I am leaning forward to take a sip of mint tea in an upmarket hotel in London’s West End when Lionel Shriver swears at me. Profanities come thick and fast. The cause for this outburst? She really, really, really does not want to talk about Kevin.
I have met the best-selling American author just weeks after the US’s latest gun massacre – the murder of 20 kindergarten children and seven adults in Connecticut. Everyone is talking about guns. Shriver, 55, has become a somewhat reluctant authority on the topic thanks to her controversial novel about a high-school gun rampage, 2003’s We Need to Talk About Kevin. So how does she view gun control?
Shriver clasps her hands and thinks intently. Despite her slight stature, her neatly clipped hair and the pink flowers on her black shirt, she is a tightly wound, combative figure. Finally, she speaks: ‘I would make it harder to get guns, I would do more background checks. I think the chances of a big turnaround in the US on the Second Amendment [which guarantees the right to bear arms] are small. I think all we can really hold out for are incremental changes in the law to make it somewhat harder for insane people to get hold of them. I am modestly hopeful that this last atrocity will improve matters.
‘[Americans] look at [the Second Amendment] as the essence of democracy,’ she adds. ‘[Early Second Amendment proponents used to say:] “We are not going to let those oppressive motherf**kers get one over on us. The government only exists with the consent of the governed. If the government gets bad enough it is your human right to overthrow it.”’ She stares at me pointedly. ‘They were talking about Britain.’
So far, so civil. Shriver was unknown before We Need to Talk About Kevinwon the Orange Prize in 2005. The novel, in which Eva, Kevin’s mother, asks where it all went wrong with her mass-murdering son, was turned into a critically acclaimed film in 2011 starring Tilda Swinton. We clearly need to, at the very least, broach the subject of Kevin. But matters quickly deteriorate.
Aware of Shriver’s disinclination to discuss the book that made her, I approach the topic cautiously. Does she ever get letters from fans? ‘I get letters occasionally from people who claim they have given birth to a Kevin themselves,’ Shriver says dryly. ‘They usually identify with the mother in the book and are dying to tell me their personal story.’
Does she ever reply, we wonder? ‘Yes, I say thank you. If I can think of something. I think I become a confessor figure in a way…’Then Shriver is off. ‘I can’t talk about this book much longer. You better choose one question,’ she says in an accusatory tone. ‘I think you’ve just triggered this because I have answered this thousands of times before.’
‘You touch on maternal ambivalence,’ I begin. ‘You should look it up,’ she interjects, barely audibly, under her breath, not waiting for the one question to finish. Then Shriver says very slowly, as if talking to an imbecile: ‘I was trying to decide whether I would ever have a kid. So I was looking up ways to avoid it. I was very…’
And she begins to swear. Waiters bustling around the lobby bar do not prevent the onslaught. ‘You know how many interviews I have given on this book?’ asks Shriver. ‘Not hundreds! Thousands! I think we just reached my limit! I have to save up my tolerance now!’
Shriver never did have a child (she is married to the jazz drummer Jeff Williams, with whom she lives in London) and she has turned her prickly interview manner into a trademark. But, despite this, I can’t help but like her, particularly her loud, generous laugh and deadpan humour. ‘I used to believe in gun control and now I don’t,’ says Shriver, while discussing London’s crowded cycle lanes. ‘Because now I want to get a machine gun and mow all [the cyclists] down.’
Born Margaret Ann to a Presbyterian family in North Carolina (her father is a minister, her mother works for the National Council of Churches), Shriver changed her name to Lionel as a teenager, feeling that, as a tomboy, it fit her better. Post-Kevin, her books have touched on the important topics of our time. So Much for That(2010) tackles the American healthcare system. The New Republic(2012) deals with terrorism through satire. This spring, her new novel, Big Brother, will look at obesity. It is a subject close to home: Shriver’s brother died from complications relating to morbid obesity in 2009.
Despite Big Brother’s rawness, it is, I discover, a safer subject matter. Or, more precisely, she is not yet bored with it. ‘This answer is not too practised,’ she says with a stern look when asked about what inspired the book. ‘I am not sure I have a single thought on obesity. The reason I wrote the book now is partly because it is the big issue of our time. I thought the time was right, personally.’
Was writing the novel cathartic? ‘It was somewhat cathartic. I mean writing a book never solves anything, does it?’At the heart of it, Shriver is more comfortable discussing weighty ideas than her own work. She claims to never read reviews (she wants to avoid ‘the slosh of sewage on the web’ and ‘any pisshead detractor who can come along and say something mean’) and yet sometimes cannot resist looking. Then, she admits in a faux singsong voice, ‘you get your fingers burnt’.
Yet the publishing world today is an endless merry-go-round of interviews, bookshop promotions and author talks. This month, she will be appearing at The Bookworm to discuss her work. What are they going to do about Shriver? ‘Well,’ says Shriver, ‘it is certainly a frustration that you spend a lot of time getting your point across in as articulate a way as possible [through the book itself] and you are constantly asked to reiterate it. I don’t know how you get around that, besides refusing to promote it. That sounds appealing.’
But then again, she promises with a little wry smile, ‘you will see how incredibly patient I am with audience members who want to talk about Kevin.’