Three Monkeys Online

A Curious, Alternative Magazine

We need to talk about Kevin – Lionel Shriver in interview

That said, sure there’s a long way to go–look what happened to that poor word ‘feminism’. In publishing, yes, I think there’s still a two-tiered system, despite the fact that editors are increasingly female (which is odd). Women buy most of the books, and women writers are expected to service that market. But the men are supposed to cop the big literary prizes (one of the reasons the Orange came into being), and to take on the Big Subjects. They’re also supposed to write the Big Books–physically big. If I turn in a 1,000-page manuscript, my agent will turn purple. If I’m David Foster Wallace, or Jonathan Franzen, I’d get ‘oh spectacular, your magnum opus, we’ll make a fortune and win the Pulitzer’.”

There’s a notable absence in the We need to talk about Kevin, and that’s religion. Though Eva’s husband, Franklin, is a proud Republican, big on family values and patriotism, he’s no Bible-basher. “Eva might go so far as to marry a Republican, but she’d never have married a Bible-basher,” says Shriver, not necessarily convincingly. As she continues with the question, it becomes apparent that there are deeper concerns at play: “I never seriously considered throwing religion into the equation, because it’s too big a subject for me. Both my parents are professional church people, and I am ferociously secular–not casually so, not live-and-let-live. I’m probably not supposed to say these things lest someone issue a fatwa or something, but frankly I detest religion, and consider the persistence of these glorified fairy stories as a sign that our spec
ies has not crawled very far from caves. The fact that the US is still actively debating evolution horrifies me, and makes Americans look like fools to Europeans (there you go: more snooty Eva-style Ameri-bashing). I think religion is far more the source of evil than good in the world, which obviously puts me at odds, big time, with my own parents–whom I respect and love, but whose religious views I cannot fathom. So with this combustible contempt for all things ‘sacred,’ how could I just throw in ‘oh, she’s Presbyterian’ lightly? Making a character religious makes it almost impossible for me to sympathize with him or her. I have long contemplated doing a novel that tackles my loathing for religion, but the fact that I have this sympathy block problematizes the notion from the start.”

As a novel, We need to talk about Kevin is set in a very specific time. A backdrop to the letters is the 2000 US election, or more specifically the limbo period when Florida hung in the balance. Is there a danger that this dates the novel? For example, while reading the book it struck me strongly that it belonged to a pre Sept. 11th world. “It does belong to a pre-Sept 11th world, and you might as well read it that way, – says Shriver. – Situating a novel firmly in time doesn’t necessarily make it dated. After all, I was referring to a sequence of school-shooting incidents that happened in particular years, and I needed my story to have a specific temporal relationship to these real-life events. That’s not the only way to write a novel, but in this case, since I was using newspaper-based events as backdrop, it made sense to make Eva’s present tense equally grounded in a particular political time. And I liked this notion of Eva being completely cut off from, and oblivious to, a political foofaraw that has the entire country going apoplectic. It helped capture her place-apart mentality post-Thursday [Editor’s note: The school shooting is referred to by Eva as Thursday throughout the book], since in the Before picture she’d have rolled up her sleeves and been biffing away with the best of them.”

Shriver is a determined, and opinionated writer (“I decided I wanted to write fiction at the age of seven, – she remarks, joking, – I’m bloody-minded, so I wouldn’t be dislodged from an ambition that I now realize was risably unrealistic”). While her work has depth and nuance, she doesn’t use that as an excuse to exile reality from her fiction. Throughout her writing career she has also worked as a journalist. To finish the interview, to what extent has journalism affected her work? “I’ve done a lot of editorials, abundantly for the Wall Street Journal, and stacks of reviews, latterly for the Economist (though they don’t run bylines, so you’d never know it). Hey, I needed–still need–the money!” jokes Shriver. “But working in journalism has been fruitful across the board. I learned to write to wordage and to file to deadline. Good discipline. And fact informs my fiction–whose does it not? I’m a newspaper junkie, and keeping a hand in op-ed writing gives me an excuse for spending two hours every morning reading the New York Times. Besides, I am a fount of fierce, obnoxious opinions, which need a repository.”

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