Lionel Shriver is a literary heroine of mine. This adulation began shortly after I plucked up her first book, the Female of the Species, which was so inventive, so gorgeously written, and so funny and heart-shattering , that I actually bought two copies, just in case I lost one. I've followed her career ever since, but it's not just her novels that interest me so deeply. She's outspoken about everything from the bad, too girlie covers publishers often put on women's books, to her years of professional disappointment before We Need To Talk About Kevin won the Orange Prize and So Much For That was a National Book Award Finalist, followed by the highly-acclaimed The New Republic.
I so admire her--and her work--that I tracked her down, and actually wrote her a bonafide letter, not really expecting a response. I'm honored to post the interview I did with her about her extraordinary newest novel, Big Brother, which is about food, weight, and what we owe the ones we love.
Thank you so much, Lionel.
Some writers want to talk about the backstory to a book, but others get irritated and think the work should stand on its own, so please feel free to ignore this first question: I did read (and I'm sorry to hear about it) that your brother died from complications due to obesity. Was this and your own trajectory to fame part of the impetus in writing the novel?
From the very inception of "Big Brother" I've been torn over how much to expose--and implicitly to use, which is potentially ugly--my real older brother in the publicity for this novel. It's a matter of public record that he died in late 2009 from complications related to his weight. But he was a remarkable, unusual person, and (as I note of Edison in the last chapter) would never have wanted to be posthumously famous primarily for being fat. On the other hand, having seen up close how painful it is to see someone you love reduced to a walking wad of lard in others' eyes has made me so much more sympathetic with anyone who battles a serious weight problem. My real brother gave me a point of entry with this subject matter that was implicitly kind. In a legal sense, the history of obesity in my own family has given me standing. Otherwise, I'd be in danger of appearing one more skinny bitch scolding the slobs to get a grip.
As for the topic of fame (btw, a disclaimer: I'm pretty well known in the UK, but wouldn't consider myself remotely "famous" in the US, and no fiction writer enjoys--if that is the word--the scale of celebrity that actors or pop musicians do, even after winning Bookers and Pulitzers): it intermingles with the weight-and-food theme in a manner that I found surprisingly productive. My own small experience of, say, going to a literary party and discovering that I don't have to introduce myself anymore has been something like, "Well--huh. Isn't that weird." My reaction to career successes has been emotionally mild. This was a big surprise. I suspect this sense of mildness is common, but--not wanting to appear ungrateful--most successful people keep their mouths shut on this point.
What does celebrity have to do with weight? Both issues involve appetite. Desire, anticipation, craving. My theory is that both food and fame are ultimately unsatisfying. As the narrator of BB notes, they are the idea of satisfaction, "far more powerful than satisfaction itself." Yet desire is what is truly satisfying. Desire has trajectory. It has energy. Getting what you want, or what you thought you wanted: you just sit there. (See a later answer on the subject of sitting.) So you're better off staying hungry--in relation to food and fame both.
Why do you think food is less about nutrition and pleasure than it is about control? How on earth did we get that way? Through the book, you explore diet culture, where no one is left off the hook. Fletcher’s insistence on healthy eating is frankly joyless, while Edison’s overeating is often disgusting--yet neither man takes any real pleasure in food. Why do you think we really no longer know how to eat?
That's right: both the hyper-disciplined character and the indulgent over eater fail utterly to enjoy their food. How did we get this way--how did we evolve so that, as Pandora remarks once, opening the refrigerator "is like staring into a library of self-help books with air conditioning"? It's a puzzle. If anything--and this is admission against interest, since in publishing this novel I could be part of the problem--in our era eating has been over-examined. This simple daily activity has become self-conscious, when it's meant to be a matter of primitive instinct. God, all those food shows on TV, all the recipe columns in magazines (which I read, by the way). The studies, the diet drugs, the endless fucking advice. We've made it too important. We've turned it into a national obsession, and that obsession has backfired.
Big Brother also talks to the whole issue of how fame kills and starves us, even as we’re addicted to it the same way we crave chips. Edison was a star who plummeted back down to earth. Tanner is mocked for wanting to be in the movies. Why do you think we’re all so hungry for fame? And why doesn’t it ever feed us? There’s a difference in what we really expect food/fame to do for us, and what it really does do, and how tied up in emotions it is for us. Can you talk a bit about that, please?
It's probably a good idea to separate two concepts, and thus two experiences (which I just realized I conflated myself in a previous answer): success, particularly success in one's own terms, and celebrity. As for the latter, it's the cotton candy of the career world. The ambition to be known by a bunch of strangers, or--a distinction Pandora makes--to convince a bunch of strangers that they know you when they don't--is overtly pathetic. Empty. Unnutritious.
Yet I wouldn't entirely do down achievement. There's a feeling I get when I finish a book and I conclude, yes, that is what I wanted to write, and I think it works. That sense of achievement is very private, and quiet, but "quiet" isn't the same thing as "mild." I don't jump up and down or open champagne. But I do have a warm, whole, resolved sensation (mingled with no little relief, since of course I've probably been hacking away at this first draft for at least a year), which I also experience on a smaller scale when I finish a paragraph or a scene that pleases me. This is a sensation I can commend. It doesn't have to do with winning awards or getting a good review--or at least not from a third party. It's getting a good review from yourself, and I'm sure many other professions have equivalents. Unfortunately, this gently, quietly gratified glow doesn't last very long ...
There’s also a lot in the book about the difference between New York and Midwestern values, and how the sense of place informs us or nurtures us. You yourself live in both London and Brooklyn. Do you feel more of a pull to one place than another? Do you feel and operate differently in each? And do you think place really changes us or it just the appearance of change?
I'm never sure how much place matters, and as fiction writers go I may not put as much emphasis on setting as many of my colleagues. I did quite deliberately set this novel in Iowa. I liked the natural parallel between the Midwest and modesty--Iowa is anti-fame. Anti-NY as well. The "heartland" is also where a lot of the weight gain in the US has taken place, so I thought this choice of state sociologically apt. Moreover, my mother grew up in Iowa; my own grandparents lived there; my younger brother still lives there, and I go out to visit him every year. So I'm familiar with the place, and have gradually come to appreciate why my younger brother long had ambitions to move to Iowa (of all places), though he went to high school in Manhattan. It's beautiful--serene. As I think on it, that long horizon, those wafting cornfields, those big soft skies, the golden light: the landscape is a pictorial representation of the "gently, quietly gratified glow" that I cited in my last answer. I identify Iowa with being satisfied--w not needing that much, with being content with your lot. W what Edison finally seems to find there toward the end of the novel: accommodation to ordinary life.
My only reservation about choosing Iowa was that the Iowa Writers Workshop has enticed all too many aspirant novelists and short story writers to set fiction there. I decided to live with that. Iowa is part of my territory, and I wouldn't be bullied out.
This is, of course, not what you asked. I must be tired of answering questions about NY vs London. The main difference for the cities for me is the set of politics with which I engage. Right now I'm up to my neck in exasperation that George Osborn can't seem to appreciably reduce housing benefit and dismay over why anyone gives a toss that there's horse meat in Findus lasagne. When I head for NY, I'll change channels. I'll get exercised about the sequester and rail at the TV over why Obama never seems to propose any cuts to the federal budget or restrictions on entitlements. I'll stop reading the Daily Telegraph.
Without giving anything away, I want to talk about the stunner of an ending, which reminded me a bit, of what you did with the brilliant We Need To Talk About Kevin, which was to make the narrator unreliable, and to shift our focus from what we thought we knew we were reading about to a deeper, more disturbing meaning. So how is the alchemy done? Was this something planned out ahead or did it evolve organically in the writing?
I came up with the ending about halfway through. I had intended a different ending, but I was unhappy about it. As you say, not to give anything away, but I did not want, fiercely did not want, to write a novel whose message was that it was hopeless to try to lose weight. In general, too, the novel was formally in danger of being too linear. Linear = your reader is way ahead of you. You don't want your readers to get the jump on you. You don't want readers to have already written the ending in their own heads. They think they want to be able to anticipate what's going to happen, but they don't. They want to be surprised. So other than the obvious A) happy or B) sad ending, I needed a third way. When I wrote the last chapter, I could tell I was right. The book suddenly descended into a deeper emotional register. It became more than just about food, diets, weight, fame, and torn loyalties--all of which sound notes in a tenor range. I went to bass.
Can you talk about your writing life? What are your days like?
My days are v boring, and the only thing that might be even faintly interesting is the change I introduced into my work day a year and a half ago: I stand up all day. I read standing up, I write standing up, as well as cooking and exercising standing up. The latest health advisory (I'm as influenced by fads as anyone) is that sitting is worse for you than anything, and the more you sit the sicker you'll get, EVEN IF YOU EXERCISE A LOT. That last detail incensed me. But I got w the program and now I'm used to it. Warning: standing for 12 hours a day is hard on your knees and lower back. Of course, you know how these fads work, don't you. After I've been doing this for ten years they'll come along and say, "Actually, that advice was totally wrong, and the more you stand the sicker you'll get, so if you've been mostly standing for ten years you're going to drop dead tomorrow."
What’s obsessing you now and why?
Debt, especially sovereign debt. Inflation. Pension and entitlement obligations for an increasingly elderly population that are unsustainable. Fiat currencies and why I didn't notice at the time how important it was when Nixon took us off the gold standard. The euro and how perplexed I am that we're supposed to regard the whole crisis in the eurozone as over when nothing has really changed. Has to do w next book (of course).
What question didn’t I ask that I should have?
How about, "What is wrong with you that you can't ever deliver a short, punchy answer?" I'm not working on a novel right now. The only writing I'm doing is the odd sad-ass article for the release of Big Brother. So I put my fingers on a keyboard and they dribble. Something builds up, and I become linguistically incontinent. Sorry.