Lionel Shriver has been a fan of the work of Richard Yates since she read his first novel, Revolutionary Road. So when she was asked to read the late, neglected author's short story "Doctor Jack-o'-lantern" at Small Wonder, the festival held every year at Charleston, East Sussex, she jumped at the chance.
Shriver, whose novel We Need To talk About Kevin won the Orange Prize in 2005, says: "Once I got into the novels, I read his collected stories. 'Doctor Jack-o'-lantern' is a very good example of where Yates is able to write about a character and a small incident which is actually quite ugly. He is mean to a teacher who has only been nice to him. But somehow you understand it. In some weird way, she brought it on herself.
"He's very good at spreading the sympathy around," she continues. "That is something I aspire to in my own work and don't always achieve. I really like it when you have a clear-eyed view of a character. To be able to understand their faults and at the same time have compassion for them, is the kind of balance I really appreciate in a fiction writer."
Yates has a cult following, but never sold more than 12,000 copies of any one hardback and all his books were out of print when he died in 1992. "Now that Revolutionary Road is becoming a movie, Yates is being rediscovered," says Shriver, "but until very recently most people had never heard of him. It is not a just world and great writers get swallowed up. I'm sorry that it takes a movie to get people to read people's books, but I'm very pleased for him – even posthumously – that it's refocused attention on his work."
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