Shriver interview: So much for that ‘most entertaining book this year on death and illness’


I started the interview by asking Lionel Shriver about her choice of excerpt from So Much for That for the reading at the Festival Opening Night.

Well, it’s a sex scene so it takes a little nerve to read it aloud. Sex is usually done so badly in fiction, I guess in a way I was showing off –  or at least showing – which is to say that sex scenes really function in fiction when they are more than sex scenes. That is they can’t just be some gratuitous conclusion, they have to be accomplishing something, they have to be as justified as any other scene. I was particularly interested in that scene and exploring the effect of grave illness on the sexual relationship in a marriage.

The book has very serious themes, yet there are other themes which help create a balance.

Yes. I think a better way of putting it would be to say that they are serious themes but they are not explored in a relentlessly serious way. The hardest thing for me to get across to readers of this book is that it really isn’t a grisly, grim experience. It’s meant to be entertaining people who do love the book get that pretty soon and once they have got that I have found that people don’t have any trouble reading this book. A few reviews, even though they have been positive have done the book a disservice by talking up the nature of the dark, depressing material. Missing the point that this is still meant to be fun.

It is through your terrific dialogue that all of this comes true for me. How did you get to be so good at dialogue?

I really love dialogue, I like writing it and I like reading it in other peoples’ books. You and I would be alike we take our pleasure in novels in the same way. I love it novels really come alive and it has an almost cinematic quality.

Do you think that you need to be a good speaker in order to be able to write good dialogue?

Not necessarily. I think it helps in public events to be able to speak well and I thrive in public speaking situations. The bigger the audience the better. The hardest thing to pull off is the bookstore readings with just two or three people. That really takes poise.

Do you think that a writer of good dialogue needs to be a good listener?

Up to a point, I wish I listened better. I wish I remembered more.

Despite its serious themes, I did not find this a depressing read, in fact I found it quite uplifting.

I hope it is , but not in that creepy redemptive way that has become so trite but I did think that my happy ending is well earned, not only have the characters earned it, but the author and the readers have also earned it. It was always my intention that So Much For That would have a soft landing at the end.

In So Much For That Shep has fabulously frivolous thing in his fountains and a capital-A Afterlife vision. How about you?

I write novels – that is my fabulously frivolous activity! Just like fountains, what’s charming about novels is that they are magnificently unnecessary! If I had only a year to live – not enough time to write a novel, honestly I wouldn’t go off somewhere but would inhabit my daily life , perhaps more fully. I’d stay home, I like ordinary life, I think that ordinary life is not ordinary.

I’m going to lob a word at you and I’d like you to free range over that topic and your word is libraries.

OK I’m a big fan of libraries. It is on the public record that I hope in due course to will my assets to libraries of some kind. There are some tax issues to resolve but in general I think they are the most benign of institutions. I think it is difficult to come up with benign institutions. They represent everything that is important to me about my life. I’ve depended on them for most of my life and now lately it’s not just for books, but for CD’s, everything. I just think that they’re expressions of social generosity.

How do you feel about the changes that are taking place in libraries with the introduction of new technologies?

As long as books are not marginalised, I don’t have a problem with it. In the same way I don’t have a problem with e-books as long as people are still paid for their work. I think it is important that libraries embrace new technologies or they may be dooming themselves to obsolescence. I recently had my broadband cut off for a month which was like being exiled to Siberia and I used my local library in London to stay connected to the world and that was a service that I was very grateful for.

Do you think that readers who have loved your previous books will love So Much For That?

This is definitely the most entertaining book this year on death and illness. It is not a depressing book. It is not about illness itself, but it’s about being around someone who is ill and that happens to most of us sooner or later. The problem is that the carer is not supposed to have any problems. Your problems don’t matter , it’s the needs of the person who is ill that are paramount. Glynis becomes tired of Shep being so perfect and that is one of my favourite scenes in the book.

What is your opinion of  book clubs and reading groups? Groups of women with glasses of wine and savoury snacks dissecting your book, how do you feel about that?

I think it’s great! I hope they have more than one glass of wine. I don’t belong   to one myself, I am not a joiner and I don’t belong to groups of any description. I’m a relatively solitary person. I think book groups are one of the healthiest cultural phenomena to come along in quite some time. They are a vehicle for talking about some slightly more elevated matters. Book groups provide a nice middle ground between solitary reading and normal socialising. It’s also great when book groups disagree. It is OK to hate a book.

What about books that have questions in the back for discussion?

Some of my books have them, not that they are my idea. I have tried to discourage my publishers from including them, mainly because book groups seem to universally detest them , they find them condescending and never use them. So what’s the point?

If any one of your books was to be made into a film, which one would you like it to be.

Even as we speak  We Need to Talk About Kevin is being filmed, and I wish it the best but in all honesty, I believe that The Post-Birthday World would make a great film, a heart-wrenching film, I think it would be beautiful. Unfortunately that option has lapsed , so it is available – put the word out there!

12 thoughts on “Shriver interview: So much for that ‘most entertaining book this year on death and illness’

  1. sam 15 May 2010 / 3:18 pm

    “You and I would be alike we take our pleasure in novels in the same way.”
    You know you have arrived when Lionel Shriver makes a comment like this – well done, Roberta – I marvel at your ‘high gain’ questions and trip off the tongue oh so lightly comments that make this interview such a great read.

  2. Roberta Smith 15 May 2010 / 3:28 pm

    Sam – is that you? Great that you have blogged. I have become a huge Lionel Shriver fan. There will be a test on this book at the next team meeting!

  3. Ingrid Biesheuvel 15 May 2010 / 7:38 pm

    Having recently had to lead a panel discussion at a book launch, I know that it’s not easy to ask questions that elicit great answers. You’re a master at this, mum! Despite just wanting to read what you say/ask, I was quite enthralled by the answers given to your questions too!

    Well done!

  4. Roberta Smith 16 May 2010 / 7:48 am

    Tee Hee, how do I get smiley faces on my blog (see how intellectual I really am!)

  5. Allison 17 May 2010 / 1:19 am

    Congratulations on a fabulously entertaining interview! And on asking just the sort of questions I wanted answers to myself, like the one about the questions at the back of her book that caused all the controversy in book club. You’ve demystified her for me.

    And I have to say I share her view about her favourite scene in the book. Not sure about the ending though. . . .

  6. Jane 18 May 2010 / 11:24 am

    Oh God, I don’t know if I could handle ‘We need to talk about Kevin’ as a film – the book was harrowing enough!

  7. Mette 10 September 2010 / 7:01 pm

    What a pleasure to be a fly-on-the-wall, and enjoy your clever probing and her replies. Glad you asked about book club – we must obviously carry on, with such elevated approval.

    With all the energy put into the characters in a novel, there comes an eery stirring to near-life and one wonders, when the book is closed, how these fleshed-out people live when there is no-one to read them. Do they, like the deceased, only exist in the minds of the creator and readers, or has a new reality been created where they carry on, like us. Is there a 2nd Pimba where Shep lives happily in a colourful garden with bright woven mats and lots of disease-free sex?

    • robertafsmith 12 September 2010 / 1:56 pm

      If there is this parallel reality, please can I go there?

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