Lionel Shriver is a US writer and journalist whose novels include So Much For That, The Post-Birthday World, 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. She lives in London and Brooklyn. Her latest book is Property, a themed collection of stories and two novellas.
Were the stories in your new book written by design to be read alongside one another or did they just accrue over time?
I’d written the novella, The Subletter, and wanted to give it a home. So you could say they were accrued by design: every time I got a commission, I made sure the story had something to do with property. I’m interested in the way in which what we own becomes a projection of the self — and in territory, too, literally and metaphorically. I’m very territorial, particularly about my study. If my husband wants to park his drums in there, I’ll tolerate it in the short term, but I would never allow it in the long term.
The stories explore rather beadily some of the monetary and logistical issues that preoccupy those who live in cities. Are these things too little examined by contemporary fiction?
Perhaps. Property is certainly an obsession in London and New York. On a primitive level, it’s a refuge. If you don’t own it, people can kick you out of it — and that makes an emotional difference to people’s lives. But there’s also this question of territory: the idea that if you violate my territory, you’re making incursions into me. Domestic Terrorism [a story about a couple whose adult son refuses to leave home] is interesting because there, the idea of territory becomes blurred. The convention is that as an adult you move away and return as a guest. But if you never leave home, you’re never a guest. You still think it’s your room — even though that idea was always a conceit, even when you were a child.
How do you feel about the seemingly endless debate regarding short stories and whether or not they are enjoying a revival?
It’s utterly boring. I’m sick of it, and I think readers are, too. This whole conversation about form is tedious and we should stop having it. There is some appetite for the short story, but like lots of people I would rather read a novel; that’s another reason why I themed Property, so it’s more of a unified experience.
In 2016, there was outrage when you said, in a speech at the Brisbane writers festival, that you hoped the concept of cultural appropriation was a passing fad. What do you make of this debate now?
The funny thing is that, at the time, I’d barely heard of cultural appropriation. It seemed a weird idea, and it had not spread appreciably to fiction. When the speech went viral, I was dumbfounded. I was trying to nip it in the bud. I was saying: let’s not go there. But then we did go there. I’m not a natural activist, and I’m reluctant to embrace this role, but I am also dismayed by how few writers with any serious reputation are willing to put themselves on the line for free speech. I’m very unhappy that writers and editors are exercising self-censorship, especially with regard to group membership, to [writing about groups to which they do not themselves belong such as] gender, race, ethnicity, disability. If we follow this through, it will be the end of story and someone has to push back against that. Not only do we have to preserve the right to write characters who are different from ourselves, we have to preserve the right to have characters who think things that are unacceptable. I just lost my Swedish publisher, who has published every book since We Need To Talk About Kevin. There is a sub-theme in The Mandibles about immigration, and anything that is negative at all about immigration is toxic in Sweden. It’s very disappointing.
Do you think immigration is one of the subjects of our time?
It’s the subject of the century, and it needs to be talked about with robustness and immediacy, and it is underexplored in literature. For obvious structural reasons, fiction is almost exclusively concerned with the experience of the immigrant and has no time for the native-born person whose world is being transformed. The immigrant is the risk-taker, the adventurer and the party who is at a disadvantage, whereas the native-born person is selfish and looks bigoted and mean.
How do you write about that?
I’ve just had a little rant, but I’ve never followed my own advice. I don’t know if I ever would write it. It’s too dangerous.
What about #MeToo? Is it already having an effect both on fiction, and the way we read it?
I’m not inclined to join bandwagons. I don’t like crowds; I always want to step back. I am dismayed by critics and readers who approach literature in the spirit of Sunday school. We’re judging authors: he put his hand on the wrong knee. From there, you’re only a hop, skip and a jump away from not being able to have your characters put their hands on the wrong knees. I don’t read novels with a prissy little pen in my hand, looking for sinning characters who don’t live up to certain political expectations. What a boring way of reading books.
The Orange prize transformed your life. How do you feel about prize culture now? Would you have kept going — or been able to keep going — without that recognition?
I would have had to do a lot more journalism to support myself. But I’ll never really know. It’s sometimes useful to touch base with that period in my life. I do genuinely believe that the opportunities I was given [after winning] were not inevitable, that there was an element of good fortune. Of course I hope it was not unrelated to the quality of my work, but I do believe it is possible to do very high-quality work and for that never to be recognised. Prizes have always been unfair and arbitrary, but it’s very hard to get attention otherwise. It’s very hard to get published these days, full stop.
What books might people be surprised to see on your shelves?
Cookbooks: a fair whack of them. But aside from heading to Betty Crocker for “canary corn sticks”, I hardly ever consult them. I prefer my messy files of clippings, scrawled with my own notes (“multiply chilli flakes by four”). By comparison, recipes in books always feel a little dead.
Which writer do you always return to, and why? Richard Yates. One of the few writers who rewards rereading. He is both cruel and forgiving with his characters. I regard him as something between a role model and a kindred spirit.
What was the last great novel you read?
Amy Bloom’s White Houses. She really brings Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt to life as regular people, not icons.
What kind of reader were you as a child?
Voracious and indiscriminate. Prone to obsessive phases. Curious George gave way to horse books gave way to science fiction gave way to Russian classics.
What do you plan on reading next?
I need to read Tessa Hadley’s The Past and Curtis Sittenfeld’s You Think It, I’ll Say It for work — and both prospects strike me as cheerful. But I’m anxious to get around to Rupert Thomson correct’s Never Anyone But You, and Patrick deWitt’s French Exit [new novels to be published later this year]. When my to-read stack starts toppling over, I know I’m watching too much TV.
–Guardian News & Media Ltd
Property by Lionel Shriver is published by Harper Collins