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Last Updated: Tuesday, 7 June 2005, 21:37 GMT 22:37 UK
Honesty is key for Orange winner
By Ian Youngs
BBC News entertainment reporter

The Orange Prize, the fiction award for female authors, has gone to US author Lionel Shriver for We Need to Talk About Kevin.

Lionel Shriver
Readers are "very hungry" for honesty, Lionel Shriver says
The word-of-mouth success that has taken her book from low-key publication two years ago to a high-profile award ceremony on Tuesday is down to its honesty, Shriver says.

The brutal candour in her story of a mother who feels despair and a lack of interest in a difficult child touched a nerve with mothers who had, at some point, felt a similar way, the author says.

But while most women are unable to admit those feelings, Shriver - not a mother herself - holds no qualms about smashing such a taboo.

"I have a narrator who says stuff you're not supposed to say all the time," she says.

"People find that a tremendous relief when you say out loud what other people are thinking. I honestly think that's it."

People are "very hungry" for that kind of truthfulness, she says.

It is the same kind of honesty that obliterates her false modesty and lets her admit she "really" wanted to win the Orange Prize.

Lionel Shriver

And, more than that, she also expected to win it. "I just had a good feeling," she reveals.

"I think women are not usually very comfortable admitting something like that to themselves - or to anyone else.

"But I have been very ambitious from the start on this prize. I wanted it. I wanted it badly."

After 20 years as a struggling author, Shriver was ready to give up after We Need to Talk About Kevin.

So the award is both vindication for her past toils and encouragement to carry on.

"I'm not an overnight success," the 48-year-old author says. "I never thought I would get to this point, I was so tired.

It's definitely a book you either love or hate
Lionel Shriver
"I was just running out. I was just so drained. I never got anything back. And even when something seemed to go really well, you get your hopes up and it's just very tiring."

When the book was published by small company Counterpoint Press in 2003, it could easily have sunk without a trace.

But a group of female New York literary figures latched onto it and began spreading the word.

"One of the things that is salutary about the publishing history of this book is that it's a real word-of-mouth book," according to Shriver.

"It was readers who got me here. Single, individual readers who bought the book and told their friends."

We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver
We Need to Talk About Kevin was published in 2003
It soon became a minor sensation, helped by the controversy its hard-hitting storyline provoked.

"It's definitely a book you either love or hate," she says.

"I either have somebody tell me it's the best book they've ever read - or I have some reviewer spitting blood that this has even been longlisted for the Orange Prize.

"You should look up the Irish Times review of this book," she says. "Yeah, it's hilarious. It's the most vicious review I've ever gotten."

The Irish Times, it turns out, tore into the novel's "voyeuristic, conversational nastiness" and "repulsive story".

But that did not stop the book's two-year journey to the Orange Prize ceremony.

Along the way, it bucked the publishing industry's trend that usually sees books disappear if they do not have instant success, Shriver says.

"If you don't get on the bestseller list and you don't necessarily win one of those prizes right away, you're always sent back to Go," she says.

One of the things this prize means to me is that maybe I can't backslide to oblivion
Lionel Shriver
Writers who do not enjoy hits "end up younger than your years in an unpleasant sense, in that you're still an aspirant, much like you were just out of university", she says.

"And it's really humiliating to be an aspirant at 48."

But the Orange Prize now means Shriver can look to the future - and not worry as much about the fate of her next work.

"One of the things this prize means to me is that maybe I can't backslide to oblivion," she says.

"And maybe I can worry about whether or not the new book on my desk is good, rather than whether it's going to be published."

Watch Lionel Shriver discuss her 'taboo-breaking' novel

Motherhood tale wins Orange Prize
07 Jun 05 |  Entertainment
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Levy 'thrilled' by Orange award
09 Jun 04 |  Entertainment


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