Lionel Shriver: a novel approach to snooker
Lionel Shriver is one of the world’s most renowned female novelists. Her 2005 book, We Need To Talk About Kevin, won the prestigious Orange Prize for Fiction.
Her American agent might not know it yet, but her next novel has a curious subject matter…snooker.
Shriver’s interest in the green baize began when she lived in Belfast for 12 years. “The enthusiasm of the local followers influenced me to start watching it,” said the 48-year-old in an interview with World Snooker. “I was living with an American chap, who would be my partner for nearly a decade. He is a culturally curious person, and got me involved in watching snooker.
“I was aware of Alex Higgins’ achievements and personality, though he was no longer a force to be reckoned with when I started watching regularly on the BBC in 1994.”
Shriver was born in North Carolina and now spends much of her time in New York with her jazz drummer husband, but has always preferred snooker to traditional Stateside pursuits such as baseball and American Football. “I love the sound of it, that delicacy, subtlety, and quiet; the commentators are so soft-spoken and respectful, unlike many commentators for American sports, who bellow,” she said.
“I like the strategic element, the necessity of having to think several shots in advance. And I find the colours of the game satisfying – bright, vibrant, with bold contrasts. And naturally as a fiction writer I love the dramatic element, since there’s a way in which every frame tells a story.”
Though the sport is barely televised in America, she is able to catch up with the latest news from the circuit on her regular trips to London, and is not frustrated by snooker’s lack of popularity across the Atlantic.
“In a way I like that because there are so few big cultural differences between the two countries left,” she added. “I really like the fact that snooker is largely a British, European and Asian phenomenon, and that it’s rarely televised in the US. The only problem for me is that because the sport is so little known in America, the snooker element in my new novel may put off my American readership.
“Americans like to read about the familiar. It’s telling, for example, that I still haven’t told my US agent that my new book involves snooker. As my younger brother inquired: ‘What’s that, a card game?'”
We Need To Talk About Kevin, Shriver’s seventh book and one which was initially rejected by a series of publishers, is a moving tale of a mother who is unable to love her own child, Kevin, especially when he murders seven of his schoolmates.
Jenni Murray of BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour, who chaired the judging panel of the £30,000 Orange Prize, described it as: “A book that acknowledges what many women worry about but never express – the fear of becoming a mother and the terror of what kind of child one might bring into the world.”
To use snooker as a key element in her new novel – a romance – is something of a departure for Shriver, who changed her name to Lionel from Margaret Ann at the age of 15 because she thought men had an easier life.
But she admits to being inspired by some of the legendary personalities of the sport and has created a snooker-playing anti-hero who dazzles the female lead.
“A lot of people have assumed that the character is based on Ronnie O’Sullivan, but in fact he’s in his late 40s and is more Jimmy White. Or rather, I took Jimmy’s status and grafted it on to Ronnie’s fast, fluid playing style,” she explained.
“That said, I catch Ronnie, whenever I can – not just the matches, but the interviews. I’ve read his autobiography. He’s a genius at snooker and I find him a fascinating character. Man, that stuff about suddenly shearing off his hair, or flirting with Islam, and constantly threatening to leave the game altogether. He’s a fragile character.”
In her passion for sport, Shriver is drawn to the loveable rogues who can cause a stir inside and outside the competitive arena. George Best was another favourite during her Belfast years.
“They’re more entertaining,” she said. “And since all celebrities are proxies for ourselves, it’s much more fun to project yourself on to a Jack the Lad than an eat-all-his-mushy-peas type who goes to bed early.”
Much of the research Shriver did for the new novel doubled as pleasurable entertainment. “I have watched obscene amounts of snooker on the BBC,” she said. “Indeed, this last couple of years, while I’ve been working on this novel, I’ve delighted in the fact that I can sit for hours in front of a snooker match and tell myself ‘I’m doing my work.’
“I’ve read a stack of books, both about snooker and biographies and autobiographies of the players that interest me. I highly recommend The Hurricane, an unauthorized biog of Higgins by Bill Burrows. I also went to a couple of tournaments live: the Masters at Wembley, and naturally the World Championship in Sheffield.”
Despite Shriver’s infatuation with snooker, she has been content to remain an onlooker rather then develop her own ability with a cue: “I have only played once in my life, in Belfast. My highest break was 1!”
And given the hypothetical choice of making a century break or winning literature’s equivalent of the World Championship title, the Booker Prize, there is no pause for thought:
“No-brainer. Give me the Booker. Hey, I’m a novelist. I’m content to enjoy snooker as a spectator. In fact, there’s a clean, sweet quality to an appreciation for a skill that you don’t have any desire to excel at yourself. It’s not contaminated with envy. It’s pure admiration and awe.”