Passed/Failed: An education in the life of Lionel Shriver, Orange Prize-winning novelist

'I was told I was special and smart'
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The Independent Online

Lionel Shriver, 50, who changed her first name from Margaret Ann in her teens, won the 2005 Orange Prize with We Need to Talk about Kevin. Her eighth novel, The Post-Birthday World, comes out in paperback on Monday

In the main, I think I enjoyed school, but I didn't enjoy being told what to do. I went to Fred A Olds Elementary School (no, I don't know who he was) in Raleigh, North Carolina. I was intoxicated by my capacity to use words. My parents wrote – not fiction – and I grew up speaking in complete sentences with correct grammar. When older, I often had better grammar than my teachers. I'm still a pedant.

When I was given assignments that had a creative element, I really went to town. I used to write ridiculously long – my stories would run to 30 pages. I pity my poor teacher.

I'm sure my assignments had extended to 35 or 40 pages when I went, at 12, to LeRoy Martin Junior High (I don't know who he was, either). I was a fanatic about after-school activities. I was president of the debating club, which ended up being one of the most fortunate choices: I'm called on to do a lot of public speaking and achieved an ease with an audience. One of the topics was streaming classes by ability. I thought it was a good idea; I was in the top group and I thrived. My best friend was in the middle group, so was on the other side in the debate. I benefited from streaming, as I was told I was special and smart. These early brandings stay with you for life and a lot of success depends on just that faith in yourself.

When I was 15, we moved to Atlanta, Georgia, and I went to Henry W Grady High School (another, to me, utterly meaningless name). The best thing was that they introduced "independent study programs", which got you out of the classroom for two-thirds of the day; I could go downtown to the public library – or anywhere else. I had hated my name since I was eight and, now that I had left my friends, moved to a new town and had a clean slate, I couldn't bear to fill in "Margaret Ann" on the badge you wore when out of the classroom. I was a tomboy and now called myself Lionel.

An awful lot of students spent an awful lot of time in the stairwells smoking dope, but I was a goody-goody nerd. My first paper was about overpopulation, and must have been a hundred typed pages. I still follow the subject, and the culmination of the research is in my fourth novel, Game Control. You usually take SATs, the nationwide tests that are important for university entry, at 17, but I took mine at 15 in order to enrol for Russian classes at Emory University, also in Atlanta, where my father taught.

I remember taking an American-history test at Grady. The teacher was famously strict and not given to compliments, but she asked me if I wanted to be a writer: "Your answers were unusually well written," she said. Teachers can make a huge difference. I still remember that, 35 years later.

At 17, I went to Emory for a year, then transferred to Barnard College, Columbia University, in New York. I have always felt a little queasy about majoring in creative writing. Theoretically, I think it's better for a writer to get educated in something with more intellectual content, such as history; but I needed an audience, which college provided. This was mostly workshops with a bunch of other people who probably couldn't write either, ripping each other's stories to pieces.

I graduated magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa. I stayed on for my Masters, and as a thesis wrote my first novel, Early Retirement. It was all about career failure – and it was never published, thank God. At least it wasn't overly long. In fact, most of my novels have been of pretty standard length. Only the last one got seriously long.

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