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'I didn't like the IRA... I couldn't stand them as people so I became a unionist by default'

As she releases her dystopian new novel, bestselling author Lionel Shriver tells Katie Byrne why perfect people bore her and how she became addicted to politics in Northern Ireland

Published 21/05/2016

Straight talking: Lionel Shriver is known for her straight-talking style
Straight talking: Lionel Shriver is known for her straight-talking style

Lionel Shriver doesn't mince her words. We're chatting by phone as she heads towards the BBC studios in London during rush-hour traffic when she realises that the cab driver has taken an unfamiliar route.

"I have to tell you - your sat nav is ridiculous," she says to the driver in unflinching monotone. "This is the strangest route I've ever taken to the BBC. I realise the timing is terrible."

The author, who's in Dublin for a talk as part of the city's International Literature Festival, is as efficient with her answers as she is with her driving directions. There are no cul-de-sacs, or roundabouts; no backtracking, or afterthoughts.

She's also the interviewee who always delivers, mainly because her books tend to have back stories that are just as compelling as the prose on the page. Shriver famously fell out with her family after writing a thinly veiled account of their dynamic in her fifth novel, A Perfectly Good Family.

In later years, November 2009 to be specific, she wrote a column about the rise of America's "fat pride movement" for Standpoint magazine in which she reflected on the heartbreak of watching her 24-stone brother eat himself to death.

A few hours after she filed the column, her brother suffered sudden respiratory crisis and was rushed to hospital. He died 10 days later. (The loss inspired her next novel, Big Brother, a fictionalised account of a woman living with her obese brother).

Her most popular - and arguably most controversial - book was the Orange Prize-winning We Need to Talk About Kevin, which told the story of a mother whose son murdered nine people at his high school. The book provoked an incendiary reaction, partly because it was published in the post-Columbine climate and partly because it explored maternal ambivalence. It was later turned into a Hollywood movie starring Tilda Swinton.

Shriver dared to imagine a mother who felt anything other than unconditional love towards her child and the reaction prompted her to observe that she had stumbled upon "the last taboo". Does she still feel that way?

"I take that back now because we seem to be generating taboos right, left and centre," she says. "They're mostly from the left. You can't call someone with five o'clock shadow who's wearing a skirt..."

Shriver's latest book, The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047, is another uncomfortable read, but for very different reasons. It is set in the not-too-distant future of 2029-2047 and while it has been described as dystopian, the future she imagines feels forebodingly plausible.

The dollar has collapsed. Water is scarce. Robots have made most jobs redundant. The alarmingly perspicacious novel is no beach read, not least because the characters aren't particularly likeable people.

"Well, I like them," she rails when this is pointed out to her. "It gets my back up when I'm characterised as only writing about people who are dislikeable.

"I'm bored by perfect people. "I don't believe in them - and I'm very suspicious of virtue, especially people trying to be recognised as being virtuous."

It's this attitude that helps Shriver excavate the darker side of human nature with ease. This aspect of her writing has no doubt informed her reputation for being austere, misanthropic even. Interviewers often mention the fact that she wears gloves indoors (she suffers from Raynaud's, which makes the extremities overreact to cold temperatures) before bringing up her supposedly regimental calisthenics workout routine.

In a world of 6am spin classes and FitBit Flex-wearers, it's curious that much is made of Shriver's at-home workouts. "People seem to be very suspicious when it's just something you do by yourself," she agrees.

"You're supposed to go to a gym - or you're supposed to have a trainer and somehow this isn't strange.

"It's something very private that I have always pursued. I wouldn't say fanatically. I would say steadily and with some resolution."

Her answer betrays a shade of vulnerability. People who are portrayed as misanthropic are often especially sensitive. Would that apply to her?

"I think my feelings are easily hurt - which is not how most people would probably think of me. That misanthropy is protective. It's a little shell. I can be very easily hurt and it's one of the reasons I can be in two minds as to whether I should be reading my reviews or not."

Her "policy varies" in this regard. Now she's reading them. "What happens is I get a bunch of good ones and think, 'why did I think that I shouldn't read them?' and then I get a couple of stinkers and I remember."

Shriver knew she wanted to be a writer at the age of seven. She recently hummed and hawed about taking part in Radio 4's My Teenage Diary - "you find samples of your tear-stained pages and read them aloud and talk about them" - but she was ultimately impressed by how well-written her teenage diary entries were.Born in North Carolina, she has lived in Nairobi, Bangkok and Belfast. She initially visited Northern Ireland for a nine-month stint as a reporter during the Troubles. She stayed for 12 years.

"I confess I got a little addicted to the politics, even though they infuriated me. I think I'm a sucker for infuriation. I was very unsympathetic with the IRA from early on. I just didn't like them as people. I didn't find that their arguments came together and I didn't like their tactics.

"I ended up becoming a unionist by default. Of course, I didn't have any time for unionist paramilitaries, either."

Today, she lives in London with her husband, jazz drummer Jeff William. Does her nomadic existence make her feel like an outsider in the literary world?

"In London, at least, I'm probably not an outsider and I'm probably not perceived as an outsider, but it's a sensation after all and I still have it.

"It doesn't bother me. Maybe I cling to it. Like the idea of not being centrally located. In the US, I'm definitely an outsider."

Shriver, now 58, had written six novels before We Need to Talk About Kevin made her internationally recognised. And it wasn't without dogged persistence. The manuscript for the best-selling book was widely rejected, with many agents telling her that her main characters were "unattractive".

Now her books are almost guaranteed bestsellers. Does she ever worry that she has peaked?

"I find that prospect deeply forbidding because if there is a peak, there is a high likelihood that I've already reached it. It makes it easier to produce if you feel that you're still riding on the learning curve. That may be delusional, however.'

Lionel Shriver's The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047 is published by Harper at £19.20. She will be giving a talk in Dublin's Smock Alley Theatre today (8pm) as part of the city's International Literature Festival (

Belfast Telegraph

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