Lionel Shriver is a literary force of nature. She has published 14 (yes, 14!) novels, including the bestsellers The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047,Big Brother, So Much for That (a finalist for the 2010 National Book Award and the Wellcome Trust Book Prize), The Post-Birthday World (Entertainment Weekly’s 2007 Book of the Year), and the Orange-Prize winner We Need to Talk About Kevin (a 2011 feature film starring Tilda Swinton).
Beyond the astounding fact sheet, Shriver is a literary master, akin to the giants of literature in her ability to hone in on the emotional and psychic undercurrent shaping our lives, and translate this into compelling narrative wrought with a style that, in its precision and pacing, is uniquely Shriverian.
Despite all this, Shriver has been shut out of the literary pantheon. The reason? That's simple. As a journalist and essayist, she expresses views that diverge from those deemed acceptable by the literary establishment. This counter-orthodox approach to ideas has certainly cost Shriver—after all, where is her Booker Prize, where is her National Book Award, where is her teaching gig at Columbia or Harvard or Iowa or wherever?
The reality is that Shriver has had to blaze her own trail, which she's done. And it's given her remarkable freedom, not only to pen incisive, biting journalism but to write the kinds of books that will be remembered for decades to come, if not longer.
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Lionel Shriver: I'm primarily novelist. My breakout book is widely acknowledged to be, "We Need To Talk About Kevin" published in 2003, about the mother of a school killer. That book became a little too successful but I've published many books since. And in the process has, have also done a lot of journalism. That includes hundreds of book reviews, many features, essays. I've done a lot of opinion, journalism.
I am currently a fortnightly columnists for the British Spectator, and also write for the London times with some frequency, though there's hardly a magazine or newspaper out there that haven't written something for. So I would say that those two elements in my professional life are at some tension and there's there's competition between fiction and non-fiction for, for my time, if nothing else. And I guess also my heart.
Ashley Rindsberg: And how do you manage the tension and how do you, how do you balance those two needs between the fiction and the nonfiction?
Lionel Shriver: Well, the difficulty is that non-fiction has a more hard and fast due date. So it inevitably takes priority. If you've got a column due tomorrow, you can't say, well, I'd really rather work on chapter four. And, and that becomes a problem because it means that getting going on a fiction project can be infinitely delayed because there's always something else. I have a new book ready to start and mercifully for the next month. If I can keep it that way, I do not have any journalism assignments due and this, this is the time to do it.
Actually, I started,"Should We Stay or Should We Go" at Christmas, in 2019, it's one of the nice things for me about being an ex-pat, is that whereas for everyone else they are inundated during the holidays with the demands of family. I don't have any family over here and it's a blessedly solid free period when I'm left alone. It's absolutely wonderful.
Ashley Rindsberg: Yeah, I imagine, you know, especially in the UK, I, at least I find that period. So full of charm, the Christmas period and the holiday period about, Should We Stay, or Should We Go,is the book your most recently released book, which came out this year. I had mentioned to you before our recording misfire, that the book really blew me away.
I mean, it was, it was something I connected to so deeply that you know, even with a very satisfying ending, you feel that kind of wistfulness to leave it and to leave those people and that world, which is always a sign that the book is alive and not a dead thing. But one thing I wanted to ask you about is the timing of the book. Cause you just mentioned you, you wrote it or I would imagine started writing it in 2019, but the book feels like it was written in real time. And that just struck me over and over because first you have Brexit playing out in the novel between the characters. And I already had thought to myself, wow, this is quite current, for a book that's out and going through the publishing process alone takes many, many months. If not years, And then it catches up to the pandemic and I was thinking, how do you do that? How is that possible to write a book that it is so contemporaneous and still has that level of depth and that complexity. And that's something we'll go into after this, but that was my first question right out the gate was how is it possible to write like that, to write essay in virtually real time?
Lionel Shriver: Well, the timeline of that book has a weird backstory because as I mentioned, I began this book in 2019. On Boxing Day, the day after Christmas. And I did want the book to have a very contemporary feel to fill your viewers in on the concept. It's about a couple in Britain. Both of whom worked for the national health service and they they've seen of a lot of geriatric decay professionally. And the wife's father has just died when the book begins and he's had dementia for over 10 years and it was horrific, you know, so they make a pact that they don't want this to happen to them. And they want to leave at, at a time of their choosing. And so they just signed that once they both turned 80 on the wife's 80th birthday they will commit suicide together.
And this is back when they're in their early fifties and therefore it's a distant prospect and a little too easy, but then you basically turned the page in the book in there, and she's about to turn 80. I mean, and that's, that's an effect that I believe reflects the experience of those years. I will testify in fact, how quickly time starts going. And I would have thought in my early fifties, that 80 was a long time away. And now that I'm 64, it seems like tomorrow. And and it will be effectively tomorrow. So the concept of the book is that it's it's parallel universe. So, I mean, it sounds like a real downer book, but it's actually, I think anyway, a lot of fun, in fact, often hilarious.
So I go through 12 different endings that this, that this pact may have, and some of those endings end up in the range of speculative fiction. And I had a wonderful time with this book, but that the, the Seminole, the focal date in this book that, that roots, the entire story is the day on which the wife Kay turns 80 and As a matter of a kind of formal commitment. I decided that I could make anything happen after that date that I wanted to. That's the point at which all bets are off and it's, it's my imagination. But before then it was going to adhere to historical truth in my eagerness to make it feel once it was published very much of the moment at the end of 2019, I picked a date in the future.
It was only three months away. And I, I thought the 29th of March was symbolically potent because that was the date on which the UK was originally scheduled to leave the European union. So it was, it had that, should we stay, or should we go packed into the date, and I liked that kind of stuff. But I, I, so I figured, well, you know, I don't know what's going to happen in the next three months, but surely that's pretty safe.
What's going to happen by the end of March. Big surprise for me. And at first when the pandemic hit, I thought, you know, maybe this is a catastrophe. Maybe I, I have planted a bomb under my own project, but I decided, no, this is just more material. This is just another story I can incorporate. This is another little detail that I can use to bring out the characters and, and to play with different outcomes especially different economic outcomes.
So, it ended up being a boon rather than a bust. Went back and re did some rewriting of the earlier chapters that I'd already written that didn't end up being very hard. In fact, the chapters got better. So I ended up being grateful for the pandemic and I was also in retrospect grateful to myself for making the right decision because had. Instead said, well, why don't I just set the whole thing a year earlier and avoid the pandemic? I think I would have condemned that book to feeling far more dated in and in the past than it would have been arithmetic. Right? Because this is such a watershed historically, that futures that spun forward that did not include the pandemic would have seemed more unreal and less probable and kind of out of it.
So that was the right decision. But this is the kind of thing you get into when you, when you write fiction, that is in any way bound to reality and historical truth. And to me, it's interesting.
Ashley Rindsberg: It was you know, the, the what's in the future of the book, post Kay's 80th birthday, it becomes I don't want to give too much away for readers because it's an incredible experience to go through those series, those cycles of stories that come subsequent to the birthday, and each one really takes you on a full and complete journey. Some of them are completely agonizing and really just wanting to escape the way the characters want to escape.
Some of the scenarios and some are, are delightful. As you said, all of them have an element of humor and wet and deprecation. It leads me to think about something that Albert Camus once wrote in an essay on literature that was called intelligence on the scaffold, where he describes Proust in search of lost time as a celebration of old age in the salons of Madame de Gramontand this book and other books of yours as well, feel really like the opposite, a deprecation of old age, this contempt and scorn for, for aging as well.
But the really interesting thing about it, especially with this book is that that becomes a celebration of life. That, that means the other side of the coin when, when I've read you writing about aging and old age and decrepitude, is that death and aging actuate life. And I think that's something we really see, especially through Kay in, Should We Stay or Should We Go?
Her appreciation of life starts to deepen and become more sharp. You know, there's one, there's one small little section here that I wanted to read, which is. Kay's just cooking dinner and you write the Kay with, "when all the potatoes were peeled, the tuber seemed harder and rounder and more resonant under a blade than ever before. The Brandy apples for the crumble also seemed CRISPR tartar and somehow more forcefully in the world insistent on taking up the rightful space on the cutting board." And I was really reminded there of Dennis Potter, the great English TV writer and producer, who was diagnosed with terminal cancer was given a few weeks to live. And he had this beautiful talk he did with Melvin Bragg about looking out his office window and seeing a cherry tree, a cherry blossom, and, you know, describing it as the most frothy most bright and vibrant tree he'd ever seen. So that, that was something I just wanted to put you in terms of that relationship between how you look at aging death and life, because there's clearly a tension in a relationship there.
Lionel Shriver: Of course that passage you just read was on the day that they're expecting to kill themselves that evening. So one of the running themes of the novel is the way in which mortality is sharpening and, and raises the stakes of everything. In fact, one of my favorite chapters is a ladder speculative fiction, one where there is a cure for aging and everyone effectively lives forever and looks 25, always.
And it seems wonderful at first and then get strangely awful. So you've got this persistent social problem of suicidal ideation. Most people don't act on it, right? They can't handle immortality that its immortality is flattening. And by contrast, there's another chapter where Kay is also coming up again towards the, her 80th birthday in the months before she's taking the pack seriously. So presumably this is the last year of her life and she questions everything. And how she spends an individual evening suddenly seems a great moment. And what, what really sobers her is the realization that the decision about how to spend every other evening was of equal moment. And she didn't realize it. She, she spent her evenings casually and then suddenly in, in coming up against it she, she wonders, you know, she really spent her time reading the "The Week"you know about a week that's already passed. And if she shouldn't be bothering about say, what's going on in Israel why had she ever, and it's only mortality that makes you think this way and it's mortality that makes the, makes the apple seem so, so real and big.
And as you, you know, as you read, you know, forcefully into the world and it's, you know, the hardest thing that we have to contend with is the fact that we're going to die and weirdly we hardly ever think about it I hardly ever think about it. I confess I have to force myself and you know, like everyone else, I don't really believe in it. I don't think I'm going to die. And not believing we're going to die makes life possible. But the other thing that makes life possible is, is the fact that we're going to die and it's confusing, but it's also very interesting.
Ashley Rindsberg: And you know, what, what becomes clear from the book is that as you, as you kind of just said it actuates, it gives significance to every, every thing, even the trivial, another another passage that stood out in this regard is one in which you write that in a handful of months, they meaning Kay and Cyrilwere planning to commit suicide. "At which point there would be no EU NATO, UN or Commonwealth and no song contest. There would be no UK. There would be no magpies, no sky's blue or otherwise. No quail eggs, no paperclips, no best friends with their noses out of joint. No cyberspace, no Wellingtons, no household dust mites, no six pound dispatch discount coupons from Tesco. If you spend 40 pounds by seven 11 and 19, no scalp eczema, no elusive concepts like populism, no such color as burnt orange, no words like lush, whose definition she'd never quite pinned down. No emotion called a brilliance and not just the word for it, but the very feeling of explosive joyful joyfulness would exist no more".
And I feel like that was exactly it is that the the mundane, the trivial, the too small to notice become the appealing and in the contemplation of death and the confrontation of death that happens in only a way that, that someone like Kate, whatever experience, because it's because it's so it's, it becomes a fixture in their lives. In the book. It becomes furniture in their lives as you mentioned, if 30 plus years, well,
Lionel Shriver: she's a little more spiritually advanced than Cyril , or at least to begin with. Whereas at the same time,Kay is contemplating the obliteration of all that fantastic detail of ordinary wife. Her husband is. Obsessed with Brexit and going on marches for a second referendum, he's a passionate remainer. And if anything, they're pending demise, plunges him more completely into this transitory present and into a scrap that you don't have to take very many steps back from to realize it's not that important. So they deal with it differently, she takes those steps back and wonders at all of this. And what was that?
I mean, I think that's the one that's has to be. If you're given the chance to reflect at all, what happens when you die? What was that? What was that? Right. That was it really? That was it. It must be utterly befuddling
Ashley Rindsberg: It is, you know, paralyzing to think about it in a way on that level to really understand, to think that there is whatever, whatever there is, it is something. And as you pointed out before we live, as, as if death is a fiction, we live as if it's not real. But you know, and again, that's, that's where the structure of that book was so wonderful because it allowed for that exploration of different pathways. They're not, they're not pathways after death, they're pathways to death, but that kind of just froze. I'm sorry. Are you still hearing.
Lionel Shriver: Okay. We've got a problem.
Ashley Rindsberg: Are you, are you in my back with you now? You're back. Okay. So hopefully it won't recur. So, you know, I think that's, that's what you were, you were talking about, which is that death constraints life, and another quote you have in the book is I think unbridled freedom and pacivity amount of the same thing. Being able to do anything is like being able to do nothing. And I think what you just said about the flattening effect of immortality, you know, this is the flip side of that.
Lionel Shriver: It means choice doesn't matter if you, if you can choose anything, if you have the rest of your life to choose, to do, to do whatever you want. And, and there are, it means there there's nothing. So that you can marry someone and then you could just marry someone else, or you can take this job and then you can just take another job. What makes the decisions we make important is that they are permanent and you cannot take them back and they preclude making other decisions. And, you know, you'll spend your 33rd year as you did, and you don't ever get to make those decisions over again. And that gives them enormous weight. And for some people that weight is paralyzing. So it's not all together to the good but the alternative is worse and that is, they don't matter. And so who cares and when people's lives really fall apart, that's where they go.
Actually, they, they don't, they don't care anymore about. The decisions they make or what the consequences are. That's depression.
Ashley Rindsberg: I want to go just a little bit back in time in, in the chronology of your books to 2016, when you published"The Mandibles" which is again, just one of these books that sort of should not exist. There should not really be a book about economic theory and the economic degradation of America. That's also riveting. It just doesn't seem like something that would work on paper. And yet it works on actual paper to give a bit of background, well, I'll let you give a bit of background about the book before we go on.
Lionel Shriver: Again, just to parlay it's a set in 2029 in October. This is again my being a soccer for these symbolic dates. So it's, you know, it's these Centenery of the fall of the stock market in 1989. And a sequence of economic dominoes falls. The, US dollar is demoted and is no longer a reserve currency. There's another competing international currency called the Bancor, sponsored by China and Russia backed by real goods, not just Fiat currency. And then the president in retaliation says, okay, well, we're not going to repay the national debt. And of course, what that ends up doing is punishing mostly Americans because we think the Chinese hold most of the national debt, but they don't, it's Americans pension funds, etc..
The Chinese have a surprisingly small proportion of the debt these days. And the economy in the United States goes down. The inflation rate goes through the roof because the government can't borrow when therefore prints tries to print its way out of a financial hole. And that never works very well. And we're about to find that out that it, it is a novel that contains a lot of economics, economic theory, but I, in preparation for writing the book, read a good stack of economics books and discovered that they were riveting. And in fact writing about economics, especially since 2008 has become like reading science fiction.
You know, a lot of this stuff is about the end of the world. In fact, one of the only genuinely unrealistic aspects of "The Mandibles" is that I addressed the collapse of the U S economy without ever implying that we took the rest of the world with us. And that that's implausible, frankly. But at the same time, I just wasn't up for writing a book about the entire international collapse of the world. I needed it. I just, I don't think I'm that good. So I needed to limit the catastrophe a little bit in order to have a focus. And of course that book is all about a single family and their experience of going from what they hope was in future of quite a wealthy existence, because the patriarch at 98 year old patriarch is quite wealthy.
But they never inherited the money because it disappears. So I tried to make it very personal and, and, and worm's eye view if you will, but at the same time, you do get the bird's eye view. And I. I think I got away with it. My original draft had way more economics in it. And maybe something in me wishes that I'd been able to publish all of it, because I thought it was all so fascinating, but probably on a fictional level. I was right to parrot that. But I am hopeful that my enthusiasm for the subject, my sense of discovery, which is it is that's what it's like when amateurs get into something, right. I went in as an amateur. I didn't know anything about economics and, and therefore my enthusiasm was, was newbie enthusiasm.
And I think I managed to impart that sense of excitement to the delivery of these theories and, and it gives the, the book more intellectual halfed. It makes it more interesting to me if it works on more than one level. I mean, it reminds me a little of oh gosh, I don't remember who it was, but John Grisham or someone like that, one of those popular writers who, who would include a huge amounts of nonfiction information about, a place and his readers loved it because it was like candy coated education. That's how I would think of those passages and "The Mandibles"
Ashley Rindsberg: Yeah I mean, In a way I wouldn't think of it as candy coating because it feels much more serious.
Lionel Shriver: Ya it's huge. It's the biggest fear in my life. I know that we're supposed to be walking around being terrified of climate change, but climate change is very gradual. The effects are largely unknown. There will probably be time to adapt. Economic collapse can happen literally overnight and change everything and, and make everything dysfunctional and suddenly demote your concerns from what's on Netflix tonight to where are we going to get any food? Right. I it's, I am terrified of international financial collapse and you know, what's happened in in the pandemic has only sped up the high probability that it, that we experienced it not only within my lifetime, but perhaps in the next 10 years. And we have accelerated the growth of money too mind, boggling degree over a year and a half the fed increased the supply of dollars in the world by 35%.
And it's on track to do it again in the next year, another 24%. So, I mean, how can you do that and have the dollar be worth the same amount of money worth the same value you can. And that's true of any quantity, any commodity, you know, way money is a commodity. You can't produce infinite amounts of corn without the price of corn plummeting. Money's not any different. And, and I, this is a real fear of mine. I mean, I don't know how much it controls my behavior. I mean, funnily enough, I'm still something of a skinflint, and I'm always looking for bargains. And you know, very modestly, I don't go out and buy lobster every night.
So in a way I'm not, I'm not acting on it because I took myself seriously. Then I would be spending every dime I've got and turning it into something real. Gold I don't completely trust gold and I that's in the book. Right. It is still legal. It's the for us government to take your gold, they can take all of it. Right. And they know where it is. You know, there are there are big reasons why when you buy gold, it's basically registered. The us government knows you have it, because they may want to take it away from you. It is something of a dangerous investment. And I've given this some thought the only way to really buy gold is to somehow get access to the real thing. This whole business of ETFs. I don't trust them either. You need to get hold of real gold and bury it in the garden. That's the only way to do it. And it has to be off the books and I can't be bothered
Ashley Rindsberg: That sounds so it sounds so, you know, on the surface crackpotish and like one of those prepper people living in a bunker stacked with Lai,
Lionel Shriver: it has, I have it in me at least, at least as a constitutionally to be a prepper.
I'm a little too lazy to buy all those tin cans, but I, I have an apocalyptic turn of mind, and I'm always, I have that kind of dual track. Whereas on the one hand intellectually, I am constantly expecting everything to fall apart and on the other, on a daily basis, of course I expect everything to stay the same.
Ashley Rindsberg: And that's sort of what I wanted to ask about with, with regard to this book, because on the one hand, just this week, or I think it was today, or possibly yesterday, Elon Musk comes out and saying he would scrap the new the $2 trillion spending bill that the Biden administration wants to pass. And you know, you listened to this stuff, you listen to the political rhetoric and you're like, oh great. You know, spending for public services, et cetera. Sounds really awesome for everybody. And then you start to think about it and you start to think about the things that you touched on in the book.
And then if you you know, if you're not already afraid of what might happen, you read that book, "The Mandibles", and you should, you will be afraid and you should be afraid because it's a very scary thing. What's happening in the U S with regard to money, with regard to what is happened to the dollar it's not happening, it's already happened.
And it makes it all very likely and it makes it all. There's nothing in that book, as, as exciting as it is to read it is a really exciting book. There's just a lot going on. There's a lot of texture and complexity. But there's nothing in that book that doesn't and, and endless humor. It's, I mean, which goes back, I think in a way to the humor of should we stay, or should we go, which is the humor of aging and the humor of the tragic humor of dementia which is really beautifully portrayed in that in both books. But in this book, it's it just is very real. It's convincing because of the work that you put into the economics into helping people readers understand what all this stuff means, but this is the question I have, and it really touches on something you just said. You know, to what extent do you feel like this is an expression of personality? You, you write in the book "plots in the future or about what people fear in the present. They're not about the future at all. The future is just the monster in the closet and the great unknown, the truth is throughout history. Things keep getting better, but writers and filmmakers keep predicting that everything is going to fall apart". And I believe it's Willie who says that sounds like a really thing to say..
Lionel Shriver: That's Lowel, my economics professor
Ashley Rindsberg: Oh okay, that'sLowell
Lionel Shriver: that's only one of the parts of the books he's right.
Ashley Rindsberg: So that's the question. I mean, Lowell and that actually having Lowellsay that and Lowell for as Lionel, just mention Lowell is this Keynesian economics professor who just is borrowing, borrow more and more and more credit. And everything's going to be just fine if we keep borrowing, spending, borrowing. Yeah. Yeah.
Lionel Shriver: He's, he's in some ways a clone of Paul Krugman.
Ashley Rindsberg: Right. Classic Krugman state type stuff, and having well say that it does seem in a way stupidly optimistic that everything's just going to keep getting better. Despite what the writers and filmmakers say, that's on the one hand, on the other hand, we have this book itself and the thesis that it's putting forward into the world, which has all this stuff is not just likely it's probable. And this is how it plays out in a family, in your family. Just as you'd mentioned, about what, whether we go from deciding what to watch on Netflix as being the big crisis of the night to trying to find broccoli, you know, once a month to you have some vegetables in your diet.
But again, this is the question that I really wanted to ask you about is this book as convincing as it is as based in essentially evidence as it is, to what extent is it also a projection of your self of your fears of your, you know, if you have this tendency to catastrophize,
Lionel Shriver: Well, to a large degree, all of my books are projections of myself that's the, in some ways the fun part of the job, it's, it's also the frightening part of the job, because it means looking at aspects of yourself, which are not necessarily agreeable. The book itself has a tension in it between not just amongst the characters, but between the reader and the author. The author sends mixed messages because passages like the one you read or signaling, don't completely trust this author, right? This author is apocalyptic. And this book is about the United States falling apart, but that doesn't mean it's going to happen. And remember who's telling the story. And there's a conversation planted early in the book in which one character as spouses, how. Oh, old people. They're all, they're all like, they're all naturally a apocalyptic. They always think that everything's about to fall apart. They always thinks that you know, things are worse now than they used to be.
But there, the reason is that they're projecting their own experience of mortality onto the rest of the world. And of course for them, things are getting worse because they are falling apart and they, therefore, they think that everything else is falling apart too. And they're the structure of their own lives is apocalyptic. They are going into the great nothingness, you know, they are facing utter oblivion. So they think that they put that out there and see oblivion on the way, everyone, of course, for them on a private level, this connects up with that passenger. Should we stay? Everything's about to disappear on a private level, the apocalypse is real.
It's not dilution. Right? Right. But if you're younger, don't take this stuff seriously. And in fact, the same character observes, you know, there's, there are some people who, as they age and face their own mortality, they kind of want to bring everyone with them. They're resentful. It's like, I don't want you to have a good time without me. And therefore, you know, clearly, you know, climate change is going to destroy everything or, or economic collapse. Right. And so you're being told on the one hand, this is, I'm going to tell you a story. I'm going to tell it as persuasively, as I know how, and I'm going to show you how there are forces at work in the economy already that could logically lead in this direction. And on the other look at when the, this, this woman was born in 1957, she's not going to be around that much longer, be suspicious, be very suspicious.
Ashley Rindsberg: There's also something in that, in the apocalyptic element that, you know, by the end of that book, you realize maybe it's not the worst thing. The worst thing that we imagined our minds, oftentimes when it does happen is not necessarily the terrible thing we thought it would be. And I think that's where this book brings. It brings that full circle because it's the economic situation that the us is in, is a function of how it conducts life as a country and as a culture, which is not the best way. I mean, it's an excess access to a point of obscenity and to a point that the, the inequality becomes obscene as well.
So, you know, there is an element of reset there,
Lionel Shriver: which, oh yeah. Well, there's a, there is a leveling aspect to economic collapse when money is worthless, then people who have a lot of it are in the same boat as the people who don't have any. So, you know, that, that that's dismally cheerful if there such, besides which, you know, the end of the book, cause it's skips forward to 2047. It's actually. It's actually got a happy ending. It does.
Ashley Rindsberg: It really, it really does. And that's sort of what I meant is that some of the characters the, the apocalyptic forces kind of have this buffeting effect on their characters, that it cauterizes them, it cauterizes the wounds in their characters.
Lionel Shriver: Yes. And also there are passages that make it very clear that, that this kind of duress and having to rebuild from nothing has actually been good for the country and that all the neuroses that were building up literal and metaphorical about health, about, about mental illness, about you know, all our, all our fussy little hand-wringing navel gazing, you know, anxiety ridden ways of being. They're just obliterated. You know, when, when you, when you have to worry about what would early about feeding yourself and finding shelter, it's very clarifying. You know, there are a lot of these problems. They're not in the developing world. They only start emerging in the developing world once the prosperity increases you can't afford to be neurotic.
You, you live on a level of survival and there's a way in which that's, that's mentally very hard. I think that's the way people are supposed to be. That's the way animals are supposed to do.
Ashley Rindsberg: And I think physically it's healthy in a ways as well. I mean, I, I remember reading it Viktor Frankl man's search for meaning, this is a Vietnamese psychiatrist who had never done a day of manual labor in his life. He's an Auschwitz the next day. And he's conferring with a bunch of other doctors thrown into the camp about how, despite the labor, the beatings and everything, their bodies had, no Adima, there was no swelling from what they had endured is the body had just adjusted in that timeframe. And I think, you know, physiologically as well as psychologically that I think that's the point that you, that comes through in the book is that these people are forced to change in a way they never, ever, ever would be.
If things were in so-called normal times, Which is a very, very interesting takeaway from that book where we're sort of running short on time. So, one, one more thing I wanted to ask you about, which is more about, about being a writer, the craft the challenge, you know, you're, you are sort of known, as you'd mentioned early in the conversation that "We Need To Talk About Kevin"was a breakthrough book for you, which it was a breakthrough that came seven or eight books in to your career. That is a lot of writing, a lot of publishing to not have the recognition that I think is what a serious writer needs and wants. And probably in your case, obviously deserves how did you manage it?
How did you manage going through those first seven books and not finding them resinate in in the way that you I don't know, maybe you did expect it, maybe you didn't, maybe it, maybe it didn't matter to you, but you know, how did you get through how'd you stay on the path?
Lionel Shriver: I think I probably sometimes underestimate to myself when I reflect on those years the degree of suffering they entailed. And, and then I feel compelled to immediately and of course it wasn't real suffering in comparison to other kind of suffering that other people have. But I resent that sense of obligation. It was real suffering, you know, of it was artistic suffering. If we're going to be, you know, lofty about it. It was some, it was also simple human suffering to go, go to an enormous amount of effort to do my very best and have it not rewarded. Now, at least those earlier books were published. And though the my real seventh novel was not published until many years later.
So I did face going through writing a book that didn't see the light of day. The, books were sometimes well-reviewed, but that doesn't matter. And I learned that the hard way that it did not make me commercially viable. And I inevitably got my hopes up. I write a book that I thought was important and fun to read. One of the first ones I got my hopes up over was "Gain Control", which is still, I would say under read but is about demography which is one of my favorite subjects, still highly germane. But it didn't get notice much. It didn't even get published in the United States. It was only published in the UK.
It's available now. But and, and that was grievously disappointing. I spent huge amounts of work on that book. I read demography and epidemiology for a solid year before beginning it, and I moved to Africa for a year to write that book. I have actually, in some ways my takeaway on, on that project was don't ever do that again. Don't ever work that hard on a project too many eggs in the basket. And I don't think I have, I mean, even for "The Mandibles", I didn't, I mean, I didn't leave the country. So, and then I got my hopes up, especially over "Double Fault" which is about a competition in a marriage between two professional tennis players over who's better. That made me think that they were going to publish it with equal seriousness. Cause you always hear that, oh, if they, if they actually pay you something, then they're going to want their money back and they'll make an effort, but that's, that's not always the case.
Sometimes they just cut their losses. My editor fell out of favor and, and it didn't make any impact. Didn't even go into paperback. And so I mean, part of what kept me going was spite and part of it was just, I'd get another idea for a book and I'd want to write it. And that was probably more seriously what, what kept me in the game in that once I'd started it, I was going to finish it and I was going to bring it to fruition as in a form as best as I could. I mean, that's and the work is fun and interesting. So diving into a manuscript, it was the best way to hide from my larger story that I was a failing fiction writer.
And there was certainly a point at which once I wrote a whole book that I couldn't get printed at all that I had to decide whether this is worth it. And I reasoned that I had, I had at least got most of my books into print and I shouldn't be a big baby about not publishing one of them. And I had another idea. So I wanted to write that book
And that was Kevin right? So that ended up being the right decision. So as a consequence, my story is sometimes very inspiring as I think it should be for aspiring writers who need encouragement and need examples of people who have not given up and finally been rewarded, but I'm not so you know, Aesop's fable about this, that I think you should necessarily take my story that way. It could easily have ended otherwise. I mean, it was not easy. It was not easy to get Kevin published. It was turned down by at least 20 agents in the U S it was turned down by 30 publishers over here, so it could have gone the other way and it could never seen the light of day, it's a brutal world now.
Ashley Rindsberg: I saw a literary agent round table, a bunch of literary agents on video talking about what they do. And there was a question about what was the most painful pass, the most painful project that they had turned down for each of them. And one of them said it, was Kevin, when you talk about Kevin and I watched that and I thought to myself, who would ever pass on that? What literary agent would to end up? You know, it was her in 19 others. It turns out. But I think the point there is that as you know, writers or anyone else doing anything else that they're doing. They received that kind of rejection as a referendum on, on who they are and what they do, which maybe it is, but often it's not. And I think you have to just allow that, that room for the doubt.
Lionel Shriver: Yes. I think that's the best lesson to take from my story. Not so much. If you keep at it, then eventually you'll succeed, right? No, not necessarily. And the lesson is that it's not just a brutal world out there. It's an arbitrary world out there. And when you, you know, it breaks my heart when people who have maybe sought my advice and, or, and, and I've read their book and and it's pretty good. And then they get rejected and rejected and rejected. And because no one instinctively wants to live in a world that is arbitrary. That is morally arbitrary.
That means that you'll, it doesn't matter what effort you make or it doesn't matter what the quality of your work is. It's just random. That's a terrible world to inhabit, right? And therefore you want to believe, even if it seems against your own interest, that these rejections are meaningful, they're considered, they are a verdict that you're to take seriously.
There's something wrong with your book and it's being spotted over and over again by all these agents. There's they may not be quite honest, what's wrong with it, but there's something wrong with it, right? Not that there's something wrong with the agents and actually they probably didn't read it. These to be a little more sympathetic. these agents Are inundated. The whole digital submission process has been a catastrophe for everyone seemed really great at first because it meant, oh, you can send out a hundred copies of your manuscript at once, but unfortunately, so is everyone else, right? So it means that actually digital submission has reduced your access to the gatekeepers.
So I, I'm sympathetic that the gatekeepers can't can't handle the deluge of stuff that comes in through the metaphorical transom. But as consequence it's your manuscript is usually going to be read by some assistant who doesn't know anything and you shouldn't take it seriously. It doesn't mean anything.
Ashley Rindsberg: No. I think it w you know, one thing you, you wrote recently I forget exactly where, but you, you writethat we can safely infer that if an agent submits a manuscript written by a gay transgender, Caribbean who dropped out of school at seven and powers around town, on a mobility scooter, it will be published. And whether or not said manuscript is an incoherent, tedious, meandering, and insensible pile of mixed paper recycling that I feel is the one. Eh, the one the one thing we can sort of plant a flag in regarding the publishing process and the being picked processes, that it goes with fads and fashions and ideologies, and even to a less extent, to a greater extent, rather than, than business. I feel like that that often takes front seat where the business side of things takes a backseat becomes so faddish.
Lionel Shriver: Well, you know, publishing is still something of what, what used to be called a gentleman's profession in spite of fact, that they're all women now they don't take their commercial obligation seriously. And certainly that's the case more recently. You're right. The whole woke thing, the political correctness, whatever going to call it now has taken over publishing wholesale, and I find it horrifying. In fact, it's astonishing. I'm still published. It's astonishing that Barbara Collins sticks by me because for those of you who do not know, I don't have any woke credentials.
And but I'm an anomaly now. I I'm one of the only fiction writers being published and I emphasize being published because I think there are a lot of other fiction writers and they're not being published who, who do not have standard rigid left-wing views. And right now the biggest qualification for, for publication in the Western publishing industry is identity. Yes. So, you know, if you've got the right ethnicity or skin color or sexual preference or, you know, if you've transitioned, then you've got a chance. But if you don't have any of these distinguishing group characteristics, it's, it's more murderous to be published than ever. And if you've got anything but left-wing views, you're going to have trouble also the irony being that I think there is an enormous amount of money to be made in the anti woke industry.
Right? Those, those books sell very well. Yes. There were the larger public isn't into this stuff. Right. In fact, if they know anything about it and they can't stand it. And therefore the commercial opportunity is enormous and they're not an awful lot of publishers are not taking advantage of it. They're just worried about, you know, the editorial assistants and whether or not they're going to get huffy.
And it's, not just a catastrophes for these companies. It's a catastrophe for readers. And it's also a catastrophe for writers who, who don't fit the mold. And those are often the best writers. I mean, the people who at least used to be attracted to this profession were, were weirdos and outliers. Yeah.
Ashley Rindsberg: I think you speak for the rest of us too. I, I spent the better part of a decade writing what turned out to be not by intention. It just is what it now is an anti-woke novel. It's a novel it's there are many things in it, but part of it is anti woke. It's a take down of that idea. And I don't imagine that it will necessarily be snapped up by a big five or big four these days publisher, but I'm okay with that. That's the, that's the real freedom is that. But today we have other ways, ways that including including methods that hark back to many centuries ago of serialization, of pamphlets, of whatever it takes to make the book a success, not to just print it on and fold it down on your own coffee table, but to really push it into the world, get it read, and if that's actually possible today. And I think that is very, very uplifting for a lot of people because they can have an impact. They don't have to fall into the, the chasm of the publishing industry or any other industry. So I, you know, but to hear it put that way, I think is sobering as well. That it's, it's sort of this industry that's undergone ideological capture to its own financial detriment.
That's the part that really astounds me. When you add on just like the news media, the news media has invested in woke ideologies to its own financial detriment, to the detriment of its share prices and its shareholders. That's where I re that's what really boggles my mind. When I look at CNN's ratings, when I look at the New York times as readership.
But this is the world in which we live. I know you are getting short on time. I want to be respectful of your time. Anything else you'd like to put out there to people who are trying to just stand being creative in a chaotic world?
Lionel Shriver: Well, keep doing it if you enjoy it. But it's, it is a difficult time to be ordinary.
And but you know, I'm on the side of the ornery and eventually we'll win.
Ashley Rindsberg: The ordinary always wins . I think that's a great bumper sticker. Last question. What are you reading if you don't mind divulging.
Lionel Shriver: Oh, gosh, I'm reading a nonfiction book by Matt Ridley and another author whose name I don't remember about the origins of cOVID-19 really is amazing.
Yes. You know, I know him slightly and
Ashley Rindsberg: I was just conversing with him on Twitter an hour ago. And Alina Chan as well, they call
Lionel Shriver: I'm about halfway through that.
I read more nonfiction books than I used to, which is still not a lot, but I used to just not read non-fiction books at tall. So it's an interesting I've I've turned a little more toward non-fiction and I have an appreciation. I have an improved appreciation for nonfiction. As a matter of fact, I just filed my spectator column yesterday and mentioned Matt Ridley in it among many others. And it's one of those rare. Columns, which is positive and hot about the end of the world. I find it very difficult to find anything good about COVID-19, but this is what I, it it's made me even more misanthropic than I was to begin with. Completely disheartened by how readily whole populations have rolled over and sacrifice their civil rights completely and do everything they're told, just makes my skin crawl.
So this column is a tribute and to a lot of non-fiction writers and some doctors and epidemiologists who have gone against the grain who have been ordinary, if you will, and exercised actual independent thought. And I am incredibly grateful to them. They have kept me sane for the last two years and they give me hope for humanity. You know, we're not all, we're not all lost. There are still people out there who are thinking and have the sense of humor and don't do everything they're told most of all. Don't think what they're told. And I find that incredibly encouraging.
Ashley Rindsberg: It is it's inspiring. I think we can all take heart in that. And I think that's more, more of us than people really want to let on. Possibly most of us
Lionel Shriver: I think there are more of us out there than we
Ashley Rindsberg: yeah, definitely. It's, you know, the, the silent majority is back, but thank you so much, Lionel Shriver. This has been incredible. Anywhere people should go to find your work aside from your books on Amazon.
Lionel Shriver: No, I'm sure there are a lot of secondhand places or my attic come to my house. I have huge numbers of copies of my own books. I don't know what to do with them in many different languages.
Ashley Rindsberg: I hope you've got your fellow matter as well and dragging it around with you.
Read them, read"The Mandibles". And I think everyone will get that. So once again, thank you so much. This has been really great.
Lionel Shriver: Really enjoyed talking to you. Thank you.