Big Think Interview With Lionel Shriver

A conversation with the novelist.
  • Transcript


Question: What was the first piece you read that made you want to become a writer?

Lionel Shriver: Oh, I was big on “Curious George.”  I decided I wanted to be a writer when I was seven years old.  So it was only shortly after I learned to read.  So, it would have been the very early books of my childhood; Dr. Seuss, “Where the Wild Things Are,” and “Curious George.”

I just loved storytelling.  I loved the way that words could bring something to life that imaginary.  And I’m still fascinated by that.  So fascinated by the way a novel, little by little, creates something that seems so tangible and so real, even to me, and yet it is gossamer really.  It’s just words.  And that’s magic to me.  And I’ve never got over that magic.  I hope I never do. 

Question: What was the first piece you wrote?

Lionel Shriver: Oh, one of the first pieces I wrote was in second grade.  I won a contest writing about our newly renovated cafeteria.  You know, the new colors are very nice.  And I remember they were very ceremonial about this little contest and what you got was a Chef’s hat and a box of cookies.  So, I walked around all day wearing my Chef’s hat, and I just thought, right – this is the business. I’m going to be a writer. 

I think it’s important that I grew up in a literate household because both my parents have written books, albeit non-fiction.  That made the writing of books accessible and doable, not a distant weird thing that other people did.  So that helped a lot, and also both my parents are well spoken and always talked with their children using a large vocabulary.  And that’s a big advantage because I believe that the words that you learned as a child get deeper inside than the ones you learn later in life.  I always find that words I learned as an adult don’t stick in the same way.   I don’t think I understand them completely in the same way.  They’re not internalized.  There’s a way in which I have to recite a little definition to myself, they don’t quite stick.  So, I was especially fortunate to be exposed to a range of more complex words, nuanced language than a lot of other children would have been.  

Question: Who is the first person who sees your work?

Lionel Shriver: I show my work before submitting it to my agent to practically no one.  I will let my husband read it before I send it to my agent.  But I’ve gotten to the point where I am less interested in soliciting a lot of opinions.  I find that more opinions tend to obscure my mental landscape.  Most of all, it obscures the fact that the buck stops here.  You have to be able to trust your own judgment.  It doesn’t mean that I don’t sometimes take my editor’s advice, but fundamentally, I have to rely on my own opinion of my own work and showing it to my best friend, or even to my husband, it’s ultimately a fruitless exercise because it’s all about learning to trust your own editorial judgment.  Which doesn’t mean that you rubberstamp everything you write.  It means that you subject it to your own fiercest criticism.  It’s one of the good things about being a writer, it’s also one of the grim things about being a writer.  There is no resort really.  It all begins and stops with you. 

Question: Why do you write?

Lionel Shriver: I think writing -- the impulse to write  -- comes out of a failure to communicate by any other means.  I think most natural writers are socially incompetent.  And I would include myself generously in that category, especially as a child and in my early adulthood, and yeah, often as not at parties I still feel like a 13-year-old fish out of water, would prefer to crawl off in the corner with a book. 

Talking only works so well.  And you know that feeling of having had an encounter with someone and later you think what you should have said.  Well, writing is all about being able to rewrite history and get at what you should have said.  And it’s a way of writing subtexts, that’s the thing is that with social interaction, it’s always got more than one layer, and that’s very frustrating.  And with people whom we are trying to be intimate, we’re always fighting to get down to the layers.  And it seems that no matter how many layers you go down, there’s another one that you haven’t really tapped.  And writing is an effort, and sometimes a failed effort as well to get down to the bottom layer. 

Question: Who are your favorite authors? 

Lionel Shriver: I’m a big fan of Edith Wharton.  I love the way she writes elegantly without being fussy.  She writes beautiful sentences, they’re well constructed and balanced.  But they’re never just beautiful sentences.  They always say something.  To me that’s the essence of a beautiful sentence.  It’s not just pretty in its language, but it gets at something, some kind of truth or essence that is revelatory and she embodies that for me.  She is also a great storyteller and writes wonderful characters. 

I’m also a huge fan of Richard Yates.  I feel I have a real affinity with his perspective on the world, which is a little bit sour, but also has a sense of humor.  And I love the way he writes characters– in a lot of ways he’s taking the Mickey out of them, as they’d say in Britain.  That is, he’s exposing them.  But he’s exposing them in a way that is short of ridicule.  Yates still has a tenderness toward his characters.  Even characters that are being used a bit for laughs, or maybe shallow or pretentious, but there’s always something poignant about that and sympathetic.  And I like that.  I’m not sure I always managed to pull that off into my own work, but when I do I really feel I’ve achieved something because as much as it’s satisfying to expose people’s foibles, it’s most satisfying to do that in a way that is empathetic with those foibles which sees them from the inside and how they’ve come about and has an element of forgiveness in the portrait. 

Question: Do you have a specific approach to the work of writing? 

Lionel Shriver: There’s nothing occult about what I do.  It is very ordinary.  I’m often asked at literary festivals, for example, how many hours a day do you write?  And when do you write?  And do you have a set number of pages that you write?  And the answer is, it varies enormously.  I used to be much more insecure about my capacity to generate a manuscript and so when I first started out, and I’m sure a lot of writers will recognize this, I started at a particular time, I had to write three pages a day.  Now I’m not like that at all.  Maybe some day I’ll write nothing, and another day maybe I’ll write 10 pages.  The secret is just to keep at it and put in the time and it doesn’t matter what the time of day is.  It’s a very work-a-day, plodding profession, especially writing books.  You’re better off not waiting for inspiration.  I find inspiration is something that you demand of yourself that will arrive in due course if you sit in front of a computer long enough, you just have to concentrate. 

So, I get up in the morning, have a whacking big cup of coffee, read the newspaper.  I have to say, that’s an important part of my life is keeping up with current events.  I am especially attentive to the little articles.  I think for a writer, those little sidebar articles are the jewels of the news day; tiny little incidents that are usually on a more individual level and not like peace talks in the Middle East.  And I love those.  And I’m somebody who fanatically clips those articles.  I’ve got whole files full of bits and pieces from newspaper. 

And then I answer my email, which takes an atrocious amount of time, and finally I get down to work.  I guess on an advice level, the only other advice I dish out is that the one counterpoint, important part of my day is getting a lot of exercise at the end of it because it’s such sedentary profession that otherwise it’s enervating when you get enough exercise, it keeps your energy levels up.  So, anybody out there who writes should also learn to run.  

Question: Do you ever use ideas from those news clippings?

Lionel Shriver: Occasionally.  I don’t use them as much as I think I will, or I should.  I think they more function along the lines of giving me a sense of narrative possibility.  All the weird little plots.  I mean, reality is stranger than you could ever make up and I like to be reminded of that. 

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. 

Question: What do you think of MFA programs?

Lionel Shriver: I'm very torn about them.  I have to confess, I did get an MFA from Columbia University.  And I can't say that I regret it exactly.  I didn't have a bad time, I had some interesting teachers; I'm still in touch with one of them.  And we've become friends.  I am still friends with some of the students that I met at Columbia.  My very best friend I met at Columbia.  So it's a little mystifying why my immediate impulse is to diss MFA programs.  But I sometimes feel in retrospect that I should have gotten a proper education in something like history, something substantive.  If I'm going to be honest, what I really needed in my early 20s wasn't audience; I wasn't developed enough as a writer to be publishing.  So I couldn't achieve that audience through getting short stories in The New Yorker.  Frankly at this point in time, I'm still not getting short stories in The New Yorker.  But I'm working on it.  

So it is not a dumb thing for me to do.  And therefore I can't really tell other people who were in a similar situation and have a similar need to have people read their work that they shouldn't do it.  But it does have a kind of indulgent, middle-class gestalt.  The grim truth is that most people who get MFAs will not go on to be professional writers and therefore when I've been on the other side of it and occasionally taught creative writing, I felt a little bit guilty because so many of the people that you should be encouraging, because there's no point to it if you're not encouraging, are not going to make it.  And I think that's true across the board in the arts.  My husband is a jazz drummer and he has the same sense of queasiness about teaching jazz drumming.  There's more of a career in teaching jazz than there is in playing it right now, and so at the very best, most of the students are going to go on to become jazz instructors.  So there's something a little corrupt in that, something unwholesome.  And I share his discomfort in participating in it. 

Question: One of your novels that was based on your family created a rift. Do you regret writing it?

Lionel Shriver: No I don’t.  But maybe I should.  My fifth novel, much to my despair because it was not the intention, injured more than one member of my family because they took some of the portraits to heart.  Which were not always kind, I confess.  I regret the hurt.  I don’t regret the book, because I like the book.  And maybe that makes me a jerk because, of course, the book came with the hurt.  You couldn’t have the book without the injuries, so I guess that is a price that I am still willing to have paid, but anyone else who decides to write fiction that is so-called loosely based on real people should take it under advisement, that it is a dangerous thing to do and that’s a well polled quote because you will get into trouble for everything you keep the same and you will get into trouble for everything that you change.  You know? 

And the other killer is, and this is something that I remarked on in this article, you can be incredibly complementary in fiction.  You can play to what this real person likes about themselves for pages and pages, but if you insert as a single line that hits a nerve and violates what that person wants to think of themselves, that’s all they’ll remember.  That is all they will remember.  You know?  And that’s when you really can’t win.  And these perceived insults are forever.  That’s one of the deadly things about the written world.  It’s out there, you can’t take it back. 

And you know, it is a book that the whole plot is made up, people’s professions are made up, it starts out with both parents are dead and at writing, my parents were alive.  And as we speak, my parents are still alive; knock wood, they will stay that way as long as possible.  So, I did, I changed all kinds of things, but it didn’t make any difference. I have a feeling that with the benefit of hindsight there might have been a few lines that I could have changed.  You know those single lines I’m talking about?  I think they could have been slightly altered and made really no significant artistic sacrifice and have done less harm.  And I’m sorry about that.

Question: What prompted your novel “So Much for That”?

Lionel Shriver: It came down from a newspaper article and then a big personal event in my life.  The newspaper article was in The New York Times, detailing the fact that not only was the leading cause of bankruptcy in the United States medical bills, but that the majority of these people who were going bankrupt from medical bills had health insurance.  And that floored me.  I mean, how is this?  What is the bloody insurance for then?  And I thought, that really sounds like a novel.  And then following on that, then why don’t you write it?

I was interested in medical issues in general thought especially because in late 2006, I lost one of my very closest friends.  We had known each other for 25 years.  She was just barely older than I and she was diagnosed with peritoneal mesothelioma, when she was only 50 years old.  And she lived a year and three months after her diagnosis.  Her prognosis was only about a year, so that despite $2 million being lavished on her treatment, she died pretty much on schedule.  Mesothelioma is almost always caused by exposure to asbestos, and my friend was a metal smith, and she would have worked with materials that were laced with asbestos, especially back when she was at arts school.  And since I was also trained as a metal smith, I may have been exposed to the same thing.  That’s frankly, not something that I look at very hard because I just don’t want it to be.  I don’t want that disease.  But it was very upsetting to watch her go through that, it was upsetting to watch her deteriorate, to see her go through a period of extreme hopefulness when a CAT scan came in and it looked as though the cancer was retreating and then to watch her plummet again. 

And what was especially difficult about that experience and this is something I duplicate in the book, is my friend Terry, refused to admit she was dying.  And so my character Gwyneth who is another one of those loosely based characters that ended up achieving an independence of my friend also refuses to admit she is dying.  And I think it had to do with this business of regarding cancer as a war, as a battle that you try to win so that you use an arsenal of drugs at your disposal.  You know, all that language of the military.  I’m very uncomfortable with this way of thinking.  I don’t think illness has anything to do with battle.  I don’t like the way that puts the onus on the patient to win.  Right?  Because when you lose implicitly, it’s your fault.  It’s a failure of will.  My character embraces this way of thinking and therefore will not concede that she is dying because she associates dying with personal defeat.  And she is a person who has a ferocious will.  And therefore she believes that if she applies that will to her cancer, she can overcome it. 

This wouldn’t seem to matter, except that it puts the people who love her in a very uncomfortable position.  And this certainly happened to me in relation to my friend, Terry.  It injects an artifice in the relationship because when somebody’s dying, it’s a pretty big elephant in the room.  And if you can’t mention it, like oh by the way, I have a feeling you’re not going to be here next year, it’s a big thing not to be able to talk about it.  It also precludes any number of conversations.  I know that her own husband was never able to talk to her about, what was next for him after she died because they could never acknowledge the fact that she was going to die.  So, he was never able to discuss his own grief to address his future without her.  And all of us were denied the opportunity to have that, perhaps mythical, I don’t know if it’s possible to have this, but that last conversation. You know, the saying of last things.  I have this notion; I nursed this idea that when you acknowledge with someone that you are never going to speak again, that maybe it is possible to say some things that you would never say in any other circumstance. 

To me, that’s the one opportunity that a terminal illness presents you that getting run over by a bus doesn’t.  You know, there’s no warning with the bus, you’re there one moment and you step off the curb and you’re gone.  And you don’t get to put your affairs in order, and the most important of those affairs is your relationships to other people.  And then you leave – you know, you leave a spouse behind grieving not only that you’re not there, but that you just had a fight. 

I like this idea that you can use disease as an opportunity to set the record straight.  And to maybe breakdown certain emotional barriers that will always stay up unless you strip away the pretense that there’s always some later time when you can redress things.  That’s the way we relate to each other always.  We always assume that we will see each other again, and even people that we know perfectly well we’ll never see again barring some bizarre coincidence, we tend to say, “See you later.”  You know?  And I would have liked to have that last conversation with my friend, Terry. 

In the book, Gwyneth is refusing to admit that she is dying, denies that last conversation to her family and friends until finally, her husband breaks her down and rams the doctor’s prognosis down her throat until she concedes, no this is not a war, it has never been a fight.  Dying is not losing.  It’s just going to happen and this is an opportunity to say goodbye.  And therefore she is finally able to say goodbye in a way that is fittingly elegant.  She is an elegant woman and understated and dry.

Question: What, in your opinion, is wrong with the U.S. health care system?

Lionel Shriver: In the United States, our answer to the finitude of healthcare resources is to spend disproportionate amounts on single people with very good coverage and then to spend practically nothing on people who don’t have the coverage or essentially we discriminate according to how much people earned.  Or just how unlucky people are because you can actually earn a fair amount and just happen to have a health insurance plan that drops you when you get sick, or be very well-off and not be able to keep working because you’re sick and then your health insurance lapses.  So, it’s no exclusively an issue of the uninsured and the poor. 

Nevertheless, a single-payer system like the one in Britain, and I’ve lived in Britain, so I’ve experienced a national health service, is capable of making some of the hard decision that we make on a commercial Darwinian level in the United States in the UK they are much more systematic about it and I think much more fair.  There’s an organization called NICE.  Not very appropriately christened, The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence, and they are particularly responsible for looking at drugs and various therapies and how much they cost, and assessing how much more extra life these drugs or these therapies are going to get for an individual patient.  And if they cost too much for too little life, then those drugs and therapies are simply not approved.  The NHS will not pay for them.  Now, there’s a brutality to that.  NICE is not very popular in the UK, but I believe that that kind of an organization and those kinds of determinations are necessary evils.  I, personally, do not want millions of dollars spent on my living maybe a couple of extra and probably miserable months.  And by the way, I would add that that’s easy for me to say now because I’m in good health.  And I may feel differently later.  But I would think that it would be quite reasonable and maybe merciful for a higher power were I in that situation to say, “Okay Lionel, now you’ve changed your mind.  You’re desperate to stay alive, but no, we’re not going to spend $2 million on a couple of extra months for you.  You know, you’re not worth it.”  And certainly from this vantage point of a healthy, rational person, I don’t think a couple months of my life are worth $2 million of someone else’s money.

Question: What keeps you up at night?

Lionel Shriver: You know, that’s funny.  This sounds so petty.  But, what kept me up last night was, I just moved house in London and my study is just a pile of cartons and I’m tortured where to put the desk.  So, last night I was rearranging furniture in my head.  So, it goes from the mundanities like that.  Actually most writers would probably not see that as mundane.  The orientation of a desk is bizarrely important.  

Otherwise, I don’t know.  The state of my marriage if I recently had a fight, or what to do in chapter three.  I solve a lot of fictional questions in my sleep.  That is, I’ll go to sleep thinking about something and wake up with the answer.  I find dreams and the state of unconsciousness very creatively useful. 

Recorded on March 12, 2010