BOOK EXTRACT | Be careful what you wish for – author Lionel Shriver on what she wishes she could tell her younger self

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Lionel Shriver's new collection of essays showcases the controversial author at her provocative best. (PHOTO: Gallo Images/Getty Images)
Lionel Shriver's new collection of essays showcases the controversial author at her provocative best. (PHOTO: Gallo Images/Getty Images)

In this extract from Abominations, a collection of her non-fiction work, the We Need to Talk About Kevin author writes a cautionary letter to her younger self, warning her how fame will transform her life, not always for the better.

Dear Lionel,

I bet you’re surprised to hear from me. But I’m at a literary festival in Bali – yes, Bali –and I’ve been asked to address the “time it didn’t work out.” In your case, it “didn’t work out” for twelve solid years. “It,” of course, being your career.

You’re sure to find it astonishing that I look back on the murky period in which you’re still mired with nostalgia. After all, you’re often depressed. You’ve written book after book, and no one cares. Barely a soul has ever heard of you. In the rare instances that you attend social occasions, then claim you’re a novelist, you often invite the withering inquiry, “Oh? Have you published anything?”

It’s humiliating. But you suck at socialising, so you’re better off staying home. Granted, it’s naive to encourage anyone to ignore what other people think; everyone cares what people think. But from childhood, you’ve cared a smidgeon less about others’ opinions of you than your peers do, and comparative obliviousness lends you an advantage. Indeed, a word of warning: in future, you will be awash in other people’s opinions of you, not all of them kind, and even the fawning variety will become a curse. For now, glory in your anonymity. Being a nobody is fabulous. Other people stay out of your business. They leave you alone.

We now own a small house in London. By contrast, for most of our personal Dark Ages, you’ve been ensconced in the attic of a grand but disheveled Victorian manor in Northern Ireland. The Belfast flat is funky, furnished with motley castoffs from Oxfam, with slanted ceilings and lousy little gas room heaters that give off a funny smell. But though you’re only renting, you have a more profound sense of ownership of 19 Notting Hill than we now have of the London semidetached to which we hold the deed.

Your garret on Notting Hill is a weird nest in a weird city, but you have fully possessed both house and town. You give loud dinner parties for good friends, served on chipped, charity shop Victorian crockery. Mornings, you close your study door, switch on the reeking gas fire, draw the drapes, and pull up a chair to your tiny Toshiba laptop – to crawl into your own little world within your own little world. You realise that we still have dreams about Notting Hill?

Because it was deeply our house. Now we’re that much closer to death, it’s now that we feel we’re only renting. OK, you’re just short of broke, but you get by, even if you sometimes resort to Bulgarian wine. Your rent is derisory. Sod restaurants; you’d rather grill your own fish and not overcook it. You’ve no interest in clothes. You cobble together plane fare if there’s somewhere you need to go. So what exactly must you do without?

I’ll let you in on a secret: our income is more “comfortable” now, but nothing’s changed. We still prefer to eat at home. We still buy quick-sale vegetables at the supermarket, because frugality is a state of mind – one suspicious of haughty entitlement and realistic about self-indulgence, since most pampering doesn’t work.

'Being a nobody is fabulous. Other people stay out of your business. They leave you alone'

Our pleasures will remain simple, like most true pleasures: other writers’ novels; three hours of tennis on affordable courts; popcorn, as close as a snack can get to free; sleep, which is free. With more money, you’d just be flummoxed, as we are now, by what to buy. Enjoy, then, your ingenious scrimping, the game of it. Know that in time you will be better rewarded for the fruits of your labours, and it won’t matter.

Let’s not forget, either, that during your slog in the literary trenches you have also fallen deeply in love at last. After squandering your affections on a string of cads, you finally love a man for who he is, and not some silly simulacrum you made up. (In our youth, we had a weakness for false gods –for idols of our concoction, who bore little resemblance to the disappointments next to us in bed.) This man also knows who you are and loves you anyway.

On your typical evening, you watch a rented video of The Basketball Diaries while nestled in the arms of a smart, funny, faithful, and handsome man – so who cares if the wine is Bulgarian?

So blissful is your duo that I’m reluctant to share the news that after nine delightful years you’ll part. I worry that I just broke your heart. Worse, you will break his heart, and even now I may never have forgiven us for this carelessness, which continues to cast doubt on whether we constitute a “good person.” But a measure of self-mistrust has served us well. Besides, many years ago our father announced that love is the one arena in which it pays to be selfish. There, permission to be a complete jerk from your own dad. Trust that your current paramour’s successor will reap the benefit of your self-reproach.

You will prove a loyal wife. And falling in love twice is a lot of times. Most of all, you have your work. That may sound pretentious, but aside from finding a hand to hold all you’ve really ever cared about is writing books. You can concentrate. Those rejections your agent keeps faxing may be disagreeable, but the writing of the novels themselves is still a joy. The life you signed up for is private.

Oh, you’ll doubtless greet advance notice that your career will soon pick up as good news – and I’m glad if being wise to a little impending recognition cheers you up. But hold the champagne. We will merely swap one set of problems for another. The new problems aren’t superior to the old ones, either. On the contrary, the problems that confront a so-called successful author may be grimmer than the travails you face now.

For these days we’re constantly interrupted. We’re ceaselessly asked to write book reviews, support charities, appear in festivals, or open libraries. To give interviews or do photo shoots. If that sounds glamorous, it’s not. It’s a pain in the arse. Where before we floated on a sea of solitude, now we’re jostled by a crowd every morning we access our email queue. (What is email? Oh, my dear, you’ll find out all too well in time.) It’s official: We’re incredibly lucky. We’re not allowed to feel sorry for ourselves. But the right to self-pity should be enshrined in the Constitution.

As a consequence of this distraction, it now takes twice as long to write a book. Half of our time is consumed by selling it.

It really is better, if we’re going to bother to write the things, for other people to read them. It’s probably better not to live in such near destitution that a broken toaster plunges the household into hysteria. And it’s nice to have a bit more to do with other people; we feel like part of something larger now. It’s even good for our work that from time to time we talk to someone else.

But because all that comes later, you need to appreciate what you already have. You may be embarrassed at parties because no one has ever heard of you, and repeated rejection of your manuscripts is tough.

Still, looking back on the years you’re living now, I realise that they constituted our prime. Why, in a novel you haven’t written yet, you will craft the following passage: “Happiness is almost definitionally a condition of which you are not aware at the time. To inhabit your own contentment is to be wholly present, with no orbiting satellite to take clinical readings of the state of the planet. Conventionally, you grow conscious of happiness at the very point that it begins to elude you. When not misused to talk yourself into something—when not a lie – the h-word is a classification applied in retrospect. It is a bracketing assessment, a label only decisively pasted onto an era once it is over.”

In other words: you’re far less miserable than you think.



Abominations by Lionel Shriver, published by Borou
Abominations by Lionel Shriver, published by Borough Press.

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