Read an extract from the interview in Mslexia issue 68 (Dec/Jan/Feb 2015/16)

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Lionel Shriver

Rebecca Swirsky discusses discipline and determination with a fearless author crafting her latest dystopian novel

‘I write about what I want or what I fear.’ Lionel Shriver pauses to laugh, a rich sound. ‘Fear is a very motivating factor.’ Teetering on the cusp of masochism, Shriver frequently mines ‘what if’ thoughts about her life. It’s a strategy that paid off most successfully with her fear of motherhood, when she created the mother of a mass murderer in We Need To Talk About Kevin (2003). Challenging society’s cherished maxim that one automatically loves one’s child, Kevin defined Shriver as, in her words, the ‘poster girl for maternal ambivalence’. Overnight she changed from author to prophet. Kevin struck a nerve – even now, try mentioning it at dinner parties. Selling over a million copies, the award-winning novel became a 2011 film directed by Lynne Ramsay and starring Tilda Swinton.

A Perfectly Good Family (1996) explored another personal ‘what-if’: her parents’ death, leaving Shriver and her two brothers to wrangle over their inheritance. And most recently, her novel Big Brother (2013) germinated from her deceased brother’s struggle with obesity. Cognitive psychologists would call this ‘exposure treatment’; Shriver calls it work.

Such strength of character was evident in her early life too. Born Margaret Ann Shriver in Gastonia, North Carolina, on 18 May 1957, she informally changed her name to Lionel at the age of 15. I suggest that changing one’s name bears the hallmark of a writer, of self-narration, and she readily agrees. ‘It certainly implies the invention of yourself as a character. We all do that, don’t we? I just took it a step further.’ Names also function in her work to ascribe certain qualities to her characters. In Game Control (1994) the glorious name Calvin Piper makes perfect sense for a character who combines Calvinist sensibilities with the Pied Piper’s Machiavellian charisma.

The Shriver method

  • You can recognise an idea for a novel because it preys on you. A good big idea has a tendency to sprout little ideas.

  • n this musing, conceptual stage, keep a notebook or file on your computer, in which you write down all these stray bits that occur to you on the bus. This is an important stage, for you can muse your heart out while making no commitment, no investment.

  • Musings over, plan roughly what happens. When you get behind the wheel of a car, don’t you usually know where you’re headed?

  • Stop thinking about it and just do it. All superstition and ceremony is to be avoided. Write the first line on an ordinary morning, without making a grand announcement. Take comfort in the fact that you can always go back and change it. The main thing is to get going.

  • Do not keep messing with text you have written; plough forward. You may read your previous day’s work, to become seated in the story and feel the rhythm of the scene.

  • Naturally you can’t resist making little changes (it’s always useful to keep the text feeling mutable), but keep generating momentum. If you write 500 words per day, you can complete a 100,000-word draft in seven months.

  • Finish it. There is nothing more depressing than an abandoned manuscript. When I wrote my first novel, it affirmed I was capable of writing a whole book, even if it was a crummy book. That confidence contributed to my writing another, better one.

  • Rewrite it. Try not to let the text set like concrete. Once you have a full draft, question every line; see if you can get it tighter. It always amazes me how much it costs in reader engagement when you allow one completely superfluous sentence to drag down a page. Rewriting is hard work, but it is also fun. What a relief to get rid of those clunky lines or failed metaphors that, if you delete them yourself, no one will ever know you wrote. This is a highly technical phase, like oiling and adjusting a machine. It can be very satisfying.

Read the full interview in the current issue of Mslexia, available now.