Why Talking’s Not Enough

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. 

Recorded on March 12, 2010

The author's impulse to write stems from her feelings of social incompetence.

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