Talking about Kevin
Her involvement may have been minimal, but Lionel Shriver says she ‘lucked out’ with the movie version of We Need To Talk About Kevin. The proudly childless author tells TARA BRADYhow she gave birth to the monster
LIONEL SHRIVER exploded on to the literary scene in 2003 with We Need to Talk About Kevin, an epistolary account of a fictional high-school massacre as told from the perspective of the teenage killer’s mother. The novel’s post-Columbine hook was immediately controversial but it’s depiction of maternal distemper soon proved a veritable firestorm.
Never mind the bad seed; heroine Eva Khatchadourian was no picnic either. An accomplished globetrotter and travel writer cast out into affluent New York suburbs to raise a sociopathic son alongside her slow-witted Republican husband, her resentments are apparent from birth. “Mummy was happy before widdle Kevin came awong, you know that, don’t you?” she tells the boy as a toddler. “And now Mummy wakes up every day and wishes she were in France.” Readers and commentators puzzled over Eva’s fraught recollections. Had this woman fashioned a monster in her own graven image? Were these the crazy witterings of a woman consumed with maternal guilt? Or had the book tapped into something bigger, a reservoir of common anti-maternal flashes and sentiments, now writ large in support of a terrible ad hoc hypothesis?
“It’s a novel that gives you permission to feel what you actually feel,” says the proudly childless Shriver. “It’s written against the script of what motherhood is supposed to be. I can rebel against things across the board. Why not that? One of the challenges of living your life is discovering the disparity between your own experience and what experience is supposed to be.”
But could she have written the same representation of motherhood as a millstone around the neck if she hadn’t long ago decided that parenting wasn’t for her?
“It certainly would have been harder to write if I had a real child looking over my shoulder. I didn’t have to worry about somebody growing up and reading it. I didn’t have a lot of personal anecdotes; it was mostly inferences drawn from my own childhood. But because everything in the book is made up my imagination was allowed to run riot around other people’s continual expectations of motherhood. I’m really just arguing for emotional freedom and honesty.”
Two books later and Schriver’s stark brand of emotional honesty has made her a household name and a prolific journalistic presence at the Guardian, the New York Timesand the Wall Street Journal. Sales for her books currently run into seven figures and her work has been translated into 25 languages.
“It changed things for me,” she says. “I’m not as miserable. I have a life. I’m no longer perched on the edge of fiscal oblivion. It hasn’t enormously changed my life on a day-to-day level. Except that when my career was in the toilet I was constantly writing books on spec and worrying that they wouldn’t see the light of day at all. It’s not that I’m now tiptoeing through the tulips every day. But I don’t plunge into despair.”
At a famously youthful-looking 54, the author is no overnight success story. When Kevinwon the Orange Prize in 2005, it was Shriver’s seventh novel, eighth if you count The New Republic, a manuscript no publisher would touch when she completed it at the turn of millennium. (The Ulster-inspired allegory finally makes it into print next May)
“I’m often asked did something happen around the time I wrote Kevin. Did I have some revelation or transforming event? The truth is that Kevinis of a piece with my other work. There’s nothing special about Kevin. The other books are good too. It just tripped over an issue that was just ripe for exploration and by some miracle found its audience.”
Kevin, meanwhile, has taken on a life of its own as a major motion picture directed by Lynne Ramsay and starring Tilda Swinton. Hours away from the film’s London premiere, the author is contemplating her wardrobe options. Hang on. Didn’t she change her name from Margaret-Ann? Isn’t she supposed to be a tomboy?
“I think I still am,” she says. “But I avail myself of girliness when it suits my purposes. I’ve decided to wear a dress this evening to the premiere. I’ll look feminine but it’ll be a disguise. Like fancy dress.”
Shriver is happy with the finished film, a small miracle, she says, when you consider the number of authors who “find themselves associated with a product that’s just embarrassing”.
“I’ve lucked out,” she says. “Most of the scenes are from the book. And the film especially comes alive when it uses dialogue directly from the page. Obviously, it’s an interpretation. If I were making it would I have made all the same decisions? No. Probably not. And as you say it has this gothic cast.”
Her involvement with the adaptation process, though minimal, entailed a long, early conversation with the writer-director and one big caveat. It was a good call for a film that was selected for Cannes earlier this year.
“Lynne was initially planning to use voiceover to preserve the letters within the novel but I discouraged her from doing that. I hate voiceovers in general. I don’t think they’re cinematic. I put her on to the fact that that element of the book is ultimately a decorative literary device. When you strip away the ‘Dear Franklyn’ and ‘Love Eva’ at the beginning and end of every chapter you find a very traditionally structured narrative.” You can’t think that Ramsay put up too much of a fight.
Austere, terrifying, disquieting: these are the words that have come to define the public’s conception of Schriver. Her subjects – Northern Ireland, death, American healthcare – are taboo; her manner is matter-of-fact. “Ha,” she exclaims in a burst worthy of Edna Krabappel. “You should hear me at dinner parties.” ‘Twas ever thus. Schriver was born into a devoutly religious family in North Carolina in 1957. At eight, she had already decided to become a writer and was soon clashing with her father, a Presbyterian minister.
“I began to doubt the existence of God early on,” she recalls. “By 12 it had become a fully fledged battle with my parents. I distinctly remember one Sunday morning when I was literally dragged by the hair to church. I remember sitting Sunday after Sunday in a state of repressed rage at having a raft of beliefs that I didn’t embrace imposed on me. It was as if I had no rights. I didn’t have my opinion. I was actually told that. To this day, religious matters still enrage me.”
In 1989, having graduated from Columbia University, she moved to Belfast – just ahead of the Enniskillen bomb and the Shankill Road killings – to work on a novel she had chosen to set there. It took her 12 years to bring herself to leave. She retains a warm – yes, warm – affection for Ulster. When she dies, whatever remains of her estate will pass to the Belfast Education and Library Board.
“It’s a lovely place to live,” she says. “Whenever I go back there a strange contentment descends. On a journalistic level it had everything.
“On the one hand the carnival was in town and on the other my life was peaceful. I lived quietly in °south Belfast behind Queens. I always thought it was hilarious that people in the States considered me so brave. Especially since neither side tended to go for journalists or writers. I was never in any danger. Life was easy as could be.” In Belfast she found an accent she loved and an “effusively verbal culture” she adored. “It certainly wasn’t a cuddly place,” she notes.
That’s probably just as well; Schriver doesn’t really do cuddly. Since Kevin’sbreakout performance, she has written The Post-Birthday World, a portrait of a relationship as Schrodinger’s cat, and So Much For That, an unblinking exploration of a cancer patient’s resentment of their saintly carer. The latter was inspired by the death of a friend whose life was extended by a mere three months following $2 million worth of crippling chemotherapy treatments.
“The subject was forced on me when one of my closest friends was suddenly diagnosed with mesothelioma. I didn’t begin the novel until after she died. In fact, she didn’t know I was planning to write it. One of my regrets is that she never got the opportunity to read it. I think she would have liked it. But it’s a hard book to get other people to read. When they do they seem to become real prosthelytizers for the book. And it seems to work best for the very people who don’t want to read it: people who’ve been ill or who’ve had someone close to them die and who’ve been in the position of caretaker.” The book’s devastatingly honest anger is typical of the Shriver oeuvre. “If someone dies why can’t we allow ourselves the complexity of that experience? Maybe you had an ambivalent or complicated relationship with the person who is dead. Why can’t we talk about that?” She’s perfectly happy to unpick the reference points but admits to feeling frustrated by critics’ repeated attempts to find “the autobiographical kernel in every given story”.
“I see no great sacrifice in trying to pinpoint where in my life an inspiration comes from. But I think with women writers in particular there’s a tendency to assume that we don’t make anything up. We just take our diaries and change the names. That’s just not the case.” Unmediated by the sorrow that infects Kevinor the romance that underscores The Post-Birthday World, So Much For Thatis one furious tome. Is that raging against the dying of the light or pure Shriver coming through? “Both. It’s my natural state,” says the author. “I’m always shouting.
“There are certain subjects that you’re expected to remain within the confines of. I just can’t do that.” It’s hardly surprising that Shriver has finally gotten around to the Big D. A singular literary voice, it’s tempting to place her in a sub-genus that includes Henry David Thoreau and Raymond Chandler, writers whose individualism made them exiles without leaving their own country.
But unlike these gentlemen, Shriver was never going to suffer in alienated silence. An adventurer and an international citizen living between London and New York with Jeff Williams, her jazz drummer husband, she’s an ex-pat and exile by choice.
“Part of it’s greed,” she laughs. “I like having more than one channel I can dig into. I enjoy living in a larger universe. Living in Britain connects me to European affairs and I have a sense of investment in this part of the world. I suspect that if I moved back to the States my world view would probably begin to narrow. I prefer being out in the world.”
We Need To Talk About Kevinopens today at QFT, Belfast and the IFI, Dublin