Alexa

Writer Shriver Hopes to Up U.S. Profile

Writer Shriver Hopes to Up U.S. Profile

There are many parallels between Lionel Shriver and the main character in her new novel, "The Post-Birthday World." Both Shriver and Irina McGovern are Americans living in London, both enjoy a predinner bowl of popcorn, and both must choose between two men, the central premise of the book.
But it's another character in "The Post-Birthday World" who invites closer comparison. Ramsey Acton is a famous sportsman and a household name in Britain. But when he travels to the United States Acton and his glittering career as a professional snooker _ or pool _ player are unknown.
The same is true for Shriver, who is famous in Britain but draws a blank in the United States.
Her previous novel, "We Need to Talk About Kevin," which detailed a mother's reaction in the aftermath of her son's murderous rampage at his school, won the prestigious 2005 Orange Prize for Fiction and sold more than 600,000 copies in Britain. Another print run of 50,000 is planned, according to Shriver. Sales in the United States, though, have been respectable, but not stratospheric.
"I'm keenly aware of not being as well known in the U.S. and one of the things I hope to change with this book is that," says Shriver, who also writes for various British publications and is a regular TV and radio commentator.
"I don't think she's as well known as she deserves to be," said Gail Winston, HarperCollins' executive editor. "I think one of the exciting things about this publication is that it is finally putting her on the map."
The New Yorker called the new novel "a playful, psychologically acute, and luxuriously textured meditation on the nature of love." The New York Times was less flattering, saying that Shriver seemed to have rushed out the novel; the reviewer said she was left with a "hatred" for snooker, a very British pastime.
Born in the South, Shriver was originally called Margaret Ann but decided to change her name to Lionel at age 15.
"I never felt my given name suited me; I didn't identify with it," she says. "Naming myself was an early act of self-possession. As for the choice of a male name, hey, I was a tomboy."
Reading got her into writing, and after graduating from "Curious George Goes to School," Shriver took in a steady diet of classics _ Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoevsky _ as well as William Faulkner. She cites "Catch-22" as the work that showed her that "grown-up books could be funny."
Shriver moved to Britain in 1987, after studying at Columbia University. The intention was to live in Belfast for a year to set her third novel, "Ordinary Decent Criminals," in Northern Ireland. The plan to stay only a year was ditched, and Shriver was there until 1999, when she moved to London, where she still lives.
One of the reasons for her popularity in Britain, Shriver suspects, is the popularity of book clubs. "That's a terrific book club book," she says of "We Need to Talk About Kevin." She believes "The Post-Birthday World" has the same ability to inspire conversation.
"The Post-Birthday World" does confront a choice that the 49-year-old author herself once made _ "between two very fine men." And Irina's living room sounds like the London flat Shriver shares with her husband. There's a green marble coffee table, a comfy red armchair and the famous Borough Market nearby, where both character and author shop.
Like Irina, Shriver is petite; unlike her protagonist, she is blonde. But the author and character share the same build _ delicate, but at the same time substantial.
"I always help myself to bits and pieces of my own life, if only out of laziness," Shriver says. "I've been looking at this green marble coffee table for years. I thought it was owed some kind of homage."
But as late afternoon sun streams in through the apartment's massive windows, Shriver rejects any notion that "The Post-Birthday World" is a thinly veiled autobiography. After all, Irina makes her choices and the reader gets to see how they pan out.
"How could this book be true," Shriver asked, "because there are two truths?"
And "The Post-Birthday World" does feel like two novels in the same cover, featuring the same cast. Irina and her partner, Lawrence, are Americans living in south London. Every July, they have dinner with Ramsey, the husband of one of Irina's work colleagues _ a prospect that excites Lawrence, because it means the men can talk snooker, a British game that to the untrained eye looks like pool.
That changes in one year when Lawrence, who toils as an academic at a think-tank, is away on a research trip but urges Irina to keep the annual date. Ramsey is now divorced. After a spectacular meal of sushi and sake, Irina and Ramsey go back to his house for a nightcap, the sexual tension heightens and the book splits in two.
To kiss or not to kiss? Irina must decide, and alternating chapters chart her choice. On one side, the story begins with Irina safely home to south London and her comfortable, loving and sometimes stifling relationship with Lawrence; on the other, she chooses the sleek, sexual, but combustible snooker star.
"I think there's a line in the last chapter where Irina observes that if you could just add Lawrence and Ramsey together, you'd have the perfect man," Shriver says. "But you don't ever get the perfect man."