Lionel Shriver isn’t subtle. In public pronouncements and books, such as We Need to Talk About Kevin (2003) and The Mandibles (2016), the 61-year-old writer has always found a way to provoke and kick-start a debate. Her keynote speech unleashed a storm of outrage at the 2016 Brisbane Writers’ Festival, where she argued that accusations of cultural appropriation amounted to censorship. Earlier this year, she was criticised again — for declaring that the “inclusion tracker” launched by Penguin Random House UK prioritised diversity over quality. Criticism, however, doesn’t faze her. At the Tata Literature Live! festival in Mumbai last week, she spoke of creating interesting, if unlikeable, characters and remaining unapologetic about her political views. Excerpts from an interview:
You rely on the news cycle for your fiction, such as the US debt crisis in The Mandibles. Do you fear it may become dated?
I decided while writing my last novel that I would sacrifice timelessness. It starts in 2029. There are examples, like (George Orwell’s) 1984, which has survived beyond the date it was set in, because that’s a timeless warning against totalitarianism. And we’ll see whether The Mandibles is still readable in 2030. I also couldn’t resist starting the book in exactly the month the stock market had crashed a 100 years ago. You might call it tacky or obvious, but I’ve never been accused of being subtle.
Isn’t thinking about the potential timelessness of her work paralysing for a writer?
Most books die a quiet death. You certainly need to factor in that anyone who’s going to read a book, will do so in, say, two years’ time, when it finally appears in print. That’s why being super contemporary is dangerous. I was aware of this and in my second novel (Checker and the Derailleurs, 1988), I invented a couple of words which weren’t in the lingo so that they don’t become dated. The story is about a rock ‘n’ roll band, and when they want to say they are excited, they instead say, ‘jacked’. It’s a good solution for writers. I did it again in The Mandibles by inventing an entire set of slang words for 2029. Then there’s a big leap in the book to 2047, for which, too, I invented a whole new vocabulary. I try not to overdo it as it can get annoying.
Not until six of your novels were published did you taste success — with We Need to Talk About Kevin (2003). What kept you going?
Writing is isolating, although that’s never been a torture for me because I like being by myself. What’s torture is going through all that trouble and then the book sinks like a stone. When it doesn’t sell, you get a black mark and publishers are less eager to buy your book. If you lose them money, why would they publish your work? So, that became quite painful, over and over, publishing books that, at best, got some really nice review. I received not critical acclaim but certainly critical admiration. But it took me a long time to figure out that publishing is a business, and sales matter. With my first books, I didn’t even know what my sales were. By the way, when they are not very good, they don’t tell you. Part of what kept me going were the books because I would get involved in a project which I found increasingly engaging and was eager to finish.
We Need to Talk About Kevin was considered deeply disturbing. Was it equally upsetting writing it?
If you are disturbed and you still read it, then I think I’ve succeeded. It’s meant to be something of an uncomfortable read. The protagonist is intended to be confessional to the point of potentially making herself very unattractive and what redeems her character is her honesty. She’s forthright about things you are not supposed to be forthright about — for example, she finds pregnancy fundamentally repulsive.
Everyone seems to think that I must have written the book in the throes of despair, but it was really fun to write. The only thing bothering me was that it might not make it to print. I knew I was writing another so-called unattractive character. I had already written another book which hadn’t been published, I was worried that my career was over. That was very depressing, but the material itself wasn’t. The only thing I find depressing in writing depressing books is when the writing is not very good. Or when it’s not being successfully depressing. If I’m writing a scene which is horrifying and it’s supposed to be horrifying, then I’m having a wonderful time. I’m not cowering, I’m in control. Writing is an act of flagrant manipulation, but I’m not the one being manipulated. That said, by the time I finished the book, I cried. It was a happy cry. I was moved by my own work. I worry that sounds fat-headed, but you’re also a reader of your own work.
Eva Khatchadourian is not the only unattractive character you’ve created. What draws you to them? Is a writer obliged to make her characters likeable?
I don’t set out to make unattractive characters. I think I like different people and the characters that other people find so famously unlikeable, I happen to like them, such as Eva in We Need to Talk About Kevin. In a weird way, I like all of my characters. I see their point of view. So, Jackson in So Much for That (2010) is a secondary main character and part of the book is written from his perspective. He is a little bit pathetic, but he breaks my heart. He gets a penis enlargement surgery that goes wrong. That is something insecure people do. I see where it’s coming from and I feel great tenderness towards him. The narrator in A Perfectly Good Family (1996) is not very attractive. She, too, is confessional to the point of making herself look bad. Torn between two brothers, she betrays them both. Her duplicitous side is clear from the beginning. Making the character interesting is an obligation. Characters need to engage your attention, even if what is being engaged is your dislike.
You are accused of being a provocateur. Do you worry that your political views might affect the sales of your books?
Yes, actually. It concerns me, especially because younger critics are starting to review my politics and not my books. It’s infecting the way they read the book and that annoys me. It’s not fair to the work. It’s not even fair to the reviewer, because it’s a joyless way to read, looking for political mistake, looking for some way to hang me. It’s a very distant, uninvolved position to take and you’re not allowing yourself to be given over to the story. There is some political content in my books and, sometimes, it is deliberately contradictory. It helps make it good fiction. I never write purely polemical books which hawk some contemporary position. What makes it a novel and not a column is that something larger and deeper is going on, it is about the experience of being alive. That makes a novel timeless.
Are you ever tempted to police yourself?
My reaction to policing is recoil. I can’t help but be aware of a very censorious, judgmental social climate. I realise I can say things that are, to me, common sense, but for a certain set of people, could be inflammatory, outrageous and offensive.
Do you regret your 2016 Brisbane speech on cultural appropriation?
I stand by every line of that. When I gave that speech, we had hardly heard of cultural appropriation. I’m a little worried that I helped propagate a concept which I wanted to bury. So that’s my fault, you can blame me for that. I find it a patently ridiculous concept. I don’t want to repeat those points. I’m now obliged to keep talking about something that I wanted all of us to stop talking about. The only reason I would regret that speech is that I have promoted a conversation that I find embarrassing to even conduct.
Recently, you said the #MeToo movement has run its course. Why and what form do you hope the conversation should take?
I’d like to see the conversation become less predatory and acrimonious. I’d like us to make judgments about individual cases on the merits and return to making a sharp distinction between rape and a bad date. But I’m not sure that #MeToo has run its course in India. The scale of abuse of women in your country is off the charts. And we’re not talking bad dates.