SUSAN STAMBERG, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Susan Stamberg. Lionel Shriver's novel, "We Need to Talk about Kevin," was a bestseller - her seventh book, her first bestseller. It became a bleak and compelling film, and before any of that happened, it was repeatedly rejected by publishers and agents alike. Shriver has another book just out, which went through a similar series of no thanks. She finished this novel, "A New Republic," in 1998 and it went through a series of no thanks, no thanks, not nows until it got to yes. "The New Republic" is a very funny book, but the laughs are embedded in a deeply disturbing subject. Lionel Shriver joins us from our bureau in London.
LIONEL SHRIVER: Hi.
STAMBERG: The subject is terrorism. You write about a terrorist group purportedly based in a tiny little country on the tip of Portugal. And, oh, forgive me for collapsing this but I'm going to. A wannabe journalist gets sent there to fill in for a predecessor who's disappeared, also to cover further terrorist acts. So, that all sounds promising. How come it took so long to get "The New Republic" published?
SHRIVER: Well, it's two reasons, and I wouldn't underestimate the degree to which the first - my lousy sales record - was an ingredient.
STAMBERG: At that point, you mean, in the late '90s.
SHRIVER: Yes. I had not yet published "We Need to Talk about Kevin." That was my subsequent book, which made history in my career by actually selling a few copies. But previous to that, I was really persona non grata in New York publishing. And I don't blame them either. I mean, for heaven's sake, it is supposed to be an industry that makes money. The second reason was that my subject matter simply wasn't on the cultural map in the United States at that time.
STAMBERG: Terrorism, and Americans thought that was a foreign problem, huh?
SHRIVER: Yes. I mean, it was odd actually, because we'd had Oklahoma, we'd had the first bombing for the World Trade Center. But those incidents just didn't make a big impact.
STAMBERG: Um-huh. And then along came 9/11.
SHRIVER: Yes. And ironically 9/11 changed the fate of this book. You would think, oh, great, I've written a book about terrorism and finally I can publish it. But hardly, because the book is funny. And after 9/11, making jokes about terrorism was simply not on.
STAMBERG: So, what do you think it means that it can get published now in 2012?
SHRIVER: I think it means that maybe we finally got a bit of a sense of humor. And I think that, generally, humor is a nefariously effective weapon against terrorism, because it is the one thing that terrorists can't stand, and that's to be laughed at.
STAMBERG: Oh, they want to be taken seriously and make us terrified, and they do succeed.
SHRIVER: Not in my book.
STAMBERG: Ha, ha, ha. Yes, literally, not in your book. This story, your protagonist, Edgar Kelly, you tell us he's 5 foot 8 and - your words - dressed with festive slovenliness. He gives up a $200,000-a-year salary as a corporate attorney to take up journalism. You do some very nice riffs on journalism. One is about the power of the press. So, would you spell that out for us - the relationship between the powerful and the press?
SHRIVER: Well, in this case, I'm looking at the relationship between terrorist movements and the press and how much they need each other. If you're covering a terrorist movement, then you need things to blow up. And if you are a terrorist, you desperately need the event that you staged to be writ large, or it almost doesn't happen.
STAMBERG: So, they make one another real?
SHRIVER: They give each other jobs.
STAMBERG: Huh. But I thought the job for journalism anyway was to shine the light on the powerful and expose their abuses.
SHRIVER: Well, of course, when it comes to terrorism, journalists use their craft as often as a forum to decry what terrorists do. But the trouble is that all of that denunciation can backfire because negative attention is still attention. And rage is reaction. And so, it doesn't matter how much you pull out all the stops in coming up with adjectives about how base and cruel and inhuman they are. They feast on these adjectives. It doesn't matter. You're still giving them the reaction that they crave.
STAMBERG: Also about journalism, you say that it's a part of the journalist's job to keep in touch with shady sources and to make very nice with them. And while you're doing that keep hoping for the worst.
SHRIVER: It's a little bit of a problem when you're covering a story where there are some dodgy characters on the scene. And these are people that you need to be able to talk to. The trouble with that is if they're going to keep talking to you, then you have to make nice with them. And you can't make your copy too vicious or they're not going to speak to you again. I lived for 12 years in Northern Ireland and I saw this up close all the time, especially with someone like Gerry Adams. Journalists were always sucking up to him just to make sure that they would get the next interview.
STAMBERG: Gerry Adams, the head of Sinn Fein?
SHRIVER: Yes, yes.
STAMBERG: Then you write about making stuff up. And I wish you would read that little section from the book. It kind of makes me cringe and laugh at the same time, which is a new emotion for me.
SHRIVER: (Reading) I'm a journalist and journalists need news. Deprive them of it and they go a bit barking. Deprive them of news long enough and they'll make their own, much the way the starving will eventually turn to cannibalism.
STAMBERG: Oh, dear. Did you laugh while you wrote it or did you cringe, or both?
SHRIVER: Oh, I laughed my way all the way through this book.
STAMBERG: You've done journalism as well as this fiction. And you're done it for very good organizations - the Guardian in Britain and The New York Times. So, are you revealing to us, Lionel Shriver, your working methods or are you making sure you never get another assignment?
SHRIVER: Well, I just sit around coming up with opinions. It's really cheap and not very important. I give them a hard time, but the truth is I am indebted to foreign correspondence, and in fact, to all reporters. I think reporters are the backbone of media. And we really need people to go out there and find out what actually happened. What we think of it is neither here nor there. So, I think we could live without me and my journalism. We really need people who are going out there and harvesting the facts.
STAMBERG: I say amen and I think we've come to a perfect place to end, except I do have another question. Is your first name really Lionel?
SHRIVER: Well, that depends on whom you ask.
STAMBERG: Well, I ask you.
SHRIVER: If you ask me, of course, my name is Lionel. And that's the name on my passport. But if you ask my parents, I'm still going through a phase. I changed my name when I was 15 and never looked back. But I'm certain that back home I am still Margaret Ann.
STAMBERG: Lionel Shriver. Her latest novel is called "The New Republic." Thanks.
SHRIVER: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.