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We Need To Talk About Lionel Shriver – The School of Life on 17th January 2017

| Culture, Special Events | 16/01/2017

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Tomorrow night, Lionel Shriver takes to the main stage at Cecil Sharp House (NW1) for a unique event organised by The School of Life.  Unlike most leading lights in literature, Shriver’s not seeking to promote a new book or gorge herself on easy questions served up by a sympathetic moderator.  Instead, she’s subjecting herself to inquiry by a clinical psychologist – Tanya Byron – to understand what makes her tick.  

As Ian Cater writes below, it promises to be a fascinating evening, providing an insight into the challenges faced – and resilience needed – by even the most successful people.

Ever since American author Lionel Shriver announced her arrival by winning the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2005, she’s intrigued readers and journalists alike.

Few modern writers seem able to analyse people so insightfully and unsympathetically; few are so willing to cast an unflinching gaze on sensitive subjects such as high school shootings (We Need to Talk About Kevin), obesity (Big Brother) or what’s left when an economy collapses (The Mandibles).

Then there are the controversies, frequent and varied.  Last year alone, she angered feminists by denying female authors should be treated differently before being accused of racism after addressing cultural appropriation at the Brisbane Writers’ Festival.  Yet the 59-year-old daughter of North Carolina hardly courts trouble; it’s just that when she’s asked her opinion, she sees no point in holding back.

91AuFmU8jtLThis single-minded attitude is consistent with Shriver’s perceived persona, often described by journalists as ‘eccentric’.  Changing her name at 15 from Margaret Ann to the masculine Lionel.  Marrying a jazz musician.  Dabbling in metal-smithing.  And now, based in London, adopting a daily routine of working until 10pm, running for nine miles, eating dinner and then relaxing until 4am.

Each of these traits make Shriver a fascinating character study, which is why The School of Life asked her to appear on stage tomorrow night with psychologist Tanya Byron as part of its ‘Life Lessons’ series.

Back to school

The School of Life was set up by philosopher Alain de Botton in 2008 to help cultivate emotional intelligence by drawing on the best lessons from psychology, philosophy and culture.  Head of London Programmes, Vassili Christodoulou, puts it more simply: “We basically cover everything you wished you’d learned in your real school.”

school-of-life-heroThe core curriculum – taught in 30 lessons and workshops, or a one-week intensive course – addresses issues we all face, including how to find a job you love, how to face death and how to communicate better.  But the school has become better known for its eye-catching special events, where famous figures agree to share their life lessons with students and the public.

Their success isn’t just down to the calibre of guest.  It’s also due to what Christodoulou describes as their “distinctive formats, which separate us from most other cultural offerings in the capital.”

The oldest format is the ‘Sunday Sermons’, a secular service for atheists – interspersed with pop song hymns – hosted by those with interesting perspectives on how we lives our lives.  This month, Ruby Wax talks about sanity; in March, Jack Monroe will deliver a sermon on greed.  Then there’s the ‘Heroes’ series, where leading cultural figures present a Q&A session with someone who inspires them.  Over the summer, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales will be talking to the much-admired comedian Stewart Lee.  But it’s the Life Lessons series which takes centre-stage tomorrow.

Life sessions

Led by British psychologist and media personality Tanya Byron, Life Lessons seeks to get behind people’s public persona and – through challenging guests on their experiences and routes to the top – show how success often stems from resilience, not just innate ability.

homeChristodoulou explains: “All the time, we get this tabloid narrative of success: that some people are just successful, don’t suffer setbacks or doubt themselves.  It’s a very dangerous and damaging story to tell people.  We wanted to change that narrative and show people how those who achieve a lot in life have the same vulnerabilities and setbacks as anyone else.”

He admits to being particularly excited about Shriver’s appearance, identifying a number of reasons for approaching her: “Firstly, her public profile is very distinctive.  When she’s interviewed, journalists don’t quite seem able to grasp her.  They end up portraying her as this mysterious character, and I’d like Tanya to try to get behind that.

“But what really drew me to Lionel is that her novels are very acute in the way they look at people.  She takes a scalpel to our relationships, which makes me think she has some very perceptive insights on the human condition.  If Tanya can elicit these and explore what we can learn from them, it promises to be a fascinating session.”

I suggest to Christodoulou that part of the intrigue stems from not knowing how Shriver will respond to being questioned publicly.  He admits the dynamic with Byron will be interesting, but reiterates how readily Shriver – as with all other guests – accepted his invitation: “These sessions seem to really appeal, because they serve a meaningful function.  They’re not just vanity or promotional interviews; they’re founded in a desire to make us think differently about success.”

We Need To Talk About Lionel takes place tomorrow from 19.00 at Cecil Sharp House, 2 Regent’s Park Road, NW1 7AY.  For tickets, click here, or for more information on The School of Life, click here.

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