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Lionel Shriver: “I know who I am. I’m never going to produce a soft, sentimental treatment of anything.”

| Culture | 20/01/2017


On Tuesday night, The School of Life hosted a remarkable interview with Lionel Shriver at Cecil Sharp House in NW1.  Ian Cater reports for What’s On London on a fascinating evening which scratched deep beneath the surface of one of the leading lights – and most intriguing creators – of 21st century fiction.

On the edge of Regent’s Park, a dark, oak-panelled hall is packed with bodies, laughter and the hum of middle-class anticipation: a cocktail always on the menu when a star’s expected to serve up something unexpected.  Eventually the murmurs dissipate as Lionel Shriver enters the room, accompanied by TV psychologist Tanya Byron, for an evening examining what makes her tick.  But the anticipation remains.

Byron admits later that – despite her seemingly easy confidence – she was nervous about delving into Shriver’s character onstage.  Presumably she wondered how the acclaimed, but notoriously blunt, American author would react to being praised and prodded into opening up.  Very well, it turns out.  The 59-year-old’s already analysed herself at length and made peace with the unfavourable conclusions.  This is apparent from the moment Shriver addresses the most consistent theme in her work: sacrifice.

No sacrifice

“I’m extremely torn by the concept of sacrifice,” she admits.  “It repels me.  But I recognise that morally it’s important, so I say it with a large degree of self-criticism.”

FullSizeRenderThis conflict presents itself throughout her novels.  In So Much For That, a husband ditches his retirement plan to emigrate to Africa when his wife develops cancer.  In Big Brother, a sister takes in her morbidly overweight brother in an effort to save him from himself – action Shriver omitted before her elder brother’s obesity-related death.  Then in her latest work, The Mandibles, a family pitches in to look after two elderly generations left high and dry by the total economic collapse of the US.

“When people read those books, I expect them to be torn between admiration and frustration,” she says.  “For me, they’re two ways of seeing the same behaviour.  It’s natural to think someone’s a hero for sacrificing themselves, but also to think: ‘What a sap!'”

The theme features in Shriver’s most famous work, We Need To Talk About Kevin, where reluctant mother Eva gives birth to a psychopath.  The novel caught the public’s attention by acknowledging that motherhood – in the form of love and sacrifice – doesn’t come naturally to everyone.

“I decided at eight that I never wanted to have children,” she explains.  “I looked at it again before writing Kevin.  I was in my early 40s and it was my last chance to have a child without going to great lengths.  My fear wasn’t that I’d produce someone unloveable or psychopathic, because that’s statistically unlikely.  I was more concerned by my own capacity for parental love.”  That fear held sway and Shriver shows no regret.  Indeed, her decision is validated each time she meets a mother who connects with Eva – which apparently happens a lot.

Name blame 

Shriver made another important choice at eight years old: she detested her name, Margaret Ann, and resolved to change it.  “Margaret sounded so tight and prim,” she says, “and adding Ann at the end was hicky and southern.  I never identified with it.”  At first the young tomboy called herself Tony, but this didn’t stick.

Then when the family moved from North Carolina to Georgia when Shriver was 15, she sensed a better opportunity for reinvention: “I was filling out an I.D. tag for an environmental studies programme and wrote ‘Lionel Shriver’.  There was no reason.  I just liked the sound of it.”  Shriver’s parents were condescending, expecting her to grow out of this “stupid phase”.  In fact, they continued calling her Margaret Ann – at least behind her back – until very recently.

imageByron seized on this testy relationship, only to find Shriver at her most honest.  Her distrust of sacrifice stems from her mother’s submissiveness: “She was a product of her time, but I was disappointed in her and didn’t want to repeat that model.”

But Shriver’s disappointment is dwarfed by anger at her Presbyterian Minister father’s efforts to force religion on her.  “I wanted no part of it, but that wasn’t allowed.  I remember he hauled me to the car by my hair at 12 years old to go to church.  I don’t think he wanted me to believe; he just knew it’d reflect badly on him if I wasn’t there.”

Consequently, Shriver hates religion and finds it hard to understand followers of any faith.  “It’s one of my blind spots,” she admits.  “It seems like an early evolutionary stage to me.  I don’t like being told what to do and I think it encourages laziness.  Part of life is finding out the answers to things, not reading them in an unconvincing set of stories.”

All of this led to her fifth novel – A Perfectly Good Family – painting such an unflattering picture of her childhood that Shriver was threatened with disinheritance.  But although she admits unease over the hurt the book caused, she says its content was tamer than reality.  And she certainly doesn’t feel any kinder towards her parents as both near 90: “The problem is they live by this cult of narcissism, which I always found distasteful.  In geriatric form, that same narcissism is almost impossible to stomach.”

Fire and ice

After hearing this, it’d be easy to form the wrong impression of Shriver.  She’s not some bitter and twisted ageing author, raging against the dying of the night.  As the evening evolves, she’s quite warm and fair-minded, professing to be divided on a lot of issues.  It’s a far cry from the uncompromising character portrayed in the press.

“I’m very pessimistic about the future, but I don’t trust my own pessimism.”  She explains this is because pessimism is a natural companion to growing older, as people project their own impending demise on their environment.  “Of course there’s hope as well.  I always fancied myself as a misanthrope, but I keep meeting an awful lot of people I really like.”

SetSize500369-161114-KK-TSOL-Programme-Major-Lionel-Shriver-London-Homepage-banner-Shriver also retains a youthful mischief, evidenced in her onstage sparring.  In one exchange, Byron questions whether Kevin is a psychopath when his behaviour’s inconsistent with that clinical diagnosis.  Shriver pauses, before responding: “Well, that’s because … he’s not real.”  Once the laughter dies down, she softens her sarcasm by noting that diagnoses and predictability are the enemy of a good fiction author.

That’s undeniably what Shriver is, reaffirmed by the recent success of The Mandibles, which ties a quasi-prophetic slant to an accessible writing style generously lightened with humour – a trait for which she’s not praised enough.

“I know who I am,” she laughs.  “I’m never going to produce a soft, sentimental treatment of anything.  But although writers need ice in their heart, it must be tempered by warmth.  That’s what I have to focus on nurturing and it requires a more conscious effort as I get older.”

Trump hand

Understanding her foibles allows Shriver to manage them more effectively.  Her routines are unusual but militant, focused on exercise, nocturnality and avoiding imposition – eschewing social niceties to ensure guests don’t outstay their welcome.  “I need those rules in my life,” she reflects, “otherwise I start to feel anxious.”

But some concerns continue to prick this bubble.  She says they mostly come from picking up a newspaper, bringing us neatly onto Donald Trump.  In the President-Elect’s inauguration week, Shriver’s asked to compare the state of America in The Mandibles to what she sees now.

“Trump’s not like Alvarado [her fictional president].  Alvarado isn’t a total moron.  He’s not impulsive or unqualified.  So there are differences between the book and what’s happening.  But what they have in common is this idea that the US is no longer formidable, that it’s somewhere between unimportant and a joke.  I’ve been disappointed by presidents in the past, but never so embarrassed by one.”

Shriver stops and considers whether to end the night with a diatribe.  But then her playfulness returns and she breaks into a grin.  “Although another part of me wants to just sit on the sidelines and watch the show.  It’s a little scary, but – come on – it’s also fucking hilarious!  Let’s not waste this historical opportunity while it lasts.”

Tanya Byron interviewed Lionel Shriver on 17th January 2017 as part of The School of Life’s ‘Life Lessons’ series.  The next event in the series will be held on 21st February 2017, at which Brian Eno will talk about what he’s learned on his journey to the pinnacle of the music industry.  For tickets and more information, head here.

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