Lionel Shriver

Lionel Shriver Lionel Shriver's latest novel, We Need To Talk About Kevin, is her seventh. Her previous novels are Double Fault, A Perfectly Good Family, Game Control, The Bleeding Heart, Checker and the Derailleurs and The Female of the Species. She attended Columbia University and has lived for many years in Belfast, Northern Ireland and has written for the Wall Street Journal, The Economist and the Philadelphia Enquirer. Currently Shriver lives in New York and is, as one might expect, working on her next novel.

We Need to Talk About Kevin is the story of Eva Khatchadourian's
retrospective account of her son's life up to and beyond the day
he went to his high school and began shooting his classmates. As
Suzy Hansen writes at Salon.com: "What we get …
is an interesting, thoughtful, and surprisingly credible thriller.
We Need to Talk About Kevin is about motherhood and the
possibility that one's ambivalence about breeding might influence
the growth and development of a child. Eva, in her scathingly honest
and often witty recollections of her relationship with Franklin,
her agonized decision to give up a life of traveling for motherhood,
and her painful years with (the truly hideous and apathetic) Kevin,
faces the question head on: Am I responsible for what my child
has done?
"

Robert Birnbaum: As you are writing We Need
To Talk About Kevin
, do you have a sense of what a minefield
this story is and the issues it raises?

Lionel Shriver: I certainly knew that if I was
going to address a subject of a woman who essentially doesn't like
her own son—I don't think that's a minefield, I think that
it's just a mine— it was an idea that was intrinsically going
to make my main character seem unattractive to most readers. I think
that bond between mother and son is especially inviolable, I would
say even beyond Western culture. That's commonly one of the deepest
and least conditional of relationships. And here I was placing conditions
on it. A mother who wouldn't have picked this person to be her son
and was honest enough to admit that to herself. The main way I got
around the unpleasantness of violating that taboo is by channeling
my energies through that honesty into her forthrightness; her willingness
to look her own unpleasantness in the face.

RB: I would argue that there is more than one
mine in this book.

LS: Oh yes, and then there is the whole Columbine
business, which people have strong feelings about. And here I am
ultimately trying to get sympathy for the mother of the killer,
not the mother of somebody who has been killed. You naturally have
great sympathy for someone whose child has been murdered. But someone
whose child has murdered is a little suspect, and that's much more
difficult subject matter.

RB: I have a short bibliography in which bad things
happen to children [Stephen Dixon's Interstate, John Burnham
Schwartz' Reservation Road, Siri Hustvedt's What I Loved] and some of them I have been
able to read and some I haven't, but always I think about and certainly
in the case of this novel I think about where the writer had to
put themselves to imagine and write such a story. I know the issue
of whether you have children affects how one could write this story.
Was it hard for you to put yourself in the position of Eva Khatchadourian?

LS: It was certainly challenging, partly because
I haven't had children. And so that entailed, if nothing else, trying
to flip around my own experience of being a child—since that's
my only experience of the mother-child relationship in the original
and having to think about my own parent’s perspective. I was
nervous about doing that. I knew that real parents had access to
a whole trove of experience that I could only infer and I took a
certain hard swallow. It has been really gratifying to me speak
to more than one reader, who having not been familiar with my biography,
thought I was a mother. And I thought, "I really pulled off
a magic trick." In the process of writing the book I was truly
under confident. I have respect for original experience and I hate
artifice. I hate fakery. So I had to try to the best of my ability
to imagine what it was like and most of all what it would be like
for someone like me. That was one of the purposes that the writing
of the book served for me. At the time I was wrestling with whether
or not to become a mother. I was getting older. I did have deep
reservations about the idea and wanted to work them out on paper.
It was that sense of having something personally at stake that made
it possible for me to think that hard and, ideally, that well.

RB: Setting aside the personal aspects for writing
this book, horrible things happen in this book. Does that take an
emotional toll?

LS: [pause] It takes some emotional toll. I found
the writing of the book very heavy. It wasn't always something I
looked forward to getting back to. There were certain scenes that
I was writing up to that I dreaded, partly because I knew they would
be technically difficult. They would, again, address experience
that I didn't have very much first-hand knowledge of. I knew they
would strain my imaginative powers. And I was glad to have it finished.
I found having to read it over and over again in the proofs and
the galleys went on forever. I have not written a single book that
I was not thoroughly sick of by the time it came out. Sometimes
it's a little humorous. There is enough humor in this book, which
I don't think one expects when picking it up.

RB: That's like Robert Stone saying his books
are funny.

LS: Yeah [laughs] I have read all his books.
I don't remember rolling on the floor with Flag For Sunrise—oh,
the nun raping scene, ha ha ha. The humor in my book is dry.

RB: Well, sure funny things happen in life, in
passing…

LS: Yeah, regardless of what transpires. In fact,
there is something about tragedy that brings that out. I was with
my in-laws recently when someone in the family died and had been
ill for a long time, and this was right after the death. And they
were giddy. It's not that they didn't care. They cared fantastically.
There was this sense of release and it released a lot of humor.

RB: That's what the Irish do.

LS: They famously get together at wakes and get
completely pole axed and it can be hilarious.

RB: By the time a book is actually a published
book you have gone through its numerous iterations. Now the book
is out how is the talking about it. Do you get sick talking about
it?

Writing a novel is such an isolated enterprise. And while you are
writing it, you are living with this material every day…
Essentially, you are living in your own little heaven or hell,
depending on what you are writing. It's a little bit like
being asleep all the time, being in a dream all the time.

LS: Funnily enough, I don't. Writing a novel is
such an isolated enterprise. And while you are writing it, you are
living with this material every day. You may speak a little bit
about it to one or two people. For the most part, because they don't
have access to the text, the telling it doesn't work very well.
Essentially, you are living in your own little heaven or hell, depending
on what you are writing. It's a little bit like being asleep all
the time, being in a dream all the time. It's a relief to get out.
It makes you feel more sane. Finally other people have access to
that world too. It's real to them too. I find it fantastically gratifying
to have people speak to me about my characters as if they were real
people, people who have complexities. And about whom you can disagree
and have different feelings. I am glad to be able to communicate.
Also, a novel has a relatively short shelf life, especially these
days.

RB: Don't believe that.

LS: You don't think so?

RB: I understand that the conventional wisdom
of book marketing views the first six weeks as crucial, but there
are lots of ways that books are perked up, not the least of which
is Oprah and the gaggle of other books clubs. Fifty years from now
someone like her could be touting your book anew.

LS: That's true, but if you sit around counting
on it you are in trouble. As a consequence that brief period that
you can count on, as you said it's essentially a six-week window,
when you can, if every thing is going well, expect someone to talk
to you about your book. Then I am not bored. Because I know I am
going to be back to the salt mines and nobody is going to be talking
to me about anything. So I am delighted to talk to you.

RB: We were talking earlier (off tape) about a
Phillip
Weiss article in the New York Observer
—which
centers on your being discovered by a group of smart women including
some novelists like Amy Hempel, who had a dinner party for you and
invited a group who didn't know you.

LS: It was incredibly gracious. Amy Hempel and
another writer named Pearson Marx, they didn't know me from Adam
personally, but they just loved the book. It was Amy Hempel who
had gone to the trouble of going to one of my readings and speaking
to me afterwards and I was really moved by that.

RB: Of course, that doesn't show up in the marketing
plan that is created, "Book adopted by a group of smart women
and zealously
touted by them."

LS: It couldn't have been designed.

RB: That would be a hopeful sign of many things
including a burgeoning network of people on the Internet. I am amazed
at the range of writers that are talked about on a good cross section
of literary websites. I wanted to bring up the minefield issue,
as this is such explosive material, it seems to me that this is
a book that is a litmus test for one's own values and experiences.
And I think that there is a tendency to obscure what is there, what
is actually in the text—with what their feelings are about
some of the issues raised.

LS: What you mean is that issues I am dealing
with are so loaded that people bring to the book much of their own
experience, their own feelings about parenthood and having been
a child and…

RB: Not to mention the overarching social concerns
…on page sixty-one you have a pretty comprehensive list of
school shootings. Just seeing that list was a harrowing reminder…

LS: It's sobering. And you recognize the names
of all those towns and you realize that your whole associations
with Pearl, Mississippi is this shooting and that's always what
it will mean. There's a virtually perfect parallel with that phenomenon
in Northern Ireland where I lived for twelve years. And the same
thing happens there. That a town like Enniskillen [The town cenotaph
was blown up by the Provisional IRA in November 1987, killing eleven
people, all civilians, on Remembrance Day, during the memorial service]
is a town where 11 people were blown up and is synonymous with a
particular bombing in 1987 and it always will be. I feel sorry for
those places.

RB: Reading the book I wasn't moved to contemplate
any larger social issues. I was inclined to see the specificity
of this story —not as it standing for greater concerns.

LS: I am so pleased.

RB: You are?

LS: That is what I wanted. I wanted to tell a
particular story, and I wanted that story to be real and plausible
and specifically not an explanation for all these other shootings.
In fact, when I was doing the research for the book and reading
about all the real shootings— which is why I was able to put
together that whole list as you read in the book— the news
of these shootings coming in constitutes the events in the book,
but I really got my fill of that kind of research much earlier on
than I would have expected. And it was not that there wasn't more
material. In fact, the amount of material is infinite and horribly
redundant. It was that it wasn't going to help me. It wasn't going
to help me at all except in those little respects where I could
fill in the details of Pearl, Mississippi on Jim Lehrer News Hour.
But it was not going to make my story up for me. It was not going
to give to me my characters. It was not going to tell a tale that
reflected the thematic concerns I had, which have to with motherhood.
So in many ways, I threw it all away [laughs]. I have a stack of
printouts from the Internet. But I never referred to it. I could
have used that research to put together some kind of Frankensteinian
composite for a family and incident that was somehow representative.
That was not my ambition.

RB: The question I come away with is that this
story is told from the perspective of the mother, and thus Kevin
seems thoroughly sociopathic…

lionel shriver by birnbaumLS:
As described by her and that's important. There have been some readers
who take to the narrator sufficiently that they believe everything
that she says and that's a mistake. Because I think that when you
pull the camera back you can start registering, especially some
of her early stories—well they seem a very dark and terrible
and this kid is warped. When you start thinking about it more objectively
he didn't do much. He goes to kindergarten, where one of his classmates
has an eczema condition, and they are discovered in the bathroom
together, and she is scratching her skin open, and he is whispering
in her ear. The implication is that he has enticed her into giving
into scraping her arms and legs open against the warnings of her
mother. But there is no real evidence for that. And what does that
mean? The kid is only six years old. Mostly he doesn't stop the
classmate from scratching her arms. In other words, it's small,
but for the mother it's enormous. But her vision is impaired. She
is wearing spectacles that magnify everything.

RB: There is that epigraph by Erma Brombeck in
your book…

LS: "A child needs your love most when he
deserves it least."

RB: That resonated when this child doesn't breast
feed and it was a very big thing for Eva, the mother…

LS: Who's to say that's his fault. Again, for
her, she takes it personally. It's a rejection. What she infers
from it is that not only does the baby not like her, but he's essentially
anti-life. He doesn't want to be here. She even takes from the fact
that a child was two weeks late— which I gather is not unusual
with a first child, and she is an older mother— that he's
reluctant to come out. She is constantly imputing agency to him
when commonly we don't impute any agency to an infant. It really
isn't a fully formed personality yet. The fact that he cries so
incessantly and yet mysteriously is well behaved when the father
comes home. She sees that as not only ranting at the world in an
existential way, at the indignity of his own existence but it’s
also an effort to come between her and her husband. Because this
difference in his behavior makes her reports about his screaming
seem untrustworthy.

RB: As a counterpoint, we have the husband saying,
"He's just a kid." And that's right. Why would readers
accept her reporting on her son?

LS: There are some readers—I hate casting
aspersions on any readers, for which I am so grateful [laughs]—it
takes a certain literary sophistication, the concept of the unreliable
narrator is not one that every reader is familiar with and also
the clues in this book are initially subtle. I have painted a couple
of incidents that deliberately cast doubt on her version of events,
and that's for the naive reader. I am trying to circle that in red.
There's a photograph that goes missing that she immediately assumes
he has ripped into little pieces because he hates her and in truth
in turns out later that he has been carrying it around folded up
in his wallet for years.

RB: Very early in Kevin's infancy Eva observes
that he had a "fluctuating interior life whose subtlety and
intensity would diminish with age." Where would anyone get
such a thought about a new infant? What would be the evidence for
such an observation?

LS: It's almost a form of anthropomorphism. That
is, you are imbuing a half-formed being, a child, with fully formed
adult traits. In some way she related to him from the every beginning
as a peer. And that's a mistake. And therefore everything he does
she takes personally in the same way that you and I would take personally
something that a friend of ours did. And doesn't bring to motherhood
sympathy for the state of childhood and the kind of forgiveness
that involves.

RB: This is another book that straddles the divide
between people who have children and those who don't have children.
People who have children may say, "You don't know." Which
has certain validity given the appeal of the authentic experience.

LS: It's a funny this business of treating children
as peers, I know that I have a weakness for it myself. I am not
always comfortable around children. And I am very sensitive about
the prospect of being condescending towards them. I hated being
condescended to, when I was a child. So I always try to speak to
them as if we're on the same level and the same age and they are
perfectly intelligent. Well, they may be perfectly intelligent,
but they are not the same age. As a consequence they have no idea
what I am a talking about. Children do need at certain ages to be
talked down to and if you don't talk down to them or come down to
their level, you don't communicate.

RB: Oh sure. Is there a divide between readers
who have children and don't have children? Is it clear that they
see this book differently?

LS: This has surprised me because I would have
expected that. I would have expected a clear divide. I was worried
that while childless adults might find the book gratifying perhaps
as a validation of their decision to avoid that kind of risk, that
parents might find it offensive or misrepresentative of their experience.
I haven't found that at all. In fact, I was speaking to one woman
who was very grateful that someone had given voice to the negative
sides of parenthood and she is the mother of a couple of kids. But
was honest about the experience, not that she regretted having them
or anything like that, but that the kind of exasperation that it
involved, the boredom which parents don't talk about.

RB: That would speak to the tendency, which I
have no name for, to not talk about life in a balanced way. People
seem to want to say that it's all totally wonderful or black with
despair and angst.

LS: I sense that with my friends that have children
and clearly are glad to have children on balance that when you speak
to them about the experience of parenthood, they are often doing
a kind of a sales pitch. Right? Which clearly involves selling the
idea to themselves, not to me. There is a big downside. There are
sacrifices. After all parenthood has that reputation and thy are
constantly running this patter through their heads convincing themselves
that the sacrifices were worth it. That they loved their children,
"Oh, the world is made anew." It often sounds a little
hollow. I think that parents feel to give voice to what they don't
like about parenthood is to betray their children and that is why
I found a number of woman, in particular, have been grateful for
this book. It's someone giving voice to his or her reservations.
And Eva speaks for them about the things that they have never felt
they had permission to say.

RB: I have for a long time held a view that my
parent's generation was not prepared for parenthood…

I sense that with my friends that have children and clearly
are glad to have children on balance that when you speak to
them about the experience of parenthood, they are often doing
a kind of a sales pitch… I think that parents feel to
give voice to what they don't like about parenthood is to
betray their children.

LS: It was a less conscious decision to have children
and it was a less examined experience.

RB: There was an expectation that it just happened
and that everything worked out.

LS: And that parenthood was something that came
naturally to people. It wasn't something you had to study up on
or take courses in.

RB: On top of that, the world changed significantly.
We grew with television becoming increasingly influential and a
consciousness of the world that was very different and more influential
than the so-called nuclear family.

LS: And there has been this huge demographic change.
We are just not having as many children. That makes them a much
bigger deal. Most women in this country will, at most, have two
kids, and a lot will only have one. And I gather that the figures
are that twenty five percent in the US are not planning to have
any children.

RB: There is the new trend of adopting Chinese
baby girls. I'm a sure that's a wave that you are aware of…

LS: That's because otherwise they bury them in
the back yard.
[laughs]

RB: I was disturbed for a time when I saw the
way people seemed to be treating their children as fashion accessories.
I remember being on an airplane and saw a kid who maybe was two
or three, wearing a leather jacket…

LS: Likewise I am very suspicious of this whole
phenomenon of women in their mid forties, as I am, who spend thousands
and thousands of dollars to try to get pregnant. And you talk to
these couples and it becomes this obsessive quest. But it starts
to smack of, you know, there is this Gucci pocketbook that you absolutely
must have.

RB: [laughs]

LS: It is getting something. And it also feels
a little competitive because, "Oh Nancy has a baby. I want
one too."

RB: Maybe my parents' generation wasn't so bad?

LS: That casualness is enviable. The middle and
upper class in this country having children is tedious in the extreme
and not necessarily good for the kids. It's too self-conscious,
too hands on. These are the same parents who hardly ever let their
kids out of the house without going with them. That's not the way
I grew up. I don't think I would have ever been a writer if people
didn't leave me alone as a kid.

RB: That's touchy. There are many milk cartons
that remind you what can happen if you don't monitor your kid's
whereabouts.

LS: I'm sympathetic to this sense of this most
precious commodity, it's the most precious thing in your life and
the idea of just letting it romp around is terrifying. It's intelligent,
in a way. The list of things that can happen is very long. What
actually happens to you is the thing you left off the list. And
it's not just what happens to children, it's what can happen to
you too. But there's a point that you have to take a psychologically
realistic position and also a profitable philosophical position.
Who wants to live like that? Walking around with a list in your
head doesn't save you from anything at all.

RB: This seems to be one of those irreducible
positions that categorizes some parents. There is no proof that
can be offered to move a parent to reduce their overwrought vigilance.

LS: The alternative model is in Africa where they
are completely fatalistic. They don't worry about anything. You
can go too far. That's one of the reasons the AIDS epidemic has
taken off. They don't think they can help whether they get it. So
they don't take prophylactic measures. But a little dose of fatalism
is healthy.

RB: In the writing of this book we are aware of
the great tragedy, and I won't elaborate on what else happens—when
you began, did you want to build up to the horrors?

LS: You do find out the bare bones of the incident
on page eight. I deliberately put the facts of the matter up front.
I felt my reader was sure to be miles ahead of me if I was going
to try to pull off this school-shooting incident as a big surprise.
In fact, it would seem predictable and disappointing. So I decided
to head my reader off at the pass. To also facilitate putting it
on the book jacket. It really is a problem marketing a book where
the hook is a secret. I thought that was tactically wise. It was
also tactically wise in terms of the writing of the book. I was
not interested in writing a thriller where the suspense had to with
what exactly happened. I did reserve something out. I think there
was a structural obligation, if you are going to put the book together
that way, to have something happen at the end, which you don't necessarily
know about. I think I come through with that. What I also set up
for myself was that, the big question in the book was not, "Oh,
what's going to happen?" But "Why? Why did that happen?"
The explanation is much more interesting to me and how did it come
about? To what degree could you see it coming? What's it like to
look back on that history with hindsight and know what happened
and revisit lots of memories, looking for signs of what was going
on.

RB: At the very end, we see a sign of a shift
with Kevin. Which is plausible and understandable, but it could
easily have gone the other way. Rather he could have remained unchanged.

LS: Whenever you have a character that presents
himself the way he always have. That's flat. It's not impossible
and there are no rules.

RB: He's a sociopath…

lionel shriver image by robert birnbaumLS:
And certainly that's one option. And the change in both Eva and
Kevin at the end of the book is delicate. It's at the very end.
I hope it's not overdone in terms of the redemption business that
we have learned to expect with violins playing in the background.
I really hate sentimentality, but I felt that I had come far enough
with these characters to accomplish some transformation that was
hard earned and well earned. My narrator had suffered through so
much self-recrimination for four hundred and whatever pages [pause]
I felt she needed to grant herself a little kindness. And I think
it was partly her ability to be a little softer on herself that
it made it possible to be a little kinder and softer with her son.
I found likewise, Kevin's just beginning to humanize and wonder
why he did it, after all and feel a little bit sorry. It certainly
not this hair-tearing remorse scene. It's a huge relief and this
all happens on the very last page. Honestly, when I was writing
the first draft of this book, it's a vague ambition to get to that
state. On the next to the last page I still wasn't there. When I
did get there in the last line—this sounds terribly pretentious—but
I cried.

RB: Why is that pretentious? Because you hate
sentimentality?

LS: Oh, because it's a little…

RB: Can I tell you something? I just had this
crystalline realization when you said I hate sentimentality. You
are given to making very clear and precise statements about what
you think and feel both as the writer of this story and in person.
And as a parent it occurs to me that one change in my perspective
is that I no longer hold the need to be clear and precise about
the world. I think that life is much sloppier that I had considered…

LS: As in, the more precise you are, the more
you lie. Because you have to fit a lot of the amorphous and conflicting
thoughts and feelings into this crystal clear sensibility. It's
appealing in other people.

RB: Sure it has a personal appeal. You would wish
the world to be ordered seemingly comprehensibly.

LS: Yes, but it's a distortion, always.

RB: Did you know it was the last page because
of what you had written and because of your emotional response?

LS: Yes, I did. Once I got that response out of
myself. And I heard from some other readers that they had the same
experience, this huge relief of a dam breaking. Eva—not to
blow the ending— says something like, "Out of exhaustion,
loneliness or even boredom, I love my son." She has been worn
down to feeling and I was really grateful. And it's that kind of
moment that writers have that you live for.

RB: This is your seventh novel. We talked a little
off camera about your brilliant career…

LS: [both laugh] Oh dear. You have to be sardonic…

RB: The publishing game can be a shameless and
cruel game and people take their defeats…

LS: You don't have to tell me that.

RB: So, is there any kind of consistency about
your emotional state at the completion of a novel? Always relief?

LS: It's a complicated combination of relief and
disappointment. It's always a relief to have a completed manuscript.
And this particular book especially. Unlike, many of the books I
have written, I kept feeling as if I was groping my way forward
in the fog, though I had a larger schema for the book. I had this
notion of where I was writing towards. I could still only see immediately,
three inches in front of my nose. I was not sure until I wrote that
last page that the book was going to work at all. I had no idea
if I was working on a white elephant. It just kept getting longer
and longer. It used to be two hundred pages longer. I cut a lot
of it. I thought, "My God, I've created a monster." And
therefore when it rounded into a story that worked for me, even
if it needed a lot of editing, then I had a whole thing that I could
work with. There is always a relief to that. Once you have a first
draft you go from a linear process which is much more akin to sculpture.
You are working with something that is three dimensional and you
go back and touch this up, over here and that over there and shape
it into something that works to the literary eye. That part I always
enjoy. There is a certain security that attaches to it. You can
relax and you can refine things.

RB: Some people like rewriting and editing more
than the writing.

LS: I love that part. There are satisfactions
that you only get in the first draft, but it's anxious and very
demanding in a way that you are not always up for.

RB: So sitting where you are now, do you at all
think about your other novels? Do they have any presence in the
way you think about your writing?

I am very suspicious of this whole phenomenon of women in their mid forties, as I am, who spend thousands and thousands of dollars to try to get pregnant. And you talk to these couples and it becomes this obsessive quest.

LS: I try to avoid repeating myself, so I keep
a kind of mental file. I don't like my characters to do the same
things for a living. My fourth book is about demography. I am not
likely to do another book about population growth. And I am aware
of having only a limited time on Earth and there is a big world
out there, so I want to get around to as much as possible. The books
themselves, again it's almost like sculptures, they are like little
sculptures in my garden. I am aware of them. I don't think about
them all the time. But they are reliably synonymous with periods
of my life so that I can't think of a book without thinking of where
I was when I wrote it and what that experience was like.

RB: You've been a journalist, yes?

LS: Yes.

RB: And do you write short form fiction?

LS: I never write short stories. The last time
I wrote a short story it turned into a one hundred and four-page
novella. [both laugh]

RB: I get it. You went to Columbia University.
For writing?

LS: I did. I got an MFA.

RB: Why did you do that?

LS: For one thing because of my father's association
with Union Theological Seminary I didn't have to pay for it.

RB: You could have studied Chemistry.

LS: I wanted to be a writer since I was seven.
Essentially, since I learned to read. I have always felt a little
apologetic about that degree. It's a soft degree. It's not a very
difficult degree to earn. There is no science to creative writing
and it feels very self-indulgent. I have always have been aware
that most of the great writers of the past didn't go to workshops.
It's always seemed a little embarrassing to me. On the other hand,
I did want to get published. I badly needed some connections, which
is why most people go to these programs. It's not to learn to write
finer sentences. It's because they want the teacher to introduce
them to the teacher's agent. That's it.

RB: [chuckles] If I got it right you went to Columbia
and spent some twelve years, fifteen years in Belfast, Ireland.

LS: I was an adjunct English teacher for a while
in a number of New York colleges and then I went on a six month
Western European bike trip. Then I spent six months in Israel, part
of that time on kibbutz in the Galilee, near Kiriat Shimona. Once
I came back from Israel by that time I had finished my second book
and then I left for Belfast, intending to spend about nine months
and didn't leave for twelve years [laughs]. Some people are slow.
Within that period I returned regularly for summers in New York
and also spent about a year in Nairobi and also three months in
Bangkok and Vietnam. I've traveled a lot.

RB: Can we use the word 'well-traveled'?

LS: Yes. Which is why it would make perfect sense
that I would be attracted to a narrator who did a kind of "Let's
Go Travel" series and has spent a huge amount of time outside
the country. As I have, I have spent most of my adult life outside
the country. It gives you a different perspective.

RB: I'll say. Have you thought much about what
you are going to do next?

LS: I have a book gestating, yes?

RB: When did you finish this book?

LS: A year and half ago. It took so long to sell.
And in the mean time I was doing mostly journalism. So it's overdue
for me to get started, but it took a while for what I wanted to
do. I think the project is in some ways going to be a recoil from
this one. I am happy with the way this book came out. It was a powerful
experience to write it, but I yearn for some sweetness. And recently
had the experience of falling head over heels in love. That's the
sweetest experience on earth. Although it was bound up with the
least sweet experience, which is leaving a wonderful man who didn't
deserve it. I am really fascinated now by this idea of running two
parallel futures with different men, both of whom are nice. But
different. I love the idea of writing a book which has no villain
in it. Especially after this book where everyone is tainted. And
I think that's an interesting authorial exercise. The one I want
to write, nobody is evil, nobody is wrong, and nobody is better
or worse. They are just different…

RB: So it will be much more interior to the characters.

lionel shriver copyright robert birnbaumLS:
It's about romance and what are the implications in your life depending
on whom you marry. Which I think is a very interesting question.
How does your life change? Both in a daily kind of way—what
it's like to live with this person and also the larger wider social
world. And it's one of the biggest decisions you ever make.

RB: Well, there is buying a car.

LS: Although there are sometimes more than once.
[laughs]

RB: So now you have a new agent. Is your new agent
more assertive and driven than past agents?

LS: She is more commercial. Which I think is good
for me because I don't mean that in an insulting way. A commercial
agent means that she can get you enough to…

RB: To continue writing…

LS: To survive [laughs]. So I think that's great.
She is also not one of those hand-holding people. And I don't need
my hand held by anyone but my husband. I don't look to an agent
to provide me a lot of editorial help. She's got her literary opinions
and she is intelligent and I trust her judgment, but for the most
part she expects me to deliver a manuscript and she will sell it.
And that's the arrangement that I prefer. And she's a personable,
bright, pleasant, sane person, which is rare in publishing in general
[laughs]. So I am very, very happy with her.

RB: Well, good. Thank you.

© 2003 Robert Birnbaum
Images by Red Diaz/Duende Publishing

Scroll to Top