Lionel Shriver in Auckland

The Trouble with Fiction

Interviewing Lionel Shriver at the Auckland Writers' festival I said: 'Your latest novel is about dying in the American healthcare system. Did you feel any tension between fiction and polemic?' The question had an immediate effect. The highly-strung, exacting Lionel drew herself up. Her tone was harsh. I was doing the novel a disservice, she said. It was a book about life, family, love, it was not grim, it was not polemic. It was definitely not all about dying. There was a short silence. But I have, since early childhood, been impervious to writerly fury. 'So, your novel's all about dying,' I said. 'And it reminded me of another story about death: Tolstoy's, The Death of Ivan Ilyich.' There was another pause. Tolstoy? Now we were talking. Lionel settled back down in her chair. 'Tolstoy,' she murmured. 'That... seems fair.'

Later I was at home, writing. The phone rang. Throwing caution to the wind, I answered. It was a journalist. 'In your novel, The Night Book,' he sleuthily began, 'you have a character called Dr Lampton. His wife, Karen Lampton, wears clothes by a designer called "Trelise." The clothes are frilly and flouncy, and he doesn't like them. Can you comment on your character's attitude to his wife's clothes?' 'No,' I said. Politely I hung up. Minutes later an email flew in. The journalist had sent me questions, quoting sections of the book. He wanted to nail Dr Lampton on a number of sartorial points. I considered various responses: 'I've put your questions to the doctor. He tells me he has no comment.' Or perhaps I could forward a reply from Karen Lampton: 'My husband wears jerseys embroidered with woolly sheep. The man has no taste! Because I don't work, he forks out for my clothes. So he whinges. Men! What are you going to do?' (A combative woman, that Karen, not to be crossed.) I considered these responses, and then sat back in consternation. But it's fiction. It's fiction. These people don't exist.

They don't exist, but a news article followed. If she was mentioned in a novel she was flattered, Trelise Cooper said. And so she should be. One of my favourite writers once said, 'Some of the most intense fiction is written as a love letter.' The Night Book is a love letter to a city. And we couldn't have Auckland naked, without its strange and beautiful clothes – its skies, its colours, its wild frills and flounces. Love letters can fail, be misconstrued; they can fall on deaf ears. The recipient can run screaming, act the victim; it can all go wrong. But the tribute remains. The story takes shape, with its architecture, its dilemmas, its moral highs and lows. And to whom is it directed? To you, the dear the gentle. To you. Always you. If the fiction's any good, only one type never enters: the ones you look straight through. The ones you just ignore. This is why gossip, conversely, can't tell a good story, why it's always bad art. It is by nature anti-tribute, and so it's always born dead.

Fiction was fiction, and it was nothing but trouble. It was time to leave town. Invited to a literary festival in Masterton with Paula Morris, I flew to Palmerston North. Masterton, we were told, was a short drive away. We had a rental car each – I a dinky Mazda, Paula a butch red Holden. She looked, behind its wheel, like a stern and glamorous cop. We set off, the afternoon not yet collapsing into rainy dusk. But soon it got dark, and there was torrential rain and tearing wind, and pockets of dense fog that made navigating tough on the winding roads. Conscious of time passing I sped, steering past the great, lit hulks of oncoming trucks. I reached Masterton at 6.50. We were due on stage at 7. Paula got in a minute after me; together we searched for the town hall. At 6.59 we walked in the door, were given a mug of Milo with booze in it, and pushed on stage. I talked about my novel. If you write about a politician, I said, you will trigger a political response. Everyone will want the characters different, according to his political taste. Heads bobbed. I sipped my powerful drink. Later in the night I would be served another even stronger, and go for a meal with Paula and festival organiser David Hedley, and hear stories: how Paula survived Hurricane Katrina, how David's past life involved the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. Small towns are endlessly surprising, and that is why I love them. Fiction is nothing but trouble; Masterton – and that wild drive to reach it – made all the strife worthwhile.

First published in Metro Magazine NZ May 2012