An interview with Lionel Shriver, whose novel has been turned into a film that goes into wide release this week.
We Need to Talk About Kevin expands to more theaters this week. The movie, based on a 2003 novel by Lionel Shriver, follows Eva (Tilda Swinton), the mother of Kevin (Ezra Miller), who committed a massacre at his high school, as she tries to decide if she was responsible for turning him into a monster--or if he was one all along. The novel is an unflinching look at a set of emotions that are often considered unacceptable for polite conversation, including the failure of mothers to bond with and to love or trust their children. We spoke to Shriver about what it's like for a novelist to hand her work over for adaptation, why you can leave your country of origin but not transcend it, and why anyone has children in an era of widely available birth control.
We Need to Talk About Kevin is coming near the releases of two other movies about shame and disgust, Steve McQueen's Shame and Diablo Cody and Jason Reitman's Young Adult. Do you think these are emotions we wall off as much as we can, and when we're forced to deal with them, cope with them all at once as Eva seems to in her letters to her husband Franklin?
By and large, when films, or for that matter books, break new ground or go into territories that previously other people have avoided, it makes it a little easier for others to come along and explore those same things. For example, I have hopes that a comedy like 50/50, or ... The Big C, might make it a little easier to sell the rights to my [health care] novel So Much For That to film, because suddenly it's okay to do stories that involve cancer. But you never know, whether in opening a window, it suddenly closes again because people think we've now done that.
Is it difficult to turn your work over to someone else for adaptation?
In times past, I was inoculated against that anxiety because I sold any number of options to previous books and they never turned into films. Once I got the message that your chances of getting a film made from one of your books are lower than Richard Branson personally inviting you to the moon, I relaxed. There was no reason to be concerned about what they were going to do to my work because they were never going to do anything to my work. Savvy authors take the money and run...they're giving you a little dosh for nothing.
How do you feel about the movie?
I am pleased with how it turned out. I think it is a far better film than I had any reason to expect them to be able to make...it doesn't make up all that much, and I think it's true in spirit and intention. The one difference I would cite, which I expected, is it's a little more understood that Kevin was wicked from birth, where in the book that's a major point of ambivalence. And I think there's a moral sophistication that film just cannot achieve in the same way.
Throughout the novel, Kevin insists on the basic meaninglessness of everything that everyone around him sees as important. Is there an extent to which you think Kevin is right about the emptiness of it all?
Well, yeah. He is right. One of the things that's so chilling about that kid is he's pretty smart, and he has capacity to observe adult hypocrisy, which is pretty common to smart adolescents. I think that's one of the hard parts about being a teenager is you're just old enough to see all the holes in the adult world around you. But you're growing up anyway. And you're not old enough to have any positive substitute, so it's very bleak. So you don't feel powerful enough to create an alternative reality, but you're smart enough to see there's so much wrong with the world your parents have created that you're not eager to participate, you don't want to join. It's what makes adolescents so apocalyptic.
I'm particularly interested in Eva's internationalism, especially given that you are yourself an expatriate. Is part of the point of the novel to suggest that there's a uniquely American kind of malevolence that it's impossible to inoculate yourself against? Or is Eva's problem that she loves America too much to entirely let go of the country and the pain it's capable of inflicting?
She's not that different from Kevin in that she can't help but be American...you can't just choose a different nationality. You can't change fact. She's tried to opt out of her country, but you can't really do that. It's a very West Wing impulse, and meant to be trite. If you have had much to do with liberal intelligentsia in the U.S., they like to think they are above their own country, and they often have contempt for their compatriots, and they think they're better. They think that being super-critical of the United States exempts them. When they talk about Americans, they don't think they're talking about themselves. They're the same people who are always vowing if Bush wins the election, they're moving to Italy. They never move to Italy.
I'm also curious about how legitimate we're supposed to feel Eva's claim to her Armenian heritage is: Is it another affectation?
It is an affectation in so far as much as grasping after one's roots is an affectation. It's too big a country and too fractured a country to find an identity. Being American doesn't cut it. It's not specific enough. You're still lost. You need a sub-identity. That's everywhere. Maybe it's being Jewish. Being Armenian, because it's a small expatriate community, has a gratifying specificity to it...When writing Eva, that's where I was in some ways rooted in my own earlier history as an ex-pat, and I would have been guilty of the same things as Eva is. Especially when I first started living abroad, I was self-conscious about being American, and imagined if I was sufficiently ashamed of it, people would regard me as a non-American. Of course, that's ridiculous.
Especially because that shame is quintessentially American, especially for that subset of left-wingers. In a lot of ways, I came full circle. I've been an ex-pat for long enough to understand that I will always be an expat. I can't live down my nationality. At the same time, there's something wrong with everybody's nationality, so might as well live with this one.
It's a fine line between writing op-ed and writing fiction if you're writing about big social issues. Since you've worked as a journalist, I'd be curious how you think about the differences between your fiction and non-fiction writing, and how those voices inform each other?
They have a lot to do with each other and one feeds the other. I would like to think that there's a Chinese wall, but there isn't. There are single little passages of my books that could have easily come out of my journalism, and I probably can't fight it. I like setting books in a real, political and historical context, and my characters are going to have opinions about the issues of the day. I try not to let the fiction deteriorate into polemic. I think that is a pitfall when you are putting characters in the position of mouthing off. At the same time I enjoy the risk...in fiction I can let fly in a way that in journalism, I have to watch my back a little more...
For me to screen out every more journalistic opinion I have would be foolhardy. What am I reading all those newspapers for? I did have to be careful, particularly in my last book, which is a particularly vicious take on the U.S. health care system...The standard I had to apply was is it fun to read? And it's amazing how much you can get away with that could be considered polemic as long as it's funny. As soon as it ceases to be funny, your readers start feeling preached to and rebel.
Androgyny seems to be one of the things that Eva and Kevin have in common: She's uncomfortable with the way her face becomes more female when she's pregnant, and admires her son's almost feminine physical grace while being unnerved by the way he dresses, which overemphasizes his genitals. And Franklin and Celia, the two most gender-conforming people in the family, end up Kevin's first victims, and he later kills an emerging beauty queen. So is their collective in-betweenness meant to be disconcerting? Evidence of their ability to see a certain kind of uncomfortable truth?
Eva is the ultimate gender non-conforming character. That's because nothing presses the reality of your gender for a woman more than childbearing. It's the very definition of what it is to be female. It's the main thing that women do that men don't. And anyone who has a broader sense of themselves, any woman who has a broader sense of herself, must have a moment of feeling confined, constrained, limited in some way by this defining task. We've got a lot of ideas of what mothers are, and what mothers are supposed to be. And if you've never thought of yourself as that nurturing, cuddling, soft, eternally giving gooey sort, then it's really jarring. I've never been in that position because I've never had children. But I do sympathize with women who suddenly find themselves mothers and are dumped on by all that cultural crap, and feel that this has been imposed on them. And also begin to lose their sense of their earlier selves, that we're not defined by being a woman. Certainly my sense of myself is not especially female. I suspect that's not universal. But I also believe I'm not alone. When I walk around, I'm not feeling like a woman. It's a bigger sense of existence of that.
Now, I think that constraint of gender preconceptions is equally limiting for men, but they're less aware of it...When the default setting for your gender is that you're strong, more powerful, more successful, richer, smarter. Why would you fight it? Sounds great. But it does have a downside. It means admitting to weakness challenges your very idea of who you are. That is unfortunate. That is not enviable.
So is deciding to have a child ultimately an irrational decision?
I was keen to include the period of time when they were trying to decide whether to have a child. You're entirely right. You go through these rational set of pros and cons. And that kind of cost-benefit analysis doesn't get you anywhere. It is this huge leap of faith. You have no idea what's going to happen. You have no idea who's going to walk into your life....Rationally, it's amazing that now that we have birth control, anyone has kids...The stigma against childlessness, now that the norm has changed considerably, has lifted. I don't feel discriminated against because I don't have children, and I don't think people feel sorry for me. It's the safer option. So I'm in awe of the number of parents who voluntarily continue the human race. Good for them.
This interview was condensed and edited for clarity and length.