Lionel Shriver on the Writing of Should We Stay or Should We Go

Posted on 14th June 2021 by Mark Skinner

Lionel Shriver is no stranger to penning intriguing speculative fiction - from The Post-Birthday World to The Mandibles, she has utilised hugely imaginative constructs to tell an all-too-human story. Her latest novel, Should We Stay or Should We Go, provides a dozen different alternative plot strands for her protagonists to explore and, in this note to Waterstones readers, Shriver discusses both the novel's inspiration and structure.      

The story behind the book is pretty simple. I spend summers in New York. Our next-door neighbour in Brooklyn, who has suffered from her share of health issues, announced to me summarily that she had no desire to live beyond the age of 80. She was already 60 at the time, and however astonishingly for both of us (I was 62), the age of 80 wasn't really that far away. I couldn't help but wonder if, when she does turn 80, she'll be proactive. She's a serious, smart, politically engaged person, and I didn't think she’d made that declaration casually. As my readers would know, I'm attracted to parallel universe constructions to explore tough questions; in The Post-Birthday World, I explored side-by-side the different lives my protagonist lives depending on whether she opts for one man or another. If my neighbour were to cut her life artificially short, what would she miss out on? Something terrific? Or something terrible?

The novel practically wrote itself. Should We Stay or Should We Go begins with a couple still in their early fifties. As a GP and Registered Nurse in Britain’s National Health Service, they’ve both seen their share of elderly patients in states of advanced decay. Worse, the wife Kay has just returned from her father’s funeral, at which, after having been exhausted by his protracted, personality-transforming dementia, she couldn’t even get herself to cry. Her husband Cyril proposes that to spare themselves, each other, their loved ones, and the NHS the price of drawn-out degeneration in their own old age, they should pledge to committing suicide together once they both turn 80. Kay is reluctant, but after her mother also exhibits signs of advancing dementia, she agrees to the pact.

Then they turn 80.

Should We Stay constructs twelve parallel universes, exploring multiple futures for the couple, some of which stray into speculative fiction (e.g. successful cryogenics, a cure for ageing). I had an absolute ball writing this book, which may have a grim starting point, but which in its execution is playful, funny, and sometimes, I hope, touching. Both timely and timeless, the intention of the project is serious—to examine the quandary of how to live a long enough life yet still go out in style—but I think the reading experience is enormous fun, just as the writing experience was. I wrote the first draft in four months, which is a record for me. I couldn’t wait to get to work every day, because I was having such a wonderful time.

A note on the setting. I’ve been pressed by multiple British readers at my events why I don’t set more of my books in Britain. After all, I’ve lived in the UK for the better part of the last three decades. This time, I took the urging to heart. I’m hoping North American and Australian readers will find a London setting accessible. Funnily enough, using UK geography, vernacular, and politics proved far more effortless than locating the story back in the United States. Good lord, I guess I’ve finally gone native.


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