Lionel Shriver: The fall-out when you write your family into your fiction

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Lionel Shriver has tackled some difficult topics over the course of her career: school shootings in We Need to Talk About Kevin, American health care in So Much for That, and obesity in Big Brother as a few examples. But perhaps the most difficult topic was that of family. In her fifth novel, A Perfectly Good Family, Shriver described a family that was a little like her own - the siblings, the squabbles and the parents that have their own weird issues. When the book was published, her family wasn't happy with what they read. Shriver talked about this with Sarah Treleaven on CBC Radio's How To Do It. You can listen to their conversation in the audio player:

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Shriver partially wrote A Perfectly Good Family because she wanted to revisit her own history. Shriver saw the novel as "a good opportunity for me to examine the dynamics in my own family," but ensured that the plot remained completely fictitious. The characters, however, are very much based on Shriver's own family, warts and all.

Shriver did not expect her family to react so negatively to her work, but they were outraged. They made sure she knew how upset they were through long letters that surprised her with their anger. "I have never received correspondence, especially from my parents, of that nature. And vitriolic, going after my character as well, denigrating all my other books. The list of the grievances were just staggering," she said. "They were vicious."

A Perfectly Good Family was published in 1996 and this rift between Shriver and her parents and Shriver and her siblings has never fully healed. It did, however, push their relationships forward. "I would say that the big thing that my novel revealed to my parents in particular is that, as an adult, I do not hold them in uncritical admiration. And that's true and it doesn't bother me that the secret is out," Shriver said. "In that sense, it actually advanced the relationship. It may have damaged it somewhat, but it made it more honest."

So what advice does Shriver have for other authors in the same situation? Be prepared. "The fact is you're damned if you go through a lot of trouble to disguise these characters because then you're making up lies. Then you're damned if you avail yourself of a truth because then you're exposing secrets and putting people you supposedly love up to public ridicule. There's no way to win," she said. "So, if you do choose to recognizably write about your family in any fashion, then you're taking a risk with those relationships."

While publishing A Perfectly Good Family was as damaging as it was revelatory, Shriver doesn't regret it. "If I had protected them to the degree that they required it wouldn't have had any basis in real people or if it did, it would have been a really bad novel. No one wants to read a novel about a happy family."