Author and journalist
B orn Margaret Ann Shriver, May 18, 1957, in Gas-tonia, NC; daughter of Donald W. (a Presbyterian minister and seminary president) and Peggy (an administrator for the National Council of Churches) Shriver; married Jeff Williams (a jazz drummer). Education: Columbia University, B.A., 1978, M.F.A., 1982.
Addresses: Office—c/o Author mail, 7th fl., Harp-erCollins Publishers, 10 E. 53rd St., New York, NY 10022.
F irst novel,The Female of the Species, published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1987. Instructor in English and writing at the college level; contributor to the Wall Street Journal, Guardian, Daily Telegraph, and Independent.
Awards: Orange Prize for Fiction, for We Need to Talk about Kevin, 2005.
N ovelist Lionel Shriver divides her time betweenNew York City and London, England, whichbecame her adopted home in the late 1980s. For much of that decade and the next, Shriver produced several novels that earned terrific reviews but failed to catch on with the reading public. That changed in 2003 with the publication of We Need to Talk about Kevin, which won the prestigious Orange Prize for Fiction in Britain two years later. Discussing her career trajectory with New York Times writer Sarah Ly-all, Shriver said she was content with how things turned out in the end. “I paid my dues. I did not write a novel at 21 and it sells a million copies and everybody thinks I’m brilliant and I’m on TV,” she reflected. “I’m glad. Looking back I didn’t feel glad all those years. But if I was going to pick my own story, I might have picked this one.”
Shriver’s traditionally masculine first name is one she adopted herself as a teenager. Her given name is Margaret Ann, and she was born in May of 1957, in Gastonia, North Carolina, and spent a large part of her formative years in Raleigh, North Carolina. Her father, Donald, was a Presbyterian minister who moved his family to Atlanta, Georgia, in the early 1970s to take a job at Emory University. Shriver attended a progressive high school in Atlanta, whose courses permitted her creative-writing talents to flourish. These had become apparent as far back as her elementary school days, where early on she found herself “intoxicated by my capacity to use words,” she told a writer for the Independent, a London newspaper. “When I was given assignments that had a creative element, I really went to town. I used to write ridiculously long—my stories would run to 30 pages.”
The new high school in Atlanta offered independent study, and Shriver jumped at the chance to design her own learning project. Her first completed assignment she turned in was a treatise on overpopu-lation that stretched to 100 pages. She also took the Scholastic Aptitude Test early so that she could begin taking Russian-language classes at Emory; after graduating from high school she enrolled full-time at Emory at age 17 but then transferred to Barnard College in New York City, the liberal arts college for women affiliated with Columbia University. She earned her undergraduate degree in creative writing, a process she described in the Independent interview as “mostly workshops with a bunch of other people who probably couldn’t write either, ripping each other’s stories to pieces.”
Shriver went on to earn her graduate degree from Columbia, too, in 1982, and then embarked on a years-long global jaunt that included stops in Kenya, Thailand, Israel, and Northern Ireland. Her first novel seemed to draw upon her experiences in far-flung lands and her stint at Columbia, where she studied under famed anthropologist Margaret Mead. Published in 1987, The Female of the Species, featured a well-known anthropologist, Gray Kaiser, as its protagonist. Kaiser, who gained fame earlier in her career with a study of a village in East Africa that, during World War II, was the site of a crash-landing by an American pilot; the locals were initially hostile, and so the pilot convinced them that he was a god. Kaiser is now nearing 60, lives with a fellow anthropologist but has a platonic relationship, and suddenly falls passionately in love with a new graduate student she is assigned to mentor. Shriver’s debut was reviewed in People magazine by Ralph Novak, who called it a “terrific first novel . Shriver’s tale is about emotional neediness, about masochism, and it all too often seems all too true.”
Subsequent novels by Shriver also earned favorable notices in People and other mainstream magazines, but failed to catch on with readers. The second book, Checker and the Derailleurs, featured a charismatic New York City rocker, while The Bleeding Heart, published in 1992, centered around an expa-triate American living in Northern Ireland. Population-control strategies drove forward the plot of Shriver’s 1994 novel Game Control, set among the international community in Kenya, and in A Perfectly Good Family, artist Corlis McCrea returns to the North Carolina mansion where she was raised after years abroad. She finds herself caught in the middle of a financial quandary between the other heirs—her diametrically opposite brothers and her late parents’ pet cause, the American Civil Liberties Union. “Shriver sets up and controls this tense tri-umvirate with admirable precision and a keen understanding of the hastily formed alliances and subtly accorded tradeoffs involved in family exchanges,” declaredAlex Clark, a critic for the London Guardian. “Choice, Shriver underlines, is en-slavement as well as liberation.”
Shriver’s sixth novel, Double Fault, appeared in 1997 and centered on Wilhemena (Willy) Novinsky, a professional tennis player in her twenties who is unwisely obsessed with her ranking in the sport. This gives her a necessary competitiveness, but plays havoc with her personal life when her new husband’s star begins to rise to the very top of the sport. “Never completely comfortable with her com-petitiveness, Willy turns her rage against herself, and inevitably it splashes onto Eric,” wrote New York Times book reviewer Michael Mewshaw. “She roots for his opponents, refuses to applaud his victories, cuts his strings, and even cracks his head open with a racquet . Shriver shows in a master-stroke why character is fate and how sport reveals it.”
Six years passed before Shriver’s next work of fiction appeared in print. By then a denizen of London, she was fascinated with the spate of school shootings in the United States in the late 1990s, some of the most notorious ones committed by white male teens from seemingly happy middle-class families. She began writing a story from the perspective of the mother of a fictional school shooter, but the topic was incendiary enough—as were Shriver’s hints about bad parenting—that the manuscript was turned down by dozens of publishers, and even Shriver’s literary agent declined to represent it. Finally, in 2003 a British house, Serpent’s Tail, published We Need to Talk about Kevin, and a New York City house, Counterpoint Press, issued its U.S. edition.
We Need to Talk about Kevin is told in flashback via letters written by Eva, an erudite publisher of travel guides who put aside her qualms about motherhood when she fell in love with her husband, Franklin. Their first child, Kevin, proved a difficult baby, unmanageable toddler, gloomy adolescent, and finally the boy who brings a cross-bow to school one day, takes several students and employees hostage, and kills them one by one. Eva’s letters, written to Franklin a year after the incident, reveal her initial ambivalence about motherhood and her fear that this is what caused Kevin to turn out so badly. On the other hand, Eva realizes that she enjoyed a healthy and loving bond with Celia, their second child, whom she clearly adores—as much as Frank-lin once doted on Kevin.
It earned just a few cursory reviews from the New York Times, Publishers Weekly, and Booklist, but soon became a word-of-mouth hit—the first of Shriver’s career. A journalist with the New York Observer, Philip Weiss, wrote that the book initially caught on among a small substrata of female fiction writers in New York City, who were intensely enthusiastic in recommending it to friends. One of them was Pearson Marx, who told Weiss that Shriver’s book was a welcome antidote to the so-called “mommy lit” trend, “about women balancing home, children and husband, and it always has to end on an upbeat note and the women realize, blah blah blah . Well, this book breaks through that piety, and it is being ignored and almost punished for doing so.”
Shriver wrote We Need to Talk about Kevin when she was in her early 40s, and still struggling with the decision to have a child herself, Eventually she decided that she was not cut out for the role of mother, and in an interview with Suzy Hansen for Salon. com cited the visits that Eva makes to Kevin in prison part of what she described as “the burdens of parenthood: Oh my god, my kid can do anything—including not just doing things to other people, but doing things to you—and I’m expected to stay in there with them.” Her novel enjoyed terrific sales in Britain, too, and was also honored with the 2005 Orange Prize for Fiction, awarded to a work of contemporary fiction by a female writer.
For her next work, Shriver resumed writing about the more prosaic topic of conventional relationships fraught with angst and miscommunication. The Post-Birthday World, published in 2007, centered on American children’s book illustrator Irina McGovern, who shares a London home with her intellectual policy-analyst boyfriend Lawrence. Once a year, they dine out with an old friend of his, a professional snooker player named Ramsey, whose penchant for wild living marks him as the direct opposite of Lawrence. He is also somewhat famous in the pub sport, which is similar to billiards. Lawrence is out of town when the newly divorced Ramsey’s birthday dinner looms, so Irina takes him out, and is shocked by both his attempt to seduce her and what seems to be her growing acquiescence.
After the first chapter, however, Shriver begins dual narratives—one in which Irina succumbs to Ram-say, and another in which her life with Lawrence remains undisturbed. “Lawrence is kind, abstemious, and seemingly reliable,” wrote New York Times reviewer Michiko Kakutani—but also a bit of a prig. Ramsey, on the other hand, “is raffish and impulsive. But what Irina initially takes to be simple animal attraction soon turns into something more complicated and harder to dismiss.”
For the first time in Shriver’s two-decade-long literary career, The Post-Birthday World collected scores of positive reviews and even spent a couple of weeks on the New York Times bestseller list in the spring of 2007. “The well-worn fork-in-the-road concept could easily have yielded a sterile exercise,” asserted Entertainment Weekly’s Jennifer Reese, “but Shriver, a brilliant and versatile writer, allows these competing stories to unfold organically, each a fully rounded drama, rich with irony, ambiguity, and un-foreseeable human complications.” Critiquing it for the New Statesman, Sophie Ratcliffe conceded that the alternating storylines might “sound gimmicky— which it isn’t . [T]he writing is continually engaging, the 1990s period detail rich, and the novel itself is a compelling take on the desire to have more than one opinion, or passion, at a time.”
Once again, Shriver admitted that the origins of the plot had some echoes in her own life. She had been involved with a fellow writer for a number of years, who shared her passion for tennis, before meeting a jazz musician whom she eventually married. As she explained to Lynn Andriani in a Publishers Weekly interview, her dilemma was much like Irina’s, but once she made her decision, “the other life in which I had made the opposite decision had a funny kind of reality to it. Even years later, there is a parallel universe in my head, of if I hadn’t left, and what would that be like?”
The Female of the Species, Farrar, Straus, & Giroux (New York City), 1987.
Checker and the Derailleurs, self-illustrated, Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 1988.
The Bleeding Heart, Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 1990; published in Britain as Ordinary Decent Criminals, HarperCollins (London), 1992.
Game Control, Faber & Faber (London), 1994.
A Perfectly Good Family, Faber & Faber, 1996.
Double Fault, Doubleday (New York City), 1997.
We Need to Talk about Kevin, Counterpoint (New York City), 2003.
The Post-Birthday World, HarperCollins (New York City), 2007.
Bookseller, October 22, 2004, p. 25.
Entertainment Weekly, March 16, 2007, p. 71.
Guardian (London, England), March 29, 1996, p. 17.
Independent (London, England), April 3, 2008, p. 6.
New Statesman, May 7, 2007, p. 72.
New York Observer, June 30, 2003, p. 1.
New York Times, September 14, 1997; August 27, 2006; March 9, 2007; March 19, 2007.
People, April 27, 1987, p. 10.
Publishers Weekly, January 29, 2007, p. 27.
“The Sins of the Mother,” Salon.com, http://dir.salon.com/story/books/int/2003/05/08/kevin/index.html (May 8, 2008).