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Paige Nick

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

What Lionel Shriver said

For those of you who aren’t so bored with this series that you want to murder me with a sharpened HB pencil, here’s yet another in the series of notes I took when I visited The Cheltenham Literature Festival in October.

I do like Lionel Shriver, although I must admit to not having the balls to read We Need To Talk About Kevin. I did read Post-Birthday World, however, and absolutely loved it. So much so that i blogged about it at the time, over here.

But back to what Lionel Shriver said. She is an incredibly severe looking and sounding woman. She wore a high polo neck and had her hair scraped back very tightly. She speaks with a very deep masculine voice, and a thick American accent, and I must be honest I found her a little scary. Although still really interesting.

One of her first comments was a complaint that American Authors aren’t able to be considered for The Booker. Which is hard for her because although she’s American, she’s lived in the UK for the last 20 years.  

She says that ‘We Need To Talk About Kevin’ was her seventh novel, and her first work that was recognised in any significant way. She also says that ‘Kevin’ was rejected by thirty British publishers, and twenty different American Agents before someone agreed to pick it up. A lesson in tenacity and perseverence if ever I’ve heard one.

She speaks extensively about her latest book, ‘So Much for That’. It’s a book about a woman with terminal cancer, and it’s really a statement on the sorry state of the current American medical health system.

Shriver says she was inspired to write the book when she discovered that the leading cause of bankruptcy in the USA right now is medical bills. She finds it a fascinating lesser known fact, and she wanted to highlight the issues.

For the first light moment of the session she says with a small smile: ‘I doubt there are that many authors who can kill off so many main characters and still have a happy ending.’

 Then she read a couple of pages, I must say I was surprised she picked such a boring piece to read, and I found my mind wandering, checking out the packed audience (not a spare seat in the house) and wondering if I was the only person in the room who probably hadn’t read ‘Kevin’.

Once she’s finished reading the excerpt she responds to a question from the interviewer, saying that she describes herself as an angry person. It doesn’t surprise me.

She says; ‘Americans only want to read stories set in USA. If an American author sets a story outside of the states, sales drop by half.’ Which I find sadly fascinating.

The only other thing she says that holds my attention, and keeps me pondering for the rest of the evening and well into the next day is:

 ‘The problem with trying to write a happy book is that something terrible has to happen for it to be good.’

She makes a good point, and I find it relevant to the kind of stuff I like to write.

They open up for questions from the audience and 99.99999% of them are arbitrary questions that take the title of her most popular book way way way too literally. There isn’t a single question about any of her other books.

Ultimately it’s an interesting session, but definitely with the least laughs of the festival, and a serious undercurrent of political agenda. My conclusion is that while it does look good, I probably won’t be buying or reading her latest book, it’s all just way too serious for me. But I respect her greatly as an author, so I’ll definitely stick around for the next one, and hold thumbs that it has a slightly lighter touch.


Recent comments:

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    November 11th, 2010 @13:19 #

    Well, I ain't bored. I think you and I wd have had the same reactions to her -- she sounds a bit dark and earnest, and I think her "something terrible happens" is only half the story: good books have their characters surviving something terrible (falling in love and parenting fall into the terrible category). But am interested in her lesser-known fact -- Oprah (okay okay I know) did a programme on medical bill bankruptcy years ago: which essentially means your spouse/child/parent dies a long and painful death, with a zillion unnecessary tests and medical procedures plus brutal life-prolonging measures; then the bailiffs seize your house and all your stuff and you end up homeless. The American Dream. Glad Shriver is putting that particular boot in.

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Colleen</a>
    November 11th, 2010 @15:04 #

    I love Lionel Shriver's work, have only read "Kevin" and "post-birthday world" both of which I loved, in different ways. I will read her new book, when i can lay my hands on it. Thanks for these notes from the sessions you went to.

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Annette</a>
    November 11th, 2010 @16:11 #

    What, no Chop in the Audience today? Pity about that.

    Thanks for sharing your notes, Paige!

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">tiah</a>
    November 11th, 2010 @19:51 #

    I have enjoyed your series a lot. No death by pencils.

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Paige</a>
    November 11th, 2010 @22:48 #

    Yes helen, I was oblivious to the US healthcare issues before I heard her speak, but it really is an extreme problem over there, apparently with no immediate solution in sight.

    Annette, sadly there was a chop, I believe of the: 'I haven't read any of your books, but...' variety.

  • Christine
    November 12th, 2010 @07:50 #

    I enjoyed 'So much for that' -- I love her ability to write about serious subjects in such a funny way. I rolled on the floor laughing at some scenes yet got the message that America is in serious trouble.
    'Kevin' was the same -- horror yet written in an unbelievably funny and addictive way. Made me think it was about how children are raised in the US more than about school killings. As a reader I hated Kevin, wanting to get my hands on him and kill him myself, yet understood why he turned out like that. It certainly puts one off kids -- having them I mean!

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Colleen</a>
    November 12th, 2010 @08:41 #

    With 'Kevin' I was made to think about being a parent, and how one is implicated. Shriver didn't let us off the hook as readers, I identified with the mother, but also see the fact that she didn't bond properly with Kevin was at least part of the problem. And then it grew exponentially.

    Paige - loved hearing about Shriver's perseverance, the take-out for me is that as writers we have to persevere and persevere relentlessly and be on our own sides and work on our own behalf, both with the writing and making it as good as possible, by working at it and with getting it published and recognised. So easy to be slack about that and then feel one has been hard done by. I speak as one who has been both guilty of this attitude for my own writing and as a publisher/ person who has spent in hundreds of hours doing 'writer therapy' re publishing.


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