2010 National Book Award Finalist,
So Much For That
Harper, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers
Interview by Bret Anthony Johnston
Bret Anthony Johnston: Congratulations on So Much for That being named a Finalist for the National Book Award in fiction. This is your ninth book. How did the writing of this novel compare to the work you’d done previously?
Lionel Shriver: Well, novels never get any easier—a dismaying discovery of mid-career. Quite the opposite. Younger, I was more prone to exhilarate (“this book is going to be fantastic!”). In my decrepitude, I’m convinced every ongoing project is a debacle, and these days I never have any faith a book is working until I’ve written the last line. That said? Writing the last two lines of So Much for That was exhilarating, in that jump-up-and-down vein of yore. I may have pulled off the best ending I’ve ever written, and endings are something of a specialty for me. When I bashed out that last, simple, tiny paragraph, I knew the novel worked.
The challenge of writing this one was to tackle such overtly dismal subject matter—death and disease—with brio and humor. I’ve never aimed to write worthy fiction, and believe a novelist’s primary purpose is to entertain. I do think I managed to pull off a novel taking on mortality and even a killjoy subject like American healthcare that’s improbably funny, energetic, suspenseful, and not, I repeat not, depressing. (Thus I’ve been distressed when even positive reviewers have sometimes described the book as “bleak.” I much prefer a review like the one I got in USA Today that describes the book as hilarious.) Still, when I try to assure prospective book buyers that this book is fun to read, they never believe me.
BAJ: In the fiction category this year, each of the novels seems heavily researched. What role does research play in your writing process?
LS: I do plenty of research, because I’m writing in the realistic tradition. I make lots of things up, of course, but I like for my readers to be able to trust that the nonfiction backdrop of the story is accurate. I’m also a pretty prolific journalist, and through writing for newspapers have come to appreciate the importance of factual truth. So I was relieved when the Science Times section of the New York Times had a doctor review this novel, and that reviewer reported there wasn’t a single medical error in the book. Whew.
BAJ: Do you remember your original idea for So Much for That? How closely does the finished book correspond to what you first had in mind?
LS: I was reading a New York Times article on-line about the fact that 1) the leading cause of bankruptcy in the US is not, as my neighbors in Britain might imagine, flat-screen TVs, but medical bills, and 2) the majority of Americans who go broke from medical bills have health insurance. After I recovered from my usual morning bout of outrage, I thought: that sounds like a novel. And then I thought: why don’t you write it, dummy.
For at the time, one of my very closest friends was being treated for mesothelioma. Her illness and subsequent death hit me very hard, so medical issues were on my mind. But it was only when I came up with the premise—the notion of a protagonist who has saved his whole life to quit the Western rat race and embark on what Shep calls in the book “The Afterlife” in a bargain-basement Third World country, but whose plans are waylaid by his wife’s sudden illness—that I had a novel on my hands, and not just a topic. I started with the idea of that first chapter, in which Shep announces he’s bought plane tickets and he’s leaving with or without his wife, and she announces that he can’t go because she needs his health insurance. Your basic frustrated quest. Then I went about designing subplots, all of which would be medical in nature. I played around with six or seven of these, and then whittled them down to three.
The published version hews perfectly to my original vision. But then, I tend to design books in some detail before I begin writing them, so that’s not very surprising. Maybe it’s that Protestant upbringing: I’m rigid, goal-oriented, linear, and what the Brits call “bloody-minded.”
BAJ: So Much for That is dedicated to Paul “In loss, liberation.” Do you have a reader in mind as you write?
LS: I suppose first of all I write to amuse myself, since if I’m not entertained by what I’m writing then strangers haven’t a hope in hell of being entertained. It’s true that in this case I had in mind two people in particular I wanted to please, or at least to do right by: my late friend Terri, and her husband Paul. I’m so sad that Terri never lived to read this book, because I think she’d like it. She’d certainly have got a kick out of its being shortlisted for the NBA. If anyone’s got connections, let me know how I might get her the message.
As for her husband Paul, who is also a dear friend, I was terribly anxious about his reaction. I’m leery of anyone in my life who helps to inspire my books feeling used, robbed, or invaded. Maybe it’s even more of a tribute to Paul’s natural generosity than the book itself: he bought ten copies.
However, in the big picture I write for an audience of people I’ve never met. By the final draft I’m looking for anything in the prose that’s prospectively boring to strangers.
BAJ: What role does setting play in your writing?
LS: Some. Shep Knacker is a Jobian everyman, and this book could probably have been set any number of places in the US. But I know New York and the surrounding area very well. Besides, if I wanted Shep to yearn to escape his life, it made sense to choose a setting where life for everyone is complicated, harried, and expensive.
BAJ: How much of the story do you know before you start? Is your imagination liberated by parameters—such as writing toward a specific ending or knowing you’re exploring a particular theme—or is it fueled by a lack of stricture and the act of discovery? These aren’t mutually exclusive positions, but I wonder if you find yourself on one side more often than the other.
LS: As I mentioned earlier, I’m a planner. How often do you get in your car with no idea where you’re going? For me, writing a novel is the same thing: I need a sense of direction, and preferably a map.
BAJ: At the heart of So Much for That is a powerful and scathing indictment of the health care system, and yet the characters never feel like mouthpieces or personifications of specific agendas. How did you achieve such a fine balance in the narrative?
LS: With difficulty, since the state of American healthcare enrages me. I knew I had to guard against inserting set-piece diatribes that hewed too closely to my own political views. It helped to make my protagonist (unlike me) a moderate, reasonable person who is always willing to see things from others’ points of view, and who (unlike me) is slow to anger—so slow that you never see him seethe until the very, very end of the book (by which time the reader is relieved).
Also, the character who does spout diatribes, Shep’s best friend Jackson, gets away with it because 1) these diatribes are quite funny, and readers will forgive you anything so long as you make them laugh, and 2) your author has viciously undermined his authority. If Jackson were erudite, well-educated, lucid, and supremely confident, the reader would inevitably think when he lights into a tirade, “Oh, God, there goes Shriver in rather poor disguise, mouthing off again.” Instead Jackson has only a high-school education, and talks with the unconvincing bluster of a working-class autodidact. Not to give too much away, but his botched plastic surgery destroys his credibility, as it puts a question mark over his intelligence in any life-skills sense.
BAJ: What was the biggest surprise you encountered while writing So Much for That?
LS: That it was possible to kill off that many main characters and still pull off a happy ending.
BAJ: What was the biggest challenge?
LS: As noted, making illness and death great fun. Otherwise, I was anxious about writing a bedside death scene, because I’d never experienced watching someone die. Even more was I anxious about writing a scene that I won’t cite, lest I ruin the novel for folks who haven’t read it—but anyone who has read it knows the one I mean. I am told I did John Irving one better.
BAJ: Another similarity among the Fiction Finalists this year is the use of an alternating narrative point of view. You grant readers access to different characters’ consciousnesses throughout the novel. While this isn’t a necessarily new narrative technique, I wonder if its current prevalence isn’t indicative of something in our culture. Maybe it’s a feeling of disjointedness or fracturedness, or maybe a longing for a broader community. What led to your decision to employ different points of view?
LS: No, I don’t recognize any of that disjointedness or broader community stuff. Writing about cancer risked creating a sense of claustrophobia for the reader, a sense of being trapped. I wanted one alternative to Shep’s point of view to give the book more space and scope, and to provide the reader relief from Glynis’s story. For most of the book the points of view roughly alternate, although I threw in two Shep chapters in a row early on to give myself formal permission to break the pattern; strict alternation would be too predictable and confining. But I didn’t prefer more than two points of view, because (with wonderful exceptions, like Matthew Kneale’s English Passengers) the more points of view you include, the more you can diffuse the focus and put a drag on narrative drive.
However, there is one chapter written from Glynis’s point of view. By that late juncture in the book, you’re relieved to get inside her head. My editor loved that chapter, which—I just remembered this, and it makes me smile—she swore “would win me the National Book Award.” Yet when she begged me to write more from Glynis’s perspective, I said no. After all, one of the things that makes this novel palatable, or more palatable than it might be, is that the story is told from the perspective not of the sick, but of the well. It’s really about being the caretaker who will survive. What makes that Glynis chapter work is that it’s a one-off. Stuck in her head indefinitely, you’d go nuts.
BAJ: What is the role of the writer in the world today?
LS: Our most important role, in any larger cultural sense? We write the books that get turned into movies.
BAJ: This is the 61st year of the National Book Awards. How do you feel about So Much for That being honored in the tradition of the previous Finalists and Winners? Are there previous NBA honorees that you’ve found yourself rereading over the years?
LS: First off, I’ve lived in the UK for the better part of the last 23 years, and I’m much better known here. I don’t mean to be ungrateful to my large British readership, which I treasure, and of course I’ve been honored to have been awarded one very well regarded UK book prize. But there’s no substitute for recognition by your own country. It means more than I can say that this novel has been shortlisted for an American award with such an august tradition.
Previous winners include some of the most cherished books in my library: Goodbye Columbus, The Moviegoer, The Complete Stories of Flannery O’Connor, The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty, Dog Soldiers, The Stories of John Cheever, Paris Trout (God, I love that book), and All the Pretty Horses, to name just a few.
Johnston is the author of the internationally
acclaimed Corpus Christi: Stories and the editor of
Naming the World: And Other Exercises for the Creative
Writer. He is director of creative writing at Harvard.
For more information, visit: www.bretanthonyjohnston.com.