Lionel Shriver

The author of We Need to Talk About Kevin on why she considers herself a 'Belfast writer'

‘We need to talk about Lionel,’ begins host William Crawley, to groans from the audience and a scowl from his guest. ‘Do you know how many times…?’ snaps Lionel Shriver.

The Orange Prize-winning author is back in Belfast – she lived and worked there between 1987 and 1999 – to discuss her career, and not just the book for which she is best known, We Need to Talk about Kevin.

Shriver is a spiky interviewee, but Crawley can handle it. The Radio Ulster man’s decision to begin this talk – part of the stellar Out to Lunch festival – with 20 minutes of back-and-forth on Northern Ireland seems to irk some attendees, but for this reviewer it is perfectly judged.

‘I may have lived the best years of my life in this town,’ admits Shriver. ‘I was engaged here. I was interested here. I have a huge affection for this city.’

Crawley suggests that in some sense Shriver is a Belfast writer, a tag, she concedes, that doesn’t offend her: ‘I’d prefer that to being called a North Carolinian writer. I earned this place.’

At 54, Shriver’s mature, outsider’s take on the Northern Ireland psyche is refreshing. She blasts both Troubles-fixated artists (she finds it ‘depressing’ that books set during the conflict are still selling) and the Troubles itself.

‘I got my political education in this town,' she explains, 'and one of the things I learned is that terrorism works. Belfast is where I learned that being a complete shithead gets you what you want.’

Proceedings move onto The New Republic, Shriver’s latest novel, due for publication in March. The fictional work is set in ‘a back of beyond that has spawned this ridiculously powerful terrorist movement’. Sound familiar?

Shriver’s time in Northern Ireland seems to inform much of her work and life. Indeed, she plans to leave some of her wealth to the Belfast Education and Library Board, payback for the many books she borrowed from her old local library on the Lisburn Road.

Though she occasionally refers to herself in the third person (‘A typical Shriver character is really difficult’), the novelist remains pragmatic about her methods. Motivated, she claims, by ‘the fear of failure’, she avoids subjects that have been done to death – so to speak.

Shriver’s most recently published work, 2010’s So Much for That, concerns the sexual relationship between a terminally ill woman and her healthy spouse. ‘I haven’t read that before, and yet it must be an issue,’ she says of the subject matter. Shriver – who clearly loves an audience – reads a passage aloud from the book, and it is as moving as it is harsh.

The scribe’s next project, a story she conceived in 1998 while living in Belfast, will tackle obesity. ‘I’m not sure it’s any good,’ Shriver confesses. ‘Have you any idea how hard it is to write interestingly about losing weight?’

Nevertheless, it is this quest for originality – previous novels touched upon everything from drumming to epidemiology – that seems to drive her and set her apart from the pack. ‘The muse is everywhere and everything,’ Shriver declares.

Finally, during a lively and revealing question-and-answer session, talk turns to We Need to Talk About Kevin, that tale of a fraught mother-son relationship that was recently adapted by Hollywood.

‘I am not trying to persuade other people not to have children,’ the author grumps, perhaps understandably peeved at the focus on one of her books at the expense of the nine others.

Not that she begrudges the rewards that have come her way. Cracking a rare smile, Shriver concedes: ‘Being a successful writer is a great deal more fun than being an unsuccessful writer.’

Out To Lunch continues until January 29.