Frisky Q&A: Lionel Shriver, Author Of “We Need To Talk About Kevin”

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One of the best perks of being a blogger is the opportunity to interview people who admire. Interviewing the author Lionel Shriver, whose Orange prize-winning novel We Need To Talk About Kevin — the film starring Tilda Swinton, John C. Reilly, and Ezra Miller, that is currently in theaters — was one of the best experiences of my career.

My book club picked up Kevin a few months ago and I was blown away by the guts it had. The story follows a professional woman named Eva whose deeply in love with both her husband and her career. She becomes pregnant somewhat ambivalently, while her husband is wildly enthusiastic. She realizes that their young son Kevin is different from the get-go: he’s a sociopathic with a cruel and sadistic streak. But everyone else? They see Kevin as “gifted” or brush off his budding criminal behavior as “boys will be boys.” Eva — expertly played by Tilda Swinton in the film — is increasingly guilt tripped for being a “bad mother” who doesn’t love her son to an acceptable degree. But all that guilt comes crashing to a halt and is replaced with an entirely different sort of guilt when Kevin commits a mass-murder at his high school.  

“We Need To Talk About Kevin” looks back on Eva’s life and experiences with motherhood and it’s such an excellent film that Amelia has already seen it twice. I can confirm the novel is one of the most stupendous books I’ve ever read and it sent me running to the bookstore for additional books by Lionel Shriver.

So it was a privilege indeed to talk on the phone with Lionel Shriver from England, where she lives, about writing fiction, her love for Tilda Swinton, feminism, and why we should all be reading Edith Wharton novels. Here is our Q&A:

Are you a Tilda Swinton fan?

I was before. When I heard she was [cast], I was delighted. It’s a pretty good approximation: my Eva [in the book] talks more. I think she looks the part. She has that angularity I pictured. She doesn’t come across as icy; more as if she’s feeling so much that she can’t afford to express it. It’s a numb, almost mute performance a lot of the time. She just seems overwhelmed. She implies a large interior life without words a lot of the time. It was an excellent version of Eva, anyway.

The character Eva is very frustrated by her lot in life, but never comes off as bitter.

Angry, along with a lot of other emotions at the same time. She comes across as often not knowing what she feels because it is so complicated. I like that.

What was the reaction after the book was published — which we’ll probably see after the movie comes out — about an ambitious, careerwoman who is a parent but dispassionate about motherhood?

This portrait of motherhood is what made the book sell so many copies — certainly not because it’s about a school mass murder! It’s more that its grabbed people’s imagination with a fuller and more ambivalent portrayal of motherhood than you usually get in books and films. It’s a book that expresses the downside of motherhood and the way it can challenge who you are to yourself. It challenges the more tedious aspects of being a parent. It’s anti-romantic, in relation to parenthood.

Has  you gotten criticism for writing about a parent/child relationship because you are not a mother — despite the fact lots of people write fiction about experiences they themselves have not had?

Like a lot of things, I’ve only gotten sticked for writing this book and not being a mother by people who haven’t read it. That kind of expert. (laughs) I actually have been rather amazed by people who were astonished to discover I didn’t have children, who perhaps had children themselves and were surprised that I was able to encapsulate so much of the experience without having it firsthand. Fiction is fakery and I got away with it.

I read another one of your other novels, The Female Of The Species, about an academic who carries has a relationship with a much-older anthropological subject early in her career. Then, later in her career, she has an affair with a much younger research assistant. Both that book and We Need To Talk About Kevin feature a strong, female character who makes really unconventional choices for her life. Is writing these iconoclastic female characters intentional?

It’s what I’m drawn to [as an author], the kind of female character I like to read about. I don’t think all my female characters are, strictly speaking, strong and ambitious and powerful — but some of them are. After all, there are strong, powerful women out there. Why shouldn’t they be in fiction?

(laughs) That’s true. Let’s talk about the father in “We Need To Talk About Kevin” (played by John C. Rielly). He’s so detestable — not because he’s a bad dad, but because he becomes a crappy husband by the end of the story. What was in your mind when you were developing him?

Generating reader exasperation is really fun for the author, and in a weird way, for the reader as well. It’s a participatory emotion, as well as an energetic one. I don’t have contempt for him in the same way a lot of readers do. I am more sympathetic than some readers with his insistence on having a happy family. But the point I fault him on most of all — more than seeming like a dupe in relation to his son’s nature — is the way he doesn’t give his wife permission to say what she really feels. He judges her and therefore shuts her up. That makes the rift between them much worse. That makes her feel isolated and slightly insane. It’s as if she’s living in an completely different reality than she is. The way he relates to her, that’s his biggest failing. In this desire to have a happy family, he refuses to let his wife express any of her more negative emotions. That’s not fair and that’s not in the interest of their parenthood and the interest of their marriage.

I think you have to be careful being prescriptive of emotion and one of the difficulties of a role that is so scripted as motherhood — motherhood even more than fatherhood — is this feeling of just being trapped in a cartoon, trapped in someone else’s idea of what is is you’re supposed to be doing, and you’re not allowed to say what you feel if it doesn’t adhere to what you’re supposed to be feeling. I think that’s an exasperation that a lot of people feel about a lot of experiences — not just motherhood, but a lot of other occasions besides. You’re told how you’re supposed to feel at any given time. What is it supposed to feel like to get married? Or to be at a funeral? If you don’t feel those right things, then there is something wrong with you, and you’d better keep your mouth shut.

You are in your 50s. Do you think the way American culture treats motherhood has gotten better over time? For instance, I think that in recent decades been a lot of light shone on post-partum depression — Brooke Shields came forward about it — and that’s at least opening the door to a conversation about how not every new mother is delighted by the experience. There seems to be more of an acknowledgment that birthing and then raising a child is hard

I’m not sure it has gotten better. We seem to have romanticized having children more than ever. There are all kinds of no-go areas. It’s interesting. I just re-read Mr. Bridge. It was written by Evan S. Connell in 1969. Even though 1969 was an era of liberation [from the past], it was easier to say things [then]. I think in some ways we’ve gone backwards. I was really shocked that in this novel, which is about a couple in the 1930s, the author allows this very rectitudinous father to give expression to a sense of sexual attraction to this daughters — which I think that real fathers do experience from time to time. I grant you that must be totally disturbing to them. But more so than ever, that is totally taboo. For a real life father, or even a fictional father at this point, to suggest even a fleeting physical attraction to one of his children is just like WAUGHHH! (shrieks) How is that progress? I think we’ve gotten very, very nervous about what we’re supposed to say about our children, how we’re supposed to feel about children, about this weird thing in the press about how you can’t even publish pictures of children about how the very image of children can’t be printed. You see pictures in the paper and their pictures are all blurry. You see children in a news clip on TV, they’ve blotted out their faces! What is that? It is just too weird. [Jessica’s Note: I believe Lionel is referring to the way children are treated in the British media, where she lives, not American media.] I actually think things are getting tighter — tighter and straighter and more prescriptive. I would actually like to think that books like mine have made it easier for people to express the full range and complexity of their feelings, but I’m not convinced in the larger culture that’s the direction we’re going.

That brings me to my next question, which is about how in an personal essay published in the copy of Kevin that I purchased, you said the term “feminist” doesn’t sit with you. After reading two of your novels, I would absolutely call the themes you write about feminist. When I recommend your books to my friends who are readers, I call you this great feminist author. But clearly you’re hinky about using that term. Why is that?

It’s a funny word. The main reason that I tend to avoid it is it conveys a humorlessness and also an axe to grind. I’ve got lots of axes to grind; that’s just one of them. It’s not my guiding purpose in life to redeem my gender. It’s one of many purposes. I think the best way to redeem your gender is to be the kind of woman you want to be. Lead by example, rather than preach. So I don’t prefer to preach.

But in terms of the strict definition of the word, I’m definitely a feminist.  

All the various reasons the term “feminist” gets a bad name makes me sad.

I don’t have any problem with people calling themselves feminists! It would be nice if we could reclaim the term. Its been contaminated. It’s like a lot of terms that get contaminated with previous prejudice. The word “Negro” became uncool after a time because we were still prejudiced against blacks. Then even “black” got kind of funny and we had to start using “African-American.” When terms go funny on you, there’s usually a sign that there’s a carry-over of the prejudice and they have infected the new word.

Feminism, that label, has been infected by the fact that women still have a ways to go. I’m sorry for younger women if they feel uncomfortable calling themselves feminists, partly because there isn’t a new word. What else do you call yourself?

I call myself a feminist. 

Well, as long as there’s nothing else, then why don’t we just use it in such a way that it doesn’t convey we are man-haters and we take offense at everything and we’re always on the lookout for some slight, so we can get upset. You know that’s what people think it means.

Some people prefer to describe themselves as “humanists,” although to me that is a cop-out. I think using “humanist” is letting other people define “feminist” for you as something negative, so you use “humanist” because it sounds more palatable. 

It’s a total cop-out! It doesn’t have anything to do with gender politics. 

A lot of feminists are humanists, though. I just think people conflate the two terms when they don’t mean the same thing.

Humanist is generally in opposition to religion. … I think it’s somewhat of a misappropriation of the term. I mean, I’m a humanist, too. Well, I don’t know. I’m very ambivalent about the human race! (laughs) I’ll have to think about that one.

Can I ask you what your opinions on Christopher Hitchens were? [At the time of this interview, the author of God Is Not Great and numerous other books had just died.]

I am sad to see the back of him. (laughs) He was a great character. I loved him. His debate with Tony Blair — now that was really about humanism, humanism versus religiosity. His debate against Tony Blair was a classic. It’s fantastic. I bet you can find it online. … I mean, I disagreed with [Hitchens] on some things. I didn’t support the Iraq War. But I really admired his verbal agility, his sense of humor, and his political passion.

So … I hate asking you these questions like, “As a woman writer—”

(interrupted) I don’t think of myself as a woman writer.

Okay, well, my question is whether women authors are better received in the United States, where you are from, or in the United Kingdom, where you live.

(pause) I don’t think it makes that much difference. I’m better received in the UK because I’m better known in the UK. But both literary communities, insofar as there is such a thing, have something of a divide between male and female writers and accord male writers a little respect. I would say, though, that element is even worse in the United States. The regularity with which people casually cite really big writers at any given time, the regularity that list will be all-male or nearly all-male, in the United States, is astonishing. Even from afar, when people write in Britain who the great writers are in the United States, without forcing themselves of being mindful and trying to think of some women, they’ll rattle off a bunch of men. That is discouraging. I don’t know why it’s worse in the U.S., but it is.  … I believe in the United States, the Great American Novel translates to Big Fat Novel Written by a man. It is, by definition, by a man. That term is never applied to a woman. It’s not as if women just sit around writing about recipes! Plenty of women write about the state of the country and have some scope to their work. But they will not invite that term. There is just a persistent impression in the U.S. that the pantheon is populated by men. Some of that is unconscious, but it is reinforced all the time.

It must bring you a certain amount of relief that We Need To Talk About Kevin can’t be marketed with high heels and a martini on the cover.

No, no, they won’t. But over here, my last novel, when it came out in paperback — it’s a really hard-hitting novel, So Much For That — it is written from a male point of view, it’s a very angry book, it’s got a lot of energy, it is in a lot of ways a male book. It certainly has a lot of political scope in it. And what do they put on my paperback? A flower. A fucking flower.

(Groans)

And that’s because the supermarket chains insisted on it. It is worse for female writers, but I gather even men — with this conceit women are most fiction-buyers — even male writers are starting to get flowers on their covers. Which is fine for me! They should know what it is like.

What are you working on now?

I have an older manuscript coming out this spring called New Republic. And my new book is about obesity. It probably won’t be out until the following spring. 

Is there anything you think I haven’t asked about?

I think ["We Need To Talk About Kevin" is] a good movie! It’s not substitute for reading the book. I think the book has a subtler moral perspective. That’s not faulting the film any, because there is only so much you can do in two hours, but I don’t think the film has successfully walked the line on whose responsibility Kevin’s atrocity is. I think that the book has moral dimension to it.

Such is the nature of books, though.

Yeah, of course. As I said, that’s not the fault of the film at all. It’s just books can be more complicated. Books have fuller characters. And there’s a lot more story in the book. You just can’t fit all those different scenes in two hours.

Are there any books or articles from online that you recommend for 20-something, 30something young women who read The Frisky?

For feminists, there is no better reading than Edith Wharton. … It is sometimes good to go back and read older writers and, boy, was she a feminist! In the best sense — not a hit-you-over-the-head-with-her-axe [way]. (laughs) She portrayed what it was like for women back when you could get divorced but it was still a terrible shame and you were ostracized forever if you took advantage of your legal right to get divorced. She also portrays how difficult it was for women to manage in the world financially when their fiscal fates depended almost entirely on whom they married. It was a horrible world. One of the nice things about reading Edith Wharton is that you do appreciate we’ve gotten somewhere. It’s worth reading, in particular Age of Innocence and House Of Mirth.

I’ve never read her.

Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah, definitely read her! She’s one of the greatest prose stylists in the American canon — and not thick or hard to get through, like Henry James. It’s beautiful.

“We Need To Talk About Kevin” is in theaters now.

All of Lionel Shriver’s books can be found on Amazon.com’s Lionel Shriver page

You can read Amelias interview with the actor Ezra Miller, who plays Kevin in “We Need To Talk About Kevin,” here

Contact the author of this post at Jessica@TheFrisky.com. Follow me on Twitter at @JessicaWakeman.

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