Edwina the Emu
21 December 2011
Lionel Shriver talks about Kevin
3 January 2012

Lionel Shriver talks about Kevin

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We look forward to welcoming prize-winning novelist Lionel Shriver on Wednesday 11 January at 19h30. In this essay, Shriver talks about how it feels to have her widely rejected manuscript become a best-selling, prize-winning novel, then a book-club favorite and the toast of the Cannes film festival.

It has now entered the cultural canon that, on completion in 2001, the manuscript of Lionel Shriver”s seventh novel was widely rejected by publishers and literary agents alike. In retrospect, this incidental fact being widely known is alone a little weird. After all, every day writers numbly receive curt, dismissive rejections of work they’ve slaved over for years. Writers should have some grasp of publishing’s brutality, and this morose process of having your beloved creations stepped on and pissed over comes with the territory. Hence people in my occupation are routinely expected, as Kevin would say, to suck it up.

Sorry, did I say “Kevin”? That’s what’s truly weird: the large number of fiction readers who know exactly who Kevin is, and that number is set to swell once a cinema audience joins the mix. Yet “Kevin Katchadourian” is just a name I picked after combing through the phonebook on an ordinary afternoon.

The premiere of Lynne Ramsay’s film of We Need To Talk About Kevin at the Cannes film festival provides an apt juncture at which to celebrate the miraculous power not of film but of fiction. Lo, I have created a monster.

Sorry, did I say “Kevin”? That’s what’s truly weird: the large number of fiction readers who know exactly who Kevin is, and that number is set to swell once a cinema audience joins the mix. Yet “Kevin Katchadourian” is just a name I picked after combing through the phonebook on an ordinary afternoon.

The premiere of Lynne Ramsay’s film of We Need To Talk About Kevin at the Cannes film festival provides an apt juncture at which to celebrate the miraculous power not of film but of fiction. Lo, I have created a monster.

Kevin is a dark book, and many of those initial rejections objected that its narrator, Eva, is “unattractive”: a woman uneasy about pregnancy, who feels alarmingly blank after childbirth, and fails to form the bond with her boy that we like to imagine is as instinctive as closing the epiglottis when we swallow. The novel breaks one of the last taboos (and how amazing that at such a late date I found a taboo still standing): a mother disliking her son. Rife with difficult characters and climaxing in a high-school massacre of the sort Americans are rightly ashamed of, Kevin was a poor commercial bet from the get-go.

More, my timing was mythically crap. I submitted the final draft to my New York literary agent right after 9/11, in that hilarious little window when everyone thought Americans would never read or watch anything violent again. Waiting for her response, I recorded in my journal that my new novel “abruptly seems irrelevant and, more dangerously, dated”. (Indeed, the week the twin towers fell, New York Times columnist Frank Rich listed Columbine among a catalogue of national issues from “before” that suddenly didn’t matter.) Ominously, my usually responsive agent went silent for weeks. Finger-drumming, I wrote presciently to myself: “Should this day, too, pass, with no comment from NY, I have vowed to break my silence and press her for a response. But the responses you have to ask for you don’t want.”

Xan Brooks gives his verdict on We Need to Talk About Kevin, while assorted bloggers, buyers and blaggers share their thoughts Link to this video Quite. Finally I got an email – a long, unparagraphed, associative wail of dismay of which I’ve kept a copy: “For the life of me, I don’t know who is going to fall in love with this novel . . . People in the industry are so thin-skinned right now – I just don’t think anyone is going to want to publish a book about a kid doing such maxed-out, over-the-top, evil things, especially when it’s written from such an unsympathetic point of view.” She worried the plot might invite copycat killings. She suggested a rewrite with “a lot more humour (in that way which ONLY YOU can do) instead of one kid from hell who will make people sick just reading about the things he does. Don’t make him a mass-murderer . . . And have him actually have a soft spot for his sister because she is easily humiliated and poses no threat.” She demanded I pay my photocopying bill.

I paid the bill. I spent the next eight months shopping in vain for a new agent. Finally in desperation I sent the manuscript directly to an editor at a small house who’d published me before. She read it over the weekend, made an offer on the Monday, and that’s where the fairytale starts. Offer in hand, I got a wonderful new agent whom I retain today.

Nevertheless, Kevin was a slow burn. The book went to 30 different British houses before the Little Publisher That Could, Serpent’s Tail, picked up the title with a tiny advance but great compensatory enthusiasm. Meanwhile, three months after its hardback publication in America – publicity budget: near-zero – an article appeared in the New York Observer describing all these women on the Upper East Side biking a little-known novel to each other and convening coffee klatches to discuss it. “Word of mouth” had begun.

Word of mouth, far more than critical acclaim, is what elevated Kevin to the enduring status he appears to enjoy today, for the novel hit the London Times bestseller list before it won the Orange prize in 2005. Oddly, for a book to do well merely because people like it is surprisingly rare. This novel has been driven from the off not by advertising and publisher hype, but by individual readers who passed it on to friends. Its success is therefore a populist tribute. Even Lynne Ramsay bid for the film rights well before the novel was a commercial hit. She was simply one more reader who discovered the book for herself.

Book clubs have also powered Kevin as he went viral, and I’ve visited a few, where groups cleave into ferocious camps: one convinced that the boy was evil from day one, the other just as convinced that his mother’s coldness was criminally culpable. A fine spectator sport in which I never participate, since what the book means is no longer up to me.

The novel passed the signal sales mark of 1m copies worldwide some years ago, and I’ve stopped keeping track. It has secured 25 translation deals, including Estonian, Serbian, Arabic and Russian; I collect foreign editions because I enjoy comparing covers. My favourite is the Chinese version: a belligerent, deranged-looking teddy bear. The title has so installed itself in the British cultural lexicon that it’s given rise to books such as We Need To Talk About Kevin Keegan and the wittily christened science primer We Need To Talk About Kevin. And now the movie.

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