Three Monkeys Online

A Curious, Alternative Magazine

We need to talk about Kevin – Lionel Shriver in interview

Was she influenced by other writers when writing Eva? “Since you mention it, The Good Soldier is one of my favourite novels, – she prefaces, before continuing, – I couldn’t cite any influences on Eva’s character, though I’m sure that everything I write is sneakily informed by a host of unconscious feeders. Like any writer, I didn’t come of age in a vacuum, and somewhere sludging around in my head are the remnants of every book I’ve ever read.”

While she took the decision to tell the story through the eyes of Eva, her other main character, Kevin, takes on a life of his own. He is a reprehensible, difficult character, and yet charismatic and captivating. A true anti-hero. How did Shriver feel writing his character? “I sort of like Kevin. He’s smart, he’s canny even if largely about what’s wrong with people and where their weak points are, and I can sympathize with a kid who looks around him and sees everything as dumbfoundingly pointless and stupid. On the other hand, being around this kid, as opposed to making him up, would surely be unbearable.”

Lionel Shriver, as the quick witted amongst you will have already noticed, is a woman. At the age of 15, Margaret Ann Shriver changed her name to Lionel. In an ideal world this should be an inane aside, unimportant to the act of reading her novels. Speaking from experience though, I suggest that the reader’s approach and reaction to a book is affected by perceptions about the author. So, for example, when reading We need to talk about Kevin, I foolishly marvelled at how a man had managed to capture such an authentic female voice (bringing to mind Brian Moore and works like I am Mary Dunne). It takes nothing away from Shriver’s literary talent, but assumptions based on her name do make for a different reading experience. Is that something she would accept? “I suspect you’re right, – she agrees – that readers go at a novel, or any book, with a slightly different mindset, depending on whether the author is (perceived to be) male or female. To the degree that I might spanner these filters with my perverse first name, I figure that’s all to the good. I recall reading about a study recently that documented that professors give higher grades to students who they think are male. This is a big subject, but off the top of my head I think we expect male writers to be more serious, to take on topics to do with the larger world, and women writers to be more emotional, and to take on topics of a more personal nature. And one’s take on a fictional character that differs in gender from the author is obviously going to be a bit different from a character the same gender as the author. If an author is writing from the POV [point of view] of the opposite sex, we think, oh, that’s quite an act of ventriloquism, yet we may also distrust the information as possibly faked. Same-gender POVs foster more trust, but the assumption is more likely to be that everything the character says (especially in first person, and especially when the authors are women) is thinly veiled autobiography.

But: my own view is that men and women are not that different (with a few notable exceptions–I am not naïve about the fact that most people in prison are male, for example), or at least that the differences within the sexes far exceed the differences, on average, between them. I don’t find it at all hard to write from a male POV. It’s not a big leap. That is partly because I have always been resistant to being pigeonholed as a girl (and often resentful of having been born as one–that I chose a first name that is traditionally male is not an accident), and my sense of myself has long been androgynous.”

We need to talk about Kevin has strong feminist themes running through it. There are questions about economic equality, familial responsibility and culpability throughout. It emphasises that, despite all the gains that seemingly have been made in the realm of gender equality, there is still a long way to go. Is that an opinion Shriver would share personally, and is it backed by her experience in the publishing world? “I’m uneasy with the label ‘feminist’, which is unfortunate. What the word means on the face of it I should be able to embrace. But the connotations of the term have soured. These days if you say you’re a feminist people hear that you are A) ugly, B) probably a dyke, C) shrill, touchy, and eager to bring you to book on some minor infraction of political correctness, and–worst of all, in my view, D) utterly lacking a sense of humour.

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