about us news current issue back issues short story prize poetry prize art prize retreat poem fiction interview stockists submissions books contact

It Isnt Only Yours
An interview with Lionel Shriver

(Issue 29, Summer 2017)

‘I moved to Belfast, not intending to stay there for longer than about nine months, in 1987, and then I ended up staying a dozen years,’ says American writer Lionel Shriver, who now lives between London and New York. ‘Those are years that I’ve never regretted. It certainly taught me a lot of what I know about politics, especially on a very nitty-gritty level.
   ‘There are lots of things that are fascinating about Northern Ireland – if nothing else this big divide between the two so-called communities. There’s barely a fag paper between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland.
   ‘The area around Queen’s University, where I lived, was middle class and therefore, you know, once you got above a certain income level, it became a little less important which side you were on. The middle classes didn’t tend to get into fights at dinner parties. 
   ‘I had a flat on top of a Victorian house that was falling to bits and I had the whole attic floor. It had a lot of atmosphere, it was a great place to write. I went to party conferences, and I was a regular attendee at the Belfast City Council. They’d get into punch-ups. It was hilarious. I taught art for a little while at Maghaberry Prison. I was at Milltown Cemetery when Michael Stone attacked an IRA funeral. I went to several IRA funerals. So I was shot at. That’s my big claim to fame. 
   ‘I ended up finding the company of Unionist Catholics the most agreeable. They’re mavericks, they’re practical, they’re not sentimental. I lived there long enough to not only make friends but also make enemies. I attracted some hostility just because of my accent, and sometimes from Unionists who only heard the accent and didn’t realise what I was saying – because I was on their side. I did become quite a committed Unionist, if only out of a belief in democratic principles: the majority of Northern Ireland wanted to stay in the union so I thought they should be able to have that. And because I didn’t like the idea of the IRA’s campaign paying off.
   ‘I have an allergic reaction to orthodoxy of any sort. I arrived officially with no commitment to either side, but there was something about the slick indoctrination of Republicanism that immediately turned my stomach. There was plenty of violence on the Loyalist side as well, but they were very clumsy at it. They didn’t have the propaganda down well. They certainly didn’t know how to make themselves likeable. That whole business of shooting any old Catholic in the head … Very poor PR. Not well thought out. Whereas by the time I arrived the whole Republican organisation was a finely-tuned machine.
   ‘My novel The New Republic had a lot to do with having lived in Northern Ireland because what distressed me about the experience of living there was to discover how handsomely terrorism paid. I mean Sinn Féin didn’t actually get their united Ireland but they got what they really wanted, which was local power and recognition, and also to literally get away with murder. And they got all of their people out of prison. They didn’t really pay a price. If you look at the lesson of that conflict from any distance it’s that terrorism is a fiendishly effective tool for getting what you want. It’s worked very well for the Islamists. They are getting what they really want, which is attention. So that’s what The New Republic was all about. It was looking at a fictional paradigm on a peninsula of Portugal that doesn’t exist. I drew it onto the map and I created a political party that had a terrorist organisation that was supporting it. That book was written at a time when no one was taking terrorism very seriously. The majority of people in the United States who paid any attention to Northern Ireland at all thought the IRA were a bunch of freedom fighters and supported the cause. Even the British, especially on the left, misunderstood the political nature of the Republican movement, which is conservative, you know, right-wing, nationalistic. There’s nothing liberal or left-wing about it. They’ve attached themselves to a few so-called progressive social policies but their raison d’être was purely nationalism and their methods were those of thugs. How they got away with putting on that kind of revolutionary gloss is anyone’s guess. 
   ‘Funnily enough I had quite a liberal upbringing. I’m much more conservative politically than my parents. Although in this area you have to be clear: it doesn’t mean I voted for Trump. I’ve never voted Republican in my life. But I have conservative economic inclinations. Even if I would regard myself as a social liberal. But yeah, I think I am at core rebellious, childish. I hate being told what to do. And that’s in the small world of ordinary relations too. I don’t like to be controlled. 
   ‘I enjoy live audiences. What is most satisfying is to put something into words that either most people have not heard put into words before, or something you’re not supposed to say but is still true – and to get a sense from the audience that they’re relieved to hear someone finally say it. That’s a lot more pleasing than just trotting out whatever today’s shibboleths are. They’ll sit there nodding like, yes, racism is bad, and we should have an open mind about gender identity and all that stuff, and they’re bored to shit and just nothing has occurred and you might as well never have opened your mouth. 
   ‘Writing a novel is much more private and that’s in fact what is enjoyable about it. There’s always a sense of sacrifice when you have to let it out of the house. Not only can you not change it and make it better any more but it isn’t only yours any more. There’s a relief to that also, to let other people in on what you’ve been thinking. I can stay home for days on end, only leaving for milk. I don’t have a very powerful social need. I have to remind myself to see my friends. And I’ve become terribly lazy. My idea of going somewhere is to go to a bunch of international literary festivals. The literary festival is itself a separate country. It doesn’t matter whether it’s in India or Mexico or Brazil. Ultimately the place you’re going to visit is the festival. I was much more adventurous when I was young.’ 
   Shriver is a keen tennis player. ‘I’ve ruined my knees and there’s only so much longer I’m going to be able to do anything without getting them replaced, which I dread. When I was in Belfast I played year round because I had a club up the road. You’ll get to this point where everything is clicking and you think, right, finally I can play. But no, next time you go out you are a complete oaf. and the really good day does nothing but torture you. 
   ‘I don’t think I’m particularly resilient when it comes to abuse. It’s one of the reasons I do not participate in social media because I don’t want to hear about how much everybody hates me. Why would I invite that into my life? It’s a very abusive era. People treat each other abominably – at least if they can hide behind some kind of email address or something. Every once in a while someone is really nasty to me in person. It’s interesting how rare that is, because people are such cowards really. 
   ‘Some fiction readers are so moralistic. We Need to Talk about Kevin attracted a lot of opprobrium along those lines. There was even someone who wrote to me indignant that I would have a character who bought illegal specimens of endangered species – because the narrator buys her daughter an elephant shrew. The elephant shrew is not an endangered species and if someone gets all apoplectic and doesn’t check their facts, I have no time for that shit. Besides which, give me a break, it’s just a story! It’s not that I went out and got an elephant shrew and shoved it down the drain. 
   ‘I started out reading horse books – The Black Stallion and My Friend Flicka and all those. Then I moved rapidly on to science fiction. That was a fruitful phase in some ways. It made it easier to write my most recent book. I felt familiar with the form. Then I read Catch 22 and all of Vonnegut. Once I finished with Vonnegut I went through a few years of obsessively reading all the classics I could get my hands on. Faulkner, Flaubert, some Dickens, Orwell … Beautiful stylist. I read Catch 22 recently and found it tremendously disappointing. It’s all over the place. And it’s not nearly as funny as I remembered it. It was heart-breaking. 
   ‘I’m just wrapping up a collection of stories. It’s all about property, so it’s called Property. A bit literalist, but it’s fun. In fact, one of the two novellas the collection includes takes place in Northern Ireland.
   ‘A huge proportion of the time I think I could be anywhere. It doesn’t matter that I’m in London. Even when I’m in New York, most of the time it just matters that I can find myself a tennis court.’