Lionel Shriver Reporting on The Troubles

The author of We Need to Talk About Kevin speaks with Joanne Savage about how 'we can all still end well'  

Lionel Shriver spent 12 years living off the Lisburn Road in Belfast, reporting on the Troubles and bringing characters and destinies to life in her fiction.

Partly because she checked out so many books from local libraries when she was here, on her death she intends to donate some of her assets to the Belfast Education and Library Board.

'I arrived in 1987, just after the Enniskillen bombing,' says Shriver, her voice chewy, hard, American. 'I stayed until 1999. I still think of those years as informative, warm, some of the best of my life. But I also saw that a lot of the libraries were skint – so that’s why I’m very happy to give whatever will be left of my modest estate to the Library Board. I always checked out these big stacks of novels and they kept me going.'

Shriver was born in North Carolina and came to fame with her eighth novel, We Need to Talk About Kevin, which won the 2005 Orange Prize for fiction and has sold over one million copies. At the novel’s centre is an alienated 15-year-old boy who ends up murdering nine people at his school, seemingly because he has little capacity for empathy with others and is angry at the world around him. Coming as it did post-Columbine, the book was timely and after the 2007 Virginia Tech Massacre, it remains so.

As well as being compulsively readable, the novel’s strength is that it refuses pat explanations for Kevin’s moral warp. Is he innately evil or has he turned out this way because his mother has always been ambivalent towards him? Is evil a matter of nature or nurture? Shriver grapples with big questions, ethical dilemmas, the darker feelings evoked by maternity and the discomfiting truth that some of us get pleasure from being cruel to others.

If it’s polemical, chances are Shriver - who now lives in London with her jazz musician husband - has written about it. Her tenth novel, The New Republic, is out next year and was written during her time in Belfast.

'It’s about terrorism, but it’s not set in Northern Ireland. I decided to locate it on a peninsula in Portugal which doesn’t exist – I drew it onto the map. I wrote it in 1998 and at that time I had trouble getting American publishers interested in the manuscript - none of them were interested in terrorism until after 9/11.

'Plus they didn’t give two hoots about Northern Ireland - I’d start talking about Northern Ireland and they’d fall asleep. Now in some ways the US cares too much about terrorism and for a long time I felt it would be wrong to publish something that has a sense of humour about the issue. Enough time has gone by for a droll novel to be well received.'

Shriver’s narratives always seem to get their teeth into difficult subject matter - murderous teenagers, violence on the streets, and in last year’s So Much for That, terminal illness and the shortcomings of the American healthcare system.

Later this month, she will give a lecture at the Ulster Museum based around the substance of the latter novel, where characters are faced again and again with the cost of healthcare and the difficulty of knowing what to say around the dying. Businessman Shep, for example, has to shelve plans for a blissful retirement on a far-flung island when his wife is diagnosed with terminal cancer. A couple struggle to get by while caring for their disabled daughter and avoidance is often preferred to another stilted conversation ignoring the elephants in the room.

The novel finishes with the uplifting idea that however we mess up, or whatever life has thrown at us, 'We can all still end well'.

Shriver will talk to her Belfast audience about how 'we have lost touch with the idea that it is possible to have a good death.

'Most of us are dying in hospitals, filled with tubes, heavily sedated and that’s not my idea of a fun way to go. '

Shriver intends to consider what a good death might be like and whether it’s worth trying to live for as long as possible if we are suffering. Death, like life, can be brutal, messy, chaotic, full of tears and angst. A swift, low-pain exit surrounded by loved ones may be the ideal, but it isn’t something that can always be guaranteed or meticulously penned-in to the schedule.

Nevertheless, as Shriver will argue, when you get older or are diagnosed with a terminal illness, talking about your death and planning for it can make it a smoother transition. It will be a more restful end for those left behind.

'Death' says Shriver, 'is a part of our lives over which we have lost control. It doesn’t just impact on the person dying, but also on the people around them, who often don’t know what to say or do.

'Our instinct is to live in denial that it will ever happen to us and so we end up avoiding real confrontation with terminal illness. Plus it’s like we have to give some kind of philosophic answer or comfort to those who are dying – but none of us have the answers. I think that what people who are dying want to know is that we will remember them and think of them when they are gone.'

This is a woman who isn’t wired to do piffling small talk or flummery. Instead she takes the hard questions, stares at them without flinching and exacts the full force of her grey matter right on the bull’s-eye. Shriver’s thoughts on ‘having a good death’ will no doubt be honest and brave, much like her fiction.

Fun with Illness and Death - An Evening with Lionel Shriver is the next installment in the Northern Bank Ulster Museum Lecture Series, March 22 at 7.30pm.