Lionel Shriver: ‘I do not want to be told I'm privileged’

It’s one thing to be provocative, the writer says, but her critics should at least read her

There exists online a newspaper photograph of the American novelist Lionel Shriver and her husband, the jazz drummer Jeff Williams, sitting behind a coffee table on which sits an Ulster Freedom Fighters mug.

The day I meet Shriver she is planning to write a Spectator article to put the record straight. Shriver spent 12 years in Belfast and has identified herself as a unionist but has never, she says, supported loyalist terrorists such as the UFF. The mug is part of a collection of paramilitary mugs she owns, a collection "that is perfectly balanced in terms of sectarian preference".

She has IRA mugs, too, she says. “I consider them all comical and ludicrous. For that to be taken seriously is absurd. For anyone to imagine that I supported violent loyalism is ridiculous and displays an utter failure to have read anything I have written about Northern Irish politics or about terrorism generally.”

Later she again expresses her disbelief that people are offended. I explain that people don’t know about her collection and can just see one, contextless, UFF mug, and to some Irish Catholics this is like displaying a KKK mug.


Coming up: the Border is not the UK's problem; #metoo has gone too far; and Northern Irish people stall developmentally at the age of 13

She looks thoughtful. “It’s shoving a cattle prod up their arse,” she says acceptingly. “One of the errors is to imagine I positioned the mug there. I had no idea it was there. I had given the journalist tea. I suspect the photographer did it on purpose, but I was not aware of it.”

Shriver is a headline writer’s dream. Coming up in this interview: the Irish Border is not the UK’s problem; the #metoo movement has gone too far; cultural appropriation is an author’s prerogative; and Northern Irish people stall developmentally at the age of 13.

It's very sunny, and we're in a fancy hotel in Aldwych, in the middle of London. Shriver is the author of 15 books, including the film-adapted bestseller We Need to Talk about Kevin, and the new short-story collection Property.

She’s wearing a blue-grey shirt, pale slacks, red runners and, because we are sitting in a beam of sunlight, dark Ray-Bans. She wears them throughout the interview, which is a little disconcerting, but she smiles frequently and occasionally peers over the top when she’s particularly interested in my questions.

She lives in London, but she and her husband spend their summers in Brooklyn. "If I continue to set things in the United States I actually have to go there."

She grew up as Margaret Ann Shriver in North Carolina, where her father was a liberal Presbyterian minister who recycled and supported George McGovern, the Democratic politician who ran against Richard Nixon in the 1972 US presidential election. "I'm probably politically more conservative than my parents," she says.

When did she lose her religion? “I never got it . . . People like reporting my religious background because it makes me seem weird or fusty or a bit of a turn-off, or that I’m likely to be some type of tutting moralist, but the truth is I was a very rebellious kid. I never bought into that stuff and was literally dragged by the hair to church on occasion. But if you know anything about PKs – preachers’ kids – that’s par for the course.”

She went to Belfast in 1987 after completing a master's degree at Columbia University and spending 10 years juggling novel-writing with running a catering business. Why Belfast? "I wanted to write a book," she says. "I didn't realise how trite it was to set a book in Northern Ireland until I got there . . . At least it's not a standard thriller or a hands-across-the-divide Romeo-and-Juliet novel. So I don't think the book itself was a cliche, but my presence in town was."

A novella called The Subletter in her new book explores the tension between two Belfast-based Americans, one of whom, incidentally, has a collection of paramilitary mugs.

“I saw a lot of Americans come and go and was able to track this peculiar competition between American conflict junkies, some of whom had adopted the Troubles because they were Irish-Americans or hailed from some conflict-studies department,” she says.

"They competed with each other over who owned Northern Ireland, who had read all the right books, who had the contacts in the paramilitaries . . . And they didn't like each other. I think there was a consciousness of trying to share the same territory."

Did she feel she owned Northern Ireland? She laughs. "By the time I left, yes, I did own Northern Ireland, which might be a big surprise to the native-born. I tried to capture that sensation [in The Subletter] and the weird way in which a lot of ownership is not exclusive . . . I'm interested in this concept of ownership which goes beyond title to property. It's a feeling."

She identifies as a unionist, she says, but on a democratic basis. “All borders are artificial, and I am content to draw the Border where it is while the majority want it to be there,” she says.

“It’s not an attachment to the union per se. I really don’t care about it, and for that matter I would always have conceded that there was a certain geographical sense to Ireland being one country. I see that argument, and I don’t have any visceral objection to it as long as everybody is cool with it. Apparently they’re not. The last poll I heard about, only 21 per cent of the Northern Irish want a united Ireland any time soon.”

She sighs. “I was kind of disappointed, because I’m frustrated with how this Border issue is being manipulated in relation to Brexit and it would be really convenient if you took Northern Ireland off our hands.”

How is it being manipulated? “It’s being deployed by the EU to stop the UK from leaving in any serious way.”

The interview devolves here into a polite but messy argument about what the UK's responsibilities would be in a hard Brexit. Shriver argues, as she did in another recent Spectator article, that the Taoiseach and the EU are exaggerating the difficulties the Border will pose and that policing the Border is not the UK's problem.

I argue that the United Kingdom would have to police a border even to comply with World Trade Organisation rules and ask why people who voted to control their borders would seek to treat them so lightly. I could retrospectively write this up in a way that makes it look as if I won the argument. But I did not. It peters out with Shriver smiling and saying, "This is a very dangerous direction to go if you want to talk about anything else."

Between Brexit and Trump and identity politics there are a lot of people with their guns raised and cocked, whether that's literal or not, and on the lookout for enemies

I segue to her last novel, The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047, which depicts a United States plunged into a hyperinflationary tax-and-spend dystopia. Do her politics always seep into her fiction? "It just tends to happen," she says. "I don't have a waterproof Chinese Wall in my head between the nonfiction and fiction part of my brain."

Do some readers judge her work differently because of her politics? “It’s mostly a problem post-September 2016,” she says. “Let’s face it, we’re living in very polarised times. So between Brexit and Trump and the rise of the identity-politics movement there are a lot of people out there with their guns raised and cocked, whether that’s literal or not, and on the lookout for enemies. I find that the identity-politics movement in particular thrives on antagonism and shooting down heretics.”

Is she a heretic? “I’m not big on groupthink,” she says. “They have strictly enforced orthodoxies, and you can’t go a la carte . . . You’re supposed to think of yourself and other people according to the categories to which you belong. Which to me is racist and sexist. What would people think of me if I was to go around saying that the most important thing about me is that I’m white? Or American for that matter?”

What does she mean by identity politics? Does she not think the civil-rights movement and feminism have been positive forces? She does, but she says she resents the censorious way people now talk about these issues.

“It’s a very restrictive vocabulary, a virtue-signalling vocabulary . . . I think there are some people who would naturally be considered part of identity politics who are motivated by the best of intentions. I don’t mean to be utterly denunciatory, but I am very weary of the lexicon. I don’t want to be told I’m privileged. That word, I’m sick of it.”

She recently gave a keynote address at Brisbane Writers Festival about cultural appropriation and authorial licence, donning a sombrero to make a point. This was widely misreported, she says. "I only wore a sombrero for the last three words of that speech, and it's constantly repeated that I wore a sombrero for the whole thing, which I mostly object to, not on political grounds but on theatrical ones. It would have been very poor drama – overkill."

The speech was partly a response to accusations of racism in her work. In The Mandibles a black character with dementia is led around on a lead. She says that this character was incidentally rather than pointedly black, and she did not expect an outcry.

"We're now setting up a literary world in which if any white writers use nonwhite characters then those characters are going to be put under a microscope . . . One of the things I liked about Black Mirror" – Charlie Brooker's Channel 4 and Netflix series – "was that there are lots of episodes that have mixed-race casts but are not about race at all. That's the type of thing that I want to be able to write, but I'm not allowed to now."

Is she really not allowed to? Nobody objected to those Black Mirror episodes, for example, which were largely written by a white Englishman. "These rules are not enforced consistently," she says.

Is she not pushing some of these buttons deliberately? In The Subletter a character asserts that Northern Irish people stop developing psychologically at the age of 13. "I think it's closer to 12," she says. "Of course, Trump voters are six." She laughs and admits that in that instance she was being deliberately provocative.

It seems, in her work, that she has a lot of sympathy for the overdog. “I think I might put it this way: I have sympathy with people who don’t get any sympathy,” she says. She frets about “soak the rich” taxation policies and adds that “what the ultimate Corbynista wants to do with the wealth tax and land tax [is] confiscate all their money and leave them as poor as everyone else.”

She identifies as a libertarian who wants people to do “whatever they want as long as they don’t hurt others. Unfortunately, historically the Libertarian Party has always been filled with a bunch of nuts. I always voted for the Democrats, because what choice have I got?”

Did she vote for Hillary Clinton? “Mischievously in this last presidential election I voted for the Libertarian candidate, but you cannot publish that without making it clear that it was in New York State, where it made no difference whatsoever. Hillary won New York by a mile and was always going to . . . I take no responsibility for Trump.”

She does not see the rise of Donald Trump as in any way related to the Brexit vote. “I was pro-Brexit, because I want to see sovereignty restored to the country where I live most of the year,” she says. “Trump is an incompetent who should never have been elevated to the presidency . . . Him being at the helm of what is still the most powerful country in the world is terrifying.”

So what happened? “There was something a little accidental to the elevation of Trump. It had that feeling that it could have easily gone another way. I just have a feeling of holding my breath. I don’t actually feel that I have a lot to contribute, because I don’t like the effect that Trump has had on the left and the party I generally vote for. It’s made the left even more self-righteous and crusading and unself-examining.”

At Dalkey Literary Festival this month Shriver will be on a panel discussing the #metoo movement. There's something about it that makes her anxious, she says. "I didn't like how so many people were being swept up in it with very little examination on a case-by-case basis of who was telling the truth and what is a fair punishment . . . I along with everyone else of my gender don't want men to think that my body is their plaything, that they can put their hands all over it or assault me in any way. But I'm sympathetic with young men negotiating the landscape of courtship these days, and I'm sure they're very confused about what's allowed and how you signal your interest."

Is she wary of becoming the go-to anti-PC voice for such panels? “It is potentially a little bit of a trap . . . I don’t want to be trapped into a set of anti-PC politics any more than I want to be trapped into PC politics. I’m very suspicious of mass movements . . . I aim to be a moderating influence.”

It's not my purpose to make myself as obnoxious as possible. But sometimes I'm mischievous and I rub people up the wrong way. That's a sacrifice I'm willing to make

She doesn't just write unflinchingly about her politics; she has also risked the ire of her own family. Her novel Big Brother, centred on a morbidly obese man based on her late older brother, and A Perfectly Good Family, about siblings squabbling over an inheritance, upset her parents. "I probably knew that there were a few things in there that would rile them, but I did not anticipate that they would take the scale of the offence that they did."

Is it possible she didn’t think it through on purpose? “Sure. There’s a way I sort of indulge a type of deliberate idiocy. I don’t write with the feeling of people reading over my shoulder. It’s just not possible . . . That’s the period when you give yourself permission to write anything, allowing yourself enough time to reconsider.”

And does she ever reconsider? She laughs. “Not on the stuff that really gets me into trouble.”

Characters in the new collection engage in paramilitary-mug collection and tennis-playing – she's an avid tennis player and runner despite arthritic knees – and The Mandibles features a curmudgeonly writer who has written cuttingly about her family. "She's obviously supposed to me. She was born on my birthday . . . So that was deliberate self-parody."

That character turns into the hero, though. “I’m a little embarrassed about that. I initially expected that she would be just a figure of fun.” She laughs. “But I became fond of her despite myself. I think that might display a certain psychic inner health. I couldn’t just mercilessly make fun of myself for 400 pages.”

The best story in Property, the powerful novella The Standing Chandelier, begins with a dissection of what it means to be disliked. Does Shriver want to be liked? "If your main project is to be liked then that could seriously damage your work," she says. "But it's more fun to be liked than to be despised.

"There are detractors I accumulate whom I did not go looking for. It’s not my purpose to make myself as obnoxious as possible. But it is true that, when I write, sometimes I’m mischievous and I rub people up the wrong way. All things considered, that’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make. But I wouldn’t call it a pleasure . . . In the age of social media there are a lot of people finding out what it’s like to be disliked. And it’s disagreeable and very disconcerting.”

Does she get upset about what people write about her and her work? “It would be wonderful to grow into a thick enough skin that nothing bothered me and I could be completely self-confident and have a sense of humour and laugh everything off,” she says.

"I just got an absolutely rave review in the New York Times Book Review . . . but I'm all too aware that that book could have gone to a different person and it could have been slammed. Especially since there's this little subset of the literary community which tends to be quite left-leaning and which is out to get me. I don't think that's paranoia."

Shriver generally appreciates the problematic platform that success has brought her, but she also knows that success is somewhat arbitrary. We Need to Talk about Kevin was rejected by 30 publishers before it found a home, she says, "because nobody knows what's good. And that should be a comfort to aspirants who aren't being published. It's not a fair world . . . If you're having trouble being published it doesn't mean that your stuff sucks. It means that you've had bad luck." She laughs, her eyes still shielded by sunglasses. "It doesn't mean you're good, either."


Dalkey Book Festival, which was established in 2010 by Sian Smyth and David McWilliams, the Irish Times columnist, runs this year from Thursday, June 14th, until Sunday, June 17th. Past festivals have hosted Seamus Heaney, Maeve Binchy, Edna O'Brien, Salman Rushdie and Carl Bernstein.

This year, as well as public interviews with luminaries such as Steven Pinker, Deborah Levy, Willy Vlautin, Shazia Mirza, Michael Ondaatje, Blindboy Boatclub, Anne Enright and Lionel Shriver, we get a host of other curiosities. Roddy Doyle and John Banville discuss what’s involved in writing about Dublin. Pat Kenny interviews Robert Fisk about Syria. Neil Jordan, Lenny Abrahamson and other film-makers discuss books and adaptation.

Olivia O’Leary marshals a discussion of political poetry. Sarah Webb hosts a fairy-tale-writing workshop for children. Miriam O’Callaghan talks to Stefanie Preissner. Dermot Bannon indulges our property obsessions. Oliver Callan lampoons everyone at the festival (probably). There are also wonk-filled discussions on everything from #metoo to Putin’s Russia to Trump’s United States to the ascent of China to Middle Eastern politics.

And what sort of literary festival would it be without some starry-eyed analysis of Irish identity with Blindboy Boatclub, Dearbhail McDonald, Theo Dorgan, Fintan O’Toole of The Irish Times and Ticket’s own Hugh Linehan.