When asked about the subject of her next novel, American author Lionel Shriver replies simply, “fat.” This will be her “obesity book.” The proposed plot: a woman risks her marriage to help her morbidly overweight brother. Not a comfortable theme, perhaps, but that should come as no surprise to Shriver’s admirers. After all, her previous tomes have dealt with terrorism, death, and the failings of the U.S. health-care system, and—in her 2003 bestseller, We Need To Talk About Kevin—the nightmare perils of parenthood. Some writers might hesitate to upset the public with truths usually left unspoken; for Shriver, that’s her business. “There is no point writing book after book about what other people have already addressed ad nauseam. I am always working toward what we have all been avoiding.”
Happily for Shriver, readers have proved far less squeamish than publishers about plumbing murky depths. Kevin, her breakthrough novel, told the story of a mother’s failure to bond with a baby son, and the boy’s development into a cold-eyed teenage killer—a tough read for the mass market. But its runaway success confounded the book-business skeptics. Shriver produced that rare publishing phenomenon, a taboo buster that was popular both with the book clubbers and the literary crowd. Sales have now topped 1 million, with translation deals for 25 languages from Estonian to Arabic.
Now Kevin is coming to the big screen: a movie version with Tilda Swinton in the lead role as Kevin’s mother premiered at Cannes in May to a storm of critical applause and will reach cinemas in Europe this fall. Once again, Shriver finds herself called on to answer the central question raised by the book: whether a child can be born evil—a “demon seed,” in her words—or whether parents should shoulder the blame for a kid gone bad.
Shriver is too smart to give a pat answer to such a loaded question. But at age 54 and childless, she’s had plenty of opportunity to form a dispassionate view of 21st-century parenting. If the book is challenging, it’s also consoling. “There is a lot of pressure on modern parents to be perfect, and in many ways we regard children as an accessory to the ideal life. Real life isn’t like that, and most women were relieved to see their difficulties represented in fiction, to see something other than witty-beyond-their-years kids saying hilarious things, which is what you get on TV.”
Is it difficult to dwell on the distressing aspects of life? Shriver admits to a “brutal” strain in her own makeup but finds charges of insensitivity hard to understand. “I am constantly being told that I have said something offensive when I thought I was just stating the obvious. Why is it so outrageous to have a woman having trouble bonding with, or even liking, her son?” Conventional sentiment has obscured the truth about motherhood, she says. “I am very grateful to all the women who have made the sacrifice so that we still have a species, but why is pregnancy necessarily a joy?”
Outside literature, such brutality is far from obvious. A passion for exercise—Shriver has cycled from New York to Atlanta and back, covering 100 miles a day—suggests a certain obsessive drive and discipline. But in person, Shriver has none of the chilly detachment that pervades her stories. Even with a heavy post-Cannes “celebrity cold,” she is considerate, laughs readily, and shows a nice bent for self-deprecation. Her own success, she says, is due to an “enormous amount of bloody-mindedness, a little talent, and a lot of luck.”
Her dedication in the face of setbacks is beyond dispute. “Everything … that I have found satisfying in my life, everything that has made me happy in the fullness of time, has required an enormous amount of work, sacrifice, and sometimes outright suffering.” The daughter of a Presbyterian minister, growing up in North Carolina, she decided on her future as a writer by the age of 7. By her midteens, she was steeping herself in the classics. “I went straight from reading just science fiction to Faulkner. I read anything that anyone said was any good—Dostoevsky, Tolstoy—that I could get my hands on.” Raw willpower was in evidence too. At 15, she adopted the name Lionel in place of her birth name, Margaret Ann. “I didn’t like my name, and I didn’t think it was my name. The fact that I chose a man’s name instead wasn’t an accident: I was a tomboy, and I always resented the confinement of being female.”
A first novel, written while she was still a graduate student in New York, never found a publisher—much to Shriver’s relief today (“There is a God”). Meanwhile, to fund her writing, she ran her own catering business in New York before her next novel was published at 29. Research for her third book took her to Northern Ireland—then in the throes of the Troubles—where she settled for 12 years, developing a parallel career as a journalist, working as a commentator on a BBC talk show and for The Wall Street Journal.
The biggest test of commitment was yet to come. Kevin, her seventh book, was rejected by 30 publishers. Her own agent advised a wholesale revision to lighten the darkness and add “a lot more humor.” The failure forced her to consider abandoning fiction altogether. Only the faith of an editor at a small London publishing firm saved the book from oblivion. (Shriver parted company with the agent, whom she now describes, with a suggestion of understatement, as “quite annoyed.”) A slow-burn success, the book’s popularity grew by word of mouth. Even before Kevin won the Orange Prize in 2005, one of Britain’s top literary awards, the book already featured on the Times of London’s bestseller list. Early pre-fame admirers included Lynne Ramsay, director of the Kevin movie, who bid for the film rights.
So has outstanding success brought happiness? There’s plenty to celebrate. Shriver likes the Kevin movie, which stays gratifyingly close to the book, and she heaps praise on the cast. Her last book, So Much for That, was shortlisted for America’s National Book Awards in 2010. A rejected earlier novel, The New Republic, will be published next year, to be followed by her obesity book (provisionally titled Big Brother). She’s married to American jazz drummer Jeff Williams. (In a strange quirk, he was once married to her former agent, although the couple were divorced before the start of his relationship with Shriver.) Home is a small Victorian townhouse in a workaday patch of London, partly because exile offers a convenient psychological distance from America, the setting for her novels. But for her regular summer trips to New York, there’s also a house in Brooklyn.
But Shriver’s trademark honesty forbids her from envisioning a totally happy ending. “There have been just enough good things happening to me for me to get used to it. When something bad happens, I take it to heart; when something good happens, it’s as if nothing had happened. It’s difficult to achieve this level of success and remain actively pleased—and I find that a little disappointing.” One more uncomfortable but consoling truth.