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.

Interview With Karen E. Bender

Karen E. Bender

Karen E. Bender, novelist

Karen E. Bender, author of A Town of Empty Rooms, agreed to be interviewed by email.

In her remarkable novel,a Jewish family moves to the South after the heroine, Serena Hirsch, steals $8,000 worth of jewelry on her boss’s corporate credit card in Manhattan during a breakdown over her father’s death.  Serena is fired and blacklisted, and her husband, Dan, finds a job in Waring, North Carolina, which feels like a foreign country to them.

Mirabile Dictu:  What inspired you to write the story of Serena and her family?

Karen E. Bender

Karen E. Bender

Karen E. Bender:  To misunderstand someone and be misunderstood are such common human experiences; We all live with such different narratives and histories rolling through our heads, we all process our immediate interactions very differently, and it can be difficult to step back and think about what someone else is saying or feeling. How do we reach out through our solitude? I wanted to delve into the ways people don’t connect and also how they do, both looking at people who are very close to each other, and also between people who are mostly strangers.

Mirabile Dictu:  Religion is a refuge for Serena, though not for her husband, who attempts to be super-conventional and even disavows his Judaism. Was it difficult to write a novel “about” these different attitudes to religion?

Karen E. Bender: I love writing about religion because people’s attitudes toward it can be so
particular and strange and interesting. Within my own family, I see an array of ways people connect to their Judaism and can find it comforting or disavow it. Religion evolved, partly, to help us process life cycle events—birth and adolescence and marriage and aging and death. Serena and Dan both experienced recent losses, and I thought it would be interesting to see how each used a different sort of religion or institution to comfort or distract them. For Serena, it was the Temple, and for Dan was the Boy Scouts; but each strategy had its own complications.

Mirabile Dictu:  When and why did you begin writing?

Karen E. Bender: I began writing when I was six years old, after a rock flew through the air and hit me on the head at a birthday party; writing became a way to process this rather upsetting event. Writing then became a way to release feeling, to shape an experience, to invent the world in a wholly new way. And writing is one of the few places in our culture where we can be completely honest, even (in fiction) while lying. To me, that is the most sacred element of great writing; the fact that honesty gives you a way to connect with another person; a good story is this amazing bond with someone. I find that so moving.

Mirabile Dictu:  Do you write on paper or on computer?

Karen E. Bender: I write on a computer.

Mirabile Dictu: Who are your favorite writers?

Karen E. Bender: There are so many! Some who I read over and over are Philip Roth, Alice Munro, Flannery O’Connor, James Baldwin, Cynthia Ozick, JD Salinger, Stanley Elkin, Lorrie Moore, Grace Paley. For A Town of Empty Rooms, John Cheever, Paula Fox, and Richard Yates were especially nourishing. I love those beautiful, dark realists.

Thank you for the interview, Karen!

Born in L.A., Karen went to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she met her husband, the writer Robert Anthony Siegel. She is the author of two novels, Like Normal and A Town of Empty Rooms, and is co-editor of the nonfiction anthology Choice: True Stories of Birth, Contraception, Infertility, Adoption, Single Parenthood, and Abortion.

She and her family live in Wilmington, North Carolina.

You can read more about her at her website: