characters.
"Humorless," "intelligent," "stern" and "opinionated" are some of the adjectives that usually appear next to her name, but I was nevertheless determined to talk to this very interesting, insightful and self-possessed author. Born in 1957 as Margaret Ann, Shriver changed her name when she was 15 because it sounded "too girly". When she won the Orange Prize in 2005, she told journalists she had expected to win, which led some to pronounce her arrogant. "I was confronted with evidence that women are uncomfortable with naked ambition … [and are] virtually obliged to act abashed when they win. In contrast to a certain other sex that will go unmentioned," she told The Guardian.
If you're not familiar with her books, you've probably seen the film adaption of her novel We Need to Talk About Kevin starring Tilda Swinton. Shriver has published 11 novels, in which she has dealt topics ranging from obesity, demography, epidemiology, motherhood and family relations, health care system, terrorism…
We talked with Lionel about literary festivals, the American Dream, unlikeable characters, feminist linguistic issues and getting hit by a tram!
You've been an expat since 1985. – you've lived in Nairobi, Bangkok and Belfast, and you currently live in London. Does the English disposition suit you better? After that much time, do you still feel American?
Yes, I do. There's nothing like living abroad to keep your identity as an American fresh. Part of identity is not just how you think of yourself, but how others think of you. As soon as I open my mouth I'm going to be an American in the UK regardless of how long I've lived there. It's one of the differences between the two countries. Americans are much happier to assimilate people and you don't have to live there for very long to be regarded as another American. In Europe it's not like that.
That whole thing of trying to fit in and be regarded as one of you and making little changes to please, it's unattractive really (because you rarely do please) and it's not pleasing. It makes you seem insecure – it probably means you are insecure. When I first moved to Northern Ireland, especially after I've been there for several years, it was very important to me to distance myself from people who've only been there a little while. This has never been published, but I wrote a whole novella about this competition between two Americans in Northern Ireland. It's meant to be comic. And now I'm much more contented, I accept I'm an American who has lived in the UK for a long time, which is not the same time as being English, and I'm perfectly happy with that.
You once complained that writers are expected to be performing bears and that there'a lot of pressure to appear fascinating, but you actually do a lot of literary festivals and a lot of interviews. Is this just business for you, or is there some pleasure in the mix?
Sure there is. And I actually enjoy being a performing bear. And I do get something from going to all these places. It is interesting to me to get exposure to Croatia. I've been very little in Eastern Europe in general. It's not as useful as if I came here on my own or with a research project and really spent weeks here, of course. I think you learn the most when you're thrown on your wits, and that's the kind of travelling I don't have to do much anymore, and it's probably not good for me, having my hand held. But that's not to say that it's not worthwhile.
I generally have a good time doing events once I get onstage. I enjoy an audience. I do think there are a lot of writers who do not thrive in front of an audience and it makes perfect sense to me. It's essentially a theatrical. It do think it's strange how literary festivals have proliferated so much in recent years, and I do genuinely not understand why people want to go to them – I'm not very interested in writers. And when I love something that I've read, I don't immediately want to meet the person. I keep authors and their work very separate in my head. Although, if I meet a writer and discover I find them irksome, it can damage my ability to enjoy their work in the future, and I don't like that. That's one reason I don't understand why people risk that by going to such events. I mean, what if they're unbearable? I would never take that risk!
Photo by: Martina Kenji
In your work, you've dealt with a number or difficult topics. Why is fiction such a good way of tackling certain social, political, personal and other issues?
A lot of topics that are addressed in non-fiction, for example, are best expressed in stories, people telling their stories. After all, what makes abstract issues important is what effect they have on real people. Therefore I think fiction is optimal for embodying the impact of the abstract or the political on people's lives. Perhaps the best example is my ninth novel So Much for That which is about the American health care system. That topic, when it's dealt with in the abstract, is soporific. What non-fiction reading I had to do for that book put me to sleep! But there's nothing dry and unemotional about becoming gravely ill or losing all your money, much less both at the same time. So I think that novel ends up being quite dramatic and moving, personal, intimate, but it's about American health care.
Your protagonists are usually described as unlikeable and difficult people. But they are not anti-heroes, because anti-heroes are still attractive albeit morally corrupt. Why do you create characters who test the limits of our affection and sympathy? Is goodness boring?
Well, yes, I think goodness is dead boring! Especially when it's too easy. When you just start out with somebody who visits the sick and rescues cats from trees – first off, that's artificial goodness, I made that person good, in the same way I can make that person speak 6 languages if I want to (especially if I have access to Google translate). So it's a kind of cheap goodness. Real goodness - it's not that I don't believe in it, I just think it's hard and it doesn't always come naturally. The ending of We Need to Talk about Kevin is a good example – the narrator finally loves her son. She could have started that on page 1, but then there's no story. I'm much more interested in people in the process of becoming good despite themselves because it requires effort and is intrinsically narrative.
You made an interesting distinction between characters that are, I'd call them difficult rather than unlikeable, and the antihero the irony being that you love the antihero. They're doing all these bad things, yet the author has made you be on their side. House of Cards is probably the most recent example – you actually want Kevin Spacey to get away with it. And I love that format. I love the intrinsic tension that it introduces in the reader. It's enjoyably perplexing to sit there rooting for Kevin Spacey when he's such a shit.
But I'm more interested in crafting characters who are not despicable or intolerable, but there are things about them that are wrong or difficult – like real people. It's actually just an effort at realism as much as anything else. If you just can't stand this person, this character, if you hate everything about him, want to get as far away from him as possible, then I have failed. I try to write characters, sometimes they say something that's either smart or funny – it doesn't mean you're gonna agree with them, but there's something beguiling about the way it's put, and you kinda see their point of view. I like a little complexity.
You seem to have a very critical attitude towards the whole idea of the American Dream. Americans (but not only Americans) are working very hard for a good life that seems just out of reach, yet beneath all that there seems to be a lot of disappointment and anger, which is something that is present in your novels. Where do you think this disappointment comes from?
I'm puzzled about this concept of the American Dream. As far as I can tell, one of the problems with it is that it's defined primarily in material terms. You don't have to be especially smart to observe that. But that's a limited form of happiness. As coherently as I can put it together, the concept involves having a house, I suppose a reasonably nice house, a car, for some people maybe even two cars, and lately I don't know if you throw kids into the mix or not, because they're not really the point. The American Dream is about having a reliable salary and perhaps a comfortable retirement and a life without too much suffering – it's about comfort. And it's also about arrival, which is where I really question it, where you're supposed to get, why you are doing all this work.
To conceive of happiness as a place you will finally get to is a big mistake. Happiness is all process. What makes me happy is having a project, something to do. Happiness is a direction. So all that toil we are talking about – that is, however ironically, the happiness. It's as good as it's gonna get, and to keep imagining there is some Valhalla out there waiting for you is to put yourself into a state of both misery and delusion. Getting up every morning and applying yourself to something, that's where the joy is, the energy, and besides, joy is not really to be found in material things. I don't wanna sound like some guru, but all you really require is a pretty primitive level of biological sufficiency and safety. I don't wanna play down the importance of food and shelter, we do have needs, but they are not all that great, and there's only so much happier you can get when you buy a slightly nicer car. So to keep looking in this direction for how to make yourself feel satisfied or joyous, it's so self-evidently a mistake that I find it mysterious that this very superficial notion of the American Dream keeps surviving.
We Need to Talk About Kevin (r. Lynne Ramsey, 2011.)
In your article in Slate, you praised Margaret Thatcher's "muscular feminism" and the fact that she's a doer and not a talker. Do you think women talk too much, or is it just feminists, who are, as you say, "obsessed with language"?
I would probably agree with that statement, although I think everyone should just shut up! I did become very impatient with this obsession with language. I don't wanna sound naive, and I'm not saying there isn’t a masculine prejudice in most languages. Clearly subtle little elements of your language can have an effect on how you think of men and women, so I'm not saying it's completely unimportant, but it's not as important as a lot of feminists have made it out to be. For me, in terms of what I do, I don't like the artifice of feminism as it takes the linguistic form, messing up my writing. And I'm not going to sacrifice the flow of my work for these political ends.
There's something I find particularly annoying – and this is very commonplace in the States now, and usually from male writers ( I did a piece on this) – when you speak in the general and the singular, and the convention in English is that you use the masculine. The most common successful solution to that is to use the plural, but you cannot do that in every situation. I find that some male writers have started using "she" instead, David Brooks, for example. My problem with that is that it's still discrimination, just the other way around, so it doesn't really solve the problem. The biggest problem for me is that it is a big distraction. Brooks is not writing about feminist issues, but about something else, and as soon as we trip over that "she" the topic changes, and the real topic becomes "I'm David Brooks and I'm so hip and trying to please people I'm secretly afraid of." I don't wanna pick on Brooks, it's a whole bunch of people. It's picking this kind of fight that gives feminists a bad name.
Have you ever been criticized for using the masculine general?
No, but I can tell a lot of people have been got at. But there's something organically changing, the preference for the plural in English, which has an organic quality to it, I've seen it gradually become more the norm. This is what I think is actually going to happen – the plural ends up being used in the singular and many people use that colloquially anyway – but it's grammatically incorrect. But I could see that it has an organic evolution to it, that's when language really starts to work best. And though I may be a grammatical pedant, I can live with the use of "they", and I actually use it a lot when writing dialogue.
You were in Belfast in 1988 during Milltown Cemetery killings, but nothing happened to you. In Kilifi Creek you write about moments like these – when you almost die, but you don't – and you write that it's sort of a non-story, about something that didn't happen, and how oftentimes these moments are not heroic or rewarding. Can you tell us more about what inspired you to write this story?
The narrator says it's not really a lesson, but that's partly because of the way we think of a lesson as something small and expressible. There's a lesson it in alright – it's the biggest lesson you can ever learn, and one you never completely learn until it's too late. It was important to me that there are moments we all have. They don't mean anything overtly – nothing happened, there's no story to tell. I just had it yesterday!
A near death experience?
It could have been a little closer, but it was too close for comfort. I was crossing a street, and it wasn't at a light, and then it just happened, there was the tram! I started to run, and it missed me by a few feet. I wasn't looking. If it had been a few seconds different, I think we would have had an accident – this interview would have been much different! Anyway, that was a dumb little lesson. The more important part of that experience is always "Fuck me, this could have been the last day of my life. I would have died in Zagreb. That hasty goodbye at the taxi would have been the last time my husband saw me – since we couldn't get through on Facetime! Gosh." The only times I come anywhere near believing that I'm gonna die, that, as the last line says, At some point there is no 'almost'. And that is what motivated me to write that story. I've wanted to write it for quite some time, and it was only when I got that ending, with the falling off the building, that I had it.
You mentioned you're working on a new book and that it's about finance. Can you give us some juicy details?
My publisher doesn't like it! I shouldn't be spreading this about, just keep it in Croatian. It's a very different form than I've ever used before, it's a near-future book that takes place between 2029 and 2047. I think it's a lot of fun. It's about the economic collapse in the US. It's profoundly about money and people's relationship to money, and it's also looking at the prospect of the American decline, because that is gonna happen – it happens to everybody. It's got a lot of economics in it – I think that's the source of the problem with my publisher. But economics are interesting and fun, so they're not coming out! As I said, one of the things fiction can do is to turn people on to what's interesting about a field.