For the last few weeks, just about the only word I’ve heard from literate women I know has been “Kevin.” It began when the novelist Pearson Marx overnighted a copy of Lionel Shriver’s novel, We Need to Talk About Kevin , to my wife, saying she had to read a book narrated by the mother of a high-school killer. An evangelist for an author she didn’t know, Ms. Marx sent another half-dozen copies around the city, and her friends soon called her to say they couldn’t put it down.
“I was up till 3 to finish it, which is the latest I’ve ever been up. It’s so fabulous and creepy,” said Amy Adler, a law professor.
The novelist Amy Hempel also flipped for it, feeling that it outdid Doris Lessing’s The Fifth Child on the dangers of motherhood. And when Ms. Hempel learned that Ms. Shriver was giving a reading at the Barnes & Noble on Upper Broadway in mid-May, she attended and introduced herself.
“It’s so gutsy for someone to actually take on the taboo that you can’t dislike your own children,” she said. “But there it is, on the page, and no half-measures about it.”
Ms. Shriver had to blush, of course, but was so moved by the gesture-writers aren’t known for their kindnesses to one another-that two days later she followed Ms. Hempel’s advice to go to the Corner Bookstore on the Upper East Side, where the buyer, Lydie Kane, had also flipped for the novel. (“I’ve been hand-selling it-I put it in people’s hands,” Ms. Kane said. “I do have to prepare them. I say, ‘There are some parts that are very difficult.’”)
There, Ms. Shriver left a note for Ms. Hempel with her e-mail address, which Ms. Hempel supplied to Ms. Marx, who then e-mailed the author, inviting her to dinner to meet some other writers.
“‘Please come to dinner so I can tell you how great you are’-when does that ever happen?” said Ms. Shriver, still blushing. “Who’s going to decline an invitation like that? ‘I’m sorry, I have other plans’?”
By this point, I was so curious about what you might call an underground feminist hit that, though I hadn’t read the book yet, I got myself invited. There was a lot of red wine and a handful of writers, and Ms. Marx-a newlywed who is trying to figure out whether to have a child-gave a stirring introduction.
“I picked up Kevin at a Borders,” she said. “I know women’s literature-I’ve read it from the 17th century on, from the Princess de Cleves -and I’ve never seen the subject of motherhood handled like this. Especially now, when there’s this trend, which is not chick lit but mommy lit, about women balancing home, children and husband, and it always has to end on an upbeat note and the women realize, blah blah blah …. Well, this book breaks through that piety, and it is being ignored and almost punished for doing so.”
Ms. Shriver did not disappoint.
At 46, she was sexy in an angular way. She had long straight brown hair, well-cut feminine features and a low voice, her accent inflected by the United Kingdom, where she has lived for most of the last 15 years. She had on a white suit and dark blouse, and black gloves that she took on and off because she has a syndrome that affects the temperature of her extremities. She offered sharp opinions on everything from terrorism to the derivation of the term “over the top” (some of which she has supplied as a writer for the Wall Street Journal editorial page), and she told us about the hard path she took to publish the novel.
Kevin is her seventh novel. Her books have gotten very good reviews but mediocre sales-which is deadly, of course-but Ms. Shriver has refused to leave the field, even when that meant “living on carrots” and turning to an English publisher.
She started the book three years ago. She was living with a man in England and trying to sort out whether she wanted to take a last shot at motherhood. The spate of American school massacres had begun, and she found that she sympathized with the parents of the killers.
We Need to Talk About Kevin is told by Eva Khatchadourian, a New York travel writer who vacillates about having a child, then does, and almost from the beginning dislikes the boy even as her husband dotes on him. “I wasn’t a very good mother-cold, judgmental, selfish,” she says.
Kevin seems to deserve her contempt.
He eats furtively, like a dog, and destroys his mother’s precious map collection as well as everything else: “Kevin was systematically snapping each crayon of his Crayola 64 set into pieces.”
Mom isn’t so beguiling herself.
“What’s your problem, you little shit? Proud of yourself, for ruining Mummy’s life?” she says to her puling offspring. “You’ve got Daddy snowed, but Mummy’s got your number. You’re a little shit, aren’t you?”
The family removes to a suburb near Nyack, and then at 16, Kevin kills seven classmates and a cafeteria worker. In meetings with his mother, the imprisoned boy compares his feat to other school killings, until the surprise ending that Ms. Hempel says meets John Irving’s requirements: inevitable but shocking.
In September 2001, Ms. Shriver submitted the book to her then agent, Kathy Anderson, who was evidently horrified by it (and declined to contribute to this account). Five weeks after getting it (and in the wake of Sept. 11), she wrote Ms. Shriver to say the book was a brilliant tour de force, but would be extremely difficult to sell to American editors.
The book placed her in a moral quandary, the agent said. What if kids copied Kevin’s act? How would the author feel?
She counseled her client to soften the horror, to move the killings offstage or make the material more comic-or not have any killings at all. And by the way, she reminded her client in the same e-mail, you owe me several hundred dollars in photocopying for the last book-a novel about terrorism that didn’t sell.
Ms. Anderson hinted at the end of the relationship. But it fell to Ms. Shriver to do the honors, in a withering e-mail response that said Ms. Anderson wouldn’t have represented Dostoyevsky.
“If fiction writers and their agents assume that the reading public is bound to enact plots of novels in real-life deeds for which both authors and their representatives will be held morally accountable, then writers could never allow their fictional characters to do anything but help little old ladies across the street,” she wrote.
Pearson Marx says that all the bodies spurting blood onstage ennoble the work.
“One complaint about women’s fiction is that it’s not big enough, that it’s involved with very limited female concerns: ‘They’re not in Angola, they’re not in the coal mines, they’re not all over America.’ What Shriver did was work in a very limited and traditional milieu, the family-even more limited than a village in Jane Austen-and then transcend it.
“A mother visiting her son in prison! That’s unbound, and it’s also important.”
Meantime, Ms. Shriver had paid off her copying bill and gone to look for another agent. She spent eight months getting nowhere. Agents who were interested told her to tone down the strong voice of the narrator, to try and make her sympathetic.
Ms. Shriver, whose father, Don Shriver, is the former president of the Union Theological Seminary, has been concerned with voice issues from an early age.
“I changed my name when I was 15. I was christened Margaret Ann,” she told me. “I took my first alias when I was 8-Tony, another male name. It wasn’t a matter of trying to find a nom de plume , it was to get away from Margaret Ann. I didn’t like being a girl-I was a real tomboy. I was filling out a name tag at Grady High School in Atlanta and picked the name Lionel out of the air. My family thought I was going through a phase. But I kept to it ferociously. It was an aggressive act. I put that name on everything. It has a lilt, it successfully crosses sexual boundaries, it has a kind of androgynous quality.
“For some time now, my parents have called me Lionel to my face. I am certain they call me Margaret Ann behind my back.”
About a year ago, Ms. Shriver gave up on trying to get an agent, feeling they were more conservative than the editors, and went to Dawn Seferian, who had published two of her early paperbacks and was now at Counterpoint, a house dedicated to literary quality. Ms. Seferian, who has a Ph.D. in comparative literature, was also moved by the work’s ambition.
“It’s a brave book,” she said. “What I found so fascinating was that it was about maternal ambivalence, and though I think of myself as pretty widely read, I can’t think of anyone who has tackled this theme like this.”
Offer in hand, Ms. Shriver got an agent, and a hot one at that-Kim Witherspoon, who was about to give birth but read the book over a weekend and flipped for it, then suggested that they might withdraw the book from Counterpoint and do a big submission. But that was chancy. The book scared people, there might be no offer, and Ms. Shriver decided to go with the bird in hand, notwithstanding the rather small advance.
The book was published in time for Mother’s Day, and though the word-of-mouth has been feverish, it has not gotten widely reviewed. This may actually be the novel’s role, to serve as a sort of feminist samizdat .
Pearson Marx again: “I feel like a little tiny foot in my brain has been unbound. This book has given women permission to feel things that they weren’t allowed to feel. And I’m not just talking about the demographic of bitter, barren New York women, but mothers I’ve sent it to, too. I think all mothers have had moments of ‘You ruined my life!’ looking into the playpen.”
As for Ms. Shriver, she is transplanted-temporarily, anyway-to Westchester County, and as of last month is married to a jazz drummer.
“The next book is going to be a romance,” she declared in a voice cleansed of goo.
And what of Lionel Jr.? Will the author have a child of her own?
“I will not. By the time I finished that book, I realized that my reservations about having children were stolid in my character and not a passing thing I needed to get over. I pretty much wrote myself out of it.”