‘We Are Meant to Be Hungry’: Lionel Shriver at Deakin Edge

Lionel Shriver commanded the stage at Deakin Edge last night with a warm, welcoming presence – at odds with the occasional media articles that present her as a daunting, exacting figure.

She spoke openly about her negative experiences with the media, including the fact that all the UK journalists who interviewed her about her new novel, Big Brother, made mention of whether or not she ate the biscuits that came with her cup of tea.

‘If they interviewed Martin Amis, I don’t think whether or not he ate the biscuits would appear in the profile. That’s not what makes me interesting,’ she said.

Her latest novel, Big Brother, is primarily about our culture’s obsession with food and weight. This is illustrated by a situation where the main character’s beloved older brother, Edison, has become morbidly obese, and Pandora decides to commit her life to helping him lose weight. Her efforts are strenuously opposed by her health-nut husband, Fletcher, who represents the opposite extreme of food and weight obsession. Shriver’s fictional exploration doesn’t make the judgements you might expect; she shows that both extremes (overindulgence and hyper-control) are unhealthy, and that part of our problem is the amount of mental effort we expend on thinking about food, not just the food itself.

‘I have a reputation for writing about things other authors avoid – what we’re not talking about,’ said Shriver. The challenge, in writing Big Brother, was to add value to a conversation we’re already having, all the time, in a world where ‘every television program is a cooking show, and every other program is a fat show’.

‘It’s odd how much verbiage you can generate on a subject and still not go anywhere or say anything,’ she said.

An ‘attempt to fantasise’ about her real-life brother’s situation

Shriver was driven to write about the subject of obesity after her own older brother died from obesity-related health complications. He suffered sleep apnoea and had forgotten his sleep apnoea machine when he travelled from his North Carolina home to visit his parents in New York City. Sleep apnoea can result in a build-up of dangerous amounts of carbon dioxide in the blood; this happened to her brother and he ended up in hospital.

Shriver received the call from the hospital, as she was her brother’s ‘health proxy’ – the person who can make medical decisions on a person’s behalf if they’re not conscious or capable. After eight days, her brother was well enough to go home and Shriver asked the doctor if he was a candidate for a gastric bypass, which he was. The catch – if the doctor did the operation, he would need somewhere to stay in the New York area and someone to look after him. Shriver has a house in Brooklyn with a granny flat.

‘I had to ask myself – did I have it in me to live with my brother and be with him while he lost weight?’ she said.

‘I was spared,’ she added. Two days later, the phone rang and she was told that her brother had died.

This book, while not based on her or her brother at all, is her ‘attempt to fantasise’, to ask herself the question, ‘could I do it?’

‘Squandering’ our mental time on food and weight

Shriver said that the food crisis concerns her more as a psychological crisis than as a health crisis.

‘We’re too concerned about food and the size and shape of our bodies. Too many people squander their mental time on what they eat and what they weigh and what they look like. A lot of people easily spend half their mind time per day dithering about these issues.’

‘Being consumed with the issue of food surely makes you fatter. The answer, surely, is to start thinking of something else.’

On fame: ‘Wanting something is better than having it’

Fame is another major theme in Big Brother – our hunger for it, and how it feels when we get it. Shriver’s own experience of worldwide career success and recognition has been ‘emotionally mild’. She had imagined, as a struggling writer, that it would be exhilarating to have the kind of literary fame she has achieved and to regularly fill crowds. But instead, she found it merely nice.

‘I think wanting something is better than having it,’ she said. ‘The business of having a goal, of wanting something, is much better than arrival.’

The fact that every book is hard, each book has the potential to fail – and that embarking on one has an ‘inbuilt insecurity’ – makes her grateful.

‘We are meant to be hungry. There’s a kind of hell in being sated. There’s nothing to do, nowhere to go.’

Then she brought the conversation full-circle back to food and weight. ‘Successful diets are about arrival. That’s why they fail.’

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