Interview: Lionel Shriver

She went from being God-fearing Margaret Ann to tomboy Lionel, then from failed writer to prize-winning author with a novel that is suddenly horribly topical. Now she tells Lynn Barber why she cycles, recycles and changes clothes just once a week

The following apology was printed in the Observer's For the record column, Sunday April 29 2007

We apologise for some inaccuracies in the interview below. Shriver has lived in the UK for 20 years, but 12 of them were in Belfast, only eight in London, with interludes in Israel, Nairobi and Bangkok. Russian was only one course in her degree. And she did not change her name to Lionel to get 'more respect', but because: 'I was a tomboy. I grew up with brothers. So I chose a boy's name.'

As I was interviewing Lionel Shriver in Foyles jazz cafe in London, a student was shooting 32 of his classmates and staff at Virginia Tech, and sure enough, next day, I heard someone say 'Another Kevin'. It is a mark of how deeply Shriver's novel We Need to Talk About Kevin has penetrated that Kevin has become almost the generic term for campus killers.

When her novel won the Orange Prize in 2005, having been rejected by 30 publishers, the big question was: Who is Lionel Shriver? A woman with a man's name, an American who had lived for years, unknown, in London, she seemed to arrive from nowhere to become overnight a literary star. But it turned out to be the usual story of overnight success - Kevin was actually her seventh novel, or eighth if you count one that was never published; she was 48 and had been writing for 20 'very lean and very hard' years before she found recognition. Print runs of her early novels were so small that they are now collectors' items - a tatty copy of her first novel, The Female of the Species, will set you back £83 on AbeBooks.

Anyway, the arrival of The Post-Birthday World, her first novel after Kevin, is a huge publishing event. It's a what-if story, exploring two alternative narratives. In the first chapter the heroine Irina, a children's book illustrator, has dinner with an acquaintance, snooker player Ramsey, and he kisses her. The novel then pursues two possible outcomes - 1. she doesn't kiss him back, and goes home to her regular partner, Lawrence; or 2. she does kiss him back, leaves Lawrence, and marries him. It is a choice most women will recognise - is it better to be safe than sorry? Do you stay with the good but slightly dull partner you know or go for the sexual allure of the dark, handsome stranger you don't? But, as always with Shriver, the possibilities are considered with a moral seriousness worthy of George Eliot. She is simultaneously shocked and thrilled by the comparison, 'George Eliot! I'll certainly take that as a compliment!'

She is tiny and androgynous, with a thin, hard body, fierce eyebrows, muscled arms, calloused hands. She is wearing tomboy clothes and carrying a backpack - she looks as though she might have just shinned down from a treehouse but actually, she assures me, she cycled over from her flat in Borough (Southwark). She apologises that she has a slight hangover because she went to two literary parties last night - 'It was kind of weird. I used to go to the odd party, if I was invited - which I usually wasn't - and no one would talk to me, and I would end up hanging out with the catering staff and then I'd sneak home. But last night it was all these people wanting to meet me, and I'm thinking this is a dangerous thing to get addicted to because, as easily as that kind of attention arrives, it can be taken from you.

'I don't trust this stuff - it's so capricious! And I don't want to be dependent on it.'

But she is getting a surfeit of attention at the moment because she is in the middle of a four-month publicity tour. She was just back from America last week then 'doing Europe' before setting off for Australia and New Zealand. Before Kevin she never had to do any interviews at all because nobody was interested. 'So whenever I'm inclined to complain I try to remember how much I complained when I didn't have any publicity. But then I decided I'm going to complain regardless, because I think it's one of life's great pleasures!'

How did the American tour go? 'They all asked: what is snooker?' she laughs. Well, it was rather perverse to make her hero a snooker player, given that Americans have never heard of the game. She also makes him speak a bizarre Cockney argot complete with rhyming slang ('septic tank' for Yank) and strange locutions like 'Don't get your nose in a sling' which are quite confusing for English readers let alone Americans. Why did she make him a snooker player? 'I like snooker. I've been following it for about 15 years. I mean I'm not glued to the set every tournament, I don't have that much disposable time, but it is very exciting to me. But of course it's not a book about snooker.'

No, quite. It's a book about relationships - but an exceptionally clear-eyed, unromantic take on the subject, with no happy ending. She started writing it when she fell in love with the man who is now her husband, jazz drummer Jeff Williams, which meant leaving the non-fiction writer she had lived with for almost a decade. She is careful what she says about her ex-partner: 'He's a very smart, wonderful man, but of course when you have been together that long, a relationship takes on a different character. But it was a productive relationship. I got a lot of work done and he was an astute editor of my work - that was one of the things I gave up - and I'm very grateful to him. It was time well spent.'

But they never married, and this is one of Irina's beefs about Lawrence in the book - he says he'll marry her if she insists but he doesn't really see the point. Whereas Ramsey in the book, and presumably Jeff in real life, insist on marriage almost as a precondition of the relationship. (She married Jeff in Las Vegas, wearing her usual black T shirt and trainers.) I asked if this was her first marriage, and she screwed up her face and said, 'Not quite. I have to be factually accurate. You know the expression 'starter marriage'? I had a starter marriage. I was way too young - 21 - it didn't last very long and I don't tell many people about it. He was someone I knew at university and I was more or less bullied into it by my parents. Which is another source of shame because I don't like to think of myself as being that malleable and eager to please.'

Anyway, she is now married to the jazz drummer. But a further complication is that he was previously married to the woman who used to be Shriver's agent, but who refused to handle Kevin on the grounds that she hated it. Everyone, Shriver says, assumes that she stole her agent's husband, perhaps even as revenge. 'But I didn't. They split up. But that's how I know him, and we kept in touch. That's all.'

However, she goes on, she ran into the ex-agent last night, at one of her literary parties, and it was only the second time she'd seen her since the split. 'I had a feeling she'd be there last night and she was. The first time we met after all this had happened, I remember bicycling home and castigating myself because I hadn't told her the one thing I felt I needed to tell her and that I could only say face to face, and it was that I never had anything to do with her husband while they were still together, nor even two years after they divorced. Nothing. So I said that last night - but I don't think she believed me. If you ever run into her,' she laughs, 'rest assured she is one of my detractors!'

Given that Lionel Shriver is an internationally acclaimed author, we still know surprisingly little about her life. The potted biographies in her books give nothing away. But here is what we know so far. She was born on 18 May 1957 in North Carolina, the middle child of three with brothers on either side. Her father was a Presbyterian minister and later president of the Union Theological Seminary in New York, and she idolised him. Her mother was a homemaker until Lionel was 15 when she started working for the National Council on Churches. They were a deeply religious family - there were family prayers and Bible readings over dinner. She has said in the past: 'There is a very thin line in my family between God and my father.' When she was 12 she announced that she wasn't going to church and 'My father literally dragged me into the car by my hair. And that carried on for a while and then finally, when I was 16, he couldn't do it any more.' But although she is not religious herself, she says it rubbed off on her: 'You said something about my moral seriousness - I hope that doesn't make me sound like a terrible drag! But my father's speciality is ethics so in that sense it's gotten inside. I think the difference is that I'm not satisfied by liberal platitudes. I like the hard case.'

Two important things happened when she was 15: first, she announced that she was changing her name from Margaret Ann to Lionel - she felt a boy's name would bring her more respect. And second, she suddenly looked normal for the first time. Up till then she'd had hideous buck teeth, but at l5 they were finally fixed by braces. 'I know what it's like to be ugly, to be unsightly, to be someone whom others make fun of, and in retrospect I'm grateful. It's a bit like having been a crashing failure as a novelist for so many years - it's important information for me to have. When I see someone else who for one reason or another is going to attract that kind of ridicule or neglect - sometimes it's more passive than ridicule but it's still painful - I'm not thinking Oh they're ugly! It's more, oh, poor thing. And that's valuable to me. Having had that experience of being discriminated against, it makes you realise how conditional are the world's affections.'

She spent her twenties doing a degree in Russian and English at Columbia University, and then running a catering company in New York, while also teaching freshmen's courses and remedial English in the south Bronx. She lived in Belfast, Israel, Nairobi and Thailand before settling in London 20 years ago. She published her first novel when she was 30 and another five before the breakthrough with Kevin. They all achieved respectful reviews but minimal sales, and she supported herself by writing for the Economist and the Guardian. In her mid-thirties she fell in love with the non-fiction writer with whom she lived for 10 years. But her mother warned her not to have children: 'She said it would transform our relationship and the implication was - not for the better.'

Anyway, she didn't want children, but in her early forties, with time running out, she started thinking again about motherhood - and the result was Kevin, possibly the scariest take on motherhood ever devised. (What if your child becomes a campus killer?) If she had had success earlier, would she have been more willing to have children? 'That's astute,' she concedes. 'I think one of the reasons why I never got round to seriously entertaining the idea of having kids is that I was still working on the project I started out on - establishing myself as a novelist - and that produced an extended adolescence.'

In 2005 she wrote a very odd article in the Guardian saying that she was fed up with being seen as 'the Anti-Mom'; she thought women should have children; she was alarmed by how fast fertility rates are declining in Europe. I told her - flippantly - that her argument seemed to be that other women should have children in order to pay her pension and to stop Europeans being outnumbered by immigrants. I meant it as a joke but she took it very badly indeed: 'My message was positive - to pervert it is wicked. I was trying to say something that most people just wouldn't try to say because of the risk of being misinterpreted that way. That's the kind of self-censorship that we do all the time. But I'm interested in issues that are difficult. I'm very interested in the issue of immigration - expect more from me on this. Because there comes a point where it isn't the more the merrier, there's a tipping point where a population that is being inundated begins to get resentful.' In fact, she partly tackled the subject in her (very weird) fourth novel, Game Control, and tells me she has been 'obsessed' with demography since she was 15.

'When I was growing up and saying I don't want to have kids,' she goes on, 'I felt like a maverick, but when I reached my late thirties, early forties I realised I wasn't and that if you looked at the statistics - I've been keeping track of fertility rates all over the world - I was alarmed. And I'm still alarmed. That's what that article was trying to say: do as I say not as I did. It's not good, it's not healthy for the society and for us as individuals, to just be thinking, "Let's go on lots of holidays and not bother with kids." But for me it's too late - I turn 50 next month.'

Her life has changed surprisingly little since she won the Orange Prize. The prize itself was £30,000 but the real value was in hugely enhanced book sales - 600,000 in the UK alone. Yet she still lives in the same rented flat in Southwark - shouldn't she be buying somewhere? 'No, I'm too much of a coward! Large amounts of money scare the hell out of me. And the thought of going around looking at property is odious, your life passes before your eyes and you feel a bit like dying.' She still cycles everywhere, still buys her clothes in charity shops, still refuses to have a mobile phone. 'It's so bad that I have virtually no tax deductions because I don't spend any money. I don't go out to eat because I like my own cooking - nobody makes it hot enough for my taste and if I cook at home I can cram it full of chillies. I don't keep the heat on during the day, even in winter [which perhaps explains why she suffers from Reynaud's disease - poor circulation - and has to wear gloves all the time]. Other people seem to regard these little habits as peculiar. I don't regard them as peculiar. But I suppose I am bloody-minded about cycling everywhere. I bicycled to those parties last night. I wore these clothes. I'm also very frugal about laundry because I don't like to do it, so I wear the same clothes all week.'

Surely now she can afford to loosen up a bit? 'It's very ingrained, and it turns out that I don't want to buy anything. Habits I have pursued out of necessity, I now realise I like. I like going to thrift shops more than I enjoy going to, say, John Lewis. I'm not interested in their stuff. I like my old pots and pans, they have character. I like keeping my grains in old Horlicks jars. I like Horlicks jars.'

And of course she saves rubber bands, so at last I can get the answer to a question that has bothered me all my life - what are you meant to do with them? 'I use them to keep things wrapped up in the freezer. I mean I'm not surrounded by huge binliners full of rubber bands! But I'm pretty good about recycling, and for me it's not to do with saving the planet, it has to do with a natural desire to save, to use, to re-use. I am sparing about materials. And maybe I'm the same way about my life and my work - very frugal, trying to use everything. I know that I have ended up eccentric, but I like it that way.'

Back pages

Born Margaret Ann Shriver, 18 May 1957, Gastonia, North Carolina, to a Presbyterian minister father and full-time mother who was also a poet, political campaigner and theology academic. Two brothers.

Education Columbia University.

Career Taught English in New York. Spent 12 years reporting on the Troubles in Belfast. Published six novels before achieving popular and critical acclaim for We Need to Talk About Kevin. Though rejected by 30 publishers it went on to win the 2005 Orange Prize For Fiction and has sold 600,000 copies in the UK.

She says 'Writing is fundamentally dull, and there are no real secrets to it: You sit down, you type something out, most of the time, if you have any self-respect, you throw it away.'

They say 'There's plenty of chick-lit in the world, and we need a Shriver to pick holes in it. We need literature not another Yummy Mummy.' (Kate Muir in the Times

Lives in London with her husband, jazz drummer Jeff Williams.

· The Post-Birthday World is published by HarperCollins, £15. Lionel Shrives writes on the Virginia Tech campus massacre on Comment is Free


Lynn Barber

The GuardianTramp

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