I’ve attended many author events and have been lucky to hear/meet some of the big name novelists who’ve inspired me: Alan Hollinghurst, Linda Grant, Richard Ford, Marilynne Robinson. There’s a new addition to that list: Lionel Shriver, who read at an intimate salon at the Society Club on Saturday. I’ve never written up an author event and didn’t plan to, but I can’t get it out of my head and I wanted to share what I gained from it – not from notes, just from memory.
Even before the salon it had been a pretty remarkable day. I attended the first Word Factory Short Story Masterclass, also in the Society Club, a lovely quirky independent cafe, bookshop and event space in Soho run by New York publisher turned London agent Carrie Kania. Word Factory is the latest brainchild of former Sunday Times deputy editor Cathy Galvin who founded the Sunday Times Short Story Prize. In addition to hosting the monthly salons, the aim is to deliver top class writing events with a special focus on encouraging emerging writers. (We need that.)
The morning session was led by prolific author and Emeritus Professor of Creative Writing at UEA Michèle Roberts; she broke the ice and got the juices flowing exceptionally quickly. When I left home I wasn’t expecting to write a sex scene between two men, but neither did I expect to reverse-edit (re-write badly) the opening line of Lolita, which I did in the afternoon session with short story supremo Adam Marek. There was a fun, friendly atmosphere and wow, was there some talent in that room! The pieces others read out were confident, original and one made me weep with laughter. The kind of day you don’t think can get much better.
After a walk to clear our heads, my friend and I returned to the venue to find it was standing room only, which is hardly surprising – it’s rare for such a famous author to perform for (guessing) 60 people. Lionel Shriver achieved that prominence with We Need To Talk About Kevin (2003, winner of the Orange Prize 2005) but I’m staggered to discover that was the eighth of her 11 novels. On Saturday she read from her forthcoming Big Brother (Harper Collins, 9 May) dedicated to and inspired by the death of her older brother from obesity-related complications. Narrator Pandora fails to recognise her brother after four years in which his weight has ballooned, and when his visit to her family drags on, she is forced to choose between him and her husband and step-children. In the extract Lionel read, Pandora reflects on her dislike of seeing herself in photographs:
I don’t know if this heightened concern for size was done to me or is something I have done to myself. What I do know: (1) I am not the only one who appraises their photographs with exactly the same eye; (2) the folks who also “weigh up” pictures of themselves are not all women.
Given that most people presumably contend with just this rattling disconnect between who they are to themselves and what they are to others, it’s perplexing why we’re still roundly obsessed with appearance.
Although I haven’t yet read my copy, I’m certain that what I heard that night will be true of the whole: that it’ll be genuinely thought-provoking, serious but not lacking in humour of the wry and witty kind evident in the author’s reading. (NOTE: Since writing this, I have read the novel and it had all these qualities and more). I bet everyone in the room felt Lionel Shriver was looking right at them when her eyes lifted from the page.
In a lively conversation with Cathy Galvin and the audience, LS told us that the main problem writing Big Brother wasn’t her emotional proximity to the subject but finding a fresh approach to obesity, which has been done to death by the media, healthcare industry and even politicians. Also, the reality of serious dieting is intrinsically dull, an obsession with what you’re not doing and not eating. Not, on the face of it, the most promising fictional terrain, but if there’s one author who doesn’t shy away from difficult and controversial material, it’s this one.
Questions from the audience led to a fascinating discussion. LS was asked if she felt the book could only have been written by a woman, to which her answer was a resounding No; any subject can be tackled by a man or woman, and it’s been proven that each gender is capable of successfully writing as the other. This inevitably led to gender issues in the literary world, which as LS said, seems intent on reinforcing barriers which have largely disappeared in other professions. My perception is that she is taken more seriously than many other women writers, but she subscribes to the widely-held view that female novelists are not granted the respect and exposure given to their male counterparts. The term Great American Novelist contains an assumption of maleness and has never been applied to a woman. LS told us she no longer gives interviews in her home because journalists comment on her décor, and that just wouldn’t happen to Philip Roth.
Lionel Shriver’s answer to another question resonated very strongly with me and is one of the things I wanted to pass on to emerging writers reading this (even if we should all know it already). A new writer told of her manuscript being rejected by an agent who, whilst praising it, told her to visit bookshops, see what sells and try to write something like that. LS replied that was the worst piece of advice she’d ever heard (agents usually say the opposite, because trends move on too quickly). She spoke with generosity and frankness about the difficulties of her own early career which at one point was threatened by low sales – worse, we were told, than having no previous track record. Published authors can’t take it for granted that they will continue to be published. It takes a huge amount of energy, commitment and time to write a novel with little or no guarantee of a favourable outcome. LS’s advice is to write what matters to you, say what you have to say, because that’s the only way you can guarantee your time was well spent, no matter what happens. She also said something I’ve never heard before, that you ‘can’t keep trying indefinitely’ [to be published]…. Maybe nobody else dares say it.
After the break, Lionel Shriver read her short story Prepositions. She doesn’t often write short fiction and even disapproves of the subject of 9/11 in fiction, considering it something of a cliché, but she was asked to write the story for the 10th anniversary of the attacks. It takes the form of a letter to someone who was once a close friend:
Your husband died in 9/11. My husband died on 9/11. So much has ensued from those words, a single one-letter variation in the alphabet.
Ten years on, Rachel contrasts her loss with Sarah’s, noting the difference that tiny letter has made. The story is terribly poignant, bitterly and at times uncomfortably frank.
There’s an unflinching honesty and integrity to Lionel Shriver’s writing that I now see comes directly from who she is. It would be disingenuous not to admit that I didn’t expect such warmth with it. When she signed my copy of the novel and we spoke for a moment, I thanked her for what she said. I won’t forget it.
Have you been inspired by meeting an author in person? Who would you most like to meet?