Lionel Shriver: 'Some people think I'm evil incarnate'

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The author on publishing when bookshops are closed, being an ‘exercise nut’ and the dangers posed to writers by mob rule

Lionel Shriver is a US-born writer whose novels include Big Brother, The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047 and the bestselling We Need to Talk About Kevin, which won the 2005 Orange prize and was turned into a film by Lynne Ramsay starring Tilda Swinton. In 2014, she won the BBC national short story award. Her new novel, The Motion of the Body Through Space, is about a long-married couple whose relationship is almost destroyed when one of them becomes obsessed with exercise.

What kind of lockdown are you having?
One of the most horrifying things about this experience is that it’s having so little effect on my life. I live in lockdown all the time! I don’t think this reflects well on me, but either I don’t have a very keen social appetite or I’m under-aware of when I’m starting to get lonely.

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World news | The Guardian

Lionel Shriver is a US-born writer whose novels include Big Brother, The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047 and the bestselling We Need to Talk About Kevin, which won the 2005 Orange prize and was turned into a film by Lynne Ramsay starring Tilda Swinton. In 2014, she won the BBC national short story award. Her new novel, The Motion of the Body Through Space, is about a long-married couple whose relationship is almost destroyed when one of them becomes obsessed with exercise.

What kind of lockdown are you having?
One of the most horrifying things about this experience is that it’s having so little effect on my life. I live in lockdown all the time! I don’t think this reflects well on me, but either I don’t have a very keen social appetite or I’m under-aware of when I’m starting to get lonely.

How do you feel about your new novel being published during this time?
Oh, that’s a catastrophe. I’m ashamed of myself because I’m not supposed to care about what’s happening to my book; it’s nothing compared to losing a business you’ve spent your whole life building. But it’s two years’ work, and I’m publishing into a big, black hole; all the bookshops closed.

What are these weeks of seclusion and anxiety going to do for art?
Cataclysm is always good for the arts. The possibility of catastrophe is stimulating to the imagination, though I worry this is potentially catastrophic on a scale that’s bigger than anything I could make up – and I don’t mean the disease itself, but everything that follows economically. It’s the same for all of us, though. We feel like we’re in a disaster movie, only we’re on the wrong side of the screen and there’ll be no happy endings for our favourite characters.

Your novel Big Brother was about obesity. The new book is about exercise. Are they companion pieces?
There is a correspondence there, yes. Big Brother was about food and people’s relationship to it. In this one I’ve kept food out of it. I’ve had a lifelong fascination with the relationship between mind and body, and the weirdness of living in an organism that’s in the process of corruption and, ultimately, death. That’s a big subject and I don’t mind visiting it more than once.

Was there a specific trigger for this novel? Something that set you off?
I’ve always been an exercise nut, so in some ways this is putting that under the microscope. But like Serenata [the wife in The Motion of the Body Through Space] I have drastically arthritic knees. That’s sobering. There’s the feeling of being punished for having been good; the first intimations of limitation.

Serenata’s husband, Remington, takes up extreme exercise late in life, and enters a Mettleman” triathlon. It’s almost as if he’s joined a cult. How did you research this?
I went with my husband to the Lake Placid Ironman [in the Adirondack Mountains, New York]. What was interesting was that I had to really force myself to go, and when I got there I only did one interview. It was fascinating how repelled I was by my own subject matter.

Serenata has a harder time ageing than Remington. Is the unfairness of the way women age – and are seen to age – at the heart of your story?
I wasn’t motivated by that. But I do think it’s especially hard to get older as a female. I found the menopause horrific: all these stupid hormones pinging around your body arbitrarily. They’re not organised to a purpose, yet they won’t go away; they just go haywire. There’s a strong feeling of being discarded that one can’t really blame entirely on men. Nature doesn’t want you around any more.

At the 2016 Brisbane writers festival, there was outrage when you said that you hoped the notion of cultural appropriation in fiction was a fad. Does the row that recently blew up around Jeanine Cummins’s novel, American Dirt, about a Mexican bookseller, suggest your optimism was misplaced?
Yes. I was talking to an executive at HarperCollins, which publishes the No 1. Ladies’ Detective Agency series. He said they’d be turned down today: a middle-aged, white Scot [Alexander McCall Smith] writing about a black woman in Botswana – that’s not on. But let’s not waste time listing all the books that would break the rules now. What made the American Dirt row horrifying was the author’s response. She didn’t stand up and defend herself. Instead, she pushed to the fore her Puerto Rican grandmother. It was completely wrong-headed. The whole idea of cultural appropriation limits fiction’s ability to be fiction.

What did you make of the decision of Hachette, Woody Allen’s original publisher, to cancel the publication of his memoir following protests from Ronan Farrow and several company employees?
I took it a little personally. It sets a terrible precedent. I’ve stuck my neck out in the past. I’ve made a lot of enemies. Some people think I’m evil incarnate. What if enough of them were working at HarperCollins and didn’t want my book published, and staged a walkout? Would HarperCollins stand behind me? Should I feel confident it would honour my contract? That a writer can be the victim of the mob like this should be terrifying for any author.

What are you reading?
Oh dear. In all honesty, I’m reading newspapers and magazines exclusively. I can’t read fiction right now, which makes me a hypocrite because I expect everyone to read mine.

What will you write next? Something about the apocalypse?
One way in which the lockdown has been great for me is that I’m going to finish the draft of my new novel in four months. It’s about a couple who make a pact that they’re going to kill themselves when they’re 80. It sounds like a downer but it’s actually a huge amount of fun because it’s a parallel-universe book. Honestly, it has turned out to be hilarious.

The Motion of the Body Through Space by Lionel Shriver is published by Borough Press (£16.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p over £15


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