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Playing Both Sides with Lionel Shriver

Though most famous for her Orange Prize-winning We Need to Talk about Kevin, Lionel Shriver has published eight novels, three of which are available in the United States. We Need to Talk about Kevin is a searing, brutal read, but it's worth it; the story of a mother who doesn't much like her son and a boy who grows up to stage a massacre at his school, Columbine-style, is riveting and important, and her prose, relentless, brilliant, and darkly funny, is not to be missed.

Lionel Shriver Lionel Shriver's new novel, The Post-Birthday World, is a good bit less grim, but no less psychologically astute. It is an exploration of the age-old question: What if? Two parallel stories, running side by side, detail one woman's decision: what happens if she gives in to temptation, and what if she doesn't? Which life is better? What makes up a good life, anyway? Shriver pulls off an impressive balancing act which documents the often surprising consequences of desire. Entertainment Weekly gives The Post-Birthday World an A and high praise: "Shriver, a brilliant and versatile writer, allows these competing stories to unfold organically, each a fully rounded drama, rich with irony, ambiguity, and unforeseeable human complications."

Jill Owens: Very near the beginning of We Need to Talk about Kevin, Eva says, "It's against the rules, isn't it, to actually have a baby and spend any time at all on that banished parallel life in which you didn't" — which is interesting in relation to the new book. It also made me think about the fact that imagining a parallel life, an imaginary life, is at the heart of writing fiction.

Lionel Shriver: That was a good pick-up. [Laughs] And yes, that's a good point. It would come naturally to a fiction writer, as one of the impulses is to explore all those lives you didn't get to lead. Therefore, in a way, it's natural to give that desire to your characters.

Jill: Did the seeds of the idea for The Post-Birthday World begin that far back?

Shriver: No, not that far back. A few years ago, I was in the privileged position of being able to choose between two very fine men. While that's an embarrassment of riches, it was not a pleasant experience. It was very painful. It's easy to leave a bad man for a good one, but it's very hard to leave one good man for another good man. I'm still not quite over it, because as the book documents with Irina, it changes what you think of yourself, that you have hurt someone who didn't deserve it. You can no longer walk around like a saint.

Jill: It also changes who you are because you're deciding, to some degree, different versions of yourself.

Shriver: Yes. That was the impetus behind the idea, because I thought that my life was plausible with both objects of my affection. There was a way in which that other life, even though I had decided otherwise, was still real to me, that I could almost reach out and touch it. There's a line in the book in which Irina describes this other life she might have chosen with Lawrence like being in a canoe and reaching out and trailing her hand in the water. I think the closer the decision is, the harder it is to make, the more that you're going to be drawn to imagining what the consequences of a decision would be if you had gone in the other direction.

This isn't just a game, a fictional game. We tend to take our choice of partner very seriously. I don't think it's absurd to propose that we probably put more energy into that choice than any other that we make in our lives, much more so than which job to take. It's a lot easier to decide to quit a job, and a lot less painful. So what I wanted to look at was: How much does it matter? If you're going to agonize that much about this decision, what are the consequences? What difference does it make — not only for some of the big points in your life, but the regular little points? For instance, going to the supermarket. You know how different it is to go to the supermarket with different men, and then of course there are some men who won't go with you at all.

Jill: Or to cook for, or with...

Shriver: Right! Or not, because you eat out every night. It was the little things that interested me perhaps more than the big things.

Jill: There are some large external reference points that obviously would have happened anyway in both stories, like 9/11 and Princess Diana's death.

Shriver: Yes. So what's it like to go through 9/11 with each man? I wasn't trying to drag 9/11 in to be important, because that is what a lot of authors are doing. But it happened to hit within the time frame, and I did like the idea of making Lawrence a terrorism expert back in the days before it happened. We forget now, but I lived in Northern Ireland, so I can tell you. Before 2001, nobody in the United States gave a toss about terrorism. It wasn't that terrorism didn't exist; it was going on all over the world, and it was wreaking havoc with UK politics. You were dealing with the UK government capitulating to IRA blackmail. I had very strong feelings about it, but I knew what it was like to be shouting into the wind about it.

Jill: Right. Because it hadn't happened to us yet.

Shriver: Or it had, but we hadn't paid attention. There was Oklahoma, which was homegrown, and that was just a blip, and for some reason nobody even took the first attack on the World Trade Center seriously. It was just our blinders. We didn't want this to be happening. So I liked the idea of having Lawrence be an expert on terrorism back in the day that it was simply not trendy, and it was a stupid little obsession that he could have. It kept his profile quite low. And then 9/11 comes along, and suddenly he's on every news program, and he's got a six-figure book deal from Random House.

I'm looking at the different arcs of these two men's careers, because that's one of the things that you buy into. Lawrence suddenly becomes more important and makes more money, and Ramsey's on a different arc. He's getting older in a profession that is, more and more, sponsoring younger snooker players. He has already had his heyday. I wanted to play with that. Then what cinched it, what really made me have to include 9/11, was that I loved the idea of doing a scene where Ramsey and Irina were fighting all the way through it — not picking up the phone, not watching tv, not reading the papers — and then finding out two days later than everybody else. Having spent that time scrapping in the ugliest and most embarrassing way — I just thought, That would feel so shameful.

Jill: As Irina says, when she does find out: "I have never been so ashamed."

Lawrence and Irina's apartment, in terms of physical setting, is a far cozier, homier space than Ramsey's house, so much so that she sneaks back to her apartment when Lawrence is out just to visit the apartment.

Shriver: I like that, too. The stuff that works, I think, in this book, is the small stuff, the details.

Jill: But Irina and Ramsay's relationship is by far the more inward-oriented relationship, which is exemplified by the 9/11 episode. They're so wrapped up in each other, whether they're fighting or having sex, that they don't acknowledge the outside world's existence.

Shriver: Emotionally, that's a relationship that everyone will recognize. You talk about your feelings, and you talk about the relationship. The content of the relationship is the relationship itself. That's attractive in one way because you're taking each other seriously, you're not letting things go, therefore you're less likely to drift in that sneaky way away from each other. On the other hand, it's claustrophobic. Lawrence is oriented outward; his work is about the world, and he pulls Irina into the world, so that she ends up caring more about current events, and other people, whereas you do get the feeling that Irina and Ramsey are cut off, that they live more in a capsule. It has an intimacy, it has an intensity. But you're being cheated of a larger context. If it goes too far, it makes you stupid.

Jill: How much did Lawrence and Ramsey affect each other, as characters?

Shriver: Of course there's the constant interaction between the two chapters, and furthermore, each of the men is a character in Irina's life still, on each side. It was a constant balancing act, because I didn't want one of those men to pull out ahead as clearly the more attractive. Because at the end, I had every intention of throwing it open to the reader: What would you have done, at the end of that first chapter? Do you kiss the guy or not? Which is the better life? I needed to keep that very balanced, which meant in some circumstances, one man would distinguish himself, and in others, the other man would distinguish himself.

A good example is the pair of chapters where she goes and visits her mother in Brighton Beach.

Jill: That was my favorite Ramsey chapter, I think.

Shriver: How important it is, when you're dealing with a difficult, close family member. It was my intention that that was a circumstance in which Ramsey distinguished himself. Lawrence is a suck-up. That's one way of dealing with it. That is, he sucks up to Irina's mother, but makes fun of her behind her back. So he wants to have his cake and eat it too, but ultimately, all his criticizing of her mother doesn't help Irina. She needs her partner to stick up for her to her mother's face. And I think that's a standard way of dealing with relatives; it's one way to do it. You get through it, you don't make waves, you try to tell them what they want to hear, you admire their dress, and agree with everything they say. [Laughs] And well, you make it to the other side and the world hasn't fallen apart, and you go home.

Jill: With a sigh of relief.

Shriver: Right. But then there's the Ramsey approach, which is ultimately, I think, more attractive. You call them on things, you don't take any crap. Ramsey sticks up for his wife and shows her how to stand up for herself. Though it does result in Irina and her mother not speaking to each other for years. But still, in the moment, Ramsey distinguishes himself. Irina suddenly discovers that she doesn't have to spend Christmas in this dumpy house in Brighton Beach eating too much heavy Russian food and listening to her mother criticize her new husband. She can go to the Plaza and eat shrimp and drink champagne and spend the day in bed.

But there are other pairings where Lawrence distinguishes himself, and that was very important. When Irina's nominated for a prize — and I should add, one of the weird things about that is that I wrote that pair of chapters before I was ever nominated for the Orange Prize. I know some people will read those chapters and think that one of those was my experience with the Orange Prize and wonder, which one? Neither! [Laughs] It happened after the fact. It was a strange situation, having created this scene, as if I gave myself the Orange Prize.

Jill: The power of positive thinking.

Shriver: Or not! Because in one chapter she gets it, the other she doesn't win. But that was clearly a pairing where I meant Lawrence to distinguish himself. He is so disappointed when she loses that it's almost like winning, for her, because she has someone who is so profoundly on her side. Whereas Ramsey's a jerk. He obviously can't stand not being the center of attention, he's unnerved and uncomfortable when suddenly his wife is the star of the hour, and he sets out to sabotage it, with some success.

Jill: Did you write the two parallel stories separately, or did you go back and forth?

Shriver: I wrote it as you read it, back and forth. There's a way in which this is two books in one. So despite the fact that it's, if anything, an over-long book, I believe it's a bargain. [Laughs] But if you separated those stories out, I'm not sure either one of them would quite function, particularly the Lawrence side of it. The Lawrence relationship is peaceable, ongoing. They don't have fights; they don't talk too much about their relationship. I think if you separated it out and removed its role as counterpoint, then it would seem a little flat. There would not be enough happening along the way to keep it ticking over, as a narrative.

The other motivation I had was that I wanted to play with that interaction on a detail level, not on a big plot arc level, so that if I were to pick up a line from one chapter and put it in the other, it's sometimes said by someone else. I want you to get that. If I separated the stories out, you're not going to remember. So you won't get that resonance, that little twang of the guitar string. One of the small satisfactions of the book is discovering the little parallels, and if anybody could stand to read the book more than once —

Jill: Which I have.

Shriver: Wow. Then you get more of them.

Jill: You do definitely pick up more of them the second time around. You know they're there the first time, but they thread through more prominently on a reread.

Shriver: The nice thing is that it was written in such a way that if you miss them, no real harm done. It's not as if you've just failed to get the point of the book. It's meant to be a small pleasure, and if you get it, fine, and if you don't, fine.

Jill: In this and in your earlier books, your grasp of psychology is simply amazing. When my friend Georgie read The Post-Birthday World, she described it this way: "It's like she's downloading this stuff directly from my brain."

Shriver: Thank you (and Georgie). I'm convinced that it's not so much that I'm so perceptive, but that occasionally I'm able to put into words what most of us think. That's what makes it seem perceptive, but the talent is the getting it into words. Because when you say that your friend felt I had a direct pipeline to her head, that means that she had thought these things herself. One of the great satisfactions of fiction, when it works, is that you come across a passage that somehow articulates what you have already thought yourself, so that the author's not ahead of you exactly, but has simply given you the facility to give the thought form.

I know that's the case for me. So in a way it makes you feel smart. Which you are; you are smart! Because if the thought is true, then you were there. You already thought that, really. It's all about recognition. It's not about being introduced to something new. It's taken me a long time as a fiction writer to get that, myself, because my earlier books make an effort to be much more exotic. They're set in more exotic places. My inclination is decreasingly to do that. It's not that I don't feel the rest of the world is interesting, and I'm certainly not going to shut off the possibility of setting a novel in a fascinating place, but I realize more and more that what people want is closer to home.

Funnily enough, this is where you get into language. The only reason that thought communicates itself successfully is because of cadence. Cadence and assonance, if you look at it carefully. One of the things that fascinates me is that when you don't get the sound right, you don't say what you're trying to say. It's so weird. [Laughs]I don't think that should be true; you should be able to put a thought down in a pedestrian manner and as long as it is understandable, then it would mean what it means. But it doesn't. If you don't get that little tingle, it doesn't. It's about sound and rhythm. Otherwise, you don't say it.

Jill: I've only read three of your books —

Shriver: What's the third?

Jill: Double Fault. I don't think the others are available in the States yet.

Shriver: They're not. But two of them are coming out here this summer.

Jill: That's good to hear. In Double Fault and in Kevin, and also in the new book to a lesser degree, I wonder if it's also the fact that you are often honest about some awful thoughts people have that they don't want to admit.

Shriver: That's what interests me about writing. What is the point of writing what everybody writes? Fiction can get at what goes on in your head or behind closed doors that you're not going to tell anyone. That's what's interesting; that's what's fun. Reading fiction is an act of voyeurism. Who wants to be a peeping tom on having lunch with mommy and being very nice and thinking nice things? [Laughs]

Having lunch with mommy and saying nice things and thinking really wicked things: fun. I'm always interested in the impermissible. That's culturally bound; what we're not supposed to say changes as time goes on. That's good for me, that social fashion changes, because that keeps changing what I can address that we are burying.

Jill: You write strongly about competition and power within relationships in all three books.

Shriver: Double Fault.

Jill: Double Fault in particular; I just reread that this week, and oh, it's painful to read, in some spots.

Shriver: I haven't read that one in a long time, not since it was published. But when it came out in the States, they wanted me to do some quotes and things, so I had to go back and reread it. And — boy. I'd forgotten. [Laughs]

But yes, that takes the competition issue particularly head-on. There are elements of that in Post-Birthday as well, because I guess I conceive of romantic relationships as necessarily contending with power and power balances, whether we want to them do so or not. I'm afraid it's an inevitable aspect of romance.

Jill: The ways that Lawrence and Irina deal with living in England as Americans are very different. I was wondering which was closer to your style.

Shriver: I am a little more of an assimilationist than Lawrence is. But only up to a point. That's for the sake of my own self-preservation. I love new lingo, and if I want to call someone an arsehole, I do. When I'm shocked, I'm gobsmacked. But I have not taken on an English accent. There are certain words that have bent in a subtle way. I'm a little more sympathetic with the way that ways of speaking invade your head. When I watch the arts review program that I appear on sometimes on Newsnight Review, there are a couple of other Americans that appear on there who have clearly completely changed the way they talk. Not all the way, but it's sort of mid-Atlantic. And I do feel sympathetic; I'm not sitting in judgment saying, you pretentious twit. I've found you out; I know how you used to speak. You live around these people, and I understand how you start falling into it.

When I lived in Northern Ireland, I found I was much more vulnerable to that accent, and I still say "house" [with an Northern Irish accent], which is straight from Belfast. But I've ended up having to do a lot of media stuff in London, and it is not in my interest to pretend to be an honorary Brit. That is a formula for making a fool of yourself, and the Brits themselves have contempt for it. So I face the fact that over there, I'm perceived as an American through and through, and ultimately that's what I am, even though I've been there for twenty years. In that sense I'm like Lawrence. I think Lawrence's attitude of I'm an American, live with it has some integrity to it, and he is ultimately more dignified. But I'm also sympathetic with Irina's feeling that she lives here, and why can't she pick up expressions, and why isn't it normal for her pronunciation to have been permeated a little bit by the people that she lives around, by her context?

Jill: You were born in North Carolina, right? How did you end up living in England?

Shriver: I was born in Gastonia, North Carolina, which is a really tiny town, and left when I was two. And then, after my father got his degree at Harvard, I moved back to North Carolina, so I was raised in Raleigh. I moved to Belfast in 1987 to write my third novel, Ordinary Decent Criminals, and then I just didn't leave. I was originally planning to go for nine months to a year, and I stayed for twelve years. Then, my partner got a job in London, and he'd lived in Belfast, which in some ways is the back of beyond, for six years, and I really owed him a little cooperation, so I moved to London. Then we parted ways, but I still live there. Now I've got a lot of professional connections there, and by some miracle, a great audience there for my fiction.

Jill: Both the way you reveal character and your lovely mastery of extended metaphor are on display in this passage, fairly early in the book: "Why was that the one thing that Lawrence would never say? Because it was the main thing. And Lawrence was afraid of the main thing. He had a tendency to talk feverishly all around the main thing, as if bundling it with twine. Presumably if he talked in circles around the main thing for long enough it would lie there, vanquished, panting on its side, like a roped steer." How do you think about language on that more atomic level?

Shriver: Oh, I don't know how to answer that question. [Laughs] I do the best I can. With a first draft I try to give myself permission to not look too hard at it, because otherwise you just get constipated. Then, for me it's just a matter of individual sentences; I don't have a philosophy. That passage is an extended metaphor that I think works. There are going to be some readers who will read that and other, similar passages and say, That's overworked, or overextended. It's too much. Give us a break. It's taste. So I just try to suit my own taste to the best of my ability, sentence by sentence. And everyone's not going to agree with my taste.

There are going to be other situations where I may have gone on with a metaphor and decided in a subsequent draft that it is too much, and I'll cut it out. I try to write the best prose I can, and I'm sure I have my limitations. There was a Miami Herald review, sometime in the last week. It was a classically mixed review. It was one of those mixed reviews that had perfectly divided sentences of what's good and what's bad: good good good comma, but! bad bad bad. [Laughs] It was not even slyly put together, because I could just see my publicist taking out the good good good

Jill: And ending the quote there. [Laughs]

Shriver: Yes! The way a lot of these blurbs are excerpted. But what bothered me about the bad bad bad was that it said, "Shriver is not a particularly gifted stylist." That bothered me more than anything, because I do care about style. As far as I'm concerned, if you think that I'm not a good stylist, then I'm not writing for you. You're not getting it; something about that voice is not singing in your head. And no writer can please everyone; I know that I respond to some styles and not others. For example, Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian. There are fanatical fans of that book, but it drives me crazy. I like a lot of other Cormac McCarthy books, but that one drives me nuts. I hate the language, I hate the Biblical cadences, I hate everything about it that other people love.

I'm not saying that because I don't like it, that book should never have been published. But I couldn't finish it.

Jill: You were not the reader for that book.

Shriver: Exactly. I was not the reader for that book. So when someone says that about not liking the style, the prose — then it's not your book. You have to respond to the sound of it.

Jill: Did you find that Irina's voice changed between the two versions of her life?

Shriver: Of course it's in third person, but you're right, it's still her voice because it's third person limited. I did not consciously try to write the voice as different in the two sides of the book. I did consciously intend that her character would be influenced by which partner she had chosen. And of course it's hard to tell the difference; I'm sure those matters intermingle. But I was concentrating on Ramsey's pulling her into this more hedonistic world, where she's finally learning to have a good time and loosen up, be more erotic, sleep late, drink too much, neglect her work, whereas over with Lawrence, she's very disciplined, she gets up at seven or eight every morning, she puts in the hours with the work, she's very career-oriented, but something's missing.

Art doesn't work like that, quite. You do have to put in the time, but putting in the time is not enough. The passion that she finds with Ramsey is missing in the work that she does when she's with Lawrence. And she even knows it. So those kinds of contrasts — that was very deliberate, very conscious. Does that change the voice? I guess the voice changes a little bit depending on what you become.

Jill: I was impressed with the fact that it remained so balanced. I thought it was a great idea, and then you actually pulled it off, convincing me that these lives were in many ways equally good. It's a technique, but it's such a common human experience I'm surprised it hasn't been done more often.

Shriver: It has been done in film, and for all I know, it's been done before in literature. I don't necessarily pride myself on formal innovation. That's never been my interest. I'm perfectly happy with the forms that are available. I don't feel constrained by the form of the novel; I don't mind other people who are into that, but I'm just not into that. Certainly, I'd seen Sliding Doors, for example, so I had an immediate model in film. But I had a thematic reason for doing it. It wasn't to execute a gimmick, because I'm not into gimmicks. They don't interest me, and they don't get me to read other people's books. I'm interested in content, and in story. I had been at a turning point in my life romantically, and so have most people.

Jill: Everyone has thought, at some point, what if I did that instead?

Shriver: You have to think about it if you're making a decision. Even if you don't look back again. Even if you say, "No, I don't want to go out with you," and even if it never crosses your mind again, at the moment, you have decide: Do I go out with him? You have to think about, How's this going to go? What's he like? What does he do for a living? Am I really attracted to him? You look forward. You spin a little story to yourself. It depends on how serious it is as to how long you spend on it, but if it's someone asking you to marry them, it's very detailed, and it goes far into the future.

So we deal with these situations all the time. That's why I thought it was worth writing about. If I thought I was dealing with something in my life or something in my fiction that didn't apply to anybody, I wouldn't have written it, because that's not what fiction's for. That's what my journal is for. So I thought it would be useful, especially if I could make these men real to other people and also tap into some larger archetypes.

Jill: How much did you know about snooker before you started writing the book?

Shriver: Shamefully, a lot. [Laughs]

Jill: Do you play?

Shriver: No! I played snooker once in my life, and I don't think I got a single ball in the pockets. It's insanely difficult. My former partner and I used to watch it, and that goes back to 1993. So by the time I'd started the book, I'd followed snooker for over ten years. Before I began the book, I hadn't gone to a live tournament, but when I started the book I did attend several tournaments. It didn't require a whole lot of research. I read some snooker biographies, which was fun. These people were all characters in my life, and all the snooker players, except Ramsey, that are mentioned in the book are real snooker players.

Jill: Ah — not knowing anything at all about the sport, I didn't realize that.

Shriver: I tried to be careful. I tried not to be presumptuous. There are not a lot of scenes where Ronnie O'Sullivan is walking and talking. I'm not quite sure how the legal thing works with that. [Laughs] I could probably get away with it, but I have respect for the fact that they're real people, and so there's only so much I want to play with there. But when Stephen Hendry, for example, is an icon in snooker. If an American reader doesn't recognize Stephen Hendry, there's no harm done. Who cares? Funnily enough, the parts that are about real snooker players is more for the British audience, but it's explaining to the British what they already know. It's fun to have explained to you what you already know.

Jill: The idea of recognition, again.

Shriver: Exactly. Lionel Shriver visited before her reading at Powell's City of Books on March 26, 2007.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. Blood Meridian: Or the Evening...
    Used Trade Paper $6.95

  2. We Need to Talk about Kevin (P.S.)
    Used Trade Paper $6.95
  3. The Post-Birthday World: A Novel
    Used Hardcover $5.95

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