Lionel Shriver Talks to Robert Birnbaum

LIONEL SHRIVER, who took on British citizenship in 2012 and splits her time between London and Brooklyn, was born and raised in North Carolina and attended Barnard College and Columbia University. She had published 7 novels before her Orange Award–winning We Need to Talk About Kevin (2003) was taken up by a group of literate, smart women who helped raise it from an “underground feminist hit” to mainstream success. Recently We Need to Talk About Kevin was made into an excellent film with Tilda Swinton as Eva Khatchadourian, the beleaguered mother who is the main character of that narrative.

As a member of a species where there are not many clear benchmarks of normalcy and ordinariness, Lionel Shriver stands on the fringes mostly due to her fearlessness and intellectual honesty. We Need to Talk About Kevin broached the subject of a mother’s obligation to love her child. Additionally, Shriver raised hackles in England with her clear-eyed views on motherhood.

Four novels later, her newest opus, Big Brother, was published earlier this year. While focusing on the puzzling attitudes we appear to have about diets, food, and eating, it has autobiographical overtones — her older brother, who has since passed away was afflicted with morbid obesity.

The conversation that follows (my third with Ms. Shriver) ranges far and wide, from electric cigarettes to writing as an addiction, her sense of her readers, and other literary topics. It begins with Shriver querying me about employing voice recognition software to reduce the arduous task of transforming our recorded chat into a text.


LIONEL SHRIVER: It’s a lot of work.


LS: Very time consuming (puts a slender stick in her mouth).

RB: Is that an electric cigarette? How is that?

LS: It’s great. My husband was a serious smoker for 42 years. Within weeks of [using] these, he quite tobacco completely and has never gone back.

RB: Are you trading one ill for another? Nicotine is still ingested —

LS: — nicotine is not the problem. Nicotine gets a bad rap because of the way it addicts you to tobacco. But the nicotine itself is not harmful. It’s addictive but not harmful. Now, if you are one of these people who believe that all addictions are evil —

RB: — not me (laughs).

LS: I love addictions. I have a lot of them. I collect them. So, it’s similar to an addiction to caffeine.

RB: Is writing an addiction?

LS: Uh, you can call it that.

RB: No, I am asking you.

LS: Me. Yeah, if I go too long without it I need a hit.

RB: Where do you start? You don’t write short fiction?

LS: A little.

RB: Are you inclined to?

LS: When I get an idea. But I don’t get ideas for short fiction very often. That’s just not the size of my ideas. I think I must use up an awful lot of short fiction ideas in the course of a novel.

RB: So, where do you start? A character, an issue, a color?

LS: Its not always an issue but it can be. An issue is simply a topic. There are subjects that I might like to tackle but they are not novel ideas, but I would like to explore them in a dynamic way.

RB: As opposed to being didactic and preachy —

LS: — that’s nonfiction. You can have characters that are didactic and preachy, all you want. If the overall book is that way it’s not going to be popular.

RB: How do you know?

LS: I suspect that’s a quality that most fiction readers don’t like. Its true that readers are being manipulated right, left, and center. That’s the nature of the craft. But when you feel ideologically manipulated, politically manipulated, and its too obvious, you get pushback. Partly because that’s not the appetite that most fiction readers are looking to satisfy.

RB: Are your readers within the mainstream of readers who read literary fiction? Are they simpatico with you?

LS: I am not sure. It’s very hard to have a sense of your readership. Even if you talk with them. Even if you give events. I can’t tell what the difference between my readership and other people is. I do have a vanity about my readers. They tend to be pretty smart. Not the same, necessarily as being well educated. They are looking for something —

RB: — You write smart novels —

LS: — a little harder-edged. A little sharper. They don’t like just a pretty story.

RB: Yeah, cuz you are not going to give them a pretty story. (laughs)

LS: They ain’t gonna get one. (both laugh)

RB: You wrote The New Republic before We Need to Talk about Kevin. Publishing it many years after it was written was an act of confidence that it was still fresh. Many writers don’t want to reread what they have written in the past.

LS: I know, I don’t go back and read my old work. That’s one thing that the book tour inoculates you against. By the time you are finished you are truly sick of your book and you do not want t o think about it or talk about it. One of the problems of Kevin having been so enduringly popular (I feel self-conscious calling it a problem). It’s problem an awful lot of writers would love to have. But it does have its downside. I am called upon on occasion to talk about a book that is like reaching back in racial memory.

RB: You’re done with it.

LS: I’m done with it and therefore my answers [to questions about the books] are canned. I make an effort to disguise the fact that they are canned but they are canned.

RB: No one ever asks you a fresh question about the book?

LS: In all honesty, no. Not anymore.

RB: Did you have involvement with the movie, We Need to Talk About Kevin?

LS: No.

RB: What did you think of it?

LS: Overall, it was pretty good. I loved the casting. The acting was great. I would have liked to see a little more of my dialogue in the script. (both laugh)

I really felt that film worked when all of the parties were making a contribution, when they used the dialogue from the book, something happens and those scenes really come alive.

RB: Was the ending of the movie the way the novel ended — I can’t remember?

LS: Yes. The very ending is one of the things that I most admire about the film. It captures a feeling.

RB: What was it?

LS: That last scene in the prison when Kevin is contemplating having to go off to adult prison and he is frightened. And it’s when his cool demeanor has cracked. I thought that was very well articulated.

RB: The first time in his life he felt real undiluted fear?

LS: Certainly the first time we see it.

RB: You wrote a health issue book, a school shooting book, Big Brother is labeled your food/diet book.

LS: Yeah, my obesity book.

RB: I was more struck by the book’s setting — have you ever lived in the Midwest?

LS: No, I have never lived there but I have family from there and a brother who still lives there.

RB: Otherwise, your only familiarity with Iowa would be only with Prairie Lights Bookstore in Iowa City.

LS: Why?

RB: I am the only person I know who has been to Iowa (both laugh). I never meet anyone who has been to Iowa.

LS: I have a lot of affection for Iowa. Which I hope told in the book.

RB: Yes, that was especially pleasing.

LS: What was interesting setting it there is that when I set a book somewhere, I pay more attention — it’s a professional obligation, really — as I paid more attention I realized that it’s a state with a lot of charms. I went to see my brother in Coralville, as I do every year, not too far from Iowa City, and I found the landscape incredibly moving. And the people were warm and accessible. And they liked to talk with you. I love that quality. It’s one of the things that I liked about living in Northern Ireland.

RB: A neighborliness and a courtliness, dare I say, a community?

LS: Yes. When you describe it it sounds hokey but when you experience it, it doesn’t feel hokey. It feels like, “Oh my God we can act like human beings with each other.”

RB: There is manner of casting Midwesterners as rubes and hayseeds —

LS: Did you see that fracking film?

RB: Promised Land with Matt Damon? No.

LS: I took offense at that film.

RB: The film’s trailer was an ad for Midwestern cordiality.

LS: Yeah, but the characters aren’t. They are overdrawn, hicky. It’s almost as if you didn’t know where this was. A couple people could have been out of Deliverance. I thought in general it portrayed people in the Midwest as ignorant and not modern. The only person who ever shows up with a computer is the oil company person. I am sorry but all those people have computers. Its not so off the beam that locals point at a Macbook Air and say, “What’s that?”

RB: Having grown up in Chicago, I have very much felt the regional chauvinism and condescension of the Eastern US. The term “fly over zone” was coined and applied to the heartland.

LS: That’s an ugly term. The medium-size cities seem to be full of people who don’t think they are the center of the universe.

RB: They are making a comeback. Apparently, there is a movement to make cities like Detroit, Cleveland, Pittsburgh attractive to younger tech and arts workers who are mobile and see the wisdom of living more in the once and former Rust Belt. Where was Promised Land filmed — did it look authentic?

LS: I don’t know where it was actually shot, but I don’t think it did the Midwest justice.

RB: So that was one element of Big Brother that I found pleasing. And then the revisit to the TV era of shows like The Brady Bunch, Father Knows Best.

LS: Well this joint custody show [of the book] was supposed to be from that era and actually television was terrible.

RB: Mod Squad. (laughs)

LS: Of course I know the television was so terrible because I watched so very much of it. It was interesting to go through a lot of the shows that I grew up watching and realize that all these programs were about families where one of the parents was dead. It didn’t make any demographic sense. They needed to have one of the parents missing to raise the romantic possibilities.

RB: So they evolved from Ozzie and Harriet and Father Knows Best and Leave It to Beaver to My Three Sons and Bonanza. I liked that show, Sebastian Cabot as the caretaking butler —

LS: Family Affair — I hated Family Affair. We watched it but we hated it. We hated the little kids. In fact that’s one of the things that inspired this whole parallel universe family in the program I designed. I remember as children we took intense dislikes to television children. We watched them all the time but we hated them. I thought, how intense that would be, how much raised to a power that this life would be if your father was the one on the show, and was acting like a much better father to the fake children than he was at home. He was a terrible father at home, he was hardly ever there, and he completely ignored his real children. So the real children were intensely jealous.

RB: Who named the children? The dead mother? They are quite imaginative names.

LS: Well Travis named himself with a great deal of flair although it’s a deliberately ridiculous name — Appaloosa. That’s absurd. (chuckles)

RB: Why not John Pinto?

LS: It’s meant to be absurd. The names of the kids — Pandora, Edison, and Solstice — Solstice who is mostly off the page, I conceive of as having been the child of their moving to California. So it was era of all those goofy Hollywood names, new agey.

RB: Like River Phoenix — people are still doing that.

LS: I thought Solstice sounded like it came from that inclination.

RB: Television is littered with lots of has-beens. They seem perpetuated beyond their sell-by date. Leading in to people who are famous for being famous or for once being famous. And it seems to arc into nostalgia.

LS: If you look on the web there is an appetite for all these old shows. And there are websites like that, like the one Travis runs in the novel.

RB: Of his failing life. What is the ego that sustains that assertion of having done something worthy of having fans years later? It’s delusional.

LS: But there are a lot of delusional people out there. Once you get used to a certain kind of high-profile status it’s very hard to go backwards. You can with surprising ease grow into a more famous or celebrated position but going backwards takes a kind of grace that doesn’t come naturally to people.

RB: Like having had money and now slipping into poverty.

LS: It’s the same thing. And people often embarrass themselves. Partly by not realizing just how low they have sunk.

RB: Pandora is interesting in her resolution to be anonymous. And makes a convincing case. She makes anonymity more attractive than I had previously thought. But do you want to be anonymous? Don’t you want to be recognized?

LS: I want to be recognized. I am not sure I want to be famous. There is a difference. One implies a negative. I would like to be well regarded. I have had an appetite for being given credit for having achieved something. That’s a different appetite than one for celebrity itself.

RB: Celebrity seems attached to the notion of celebration. But it seems to have become distorted and trivialized.

LS: It has become removed from achievement — that’s what the expression “famous for being famous” means. In other words, nothing else attaches to you. It’s not necessary to be celebrated, to have accomplished anything. And that’s why the word celebrity has become “in.”

RB: These days it seems economically determined — the marketing of people as brands. It began with ads in which someone came on, “Hi I’m Rula Lenska.” The mere announcement of the name implying that she was someone to pay attention to.

LS: One of the difficulties of being an author now is that you are expected to market not only your books but also yourself as a product. And I am torn in that if that’s part of my job okay, fine, I’ll try to do that but I don’t think I should have to do that. It didn’t used to come with the job; I think it was better when it didn’t. The real product was the books. I give interviews. I don’t mind doing them. They pass the time. But at the same time, thank god we are not talking about my stupid personal life and my stupid little habits. But that’s what happens, especially in the UK. I am expected in some way to be intrinsically fascinating. In myself, never mind what I did.

RB: (laughs) Why don’t you try to be boring?

LS: I sometimes think I do a fabulously good job of being boring.

RB: I suppose it could be amusing to create a writerly persona. In Britain, they apparently have their own way of looking at writers. Martin Amis is called “the Mick Jagger of literature.”

LS: They hate Martin Amis.

RB: One reason he lives in Brooklyn now.

LS: They hate Martin Amis and they love to hate him. The British are into recreational disliking. That’s what they do for fun. They take a scunner to you.

RB: What’s a scunner?

LS: It’s a Scottish expression. They take a dislike to you. And it’s a disconcerting experience to have all this loathing aimed at you.

RB: Almost personal.

LS: It is personal. It is and it isn’t. They don’t know you. They think they do but they don’t know you. So it’s not like having your best friend pick a fight. It certainly generates the illusion of being personal and it can feel quite personal and it’s the worst on the web. It’s also in the journalism. There is a lot of intention to do damage. Right? To hurt your feelings.

RB: I recall Amis’s dental concerns were big stories in England. How much he spent and his switching of agents.

LS: Who cares? They [the British] are also obsessed with money. And oddly with authors, tiny amounts of money. It was supposedly a scandal that Martin Amis accepted a position in the UK. I don’t remember if it was a writer-in-residency. But he was expected to teach and some one-on-one tutoring and that sort of thing. It was a standard kind of position, quite commonplace. And it paid 80,000 pounds, before taxes — which it is important to say.

RB: (laughs) What is the take home from 80k?

LS: Forty. Maybe 45. But it’s not very much. And this was headline stuff.

RB: Does that speak to the impoverishment of the population?

LS: It speaks to the enviousness of the population. That’s an appetite that the media does its damnedest to feed.

RB: You live where now?

LS: I now live in London. I have been living in London for the past 13 years.

RB: How is that?

LS: It suits my purposes.

RB: You haven’t said anything kind about the British. (laughs)

LS: You have to understand that I have just come off this book tour there. And a lot of the profiles and even the reviews made me angry. Because they were below the belt. It was really petty and I am still annoyed.

RB: The Guardian? The Telegraph? Those are the Brit papers I look at —

LS: I got the cover of the Sunday [London] Times Magazine. There was a price to be paid for that.

RB: (laughs) What was it?

LS: Just petty — rather bitchy.

RB: Was there a kerfuffle because of your views on children and motherhood? Was that British news?

LS: There were some people who claimed that I was anti-motherhood. That took place mostly in England. Some of these supposed conflicts are generated in order to fill space. And that happens over here too. You have someone touring now with a book, One and Only, claiming that it’s fine to have one child. She’s all over CNN and what have you — this is a complete fake argument. Who’s claiming that it is terrible to have one child? I never hear that. Plenty of people just have one child. And they are not getting it in the neck.

RB: I saw a list of writers who had only one child —

LS: This is not an important argument to have — this is fake. It’s drummed up to sell this particular book. And then the networks respond, as they would predictably, with something so simplistic. And fake.

RB: Is this a vicious cycle or spiral we continue to recycle stupidity and irrelevance and misperception? It reminds me of the late, lamented Molly Ivins who believed that as a journalist you couldn’t believe that people were stupid. And if you did believe that you should go into advertising.

LS: Very good. Well, we started this conversation talking about my audience. And I do think that good writing gives the audience credit for being pretty smart. (Pause) I would never write down to my readers. The big mistake in fiction is also not giving your reader credit for having picked up this, that, and the other thing and feeling you have to explain.

RB: Is it the case that many writers think about their readers as they are writing?

LS: I think most writers don’t think about their readers when they are writing. That’s why I don’t write down to my audience — I am writing first and foremost, if not for myself, to myself. Right? So why would I talk down to myself? There comes a point at which you have to become a little more conscious of the audience just to make sure that you have been clear or you haven’t been boring. You haven’t gone on too long that maybe interests you —

RB: Which is why there are editors.

LS: That’s what editors are for — exactly.

RB: How much do you work with an editor? How close is the draft you turn in —

LS: I get back a marked up manuscript. (These days it’s “Track changes.”)

RB: Have you had the same editor at Harper’s?

LS: Yes. One thing that’s nice is she has her opinions but she never seems to take offense when I don’t take her advice and that’s important. These things are personal. Or they could seem personal. Whenever there is a suggested edit, I always entertain it. It’s different than just doing it because I have been told — I will always think about it and consider that change. And if I can come up with a robust defense of the way it is already written, or perhaps a different change than suggested, then I’ll do that. It certainly doesn’t do you any favors to just go at it as if the edits are all wrong and the manuscript was already perfectly good. That’s never going to be the case. So I am very grateful when I am given a piece of advice, which is sound. And I act on it happily.

RB: And when the book is done, it’s finished for you.

LS: Yeah.

RB: Your character speaks about why she doesn’t have convictions.

LS: That they were an entertainment. Opinions can be a form of entertainment. In the main, they don’t have any impact on what actually happens. So why does it really matter what you think about why we should get out of Afghanistan and if nothing you do is going to influence American policy on that point? But I worked myself into a lather over it. That’s where my character and I are very different. I sometimes do that — especially if it’s a first-person narrator and I want to create a little space between me and that character I will design a passage just like that — I mean I would hate to say that a lot of my opinions are to keep myself entertained. And that they don’t have any effect on what happens. But at the same time I don’t move the extra mile and refuse to own them.

RB: Your protagonist doesn’t seem to get angry —

LS: She hardly ever gets angry. The first time she really gets angry is a surprise to everyone. And that’s when Edison breaks his diet — he eats the pizza. I found it rather refreshing to see her get angry.

RB: Being as alert as she was, I thought she would have a lower boiling point. Her husband was a curious character — do you know people like him?

LS: Sure — there are plenty of people like him. There are whole movements full of people like that. This is a subsection of the population that believes the answer to everything is through the manipulation of diet. Macrobiotics expressly believed that as catechism — they explain war and crime in terms of eating the wrong foods.

RB: The old saw, “You are what you eat.”

LS: And I get impatient with that stuff as I am with the junk food people. They are just as painful as people who overeat and eat bad food. And in fact, the so-called nutritional Nazis are a lot harder to live with because they are not [just] satisfied with controlling their own diet. They are always proselytizing. They want to control what you eat.

RB: Why doesn’t the husband, after he sees that she has lost a significant amount of weight — they do talk about it later — but the first time they meet she is dramatically slimmer. And she is expecting him acknowledge how good she looks — he doesn’t say anything. Later he explains he was worried about her — wouldn’t that worry call for him to say something?

LS: They were not on good enough terms at that time for him to be forthright — he didn’t want to insult her. Or push her away by saying, “You might think you have achieved something by losing all this weight but actually you have lost way too much and you look like shit.”

RB: Well, he could have been more graceful (laughs). Wasn’t he capable of saying that in another way?

LS: He says so at the end of the book. In a more compassionate way.

RB: But not at the time?

LS: There was something else he needed to talk about. That’s when Tanner [the son] left home. For all his saying at the end of the book, where he explains he didn’t want to give her a compliment on her looks and therefore possibly encourage her to risk losing even more weight. She is obviously starting to trend towards an anorexic mindset. What is also going in there is that the diet and the dedication to a demanding fitness machine is his territory. His thing. And he experiences her becoming equally or actually more mindful of what she eats. He feels like she has beaten him at his own game. And since she has beaten him at the bigger picture — certainly professionally. That’s the source of resentment.

RB: I couldn’t form an attachment or any resentment towards the husband —

LS: — that’s fine.

RB: I didn’t quite know what to make of him. What was the [working] title when you started this novel?

LS: Big Brother. It took me all of five minutes. I came up with three or four others. Fat Chance — didn’t sound right. It came to me very quickly. It seemed right — hit the right notes.

RB: You will be spending some time talking about the book and then drift into award season and perhaps the book gets new life. Did you start a new book?

LS: I am merely thinking about it. Although that is a prerequisite. (both laugh)

RB: Don’t some writers claim that the writing just comes to them?

LS: I tend to plan things out.

RB: Do you know the ending when you start?

LS: Sometimes I even start with the ending and then work my way backwards.

RB: Do you ever hopscotch around?

LS: No — I take that back. I have a file of notes. It used to literally be a notebook that I wrote things in — anything that occurs to me that might be useful. Any idea for a scene, any detail. And that’s all over the map. In that sense — sometimes I will even write scraps of scenes.

RB: Do you save images that you come across?

LS: I haven’t but it’s not a bad idea.

RB: I enjoy doing that. When an image catches my eye, I will save it and put in my screensaver slideshow. I like to see that in books — when an author will allude to a picture or painting or image of some kind. I just read a [crime] novel by Charlie Huston and he included images of riots at the World Economic Conference, a picture from the streets of Hong Kong. He’s an interesting writer — one of his characters [in The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death] is a crime scene cleaner. A job that involves cleansing the human detritus and such from crime scene. Did you ever hear of that?

LS: No, I love finding out about jobs I never heard of. The job makes sense — of course someone would have to do that.

RB: They probably get paid a lot to do that. He also wrote a novel [Sleepless] dealing with Fatal Insomnia Syndrome.

LS: Of course, the world is plagued by people who don’t get enough sleep.

RB: They get some sleep.

LS: Yeah, but they still run into you as if they’ve had two bottles of wine.

RB: Two sensible things that people could do to reduce their risk of some plague — getting enough sleep and washing their hands hands. Right?

LS: Getting sleep. I don’t see why people resist it. It’s so great. Sleep is better than anything.

RB: I am at the age where I am not sure which is better — sex or sleep. Sometimes I’d rather sleep.

LS: Well — they make a good combination. (laughs)

RB: Right, right. (Pause) What’s happened to us — the human organism? This might be true alienation.

LS: I honestly don’t understand — the deliberate deprivation of that particular pleasure. As the book makes clear we don’t deprive ourselves in other areas. We are overindulging in all kinds of things. Why are we gypping ourselves of sleep? Which is free. And widely available. It doesn’t consume any resources.

RB: There was a time I would turn on the TV and there would be nothing on that I was drawn to. But I would continue to keep it on. How did that happen?

LS: Television has the capacity to mesmerize.

RB: Amazing. You have been thinking about your next book. What do you do in this postpartum hiatus? Interregnum? Pause?

LS: Read.

RB: Contemporary works?

LS: Mostly. And also I have already started reading a stack of economics books. I have read economics before.

RB: The dismal science.

LS: It’s an apocalyptic science these days. It’s really exciting. It’s a lot like demography. In that both economics and demography touch on a broad range of subjects — everything. It has everything to do with human behavior — in the aggregate and in a very individual sense.

RB: There is recent biography of Albert Hirshman (Worldly Philosopher: The Odyssey of Albert O. Hirschman by Jeremy Adelman) and I read a Malcolm Gladwell’s review of it, which he begins by recounting a project railway line connecting Boston to the Hudson River. And was in many ways a disaster but Hirshman’s essay “The Principle of the Hiding Hand,” pointed out the paradox of the “Troy-Greenfield ‘folly’,” benefiting Massachusetts. *. This was one instance of Hirshman’s originality. Uh, where were we? But economics may just devolve into an index of algorithms.

LS: In investing that’s all it is.

RB: In Kunzru’s Gods Without Men, he has a character who is a trader, who creates an algorithm that connected the most unlikely and obscure elements. And besides economics, who are some of the current novelists you are reading?

LS: I still do a certain amount of reviewing and that determines a portion of my reading.

RB: You ask to review certain books or you are asked?

LS: I can ask but I am either sufficiently passive or sufficiently occupied with other things (chuckles) that I often just field assignments.

RB: Do you like reviewing?

LS: (thoughtful pause) I like keeping up with what people are publishing to a degree. So that’s worth my while. I am tired of the book review form.

RB: Sometimes reviewers are clever enough to transcend the form. The CEO of Facebook has a book out now and Noreen Malone of the New Republic pointed out the anomaly of a 170-page book having seven or eight pages of acknowledgements. A very clever take. (“How the acknowledgments page became the place to drop names.”)

LS: Well, that’s an angle that could make for an amusing read. After all, there are different styles of acknowledgments. Some of them are “Thanks to my lovely husband Bob.”

RB: Heartfelt.

LS: And then there’s the, “Thanks to Michelle Obama for having me in for tea.”

RB: How long does it take you [to write a novel]?

LS: We shall see. I am not quite as fast as I used to be. Once I know what I am doing, it doesn’t take as long to generate the text. Knowing what I am doing takes longer.

RB: Do you foresee continuing to write until the end of your life?

LS: As long as I continue to get ideas that would make good books and I don’t completely lose a sense of enjoyment or at least — I think more authors should retire. Formally retire. I appreciated Philip Roth’s gesture — we’ll see if he follows through on it. There is nothing shameful about having decided that you have made the contribution that’s in you. That maybe you have lost the appetite that you once had. That there are younger people coming up behind you that have that hunger and you are going to turn over the floor to them. That’s an entirely dignified decision. And it’s far more dignified than to continue to write books in a world where there are already an appalling number of them. And you are just doing because that’s what you have always done — you need to fill your day. Or you have to keep satisfying an idea of yourself. Your identity as a novelist. [But] you can have the identity of an ex novelist.

RB: (laughs)

LS: A novelist who did a damned good job and then went fishing. This whole business of thinking that you have to keep generating text into your 80s or even 90s — there are a few people who can keep up the quality through old age. But most people don’t and I would rather go out on a high note. So I am not going to commit myself to writing book after book just because I said I would and that’s what I have been doing. That’s a terrible mistake.

RB: Are you confident that you will recognize when the well has run dry?

LS: Not confident.

RB: (laughs) That’s good to know. There is an enviable purity to that position.

LS: It’s abstract — that’s the problem.

RB: Yes, all the reasons you gave for an aging writer to continue are not bad reasons. And they are harmless.

LS: Most experienced writers have the facility to put together a credible facsimile of a book and that’s the danger.

RB: That’s a good place to end. Thanks.

LS: What is likely to get me and make me stop is an experience I tried to capture in So Much for That. Right before one of my main characters commits suicide. And it’s just a sense of being sick of everything. Just having had enough. Of all human foibles, all human matters, it is just seeming too exhausting. And I can see that sensation taking over a larger and larger portion of my day.

RB: Thank you.

LS: You’re welcome, it’s always a pleasure to talk with you.


Robert Birnbaum interviews writers regularly for LARB.



Feed Your HeadSubscribe to LARB's FREE Newsletter