Lionel Shriver is known for bringing a brutally honest perspective to current events in her newspaper columns and fiction. Her latest novel, “Big Brother,” examines our complex contemporary attitudes toward food and body size. It’s the story of a 40-year-old woman caught between a fitness freak husband and a morbidly obese brother. She must chose whether to risk her marriage or try to save her brother from eating himself to death. The author’s own brother died from weight-related complications four years ago. We talk about America’s preoccupation with food and how it affects all our relationships.

Guests

  • Lionel Shriver journalist and author. Her novels include “So Much for That,” “The Post-Birthday World” and the 2005 Orange Prize-winner, “We Need to Talk About Kevin.”

Read An Excerpt

Excerpted with permission from “Big Brother” by Lionel Shriver. Available from Harper. Copyright © 2013. All rights reserved.

Transcript

  • 11:06:56

    MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Lionel Shriver dedicated her latest novel to her older brother, Greg. He died three years ago at the age of 55 from complications of obesity. The title of her novel is "Big Brother" and tackles America's fraught relationship with food.

  • 11:07:21

    MS. DIANE REHMThe book also raises questions about conflicted responsibilities we often feel about those we love. Lionel Shriver joins me in the studio. Please call us, 800-433-8850, join us in our conversation by email to drshow@wamu.org, join us on Facebook or send us a tweet. Good morning to you.

  • 11:07:51

    MS. LIONEL SHRIVERGood morning Diane.

  • 11:07:53

    REHMI'm so glad you're here. I've read so much about you and certainly after reading this book titled "Big Brother" a novel I recognized that you wrote about your own big brother in a column. Tell us about him.

  • 11:08:20

    SHRIVERWell, my brother ended up getting quite large toward the end of his life but for most of his adulthood he was slender as could be. And as with so many people who end up getting heavy, his story was complicated, it wasn't simply he had an uncontrollable appetite for cupcakes.

  • 11:08:44

    SHRIVERHe had two severe accidents. He was beaten up by a baseball bat and then he was T-boned on his moped and both of those incidents nearly killed him. And that meant that he had restrictions on his mobility, he could hardly walk and on top of that he was a heavy smoker and he dragged this oxygen machine behind him all the time.

  • 11:09:11

    SHRIVERAnd it was heartbreaking because he was quite an accomplished person and I'd always admired him. He dropped out of school when he was 14 years old and he taught himself to become a sound engineer from just reading books and this was before the Internet. So it was hard to be an autodidact in those days. You had to go to the library or the bookstore.

  • 11:09:38

    SHRIVERAnd he ended up being Philip Glass's sound engineer when "Einstein on the Beach" went to New York. He toured through Europe with Harry Belafonte. So, you know, he's a really accomplished person.

  • 11:09:55

    REHMExactly.

  • 11:09:55

    SHRIVERAnd one of the reasons I wanted to write the book was I got frustrated by the way I could once he became quite heavy that when people saw him on the street or dealt with him socially when he went to a restaurant. All other people saw was some fat guy and I really resented it.

  • 11:10:18

    REHMYou resented it but how did he feel?

  • 11:10:24

    SHRIVERIt was hard to tell and it, in fact I get at this in the book, when someone is very heavy you don't talk about it. That's so weird, I mean it's the literal elephant in the room and there was only one conversation we ever had about the fact that he had grown so large.

  • 11:10:44

    REHMAnd we should say above 350?

  • 11:10:48

    SHRIVERDefinitely.

  • 11:10:49

    REHMDefinitely close to 400?

  • 11:10:51

    SHRIVERClose to 400 by the time he died and we had a conversation in a restaurant and he gave me permission to address it because he just said at some point, "Hey, I know I'm fat." In fact I use that line in the book, I couldn't resist it. And that paved the way for me to say well, you know, have you ever say, considered gastric bypass surgery. But I would never have felt that I could bring that up without his giving me the okay.

  • 11:11:26

    REHMWere you close to him when you were children?

  • 11:11:34

    SHRIVERI was closer to my younger brother but I really admired my older brother and especially before my younger brother came along, my older brother was my protector. And he was always a symbol to me of the renegade, the outlaw in our family.

  • 11:11:57

    REHMBut his, he really was not the only catalyst for your writing this novel?

  • 11:12:06

    SHRIVERClearly not, in that, you know, obesity is not just a personal issue in our, in my particular family. It is a huge social issue and I'm always on the lookout in fiction for just those subjects that have profoundly personal dimension but also have ramifications in a social sense and perhaps even political sense.

  • 11:12:28

    REHMAnd of course you are so trim and fit, have you always been that way?

  • 11:12:36

    SHRIVERPretty much, actually I went through one experience when I was 17 years old of gaining weight and I didn't become a, you know, massive roly-poly.

  • 11:12:45

    REHMBut you ate lots of doughnuts?

  • 11:12:47

    SHRIVERYes, I mean, I...

  • 11:12:49

    REHMCupcakes.

  • 11:12:49

    SHRIVER...I took a trip to Britain with the wrong friend, if you will, and she was rather heavy and definitely sedentarily inclined. And so rather than go to a lot of museums we ended up sitting around in Hyde Park and eating pastries. And I never have lived this way, I'd always got a lot of exercise. I generally didn't eat a whole lot of sugar or eat a whole period.

  • 11:13:15

    SHRIVERSo this was a walk on the wild side as far as I was concerned. And I didn't realize I could gain weight because I'd always been active and had never really had a weight problem. So I didn't count calories and boy were there a lot of calories to count that summer.

  • 11:13:32

    REHMAnd when you got back home?

  • 11:13:35

    SHRIVERI came home and I got off the plane and my little brother said later, only after I'd dropped the weight, because again, you know, you don't say anything, "My God you got off the plane and you were fat." And I, that is my one experience and I got up to about, I think I was 124 which is definitely more than 20 pounds more than I weigh now.

  • 11:13:57

    SHRIVERAnd dropping that weight was awful and I, you know, oddly looking back on it I'm glad I had that experience because it helped to inform this book and it made me, you know, watchful for the rest of my life. Now, that did entail a loss of innocence and that much I regret.

  • 11:14:22

    SHRIVERI wish we could all go back to just eating when we're hungry and quitting when we're full and that seems to have gone the way of the horse and buggy.

  • 11:14:33

    REHMBecause there is so much food available?

  • 11:14:39

    SHRIVERI think that we are contending with the problem of plenty and we're not biologically cut out to deal with endless plenty. And in this way we should all just give ourselves a break because as animals we instinctively want to take advantage of resources that are available to use now because we are designed essentially to overeat when we can and then we can live off that fat during the lean months of winter.

  • 11:15:10

    SHRIVERUnfortunately the months of winter are, now have a Pizza Hut across the street. And I just don't think as animals we're cut out for this kind of constant availability and therefore the restraint that's required of us just walking down the street with all those muffins, it's unnatural. It has to be learned behavior.

  • 11:15:34

    REHMAnd don't forget the sofa in front of the television enticing us to every imaginable food out there, enticing us, really to get to the refrigerator and have another snack.

  • 11:15:53

    SHRIVEROne of the things that hit me when I came back to the United States a week ago, because I live in London most of the year, was the adverts on television. And how much of the advertising here is food and that's not the case in the UK. They have almost as bad an obesity problem as we do so it's not as if, you know, the Brits are skinny Minnie's.

  • 11:16:21

    SHRIVERBut the messages you're hit with over here are constant, you know, and, you know, eat, eat, eat Subway, eat pizza, eat, you know, all the images of food.

  • 11:16:36

    REHMAnd drink.

  • 11:16:36

    SHRIVERAnd drink and soda.

  • 11:16:40

    REHMWhich, you know, I think is going to be a problem for more and more and more people unless the country together really decides to do something about it. You saw how New York Mayor Bloomberg was chastised and rung over the coals because of what he's done.

  • 11:17:07

    REHMBut in any case I want to get back to "Big Brother" because the tension that this 40 year old woman has between her husband who's a fitness freak and her brother, who weighs more than 350 pounds, trying to figure out how she can help him.

  • 11:17:34

    SHRIVERI think one of the things that people who have a member of the family who becomes very heavy has to deal with is that sense of helplessness and while in my novel there's a midpoint where the brother Edison has been visiting for two months and it's a matter of either putting back on the plane to New York where he came from or do something.

  • 11:18:03

    SHRIVERMy narrator has to contend with whether or not to take him on. The truth of the matter is that for the most part we can't take each other on and in the novel she sets up an apartment with her brother and they go on this severe all liquid diet together and there's an element almost of fantasy there.

  • 11:18:28

    REHMLionel Shriver, her new novel is titled "Big Brother." I hope you'll join us, questions, comments, call us on 800-433-8850.

  • 11:20:05

    REHMAnd welcome back. Novelist and writer Lionel Shriver is with me. Her new book titled, "Big Brother." She is a journalist and author. Her novels include "So Much for That," "The Post-Birthday World," and the 2005 Orange Prize winner, "We Need to Talk About Kevin." It's as though, Lionel, you're writing about people who have really serious problems.

  • 11:20:45

    SHRIVERWell, don't we all? I mean, yeah, and that's just my way of saying that I write about real people. And there are plenty of people out there who have the same problems that my main character Edison has.

  • 11:21:01

    REHMHere is an email saying: 124 is fat. I know an anorexic, I would be considered heavy. Both of us can work out hard, we're both fit. It's people who emphasize body image who cause much of the stress that causes both problems. How do you respond to that?

  • 11:21:31

    SHRIVERI totally agree. I think that one of the problems is that we are taking this too seriously and I feel conflicted because, of course, what I should be doing is saying, oh, this is so important, you know, in order to sell my book. Read about this incredibly important issue. But I also think that we have all become body fascists and we over-interpret in terms of character and even in terms of moral standing what we weigh.

  • 11:22:03

    SHRIVERAnd I am sick of the way that we follow how much celebrities weigh. There are websites that follow what celebrities weigh and when they gain a little bit.

  • 11:22:15

    REHMAnd think about fashion models.

  • 11:22:17

    SHRIVEROh, it's ridiculous. And we see -- we judge not only other people in accordance with their figures, but we judge ourselves most severely. And, you know, there are people who are making themselves miserable on a daily basis just because they weigh, you know, five pounds more than they think they should.

  • 11:22:38

    REHMWhen you were younger, where were your parents?

  • 11:22:46

    SHRIVERIn our house. I mean, I think my parents did an excellent job in relation to diet and nutrition because it just wasn't a big deal. And, you know, we were told that we had to finish our plate before we got dessert. You know, it's from that generation. We always had to finish our vegetable. That was era that a lot of them would have been frozen. So maybe I would do that differently. But otherwise, we ate balanced meals. They were modestly portioned and we just didn't discuss it much.

  • 11:23:25

    REHMAnd did all the children eat pretty much the same way?

  • 11:23:32

    SHRIVERYes. And there was, you know, a modest weight fluctuation and my younger brother went through a period of being slightly pudgy but it was no big deal and he ended up growing out of it. And the fact that we didn't make a big deal of it, I think, was healthy.

  • 11:23:50

    REHMWhen you saw your brother gaining all this weight, did you try at any point to save him as your narrator tries to save her brother?

  • 11:24:10

    SHRIVERIn truth, no. And I don't think that I was in a position to save him. But I did have an interesting moment, which in some ways is the seminal moment for this novel. My brother had gone in the hospital. He was visiting my parents in New York and had a crisis caused by the fact that he didn't bring his sleep apnea machines and made him delirious when he work the next morning because the carbon dioxide builds up in your blood and make you really out of your mind.

  • 11:24:47

    SHRIVERHe'd been in the hospital for about eight days and it looked as if he was going to pull out. And because I was his health proxy, the doctor ended up having to deal with me in London and rang up and said that, well, it looks as if my brother is going to come out of this and we have to discuss what the next step is. So I said, you know, I gather your hospital is renowned its work with obese patients. Would you take my brother on?

  • 11:25:18

    SHRIVERWould he be a good candidate for, say, a gastric bypass? And the doctor said, actually he'd be an excellent candidate but there were two caveats. He would need someone to take care of him after the surgery and he would need somewhere to live in the New York area because my brother lived in North Carolina. And that was the moment because my husband and I have a house in Brooklyn and it has granny flat with a separate kitchenette and bathroom. And I thought, oh, my God.

  • 11:25:52

    REHMI can do this.

  • 11:25:53

    SHRIVERI could probably do this. Do I want to? I'm not so sure. Well two days later my brother took a sudden turn for the worse and he died. So I got out of it and the novel is in a way an exploration of what if. You know, what if my brother had survived and I took this project on? What would it be like?

  • 11:26:21

    REHMSo you really allowed yourself that full freedom to imagine what it would have been had you taken him on and what are some of the situations that come up in the novel.

  • 11:26:43

    SHRIVERWell, one of the things that the book explores is whether you can save someone from themselves, right? And I think it's one of those typical fictional questions that gets asked but not quite answered. The problem in the novel is that the brother decides to go on this (unintelligible) diet with his sister partly to please her and to win her away from her husband.

  • 11:27:08

    REHMWho is a fitness freak.

  • 11:27:11

    SHRIVERYes. And they're in a competition for her affections. This is in some ways a love triangle. It's not an erotic love triangle, but it's still a love triangle. And that's not quite the right reason to lose weight. It's -- there's not quite enough self-motivation, self-concern. So it's too much to do with the sister and that's a problem. And, you know, I'm highlighting. You have -- if you're going to successfully lose weight, you have to do it for your own reasons.

  • 11:27:43

    REHMExactly.

  • 11:27:44

    SHRIVERAnd not to please someone else. And that's why this whole saving someone doesn't really quite work, doesn't add up.

  • 11:27:52

    REHMWhat happens when this brother wants to get on a plane, wants to get into a car, out of a car. What are their situations?

  • 11:28:03

    SHRIVERWell, the physical nature of being very heavy, it makes everything arduous. It's difficult for Edison to get onto an airplane. When he does get on an airplane, he offends his fellow passengers because, of course, he takes too much space and he occupies the arm rest. You know, this has become a running problem on airplanes with people who are thin, resent fat people for taking up more space than they paid for.

  • 11:28:38

    SHRIVERIt's hard for him even to get in and out of a car. When he gets in the car he has to spool out the seatbelt to its maximum extent and, you know, there's a really unfortunate scene when he really hits bottom before going on the diet when he's been severely constipated and clogs up the toilet. And that's, you know, that's really humiliating for him. And I think that's one of the things that turns him and makes him voluble for Pandora's plan to go on this diet.

  • 11:29:18

    REHMWhy did you make Pandora, Edison's sister, a stepmother?

  • 11:29:25

    SHRIVERI have this idea of her as someone who is always second, you know? She's been second to her brother. She's the middle sister. She's been consciously modest and by design has wanted to have an ordinary life. She's moved from L.A. to the middle of the country where her grandparents were from in Iowa and it made sense to me that she had finally found love rather late in life, she wouldn't have had her own children but she would take on someone else's children.

  • 11:29:59

    SHRIVERThere's a generosity in her and a modesty that I thought was emblemized by that having willingly taken on other people's kids.

  • 11:30:09

    REHMAnd if both of them represents how torn she can be because she is a generous spirit.

  • 11:30:23

    SHRIVERYes. I mean, that's -- it's her generosity that explains her capacity to do what she does in the middle of the novel and sequester herself with her brother. But, you know, the trouble with being generous is you can't be generous with everyone at the same time. And so naturally she ends up deeply offending her husband and, in fact, at length putting that marriage at risk.

  • 11:30:47

    REHMHe is, that is her husband, is what? How could you characterize him beyond being a fitness freak?

  • 11:31:00

    SHRIVERWell, he's a control freak in general. I mean, I'm interested in the way that our relationships to food express larger character and matters. So that he is a furniture maker by trade and he makes those custom-made furniture that doesn't sell very well because it's too expensive. And so he's not satisfied professionally and he seeks out total control over his body as a substitute for other forms of success. And I think that's very commonplace.

  • 11:31:34

    REHMWhereas she has made a great deal of money with a business that's called Baby Monotonous. What's that all about?

  • 11:31:45

    SHRIVEROh, I had a lot of fun with it.

  • 11:31:46

    REHMI bet you did.

  • 11:31:51

    SHRIVERI wanted to invent a business that would be entertaining not only for the characters but also for the reader. And my narrator gave her husband a doll, a custom-made, handmade doll with a mechanism in it, like the pull string dolls that I would have grown up with the Chatty Cathy, only this one has recordings in it that make fun of his relationship to food and fitness. So it will say something like, I want dry toast. I want dry toast.

  • 11:32:26

    SHRIVERWell, her younger sister saw this doll and wanted one for herself to make fun of her boyfriend who never stops saying things like good to go and other fad-ish expression.

  • 11:32:41

    REHMSo custom-made.

  • 11:32:42

    SHRIVERThey are custom-made. So she starts this business because everybody wants one. And they are very expensive because you can imagine they're labor intensive but they become a national fad. And she ends up on the cover of magazines because she's a famous entrepreneur now, even New York magazine runs an article about her called Monotonous Manhattan because -- and they have Mayor Bloomberg dolls made up. And it's an accidental success because she never intended to become famous.

  • 11:33:20

    REHMThe novel is titled, "Big Brother" and Lionel Shriver is with me and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Tell me about the name Lionel. It was not your original name.

  • 11:33:39

    SHRIVERNo, though it has been my name for over 40 years. I changed my name with I was 15.

  • 11:33:45

    REHMWhy?

  • 11:33:47

    SHRIVERNot to put too fine a point on it, I hated my name.

  • 11:33:50

    REHMWhat was it?

  • 11:33:51

    SHRIVERMargaret Ann.

  • 11:33:52

    REHMAll right.

  • 11:33:53

    SHRIVERWhich is a perfectly acceptable, pleasant...

  • 11:33:55

    REHMLovely.

  • 11:33:56

    SHRIVER...name.

  • 11:33:56

    REHMSure.

  • 11:33:56

    SHRIVERIt just happens to be someone else's name, so I decided to give it back. And I've been very pleased I did. I've talked to other people who changed their names and they feel the same way. It's more of an aggressive affection for their name. It's not just an acceptance, it's an embrace.

  • 11:34:15

    REHMBut yours sounds like a male name.

  • 11:34:20

    SHRIVERIndeed and I was a tomboy and that's part of the explanation.

  • 11:34:24

    REHMAnd when you met your husband, you introduced yourself as Lionel.

  • 11:34:31

    SHRIVEROf course.

  • 11:34:31

    REHMAnd he liked the name Lionel?

  • 11:34:36

    SHRIVERYes, I think he does like it.

  • 11:34:37

    REHMI'm glad. Tell me how you felt about winning the Orange Prize.

  • 11:34:44

    SHRIVEROh, it was one of the best nights of my life and I have a feeling that even if I ever do win another prize, it won't be the same. I think it had to do with that first one. And I never won anything. I mean, the last time I won or win any prize was in second grade for writing an essay about the renovation of the school cafeteria. We really have to go back at the age of seven. And one of the things that made that moment mean so much to me, you know, you mentioned my husband, was my husband's reaction.

  • 11:35:21

    SHRIVERHe was at my side and the moment they announced it, I turned to him and I looked at his face. And it was such an expression of unambiguous delight, you know? And that's when I knew I had married the right man.

  • 11:35:36

    REHMAw, that's lovely. And yet you won it for a book that went through a great many publishers before finally found where it belonged.

  • 11:35:50

    SHRIVEROh, this is a typical authorial fairy tale and I would want other writers to take heart from it because it was a widely rejected manuscript.

  • 11:36:00

    REHMAnd we're talking about, "We Need to Talk About Kevin."

  • 11:36:04

    SHRIVERThat's right. And, you know, everyone hated it.

  • 11:36:08

    REHMThirty. Thirty publishers hated it.

  • 11:36:13

    SHRIVERAnd then it went on to become a best sellers. I had one of those, again, fairy tale moments running into an editor at a party a couple of years ago and he confessed that he was one of those people who had rejected Kevin and he's felt like an idiot ever since.

  • 11:36:33

    REHMBut there's one more consolation to that story in terms of your husband.

  • 11:36:42

    SHRIVERWell, the truth is that my agent who hated the book and rejected it and we split up, well, my husband and I have both divorced from the same woman because two years after they split up and I'd split up with my agent over this book, we found common ground and got married.

  • 11:37:08

    REHMI'm so glad. And I want to talk about "We Need to Talk About Kevin" after we come back from the break. And I'm sure many of our callers are going to want to talk about a whole array of issues, including food. I hope you'll stay with us.

  • 11:40:05

    REHMAnd welcome back. Lionel Shriver is with me. Her latest novel is titled "Big Brother." Going to open the phones and then we're going to hear her read. First, let's go to Kathleen in Chapel Hill, NC, you're on the air.

  • 11:40:28

    KATHLEENHi, thank you so much. I have a couple of quick comments...

  • 11:40:30

    REHMSure.

  • 11:40:31

    KATHLEEN...I wondered if you could response to.

  • 11:40:32

    REHMOkay.

  • 11:40:33

    KATHLEENI work in a lot of areas that are designated food deserts and so although there seems to be a culture of plenty in the United States, there is a really serious correlation between hunger and access and obesity. And so that's one. And then also I know a lot of parents who get really freaked out with just the huge role chubbying up during toddlerhood and during pre-adolescents which, you know, seems to be a pretty normal preparation for a big growth spurt. And so I just wondered if you could maybe comment on both of those issues.

  • 11:41:09

    SHRIVERAs for the chubbying up, I like that expression, you know, I noted with my younger brother that when he gained a little bit of weight and it wasn't toddlerhood, but it was, I don't know, maybe he was 10 years old and nobody made a big deal out of it. I think that that was the right response. Parents are often making kids so self-conscious about what they eat that they become much more consumed with food.

  • 11:41:41

    SHRIVERAnd I think that's one the problems that we're all having that that putting food center stage, talking about it all the time as we're doing now, is in fact back-firing because it makes us think about it all the time and ultimately it means that we eat more of it.

  • 11:41:58

    REHMWell, but what is the answer here? I mean, is it a program on how or what is normal or what is beyond normal? I mean, what's the answer with all, as you said earlier, is advertisements, the availability, the walking down the street or turning on your television? What's the answer?

  • 11:42:31

    SHRIVERI'm not sure there is an answer. I know that when I walk down the street, I just don't feel that those things pertain to me. I just screen them out. And I think when you participate in fast food that you are more vulnerable. But if you just don't eat any of it, then it's like looking at trees, you know, it's just scenery. So that when I pass a Jack in the Box or something, I'm not fighting an attraction.

  • 11:43:01

    REHMRight.

  • 11:43:01

    SHRIVERIt just doesn't happen for me.

  • 11:43:03

    REHMHere's an email from Karen in Cooper City, FL. She says: "Fat? Really? Is that a word you both enjoy using? Diane, I thought better of you. This is the most completely judgmental program I've ever heard. Humans are far different from animals. We enjoy the taste of food. Animals eat to live. According to all the judgments you've been passing, I'm a fat and offended person. I work for someone who is upset because she is getting fat.

  • 11:43:48

    REHMShe can't fit into a size 4. I would be happy to fit into a size 14, but I'm very happy to have lost enough weight to be down to a size 2x."

  • 11:44:05

    SHRIVERWow. That's impressive?

  • 11:44:08

    REHMSo?

  • 11:44:09

    SHRIVERI am totally sympathetic with the sensitivity to the word fat, which does now carry a lot of judgment with it. And one of the things I explore on this novel is the degree to which we judge people who are heavy in a way that is beyond, oh, you know, that's not healthy for you. All that business about health is just used as a cover to denounce you as somebody who has, you know, no sense of self-control, no self-respect.

  • 11:44:40

    SHRIVERI mean, we conclude all kinds of truly appalling things about people who are overweight. We assume, you know, that you're lazy, for example, whereas plenty of people who are carrying a few extra pounds work extremely hard. I am aggrieved, for example, that it's still widely practiced to discriminate against people in employment because they're heavy. And I think that heavy people face an enormous amount of prejudice.

  • 11:45:15

    REHMWould you read for us from your novel?

  • 11:45:20

    SHRIVERI've selected a section which is exploring my sense of confusion, why we take appearance to be the same thing as the self. And I really think we need to keep that distinction. My narrator is distressed by looking at photographs of herself, partly because they make her feel seen to other people in a way that most of the time she's not aware of.

  • 11:46:00

    SHRIVER"The fact that my clothing has been visually available to other people I do not find upsetting. The body is another matter. It is mine. I have found it useful, but it is an avatar. Given that most people presumably content with justice rattling disconnect between who they are to themselves and what they are to others, it's perplexing why we're still roundly obsessed with appearance.

  • 11:46:28

    SHRIVERHaving verified on our own accounts the feeble link between the who and the what, you'd think that from the age of three we'd have learned to look straight through the avatar as we do through a pane of glass. On the other hand, I sometimes suspected that my female employees who are lavishing $50 per week of their modest salaries on makeup had mastered the secret that eluded me most of the time and only intruded when I looked at snapshots.

  • 11:46:56

    SHRIVERLike it or not, you are that to other people. You may not recognize your heavy thighs, your cornflower eyes, but they do. And competent interface with the rest of the world involves manipulating that irrelevant, arbitrary not you image to the maximum extent, ergo if the makeup's application was skillfull, that 50 bucks could not have been better spent.

  • 11:47:21

    SHRIVERWhich brings us back to weight. Ever since Edison gave me cause to, I've made a study of this, the hierarchy of apprehensions when laying eyes on another person. Once a form emerges from the distance, it is clearly a human and not a lamp post. We now log one gender to size. This order of recognitions may be universal in my part of the world, though I do not believe size has always been number two.

  • 11:47:48

    SHRIVERYet these days I'm apt to register that a figure is slight or fat even before I pick up a nanosecond later that they are white, Hispanic or black, especially when the subject in question is on the large side. Many of us probably detect on the large side, even before determining large person of which sex. Accordingly, an eyewitness testimonies to the police, slim, average build, heavy set or some more refined variation thereof, features without fail.

  • 11:48:17

    SHRIVERIn fiction, authors who do not immediately identify roughly how much a character weighs are not doing their jobs and walk on thumbnails in short stories invariably begin something like, Allison, a tall skinny girl with freckles or Bob was affable, gregarious man whose enjoyment of imported British ales was beginning to announce itself in his waistline."

  • 11:48:42

    REHMLionel Shriver reading from her new novel, "Big Brother." Let's go to Birmingham, MI. Good morning, Sue, you're on the air.

  • 11:48:56

    SUEHi, good morning. I, first of all, have to applaud the woman who sent the email. I have had a personal experience with being fat, quite obese. And one of the things that happened with me is in the late '90s, early 2000s, my doctor prescribed phen phen. When I took it, it was the first time I ever felt full. So I don't believe that it's just fat people should stop eating when they're full. I think there's more to it than that.

  • 11:49:29

    SUEAnd the second thing I wanted to say is, I'm not considered as fat as before, due to the local hospital's liquid diet that was monitored every week. So I do think that there is some relevance in that. But I am very offended by this presentation.

  • 11:49:48

    SHRIVERI'm a little concerned that you're misinterpreting this presentation because, you know, I am worried that we have become so judgmental about figure and that we draw far too many conclusions on the basis of what someone weighs. I think that we are constantly confusing people's appearance with their value as people and their identity as people.

  • 11:50:16

    REHMExactly.

  • 11:50:19

    SHRIVERAnd that offends me. That's what I'm offended by, not people who are heavy. And I'm also impatient with the way that a lot of thin people end up using the health issue to cover up their own sense of disgust or fear. I think a lot of it is fear. I think a lot of thin people are terrified of becoming fat and then they project that fear onto heavy people. And, you know, I'm dismayed by how neurotic we've become about the whole issue.

  • 11:50:55

    REHMAbsolutely.

  • 11:50:55

    SHRIVERSo essentially, I'm on your side.

  • 11:50:58

    REHMThanks for calling, Sue. To Lighthouse Point, FL. Good morning, Arla.

  • 11:51:04

    ARLAGood morning, Diane. Hi, Lionel. Actually, just a couple comments. I don't think it's a judgmental thing that's going on in the program. I do think there's a lot of reasons why people overeat, that it just can't be out of pure enjoyment because of the health-related issues and things that come from that. But my question is, I wonder if there has been data out there that looks at modified food and how it affects our satiety.

  • 11:51:37

    SHRIVERI'm not very familiar on studies on modified food. By modified food, what do you mean?

  • 11:51:44

    ARLAI mean that, for example, like potato chips. They say you can't just have one, that...

  • 11:51:49

    REHMSugar and salt.

  • 11:51:51

    SHRIVEROh, I know what you're talking about.

  • 11:51:52

    REHMSugar and salt.

  • 11:51:53

    SHRIVERThere was a big article on this in the New York Times recently.

  • 11:51:56

    REHMRight, right.

  • 11:51:57

    SHRIVERAbout the way that they do all these focus groups to design flavors in such a way that they are maximally addictive. And it's, you know, yes, it's definitely a problem and the only solution to that one is to avoid those foods. And you have assume if you buy a bag of potato chips that they have been designed for you to finish the bag.

  • 11:52:24

    REHMTell us why you decided to write this story in 3x. I'm not going to give away any of the ending of the book. But clearly, it's made some reviewers angry.

  • 11:52:46

    SHRIVERYou mean the end of...

  • 11:52:46

    REHMYeah.

  • 11:52:49

    SHRIVERWell, of course, it's difficult to talk about because we don't want to spoil the ending. There was one logical ending to this book. You know, Edison loses and then gains it back again. And I just wasn't happy with that. I didn't like the negativity of that and the, you know, being so dark on the possibility of losing weight if that's what you want. So I needed a third way.

  • 11:53:24

    REHMAnd you found it. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." There was also lots of pushback about the book, "We Need to Talk About Kevin." What was that like for you?

  • 11:53:40

    SHRIVERWell, I got accused of being anti-motherhood.

  • 11:53:42

    REHMRight, right.

  • 11:53:44

    SHRIVERWhich is utterly absurd. I mean, it's just like being anti-human race, which I am some days but not all the time. And that was interesting. I got thrown into what had become something of a war between people who are parents and people who decided not to have any children. And both of those groups, being quite self-justifying. Their parents can't go backward, so of course it becomes very important to them that parenthood is a virtual requirement of the happy life.

  • 11:54:17

    SHRIVERAnd a lot of the people who chosen not to have children couldn't go back either because they had not had kids and couldn't any longer. And also we're very defensive. And so, you know, the discussion could grow quite shrill.

  • 11:54:31

    REHMAnd you, did you decide to have or have not?

  • 11:54:38

    SHRIVERBy the time I finished that novel which was, in some ways, an exploration of what frightened me about becoming a mother, I had decided that parenthood was probably not for me.

  • 11:54:50

    REHMWhy?

  • 11:54:50

    SHRIVERBut it wasn't meant to be prescriptive.

  • 11:54:52

    REHMYes.

  • 11:54:52

    SHRIVERRight? I mean, that's my choice and I wouldn't push it on anybody else. I think that I don't have the patience. You know, in some ways, I'm not quite nice enough a person, but I have enormous admiration for people who take on what has to be the most important job in the world.

  • 11:55:09

    REHMBut you were challenged. You were hit. You were -- people really got angry with you over that book and what subsequently became that movie.

  • 11:55:26

    SHRIVERWell, of course the movie is not neither to my credit nor is it my fault. But the book started a conversation which is in some ways still going. And that -- I'm glad that I was able to contribute to that conversation and act as a catalyst. I did find that there were a lot of readers who were incredibly grateful to see a representation of parenthood in a novel that wasn't all rose-tinted.

  • 11:55:58

    SHRIVERYou know, that got some of the frustrations and even the boredom of raising children which, you know, you're not really given permission to talk about.

  • 11:56:07

    REHMAnd in a sense, you've written another book about things that people are afraid to talk about.

  • 11:56:16

    SHRIVERWell, you know, the conversation that we've been having on this show, especially I thought was valuable to discuss that term fat.

  • 11:56:24

    REHMFat.

  • 11:56:25

    SHRIVERVery, very interesting, is a good example. I mean, I hope that when I write a novel and it finds an audience that it doesn't just inform and entertain in and of itself but it starts a conversation. I mean, I think this would be a good book group book. I think that while we ostensibly talk about weight issues a lot and it's all over the magazine and the newspapers, somehow we're not telling the truth.

  • 11:56:50

    SHRIVERAnd, you know, for example, I don't think we honestly address the degree to which we judge each other according to how much we weigh. And I think we confess exactly how much space we're allowing food and food issues to take up in our minds.

  • 11:57:10

    REHMFinal email from Barbara who says: "Tell your guest to get ready to license her doll idea. People are going to love it." Lionel Shriver, she's journalist and author. Her newest novel is titled "Big Brother." Really, really interesting to talk with you. Thank you.

  • 11:57:36

    SHRIVERIt's been delightful.

  • 11:57:38

    REHMThank you. And thanks for listening. I'm Diane Rehm.

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