Singapore Writers Festival

Writing from a place of fear

Before doing research for The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047, Lionel Shriver had no interest in the economy.
Before doing research for The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047, Lionel Shriver had no interest in the economy.PHOTO: SARAH LEE

American author Lionel Shriver, whose new book is about an economic apocalypse for the United States, says she does so to "exorcise" her own anxiety

When American author Lionel Shriver landed in Changi Airport, she learnt that Mr Donald Trump had been elected President of the United States.

"I stared and said 'What?' at the top of my lungs," she said.

"This is a beautiful city, so I'm disappointed to inform you it will always be associated in my mind with the election of a moron."

In town for the Singapore Writers Festival, Shriver gave a talk, An Unflinching Eye Into Truth, on Sunday at the National Gallery auditorium.

Mr Trump's win could turn what she intended as a work of speculative dystopia into "historical fiction". Her latest novel, The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047, imagines an economic apocalypse for the US in the near future.

The 59-year-old, who is "petrified" of this vision, believes it has become more tangible with last week's election results.

The Mandibles is told through the eyes of four generations of a once well-to-do American family, who experience financial ruin as the US dollar crashes, the national debt is reset and basic necessities such as toilet paper run out.

Shriver wrote the book before this year's election, but it has found uncanny resonances - not least in the building of a wall between Mexico and the US, as Mr Trump had vowed on the campaign trail to do.

In her book, Mexico does indeed pay for the wall - but it is built to keep out desperate American immigrants.

The racial tensions that played a part in Mr Trump's win also form an undercurrent in the novel.

Shriver said at the talk: "I anticipated that there was going to be a sector of the white American population that wasn't going to go quietly, that resented the fact they were losing their hegemony and becoming part of a more diverse society that they don't control anymore.

"This election was the beginning of a last gasp of white dominance that is doomed demographically."

Shriver, who is best known for her 2003 novel, We Need To Talk About Kevin, came up with the idea for The Mandibles when she contemplated what would happen if she lived as long as her paternal grandfather, who died aged 96.

She realised this meant she would live until 2053. "I was horrified," she said. "I'm afraid of what will happen by the middle of the century. Then, I got interested in taking apart why I was so anxious."

Shriver, who previously had no interest in the economy and would use the business sections of the newspaper to clean her windows, dived into economic research.

She discovered that the field had become "bizarrely apocalyptic" since the 2008 financial crisis. "It's not that much different from reading science-fiction."

From there, she crafted the nightmarish future of The Mandibles, throwing in everything that made her nervous - water crises, food shortages, an ageing population that outnumbers the younger generation forced to support it.

The character of Enola Mandible, an elderly novelist obsessed with jumping jacks, is based on Shriver. She included Enola as a kind of "mea culpa" to younger readers: "I'm sorry, it's my generation that's going to be a big problem."

Shriver, who lives in the United Kingdom and is married to jazz drummer Jeff Williams, may write from a place of fear, but she does so to get it out of her system.

"It's a way of exercising and exorcising my anxiety. It's the best possible way to explore your own nightmares - the ultimate safe space."

Audience members found Shriver's talk as unflinching as its title promised. "She is brutal and minces no words," said housewife Anjali Nayyar, 45.

Civil servant Jaime Lim, 39, said: "I like that she's realistic about a future we don't want to face. Her work is a warning sign we shouldn't ignore."

•The Straits Times is the official media partner of the Singapore Writers Festival. For more stories on the festival, go to http://str.sg/4x7R

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 15, 2016, with the headline 'Writing from a place of fear'. Print Edition | Subscribe