Lionel Shriver at Politics & Prose

I had the privilege of hearing Lionel Shriver speak at Politics & Prose earlier this week. She is on tour for her new book, So Much For That, which I bought but haven't read yet. (I also heard her speak about The Post-Birthday World a while back – here's what I wrote then.) She was fascinating and entertaining, just like last time, and her reading definitely made me want to read the book.

Here is what she had to say.

Being here in DC the day after the embattled vote on health care and promoting a book about the U.S. health care system is good timing. But while that's the theme of the novel, it is a novel, not a treatise. It is about people, and it does have a plot. The timing may seem calculated, but she started writing the book before Obama was even a credible candidate. "Health care reform" wasn't even in the American lexicon yet.

Writing So Much For That was not the most commercial decision. Shriver doesn't want to write fiction so heavy that you don't want to go back to it, that you say "oh no" and go to sleep instead of reading before bed. She tried to keep the book entertaining and energetic, so that it passes quickly. She also didn't want to get weighted with politics, didn't want to write a long op-ed.

In the novel, the wife of the main character is diagnosed with an aggressive, fatal cancer – mesothelioma. The wife views death as a personal defeat, and won't face up to the fact that she is dying. Shriver based this character on a friend she had, who also died of cancer and never admitted, even up to the end, that she was dying. Shriver found it "alienating and distancing" that they never talked about her situation.

This type of denial can be very hard on a marriage, which Shriver explores in the book. First, it's impossible for the healthy spouse not to think ahead to what will happen when the sick spouse is gone, instead of being in the moment and appreciating the time left together. ("We are a forward-looking species.") Second, when one spouse is seriously ill, it upsets the power balance. The person who is sick has all the power, and the person who is well has no rights. He/she is totally dedicated to the needs of the sick person.

After the reading, Shriver answered questions.

Q: We Need To Talk About Kevin, tennis, The Post-Birthday World, and now this… these books are all so different. What is the connectivity? What makes you focus on these topics? Your writing style differs so much, too, from book to book.

A: I hate the idea of repeating myself. I try to keep myself entertained. So I have tackled different subjects. This variety is a source of pride for me. I don't want to churn the same thing out over and over. As for the connection, it's a sensibility, and a bit of perversity. I create characters who are famously difficult to like, though *I* like them. Why write about perfect people? I want to write about real people who have problems and sometimes disappoint. People who don't conform to stereotype. I don't want to write about people who obey the rules. I like to say the unsayable and bring subtext to the surface.

There is a place for niceness in the world – I do respect a certain moral order and people who do nice things. But I like moral complexity. In this case – how much is one life worth? Is it right to spend $2 million to extend a life by 3 months, if that life is miserable?

I try to vary my prose style, but I am stuck with myself – it is my voice, after all.

Q: There is a similarity between the marriage here and the marriage in Kevin. You seem to write about the powerlessness of good people, needy people. Is there a light at the end of the tunnel in this dynamic?

A: Yes. There is a paradigm where virtuous people get taken advantage of. People are all too happy for others to take responsibility for them. This is a social problem – in the U.K., 45% of families are net beneficiaries of the state. As for a light at the end of the tunnel – this book has a happy ending. The reader has earned it, and so has Shep [the main character].

Q: Tell us about heath care reform and this book.

A: I didn't jump on the health care reform bandwagon, but that doesn't mean I didn't have political motivations. I did want health care to change in this country. I wish the book had come out a year ago. The bill that passed is better than nothing, in that it adjusts some of the most egregious problems, but I wish it did more about the actual cost of health care. We are now stuck with private health care for the next 20 years. Most countries have universal health care, which is fairer and, more important, cheaper.

Q: You write a lot about food – would you ever write a novel about food?

A: I do write deliberately about food, which is a sensory business. I also think the way people cook says a lot about them. Food is very useful that way. I have strong feelings about food, and I cook a lot!

Q: What are your feelings about euthanasia?

A: It depends on the circumstances, and individual choice, up to a point. It also becomes an economic choice. Keeping people alive when they are not present is very expensive, and I am against it. We have to start answering these questions practically and brutally.

This is how I approach life: FEEL WELL, and don't take for granted how well you feel. So many people in the U.S. are "pre-sick". We should spend less money on end-of-life care, and we need a different way of living and regarding ourselves in our bodies. Let's appreciate that our bodies work, instead of being in a state of fear about our bodies.

Q. Who were your literary influences?

A: Richard Yates, Faulkner, and Dostoevsky growing up, but I can't read them anymore – they are too dense. Also, Robert Stone and Edith Wharton.