Q&A with Lionel Shriver, author of THE POST-BIRTHDAY WORLD

A few weeks ago, EDIWTB held its second online book club, on Lionel Shriver’s The Post-Birthday World.  Lionel was kind enough to respond to some EDIWTB reader questions. Personally, I found these very satisfying and a lot of fun to read. Thank you. Lionel!

Here are the questions and answers:

1. Why did you choose to use major world events such as the death of Princess Diana and 9/11 as benchmarks within the story? Were they to give readers a frame of reference, or to show that even our reaction to big events are colored by the choices we’ve made?

Major world events punctuate one’s personal life, even if they may take place in the background.  My own experience of the world is always influenced by what’s happening in the newspaper.  This novel is set in a specific set of years.  Any realistic novel covering 1997 in Britain surely has to acknowledge the death of Diana.  Any realistic novel covering 2001 anywhere in the world surely has to acknowledge 9/11.

Otherwise, yes, I found these two events useful in illuminating the different ways that the two men deal with them.  Irina’s experience of world events—the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland, for example—is heavily affected by whom she’s in love with.

2. Children and motherhood play a very small role in this book – in the Ramsey scenario, Irina has a miscarriage, and in the Lawrence scenario, the couple is infertile.  Neither one of these developments seems to bother Irina particularly.  My question is – did you choose not to bring children into the plot in order to make both the relationships and the ethical choices less complicated? Or did you simply want Irina not to be a mother?

Two reasons: structurally, I wanted to bring the two parallel worlds together at the end.  If one of these relationships produced a child, the two worlds would never come together.  If they both produced children, these would be different children, and again the worlds could never come together.  So I needed to devise two different routes to the same result.

Second reason?  My last book was We Need to Talk About Kevin.  I have done exhaustive—and exhausting—publicity for that novel since 2003.  That novel took apart motherhood in forensic detail.  The very last topic I had any interest in writing about was motherhood.

3. I read a review of the book that suggests that your ending shows that you have a preference for one of Irina’s choices over the other. Is that true? Do you admit to having a "favorite" Irina?

Don’t believe reviews.  No, I really don’t have a preference for one of these men over the other.  One of the pleasures of writing the novel was being able to have them both.  However, many readers have strong preferences for one over the other, which is just swell.  Happily, the readers from whom I’ve heard do not agree with which man Irina is better off, but tend to cleave straight down the middle.  Anyway, determining what Irina should have done at the end of the first chapter—given into temptation or resisted Ramsey’s charms—is up to you.

4. What was your original inspiration for the story?

I had to make a similar choice in my own life between two wonderful but drastically different men. I was on such a knife edge as to what to do that for some time after I made the choice I was haunted by an alternative universe in which I had chosen the other chap instead.  That’s where I got the idea for the structure: it mirrored my own emotional experience of second-guessing myself.

5. What has surprised you most about people’s reaction to The Post-Birthday World?

How many other women—men, too, actually—have had to make similar difficult choices in their romantic lives, and the degree to which Ramsey and Lawrence uncannily correspond to archetypes in readers’ real-life relationships.  I can’t tell you how often I’ve had a reader in a signing queue confide, “I left a Lawrence for a Ramsey, and it was a disaster!” or “I stuck it out with a Lawrence and have never stopped regretting that I let my Ramsey go,” etc.

6. I’m still stuck on the facing the wall sex, and never knowing in all those years what Lawrence wanted, and then the switch to hot incredible sex with our favorite snooker player…any basis in reality? Was it difficult to write such personal things.  How did you deal with that?   

Writing about sex is always tricky.  Another writer a long time ago warned me that “however much you make up, readers will always assume that sex scenes are autobiographical.”  I’m sure protests to the contrary would fall on deaf ears. 

I don’t think it’s important whether this or that is from “real life.”  It’s only important that these scenes resonate with other people’s experience.  So far, I’ve got the impression that they do.