Zibby Owens: I had so much fun talking to Lionel Shriver about her latest book, The Motion of the Body Through Space. Lionel’s novels previous to that include The New Republic, So Much for That, The Post-Birthday World, and the international best seller We Need to Talk About Kevin. Her journalism has appeared in The Guardian, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and many other publications. She currently lives in the United Kingdom.

Welcome, Lionel. Thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Lionel Shriver: It’s nice to talk you. Frankly, these days, it’s nice to talk to anybody. Don’t take that wrong.

Zibby: It’s fine. I know. I feel like a lot of the people I’m interviewing are just like, it’s nice to see another face. That’s it. I’ll just be that extra face that pops up.

Lionel: You probably have a hard time getting rid of them.

Zibby: That’s fine with me. Then I can put my kids on their devices and go in another room and hide out, so it’s fine. Your latest book, The Motion of the Body Through Space, I was just saying to you is the perfect passive-aggressive, husband-wife commentary just from the beginning and is so good. Can you tell listeners what it’s about? Also, what inspired you to write it?

Lionel: It’s mostly about a couple who, I’m afraid, just as I am, are starting to get older. She’s sixty. He’s sixty-four. She’s always been athletic, although in a very private regard. She exercises by herself. She doesn’t make a big deal out of it. It has to do with her relationship to herself and not other people. Her husband’s always been pretty sedentary, one of those people who continues to look pretty damn good considering that he hardly ever climbs a stair. There are such people. I live with one of them. It’s astonishing. That involves a division of territory. That’s what marriages always do. Because she has been vigorous all her life, her knees are shot. It’s increasingly difficult for her to do what she used to do. She’s had to stop running. She still does calisthenics at home. Her physical efforts have had to be quite constrained. That’s been hard on her sense of self. One of the things that the book is looking at is how invested we have become in our exercise routines for an understanding of who we are. Then along comes her husband who decides arbitrarily one day that he wants to run a marathon. It doesn’t go down well. At the same time, we live in a culture that you can’t give anybody a hard time for wanting to run a marathon. It has that hallowed aurora of virtue. You’re supposed to be supportive and encouraging and admiring.

My protagonist has a hard time filling that role because she is resentful about what’s happening to her body. I’m not sure you’d say that she exactly misses running, but she certainly misses the ability to run. She doesn’t regard it as an especially lofty activity. When you’re used to running all the time, it’s a funny kind of dependency. The book escalates because once he’s finished with his marathon — and she does take a little too much satisfaction in the fact that he’s not very good at running. His time on the marathon is absolutely appalling. It’s over seven hours and a half. Nevertheless, he’s got the bug. Then he decides he wants to do a triathlon. The triathlon, it’s obviously based on the Ironman thing. There are lots of levels of triathlon. Of course, he has set his sights on the really extreme one. I’ve invented my own. I call it MettleMan. That’s spelled M-E-T-T-L-E. Then he takes on a personal trainer who’s half his age, incredibly sexy. The stage is set for trouble in dodge. I won’t tell you any more than that. It’s an examination of what I call the cult of exercise in the way in which we seem to have elevated it into an almost spiritual pursuit and how we use it as a vehicle to compete with each other and to achieve social status. For older people, it becomes something that we depend on to convince ourselves that as long as we exercise enough, then we’re never going to look old and we’re never going to get sick, and though we don’t put it to ourselves quite this ridiculously, that we’ll never die.

Zibby: There’s a lot. There’s so much to discuss. First of all, I love your sense of humor. In fact, when the husband says he’s ready to start running and she says, “Well, you’ve never even run before. You haven’t even run from here to the living room,” he’s like, “Why on earth would I ever run from here to the living room?” She’s like, “You haven’t even run down the block.” He’s like, “Why would I run around –” It’s just so funny. Their dialogue, it’s just so perfect. It’s so classic and beautiful. One thing that I think is really interesting is, as you were saying, people getting older and not being able to work out as much, there’s a lot of research on professional athletes who have to retire who get injured at a young age and how devasting that is. But there’s so little on just the natural course of time and what happens to people who — by the way, this could be far bigger of an impact than somebody who’s trained professionally but is only twenty-five. I know that’s devastating to have to put your career aside. But what about all the people who have depended on this, like you’re saying, emotionally? Your main character doesn’t even say she likes running that much. She’s sort of like, “Nobody likes running,” she tells her husband. “I don’t like it. I like having done it. I like how it feels.” What about that people have to —

Lionel: — Real satisfaction is having run. That’s what’s everyone , having.

Zibby: Exactly. Right, crossing it off the list. This is not fun. Are we having fun here? What do you think about all the millions of people, really, who have depended on exercise because it’s become such a thing in our culture and now have to put it aside because of their bodies all the time? What about that? What can we do about it? I don’t know. What do you think?

Lionel: I think it’s something that in combination of the media, the medical establishment, and the fitness establishment, and there is one now, the fitness industry, have all colluded to convey the impression that the more exercise you do, the better; that there’s no such thing as doing too much of it; and that the only limits to your body are in your mind. You just need to overcome your limitations. Once you start encountering those limitations, that’s not something you overcome. This whole idea that pain is simply something to get over or to get past is completely wrong-headed because often the pain is indicating you’re doing something stupid. It becomes emotionally disconcerting when something goes wrong with your body and you can’t do what you used to do, and especially when what’s gone wrong is partly as a consequence of having been so vigorous, having pushed yourself so much. It’s like you’re being punished for being good. It feels unjust. I think we have linked exercise too much into a kind of moral order of the universe. My novel in so far as it’s promoting a perspective is suggesting that maybe we notch it proportionally into not a moral or a spiritual matter, but a mechanical matter. That doesn’t mean it’s not important, but it just has to do with making your body function so you can do other things in it.

Where I object to the way a lot of people seem to get caught up in exercise is that it becomes their whole raison d’être, their whole purpose in life. I can’t tell you how tedious these people become. Between ourselves, I was at a dinner party about a year ago with somebody who had discovered running. Running is boring. It’s boring enough to do. There’s only one thing that’s more boring than doing it. That’s talking about it. This person did nothing but insert running into every little moment of the conversation. Whatever story she was telling, she’s like, “When I was running around Hyde Park… When I was running the second circuit of Hyde Park…” It’s a kind of over-obvious boastfulness. It really backfires socially, by the way, to warn you all out there. Oh, for pity’s sake. This is a person that I actually knew pretty well, and it made me like her less, uncomfortably, because she had just bought in. It’s not as if getting into running’s fresh. I would’ve been more fascinated if she’d taken up crochet.

Zibby: I have to say, that conversation may have made you like her less, but it’s absolutely made me like you more, so if there’s a benefit to it. It’s so funny. You’re saying the things that so many people think but then they’re sort of ashamed to admit about other people’s passions. It’s pretty funny.

Lionel: You’re never supposed to give people a hard time about their wonderful fitness regimes. Especially, converts are prone to go on and on about it. I think that it’s actually, funnily enough, one of the dividing lines between people who have been doing it for decades and people for whom it is just this life-changing discovery. For the most part, people who do it for decades don’t talk about it. When it’s been folded into your day as probably one of the least interesting parts of your day — it’s a necessity. Ultimately, it makes you feel better. But then, this is widely known that it has some benefits. When you get a chance to talk to somebody else, especially these days, what a relief to be able to talk about something else.

Zibby: I think sometimes, though — I am not a big runner, but a few times since this pandemic has happened I’ve been relying more on running than I ever have. I’ve been thinking about it almost curiously holding it in my hand like this new object, like, oh, look at that. I know this logically, but look, when my body actually does this, look at all the benefits. I find that sometimes talking about it is almost a way of unpacking something that even though you know it emotionally when you do it yourself, you just have to share the curiosity about it or the newness or something to it.

Lionel: I do have a ritual, an almost set conversation, the content continues to change, with my younger brother who’s also something of a fitness freak and is also getting just old enough, he’s about to turn sixty, that he is starting to experience constraints. Things are going wrong. In his case, I’m absolutely certain it’s because of having been, I hesitate to say fanatical, but certainly dedicated. Something’s going wrong with his shoulder. He’s having nerve damage. He does a lot of weights. I haven’t done that much weights, but he has. I think it’s really starting to tell. He and I, we have a kind of state-of-the-body discussion on a monthly basis. Basically, what’s going wrong with you now? You had that trouble with your foot. Are you able to go back to running yet? No. How much is the strength in your left arm decreasing? Because we’re sharing our gradual decay together — also, he and I, on this level at least, have never had any trouble with competition, which is what corrupts these conversations. When they go off, they’re a series of one-ups . It’s unpleasant. This is much more a mutual sharing of grievances and disappointments. I think it does make us both feel better.

Zibby: I also think it’s interesting in your book because women, as you point out — the main character in your book, when she was growing up, women barely had to go through PE. They did like five sit-ups.

Lionel: It was a joke.

Zibby: Right, it was like, whatever. You had some amazing women athletes go through this pathetic school rigmarole who had to find outlets for their amazing athleticism elsewhere. This character also was basically ignored and had to be — she does five hundred sit-ups on her own every day without even thinking twice about it. What about all those women who are now getting older who love working out, or don’t love it, but need it? It’s just very interesting because most books don’t talk about that older female character who has had to reinvent herself and use exercise in that way, the way that your book does, which I found super interesting.

Lionel: Most books that involve athleticism are about triumph, so Rocky III. They’re always about overcoming difficulties. You’ll sometimes have plots in which your brave, noble, powerful protagonist has a problem because that’s what you need for plots. Sometimes it’s an injury. Sometimes it’s a terrible loss of confidence or a bout of depression, but you can bet that in almost every book they’re going to get on the other side of it and go win something, and all very well. That’s the kind of fairytale we always like to read. I don’t think it’s much of a comfort to normal people. I think it’s important to be able to talk about our limitations with each other and our disappointments as well as talking about our triumphs.

Zibby: I got your older book called Double Fault because I love tennis. I’m trying to write this novel with a tennis theme. It says, “A novel about marriage: the ultimate sport,” which is the best subtitle basically ever. I kind of want you to just sit here and make fun of my marriage the way that I feel like your eye does to so many scenes. I feel like I could use that comic relief. You must have a very personal connection to — you must be an amazing athlete, first of all. I was sitting here reading all this stuff thinking you must be this unspoken female athlete who you keep writing about and you’re just too modest to discuss it. Is that true?

Lionel: As soon as we get into this area, I get anxious because I’ve noticed that any kind of claims to especially amateur athletic achievement backfire with people. There’s a line I don’t think you got to in the book yet by one of the younger characters who says, “Anybody who exercises less than you is pathetic. Anybody who exercises more than you is a nut.” I think that’s true. Essentially, you can’t win. Whatever I tell you about what I do or have done, your audience is going to be measuring what I say in relation to what they do. On either side of that line, I lose. If they have always run way more than I have, I’m pathetic. That’s nothing. If I’ve always run more than they have, then there’s something wrong with me. I’m a nut. I have a problem. I’m probably going to avoid the specifics of whatever I do. All I will say is that I have been pretty dedicated on the physical front since I was in my early teens. You can tell when you’re reading the book with whom your author sympathizes, and it’s not the guy who’s out there doing all these public events. For me, it’s always been a private matter and, again, having to do with my relationship with myself and trying to keep the little house in which I walk around in reasonable order. To me, it really is a lot like vacuuming the carpet. You just try to keep your body in a sufficient shape that, as I said earlier, you can do other things in it. It’s not a big claim to fame.

The thing is I’ve always found it really heartbreaking when people have a relationship to their bodies that is hostile. That relationship can be consuming for a lot of people in a really unpleasant way. I find that very sad. I’m afraid that’s especially the case with women, though that neurotic relationship has become more masculine as well. After all, there’s a big connection between my current book, The Motion of the Body Through Space, and a previous novel. It’s a couple books back called Big Brother, which is all about obesity. I steered very carefully clear of issues of weight in the new book because I feel I’ve already dealt with that. I don’t want to be redundant. They are, in some ways, companion pieces because I’m interested in the broader issue of our relationships to our bodies. That also means that, especially as the years advance, I’m interested in the experience of aging. That’s something that, whether or not you’re interested in it now, it will eventually become interested in you. You don’t have much choice unless you’re just going to die early, and that’s not exactly enviable either. It’s fascinating. It’s one of the hardest things in the world to do well.

Zibby: Very true. Your book seemed to have your finger on the pulse of basically everything that’s going on. Each book seems to tackle something very timely, as you’re saying, obesity. That was through the lens of your brother, if I understood correctly.

Lionel: My older brother.

Zibby: Your older brother. You book, We Need to Talk About Kevin, of course with the violence, and The Mandibles with the financial crisis. There’s always some link to something going on, and of course, exercise. I feel like you’re the Forrest Gump of tackling topics with your novels the way that he kept bouncing through all of them. I’m curious as to what is coming, what the next one will be for you, what topics. What do you see as the next big thing? Are you already working on another novel?

Lionel: Oh, yeah. I’m almost finished with the first draft. I wrote an earlier novel called The Post-Birthday World which is a parallel-universe book which looks at a woman’s life depending on which man she ends up with and how it contrasts. I enjoyed that format. It’s very playful. I’m applying that to a couple who resolve when they’re in their early fifties that, because it’s all downhill from about the age of eighty, in order to spare themselves, their families, and the healthcare system, they are going to kill themselves when they get to eighty. In this book of course, they don’t necessarily do that. It looks at many different outcomes if they don’t. Obviously, most of the outcomes are interesting when they don’t. What would they have missed out on? In the last couple of chapters, it gets into science fiction. I have such fun with this book. It is a riot. Again, it’s very playful. It does little deliberate repetitions and taking up. I think it’s really important that it be fun because of course the material is a big drag. It’s about aging and mortality. Oh, great, let’s read that. I can’t wait. Because of the premise and the way that it’s organized so that even if you have one of the couple die, then the next chapter they’re alive. I don’t want to say that the reader is not asked to take it seriously, but it’s a kind of thought experiment about the different possible outcomes for the end of our lives. It’s a big issue.

By the way, this is an issue that’s not going anywhere anytime soon, including with the coronavirus. It’s enormous. Especially as we continue to have extended life expectancy, I think it’s worth asking, what are the limits of our tolerance for the degradation of our quality of life? It’s all very well for us to say, I would never go to a nursing home. I would find that intolerable. I think that. The loss of freedom, for example, having other people wipe my bum and being told you can’t have a second , being in other people’s control would drive me crazy. But who knows what’s going to happen, really? People accommodate decay by degrees. They accommodate sacrifice by degrees. Then before you know it, you’re in a circumstance putting up with limitations that you never would’ve thought you would’ve tolerated when you were younger. This in infinitely interesting.

Zibby: That sounds amazing. My grandmother is ninety-six. She’s in a nursing home, essentially. It’s a collection of apartments, but it’s a glorified nursing home. Right now, they won’t even let her leave her tiny little apartment to take a walk down the endlessly long hallways because of the coronavirus.

Lionel: That sounds awful.

Zibby: She’s so upset. It’s terrible. She doesn’t totally get it because she’s getting a little confused. It’s just the worst. We can’t go visit her.

Lionel: Sounds like torture.

Zibby: Right?

Lionel: Torture, solitary confinement.

Zibby: Although, confinement with my children also feels torturous. No, I’m kidding, but not really kidding. In case they’re listening, I love them. Confinement against your will in any situation is just not pleasant, as we’re all finding around the world right now. Do you have any advice for aspiring authors? You’ve written so many books. You’ve continued to stay relevant at every turn. Now your new book sounds even greater. The one that I’m currently reading is amazing. What’s your advice? How do you keep coming up with ideas that really speak to people and include your sense of humor which I’m a huge fan of?

Lionel: I think the main thing is to write whatever you damn well please. That means go ahead and write about a kooky subject if you are interested in it or it pertains to you or captures your imagination. The key is just to follow your own heart and your own creative sense, whatever gets your juices following. It also applies to any sense of political limitations you may have. Be brave. The world is your oyster. That’s one of the things that’s great about being a fiction writer. You can write about anything. That’s in fact what makes it daunting because that much freedom is frightening and can lead to a kind of paralysis. That’s why when I choose my subjects, I just go with whatever little freaky thing floats my boat. Then even along the way, I use lots of little tidbits. As long as they are the source of some emotion in my life, that’s usually a good sign that I can do something with it. I don’t think you’ve got to it in the book yet, but the new book, the exercise book, there’s a backstory. The husband, Remington, he works for the department of transportation in Albany. He gets very excited about this issue of LED streetlights because you can choose different kelvin ratings. It really matters what it feels like in a city depending on which new streetlights they put in. When they put in the really bright, hard, blue ones, everything looks ugly and you want to kill yourself. It’s a kind of assault. He’s really into making sure that Albany puts in attractive, lower level, warmer streetlights that are still going to save energy that make life beautiful at night.

I just grabbed this because I spend part of the year in New York City. In my neighborhood of Brooklyn, and of course this is spread throughout the entire five boroughs, they’ve put in really, really awful, cold, blue, glaring, hideous LED streetlamps. It drove me to despair. You wanted advice for writers. I’m just giving you an example of something that had nothing to do with my life in fiction. It was a part of my regular life. I even wrote an op-ed for The New York Times complaining about these lights, not that it did any good, like most op-eds. Use your passions, whatever they are, just something that stirs a reaction in you. That can be something public like these streetlamps. It can be something much more private, something that’s driving you crazy with your spouse or one of your best friends, whatever. Look for where the heat is.

Zibby: I love that. I think I’m going to start keeping a list now of all the things that are pissing me off. You never know, maybe they’ll find their way into a book.

Lionel: You’re right.

Zibby: Right? I should. It would probably be beneficial for many reasons to be doing that right now anyway, get it off my chest. Thank you so much for this conversation. I’m sorry I did not finish your book in time. I almost always get a chance to finish, and I just didn’t. I’m so sorry. It’s not for lack of respect.

Lionel: Everyone has an excuse for everything now. We’re all excused. Right now, we’re all excused.

Zibby: I know. I’m sorry.

Lionel: Free hall pass, get out of jail free, everything. You read some of it. We had a delightful conversation.

Zibby: Thank you for understanding. Thank you. Thanks for writing. I’ll continue to follow you forever. I’ve had The Post-Birthday World, by the way, on my bookshelf since it came out. I love the color of the cover. I loved the book. I actually think of you more than you might know because of its placement. Thank you. Thanks for the chat.

Lionel: It was a pleasure. Bye.

Zibby: Bye.