We Need to Talk About Kevin, the movie adaptation of Lionel Shriver’s skin-crawlingly-excellent 2003 novel about the mother of a school shooter, comes out in wide release today. The novel is unflinching in its exploration of the idea that some mothers don’t bond with their children — and that some women aren’t meant to be mothers at all. I talked to Shriver for my column in the Atlantic about everything from the way gender expression limits men, to how her work as a journalist influences her fiction, to taking the money and running on movie adaptations. Shriver is an expatriate, and the main character of We Need to Talk About Kevin, Eva Katchadorian, spends a lot of time running a travel guide company to escape her Americanness even as she marries a man who is an old-fashioned avatar of patriotism. So I was particularly interested in what Shriver had to say about the impossibility of transcending your 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.
And of course we talked about the key question of the novel: whether it’s rational or not to have children. Shriver told me:
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.”
In any case, it was a fascinating conversation. Shriver’s a reminder of how homogeneous novelists’ perspectives can be and how rewarding it is when someone with a very different frame on the world gives us novels from that place.