May 26, 2010 / 12:29 PM / 9 years ago

Book Talk: Lionel Shriver finds illness can bring out the worst

SYDNEY (Reuters Life!) - When author Lionel Shriver took on the topic of illness and relationships in her latest novel, she had no idea that the reaction would give her a new insight into human nature — and not necessarily a positive one.

In her latest and 10th novel, “So Much Tor That,” Shriver focuses on the devastating effect of illness on relationships, how friends and family often flee rather than face the patient.

Shriver, who won the 2005 Orange Prize for her eighth novel “We Need to Talk About Kevin,” said the death of a close friend, Terri, led to the book with the main character in the novel, Glynis, suffering the same cancer, mesothelioma, as her friend.

Shriver, 52, an American who currently lives in London, spoke to Reuters while in Australia for the Sydney Writers’ Festival:

Q: How has the reaction to your novel surprised you?

A: “Part of the revelation about this novel has been post-publication. I have found it disheartening to find that this business of people making themselves scarce when someone gets sick is horrifically widespread. I would theorize that this tendency is worse now than it used to be. I can’t say for sure but my impression is that we are less comfortable than we used to be with illness and mortality.”

Q: Why do you think that is so?

A: “We don’t see death as people die in hospital. They used to die at home. They used to die younger so children grew up watching their grandparents die. I am not a sociologist but I know death has become strange. This is especially intense in the United States where all this money is spent on heath care and there is a vague impression that you can buy yourself out of death.”

Q: What do you think makes people flee sickness?

A: “People who are sick remind us that we can get sick and that is a drag. They remind us that we are going to die which we don’t really believe and so, therefore, they are best avoided. This avoidance occurs on a very deep psychological level so that at the time people make themselves scarce they aren’t aware of doing it. By the time they notice it has been so long that they feel guilty and they become even more avoidant. You are deserting someone in their hour of need and that makes you feel bad and you desert them even more.”

Q: Was this the case with Terri?

A: “I don’t want to misportray myself. I can be a jerk but I am not a horror. What ended up appalling me is that I was more attentive than most people. Her own family made themselves scarce. Her own mother only visited her once. I have heard from any number of people now since the book has been out and found that there are two camps — people who have been gravely ill and discovered that suddenly nobody came to visit any more, and then there are people who confess that they are the people who could not face a good friend and their troubles. When a friend becomes very sick it creates this dark place where you don’t want to go and it becomes this nagging sense of responsibility.”

Q: How does the medical world fit into this?

A: “The medical establishment encourages people to go into denial. Why would you get all the medical care if it didn’t work? I only learned recently that while my friend Terri and Glynis in the book have major surgery then ravaging chemotherapy and spend a total of $2 million only to die anyway, in the UK they don’t treat mesothelioma at all. They give palliative care. It is an incurable disease and it moves very quickly. They don’t see any point in spending all that money to have the same outcome. I was stunned how unacceptable that would be in the United States.”

Q: Will you continue this theme in your next novel?

A: “I am not sure what I will write next but it would do me good to retreat from icier subject matters and do something a little cozier. But prospective book buyers need to understand that this book does end on an up-note. It is arguing to take our own deaths back, take ownership of our deaths again.”

Q: Has new technology changed your promotion of your work?

A: “I have been a real Luddite in terms of promotion on the web. I don’t belong to MySpace or any of those. I don’t Twitter. I don’t even have a web page which I probably should but I am lazy and there is no point having a web page unless you update it.

My problem is that I am not eager to put myself in the way of people. I think one thing that has put me off having an interactive relationship with the audience is that sometimes I have brushed up against blogs about articles I write ... but they tend to be cruel, ignorant, personal, below the belt and it makes me recoil. Why would I want more of that? There is something about me that makes people go for me and it is possible for people by sheer accident to hit a nerve. There is a case for writers like me to protect themselves. Anyone who wants to write mean things about me can do but I don’t read it so don’t waste your time.”

Editing by Paul Casciato

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