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Monday, 20 November 2006

Georg at her blog Stack blogged about it yesterday. What makes these women writers tick? Writer Lionel Shriver fingers Grub Street.

Peach-coloured sunsets may inspire many an artier writer, but I derive much of my material from black and white.

"My flat is strewn with clippings," says Shriver. "I have a special passion for the tiny stories on inside pages that most people overlook." Jane Austen felt the same. She loved reading scandal sheets, and would write about the stories she found there in letters that she sent regularly to members of her family and to friends. These letters, now collected in a single volume, have become her 'clippings'.

In fact, a newspaper story works its way into her fiction, serving as a major plot device in the novel Mansfield Park. We learn, along with poor Fanny (slumming it at her parents' Portsmouth home), that her cousin has fled from the marital domecile with Crawford, the attractive (but too Whiggish) villain of the piece. It is her father who is reading out loud from the paper, which had been borrowed from a friend (poverty prevents him from buying his own copy). Crawford was enthusiastically courting Fanny up to the point when the appalling news breaks. Fanny is shocked, but not jealous: she had another man in mind. Maybe Austen was trying to imagine what it would be like to be embroiled in a society scandal.

"We Need to Talk About Kevin [Shriver's seventh novel, which won the Orange Prize in 2005] is an attempt to imagine what it might be like for me to be a mother," said Shriver during an interview on the ABC's 7.30 Report in September. She says now:

The book on which I will soon embark took its inspiration from an article in the New York Times about middle-class American families with health insurance who are being literally bankrupted by co-payments and drug charges when major illness strikes. That article broke my heart, which made me think I could constructively break my readership's heart if I could bring such a tale to life.

"Nothing I make up will ever top real life," she says. Jane Austen would have agreed.

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