Lionel Shriver, author of the 2005 Orange Prize-winning `We Need to Talk about Kevin,` in a
freewheeling chat about her writing, the immigration crisis, and how she
navigates her way around the excessive curiosity she seems to arouse in fans.
Margaret Ann to Lionel. No, this is not yet another ‘why’ question. What I’d like to know is, if, after all these years, you feel the name change has empowered you in any tangible way.
I am pleased to sign my name on cheques and contracts. I don’t wince when I see my name on the spine of a book or in a byline in a newspaper. I am comfortable with my name, and believe when I see it or hear it that it refers to me. This is more than I could say for my given name, with which I did not identify since I was about eight years old. Yet, why my going by a different first name, for the last 43 years and counting, seems to be the source of such endless fascination befuddles me.
Most of your principal characters, one finds, are somewhat off-kilter, somewhat hard to like. I would imagine it’s important for a writer to breach the distance between character and reader, make the latter feel for the former. You clearly don’t write under any such compulsion...
Well, if all you feel toward my characters is distaste or revulsion, I would be disconcerted. Nevertheless, do my main characters spend all their time visiting the sick, helping the elderly across the street, and putting out bowls of milk for stray cats? No. I don’t think my readers are interested in, or exclusively interested in, conventional virtue. A number of my protagonists do, think, and say things that are not acceptable by current social standards. But the alternative is that they act, cogitate, and speak in clichés and platitudes. I prefer characters who break the rules.
That said, two of my most recent protagonists have been, dare I say it, quite nice: Shep in So Much for That and Pandora in Big Brother. They both make enormous sacrifices on others’ behalf. Although both the characters, the books suggest, could be seen as suckers.
Kevin was your seventh novel; you were 48 and had been writing for 20 ‘very lean and very hard’ years before fame found you. Tell us about those years, and the kind of writing you did in them.
I did the same kind of writing before Kevin as I did after. While I naturally nurse the hope that over the years my mastery of my occupation has improved, I don’t consider the quality of the novels preceding my first bestseller as appreciably worse than Kevin itself, a book that caught the public imagination partly through luck, partly through good cultural timing (maybe that’s luck, too), and partly through, well I hope, being fun to read.
I probably tend to look back on the earlier (years) in my career with rose-coloured glasses. I experienced plenty of frustration, rejection and disappointment, like so many neglected writers, though I was fortunate enough to at least get my work into print. I romanticise those years in large part because in the old days, I was left alone. I wasn’t chronically enticed into attending festivals, writing articles and reviews, or giving speeches and interviews.
You have expressed a profound distrust towards fame, calling it capricious. How do you manage to stay insulated in an age where the carefully cultivated aura of the writer sometimes tends to overwhelm their body of work?
I don’t participate in social media. I don’t have a Google Alert on my name. I am almost always apprised of something out there that has to do with me by someone else, since I don’t go looking for it.
I would strongly encourage any other writer to follow this example, in the interest of getting something done and not being distracted from being who you are by what you seem like to other people. That is a loser’s game. I look back fondly on the kind of focus fostered by being ignored. I was more productive; I took less time to write a novel. And I do miss my privacy.
Then again, somewhere along the line, the way Lionel Shriver lives, the way she dresses, that she cycles everywhere, ‘hoards’ rubber bands, refuses to connect to social media, the perception that everything about her is unconventional, all these have become grist to the public theatre mill. Do you just ignore all that or have you learned to navigate your way around it?
I’m not sure keeping a little Twinings tea tin of rubber bands constitutes hoarding. I use them to keep my keys from jingling on a run or to keep grains from escaping a partially used bag of short-grain brown rice.
Broadly, I’ve always been my own person, a little bloody-minded, with my own ways of doing things. It confounds me that this modus operandi is apparently such a rarity. Curiously, I am continually discovering that something I’ve done all my life is suddenly all the rage.
I’ve been cycling pretty much everywhere for 50 years, unless I have to take an airplane. Now when I run an errand, I’m deluged by crazed, over-eager cycling parvenus in London or New York. I comfort myself with my own constancy.
You have said somewhere, ‘I’m very interested in the issue of immigration’. What is your opinion on the refugee crisis that is peaking and ebbing but constantly surging around us?
This question is much more entertaining to answer than the one about rubber bands. I am an amateur demographer. By 2050, Africa alone is expected to have between 2 and 2.5 billion people. The fertility rates in both Africa and the Middle East have not declined as steeply as the UN has been anticipating, so that population forecasts for mid-century have actually gone up.
These are the same parts of the world with inadequate fresh water supplies, insufficient food production, historically poor if not abusive governance, weak to nonexistent welfare systems (especially in Africa), and perpetual, often violent political conflict.
Look at the map. Where are these people going to go? To Europe. Which will not defend its borders with the military — anathema to leaders in Germany, France, and the UK, for example. Eventually we are talking the end of the European welfare state and the complete cultural, ethnic, and religious transformation of the Continent. This transformation is virtually inevitable. The million-plus refugees, who crossed into Europe this year, only about a quarter of whom are actually from Syria, are simply the beginning. We are surely looking at migration in the hundreds of millions in the decades to come.
The moments of optimism, cheer, even hope, appear almost always aslant in your writing. I have to ask: is yours basically a grim worldview?
Yes and no. Which is to say, I enjoy being grim! Mind, take care not to mischaracterise my sensibility. I’m not relentlessly serious; to the contrary. I have been told my books are funny. I am probably more complimented by being told they are funny than that they are smart.
Lionel Shriver will be participating in The Hindu Lit for Life 2016.
Sheila Kumar is an independent writer, manuscript editor and author based in Bengaluru.