writer in residence at Falmouth University
When an editor asks if you’d like to interview Lionel Shriver, there is only one answer. So I was intrigued to meet the novelist who writes with such verve, challenging stereotypes with topics such as maternal ambivalence, infidelity, broken families and teenage mass murderers. We Need to Talk about Kevin, the controversial novel that made her famous, won the Orange Prize in 2003 and has been made into a film starring Tilda Swinton. Her latest novel, Big Brother, was inspired by her brother who died of complications due to obesity.
Lionel breezes into the room wearing a shirt of brilliant colours and black trousers, a slight figure with fair hair pinned up. Grey blue eyes fix on me, missing nothing. She’s just finished her second week as writer in residence for the month of April at Falmouth University’s School of Writing and Journalism.
“I’ve felt sorry for you for a long time,” she says with a glint of humour. She’s referring to the weather, which is sunny for once. “I had noticed a long time ago that there were these constant rainstorms coursing up the west coast and they never hit London but always hit Cornwall.”
Yet still she agreed to come here, and is taken by the strong sense of community in Cornwall. “I like the way people identify with the region,” she says. “I knew Cornwall had a rather rugged terrain, was something of a place apart. I’m coming to appreciate that it has a lot of regional pride. I like the fact that everyone isn’t leaving.”
Lionel was born in North Carolina but moved to Belfast in 1987 because she wanted to set her third novel there: she is painstakingly thorough when it comes to researching her work. She now lives in London, but first came to Newquay, for the Cornish Film Festival, and was so taken with the area that she set a short story there. “That was a very brief introduction and I liked the fetching landscape and the trail along the coast. I also liked the down to earth nature of the people I met on the trip. Cornwall seemed like an interesting place to spend some time.”
When she was approached about being writer in residence, she felt teaching would be good for her. “I believe it will be good for both my soul and my sense of the world to be exposed to more young people – you know you get old with your friends and you get stuck in your own age comfort.” Her students are mostly in their early 20s, with one who is older. “That’s fine,” she says with a wry smile. “It gives the class a little texture.”
Unfortunately her commitments mean that she won’t have much time for exploring Cornwall. “A lot of what I am meant to be doing while I’m here is working on my own novel which is a bit behind,” she explains. “That’s at odds with exploring and going on big adventures. Writing is all about sitting in front of the keyboard and maybe I’ll get out for an hour or two to get some exercise. My acceptance of this gig was that they get me a bicycle as that’s how I get around.”
Lionel decided early on that she wanted to be a writer. “Like most people I started reading and writing at about the same time. By the time I was 7 I’d decided that’s what I wanted to do for a living. I was obviously crazy, but I liked reading a lot and I thought that would be a fun life. “ A decision that she hasn’t looked back on, despite the years of writing where her early novels didn’t achieve the success that We Need to Talk about Kevin did.
“I think failure is inevitable and necessary,” she says. “We should give ourselves permission to fail or we’d never write anything. You have to forgive yourself for failing. In the absolute sense, pretty much every piece of writing fails because theoretically it could always be a little bit better.”
She admits that she used to be motivated “by sheer bloody mindedness. Now I think it’s fear of disappointing myself and people who are counting on me.. Previously I was much more driven to finish a project because I believed in it and thought it could be good. Now I don’t have a choice which is what happens when you sign contracts in advance – it becomes an obligation and not just an opportunity.” Which is, of course, the downside to being successful.
Lionel’s humility is refreshing in such an accomplished writer. So how has she avoided becoming arrogant, or obnoxious?
“It’s important never to construct an artificial divide between your incredibly successful self and the sad slush pile people, because you used to be one of those sad slush pile people,” she says firmly. “Actually, there’s very little that divides the two, and that keeps you humble. And the work itself keeps me humble.” She smiles ruefully. “I have never started a novel that I’ve found easy and I think that keeps me from being too arrogant. I can always fall on my face and I’m all too aware that everything I write is not gold.” She looks up. “I am most capable of writing horrible sentences.”
Except, of course, that her “horrible sentences” are reworked until they do become gold.
Big Brother is published by HarperCollins 2013