American-born Lionel Shriver has been an inadvertent traveler, who, after a six-month bike tour of Western Europe followed by another six month stint in Israel moved to Belfast, Ireland where she lived for twelve years with timeout to spend a year in Nairobi and six months in Thailand.
Now settled in London where she spends three quarters of the year, Shriver has taken her innate curiosity, keen observations, and literary gifts to establish herself as a first-rate novelist. Author of six novels, Shriver received wide-recognition for We Need to Talk About Kevin, a work of fiction based on a Columbine-style massacre told by the mother of the killer. A mega-hit, selling in the millions, and winner of the prestigious Orange Prize in 2005, Kevin is in development for a film to be directed by Steven Soderbergh, starring Oscar winner Tilda Swinton.
Her recent novel So Much for That (Harper) uses the U..S healthcare system as a framework to depict the story of a middle class couple Shepard and Glynis Knacker both hovering around 50 whose hopes and dreams are forever dashed when Glynis receives a diagnosis of mesothelioma, a rare deadly cancer. Adding another layer as a medical counterpoint best friends Carol and Jackson (whose demons lead to dire consequences) are coping with a daughter who has familial dysautonomia, a degenerative disease and Shep’s elderly father moves into a costly nursing home. Obviously a story for the zeitgeist, Shriver received a round of excellent reviews. On book tour in the U.S., Shriver sat down for a Q&A.
TM: Naturally I want to know where the idea for the story came from since it goes well beyond the healthcare system. It’s so personal, so detailed on the progression of an illness and how suddenly it reshapes families.
LS: A friend, aged 51, died from mesothelioma. I had spoken to her on the telephone throughout the course of her illness although I felt not enough and witnessed the effects on her husband. What I didn’t know from conversations I researched. But then again, I am a writer of fiction.
TM: Shep and Glynis’s relationship is dramatically altered once Glynis is diagnosed. Giving up his dream, spending all his investment funds to cover medical bills, playing primary caregiver, plus paying his father’s expenses is a heavy load. Yet, Shep has no rancor. Why?
LS: Shep is a traditional man, stoic, the breadwinner, the man whose wife does not work, someone who is fully capable. Yet there is a selfish side. He was ready to leave home and family to pursue a dream of the Afterlife, so his loyalty is put to the test. I wanted to show the strains of a major illness on a relationship, how it pulls people apart, how with different futures they lose a common vision. As the cancer progresses, Glynis’s physical condition deteriorates and her appearance is diminished, but they are able to maintain an intimate, tender relationship one lacking in sentimentality.
LS: Events have been packed. You might think that people would shy away from the topic, but they definitely want to talk about it. Anyone over 35 has experienced illness first-hand requiring an involvement with the arcane medical system. Then there’s the bitterness because family and friends tend to disappear during a medical crisis. My father was a theologian (president of the Union Theological Seminary in New York) as well as an ethicist so I tried to imbue a Christian doctrine “duty to visit the sick,” that is, to take personal responsibility, which I hope came through.
TM: After a year’s worth of grueling treatments, the doctor suggests one last costly experimental treatment not covered by insurance offering only a glimmer of hope. Is one message of the book to ask is this worth it?
TM: One last question. How did you get the name Lionel?
LS: As a 15 year-old tomboy, I changed my name to Lionel from Margaret Anne a name that did not suit me. The timing seemed right since we were moving from Raleigh, NC to Atlanta, GA. Self-invention is so American.