Last week, the online book club for We Need To Talk About Kevin, by Lionel Shriver, took place on EDIWTB. Lionel Shriver graciously agreed to answer questions about the book. Here are her responses, which I found to be very interesting:
Q: For some reason, it was very important for me to know whether, in the end, Franklin finally understood what his son was capable of (and that Eva had, all along, been right). Was it your intent, through Eva's depiction of the expression on his face in the end as "so disappointed", to confirm that Franklin was finally aware of who his son really was?
A: Well, yes, but with one caveat: the scene in which Franklin registers what his son is up to–that is, er, the boy is about to murder his own father and sister–does indeed portray Franklin as suddenly having to reorder his entire universe. In Eva's imagination it is the very paralysis of this reconfiguration of reality that leads to his death. But that's the caveat: "in Eva's imagination." That scene takes place in her head; obviously, she was not present at the time. It's up to you whether you believe it or not.
Q. I understand that you did painstaking research into other, real-life school shootings in your writing of Kevin. In fact, Kevin contemplates that the Gladstone shooting in some ways affected some of the school shootings that came later, such as (real-life) Columbine. Have you ever gotten criticism for using real-life incidents – and such painful ones as that – as plot elements in your fictional story?
A: No, I've never been criticized for that, nor do I think I should be. Fiction writers avail themselves of realtiy–or the bits that suit them–all the time. I did not, alas, concoct the idea of school shootings all on my lonesome. I got it from the newspaper. Moreover, thematically it was important to me to set the fictional incident within the context of a sadly long history of similar incidents, because I believe that as Eva notes "these are all copy-cat crimes." School shooting is a fad. These kids get the ideas from the news, just as I did. So I thought it was important that the news play a part in the novel.
Q: How long did it take to write the initial draft and did you try to keep in the mind of Eva while writing this book?
A: All told, the novel took a couple of years. Obviously, that involved living in Eva's head a proportion of the time. But I still read other people's books and remembered to buy brocolli.
Q: Frank was so passive which helps the telling of the story. Did you feel you couldn't tell the same story with a stronger father figure?
A: Franklin probably seems more passive because Eva is telling the story, and also because he never writes back to her. Sure I could have used a different character. All the characters could have been different. There's an element of the arbitrary in all fiction. That said, I did deliberately solicit exasperation from my reader in relation to his apparent naivete. Exasperation is a powerful emotion, and a participatory one.
Q: Did you base any of Kevin's "wrongdoing" – the Liquid Plumr in Celia's eye, the exczema incident, etc. – on real life incidents?
A: No, I made all of them up. A few simply derived from my own fears. I've always been terrified of drain cleaner. I read once about some young woman committing suicide by drinking the stuff, and the story stayed with me. I couldn't think of a more horrible way to die.
Q: I read in the extra materials in the back of the book that your editor suggested that you allude to rather than actually include the massacre scene at the school. What did he/she have to say about the scene in the backyard?
A: It wasn't my editor but my ex-agent. Who is an idiot. She hated the whole book really, so I suppose she hated the scene in the backyard, too.
Q: One reviewer piqued my interest when she wondered if there was any significance to the names of the characters. If so, would you let me in on that?
A: Mmm, I always think hard about the names especially of main characters. I wanted Eva to be Armenian, which meant her surname had to end in "ian." I found Katchadourian in the phone book, and liked its musicality. But to counter the heaviness and rarity of that surname, I wanted Kevin to have an ordinary Christian name, and I liked the alliteration of another K. Since Franklin is fiercely patriotic, I liked using a name that alludes to a colonial hero, Benjamin Franklin. And it's a little less common than Frank.
Q: I am curious why this scene was put in the story – when Kevin is sick and then acts like a 'normal' child. What was this to show us – that he did love his mother? That the way he was was an act?
A: Kevin is one big act. That scene helps to demonstrate that Kevin's coolness and inaccessibility takes a great deal of energy to generate. When he's sick, he doesn't have the resources to keep acting so tough, needless, and aloof.
Q: Where did the foundation for Kevin's character come from? Why does he show no remorse?
A: Kevin was a patchwork job, taken from a host of kids I've met at one time or another, and wasn't based on any one person. As for remorse, I think he does exhibit an inkling of if–most tangibly when he gives Celia's glass eye back, and then has the consideration to warn Eva not to open the box. He's slowly turning into a human being. Yet it's only dramatic for him to start to clue up to what an awful and utterly unnecessary thing he has done at the end of the novel if for the rest of the novel he's been refusing to show any regret.