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Question: How you balance the reality of current events with the fiction in your novels?

Lionel Shriver: I do try to write novels that speak to reality in some way.  I’m a little leery of writing exclusively issues books, though I’ve certainly been guilty of that.  I have strong political opinions, often strong conflicted political opinions.  And it’s when I feel conflicted that I know that I’ve got a good subject.  It’s important not to let fiction degenerate into polemic when writing about healthcare, I don’t want it to sound like an op-ed.  And it’s also important that even if you are writing about an issues and it is an issue that you have strong partisan feelings about it.  That there’s enough air in the narrative to allow for those other points of view that maybe you feel as if you disagree with, but you have to give them voice if you’re going to explore any kind of an issue with some dimension. 

As far as I’m concerned, the only thing that makes politics important is the way in which these issues translate into individually lived lives.  So, it has to have implications for single people, what happens to them and what they feel.  So, in writing about healthcare, I’m not talking about what tax exemptions I’m advocating, but you know what is it like to receive an EOB, or Explanation of Benefits, and try to go through all those papers and figure out what checks your supposed to write and where.  You know, this is what people are going through and it even has a comic aspect and that could make for good fiction.  But again, you do have to be careful.  You don’t want to write a novel what becomes obsolete, you know, that becomes an anachronism, that’s the biggest problem with speaking to the immediate moment because the moment is always moving.  So, if you speak to this moment, and for that matter, it takes two to three years to write a book to get it out, so if you speak to the immediate moment too specifically, it’s already moved on by the time the book is published and in trying to be super relevant, you make yourself irrelevant. 

Therefore, it’s important to try to keep consciously addressing issues that never go away.  So in my latest book, I’m talking about larger matters of illness and what it’s like to face death, what kind of an effect a diagnosis of a terminal illness for one spouse has on a marriage.  Does it bring you closer because suddenly your time together is so precious, or does it alienate you because you are living in completely different universes?  And I think the answer is a little bit of both.  But these deep human things about marriage, and family and friendship and the experience of birth or death aren’t going anywhere.  They are timeless, and if you don’t have some of those elements in your story, you’re going to become dated in short order. 

Question: What is your process for creating characters?

Lionel Shriver: Naturally I draw on people whom I know and any fiction writer is always drawing on his or herself.  And I have to admit that in latter years I have gotten dead bored with myself.  I believe, by the way, that this is the healthiest development in my character.  I think becoming bored with yourself is some kind of Zen achievement.  But what I really enjoy about the process of constructing characters is -- and I tend to go for more composites of taking little bits and pieces from here and there-- is the way in which gradually they do achieve and integrity and identity of their own, which is quite apart from whoever might have helped to inspire them is when, even in my own head that character has an independence of the sources that contributed to that character.  And that's when a book starts to become fun. I can start seeing them, I can hear them talking in my head, and it's all an illusion, but it's a delightful illusion.  

Question: Do your characters follow you around?

Lionel Shriver: Oh yes.  They definitely stay with me.  And the funny thing is I get easily offended on their accounts.  I really don't like it when a reviewer insults them.  I do believe that this experience of, "How dare you say that about Shep?" is distinct from, "How do you say that about me?" as an author.  It is a protective sensation, my little wards.  Right?  It's like, okay, they are defenseless; you don't go for them.  You go for me.  Go ahead, insult me as much as you want, but you leave Shep alone.  Right?  He's a good man; He’s a lot nicer than I am. 

Recorded on March 12, 2010

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