An Interview with Lionel Shriver

Lionel Shriver

Lionel Shriver

Lionel Shriver, the author of the brilliant novel, Big Brother,  generously agreed to be interviewed by Mirabile Dictu via email.

First, a little background.

Shriver, who won the Orange Prize in 2005 for her novel, We Need to Talk about Kevin, garnered more praise last spring for her new book, Big Brother, a compelling novel centered on obesity and dieting she wrote after her obese brother’s death at 55 from complications from diabetes.

But this is not just a Fat novel; it is also the great Midwestern novel, with an extraordinary detail paid to the setting.

Big Brother Lionel ShriverObesity is an epidemic in the Midwest:  when a once-svelte relative showed up on my porch last year, I wondered with irritation who she was and then was overcome with love when I recognized her beautiful face within the new weight; perhaps she didn’t know who I was, either.

Big Brother, set in New Holland, Iowa, a fictitious town in the Iowa City-Cedar Rapids area, is the story of Pandora, the founder of a successful talking doll business, and her brother, Edison, a jazz musician.  When Edison comes to visit, she is not prepared for his obesity:  he used to be a handsome surfer-looking guy.  After a prolonged visit, she decides to save him:  they move into an apartment together and go on a  diet.

And here is the interview.

MIRABILE DICTU:   It must have been difficult to write a novel about obesity and eating disorders after your brother’s death.

LIONEL SHRIVER: The sorrow that initially spurred me to write the novel provided a kind of fuel.  I missed my brother, of course, and I also wanted to craft, if not exactly a tribute, a marker.  An object that recognized not only his death but his life.  That said, the character of the brother, Edison, in the novel is quite distinct from my real brother.

What really made this book difficult was trying add something to a conversation about weight and food that we’ve been having in glossy magazines and on television ad nauseam.  I had to find a way to add value, to deepen the discourse.  It was especially challenging to write about being on a diet in a way that was true to the awful tedium of the experience but that didn’t bore the pants off my readers.

MIRABILE DICTU:  I am fascinated by the Midwestern setting, and originally picked this up as a Midwestern novel.  So many of the details are authentic that I raced through Big Brother, and then my husband read it, too.  It is clear that you understand Midwestern politics, the politics of food, ethanol, etc.  Did you spend time here, or was it all done from research?  (Shriver is an American who lives in England.)

LIONEL SHRIVER: I did do some research in Iowa when I decided to set the novel there.  However, I’ve been doing that research sporadically all my life.  My maternal grandparents lived there (in Muscatine, and later Pella), my mother is from there, my aunt and uncle still live there, and for years I visited cousins there before they dispersed to other parts of the country.  Most of all, my younger brother, to whom I am very close, lives in Coralville, near Iowa City.  I go out to visit him and his family pretty much every summer.  I have a lot of affection for the Midwest, Iowa in particular, and I hope that tenderness is apparent in the novel.  I love the landscape and the light.  I appreciate the way Iowans in everyday life are so open and eager to connect.  I savor their lack of pretension.  I admire a state that actually produces something of value (even if I’m dubious about the ethanol industry).  And I’m impatient with the way coastal urbanites tend to write off the Midwest as nowheresville.  As one character comments, “Iowa is somewhere, which is the most that anywhere can claim.”

MIRABILE DICTU: What writers, if any, influenced you in writing Big Brother?

LIONEL SHRIVER:I guess I would give some credit to Ian McEwan, since structurally my ending owes a debt to “Atonement.”

MIRABILE DICTU:  When and why did you begin writing?

LIONEL SHRIVER:  I began writing when I learned to read.  From the start, I enjoyed the ability to create something from nothing, which in physics they tell you is impossible.

MIRABILE DICTU:  Who are your favorite writers?

LIONEL SHRIVER:  Richard Yates, Edith Wharton, Ernest Hemingway, Flannery O’Connor, TC Boyle …  That a good start?


And thank you very much for the interview, Lionel.  I’m sure my fellow readers and bloggers will appreciate your thoughtful answers.

10 thoughts on “An Interview with Lionel Shriver

  1. Yes, I wasn’t aware of that, but the details are just incredible, so I should have known. Iowa City is a very nice town, though it’s perhaps not much like the rest of Iowa; she, however, is writing pretty much about “the rest of Iowa.”


  2. I’m interested in all sorts of ways. I read _We Need to Talk about Kevin_ so I know Shriver builds her novels from central psychological-social problems of our era and society — which are wholly inadequately and often coyer-productively dealt with. In the case of obesity and obsessions with thinness (anorexia from which I suffered centrally for 5 years and is still part of me) people submit to life-threatening operations (stomach stapling) and ugly bullying in hospitals are enforced (when an anorexic is force-fed you are torturing her).

    The involvement of the drug industry and the pushing of drugs onto people who are psychologically distressed. What they need often is their social circumstances to change. Fatness becomes a political policy maintaining status quo and silence. How does her story involve this?

    The Iowa connection might make for more richness from a different angle. I am surprised she didn’t mention Willa Cather. If Cather is more symbolic, metaphysical, aesthetic, there are other non-Eastern women authors — say Bobbie Ann Mason from Kentucky. Yates makes sense here, but Flannery O’Connor. How so? Was she born in the UK or US? where did she grow up? I ask because I don’t know.



  3. Jen, the fat can be caused by so many things: genetics, medical conditions, side effects of meds, and, of course, overeating (sometimes a side effect of meds). The reviewers of Big Brother couldn’t stop themselves making fat jokes: I didn’t go back and read them, but when the book came out I remember being appalled, not by the humor, because of course “Big” Brother is a pun, but the idiocy that apparently prevented their understanding what she wrote.

    Ellen, she does a remarkable job of looking into the politics of food, etc. This is a very rich book, disturbing, distressing, and, I must say, I have never read a book so evocative of the Midwest.

    Luisa, she is a great, but very disturbing, writer. Yes, the Midwest probably is not understood: I’ve had friends who simply cannot visualize it. I don’t remember any of the reviewers’ recognizing her stunning portrait of place, but of course I didn’t go back and check, either. Although I disagree with her about feminism (I came of age during the Second Wave of femisim), I understand what she means.


  4. I read this book, not knowing what to expect, because I had been SO stunned by “We Need To Talk About Kevin.” She is an amazingly powerful writer, capable of getting under your skin and staying there, and “Big Brother” did not disappoint. It broke my heart in a dozen different ways. Thank you for sharing this interview!


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