Shriver was born Margaret Ann Shriver on May 18, 1957, in Gastonia, North Carolina, to a deeply religious family (her father is a Presbyterian minister). At age 15, she informally changed her name from Margaret Ann to Lionel because she did not like the name she had been given, and as a tomboy felt that a conventionally male name fitted her better.
Shriver was educated at Barnard College, Columbia University (BA, MFA). She has lived in Nairobi, Bangkok and Belfast, and currently lives in London.
She is married to jazz drummer Jeff Williams. She also taught metalsmithing at Buck's Rock Performing and Creative Arts Camp in New Milford, Connecticut.
Shriver identifies as a libertarian.
Shriver wrote seven novels and published six (one novel could not find a publisher) before writing We Need to Talk About Kevin, which she called her "make or break" novel due to the years of "professional disappointment" and "virtual obscurity" preceding it. In an interview in Bomb magazine, Shriver listed her novels' subject matter up to the publication of We Need to Talk About Kevin as "anthropology and first love, rock-and-roll drumming and immigration, the Northern Irish Troubles, demography and epidemiology, inheritance, tennis and spousal competition, [and] terrorism and cults of personality". Rather than writing traditionally sympathetic characters, Shriver prefers to create characters who are "hard to love."
We Need to Talk About Kevin was awarded the 2005 Orange Prize. The novel is a close study of maternal ambivalence, and the role it might have played in the title character's decision to murder nine people at his high school. It provoked much controversy and achieved success through word of mouth. She said this about We Need To Talk About Kevin becoming a success:
I'm often asked did something happen around the time I wrote Kevin. Did I have some revelation or transforming event? The truth is that Kevin is of a piece with my other work. There's nothing special about Kevin. The other books are good too. It just tripped over an issue that was just ripe for exploration and by some miracle found its audience.
In 2009, she donated the short story "Long Time, No See" to Oxfam's 'Ox-Tales' project, four collections of UK stories written by 38 authors. Her story was published in the 'Fire' collection.
Shriver's book So Much for That was released March 2, 2010. In this novel, Shriver presents a biting criticism of the US health care system. It was subsequently named a finalist for the National Book Award in fiction. Her work The New Republic was published in 2012.
Her 2013 novel, Big Brother: A Novel, was inspired by the morbid obesity of one of her brothers.
The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047, published in May 2016, is set in a near-future in which the United States is unable to repay its national debt and Mexico has built a wall on its northern border to keep out US citizens trying to escape with their savings. Members of the moneyed Mandible family must contend with disappointment and struggle to survive, after the inheritance they had been counting on had turned out to have turned to ash. A sister bemoans a shortage of olive oil, while another has to absorb strays into her increasingly cramped household. Her oddball teenage son Willing, an economics autodidact, looks as if he can save the once august family from the streets. It was "not science fiction", Shriver told BBC Radio 4's Front Row on 9 May 2016. It is an "acid satire" in which "everything bad that could happen ... has happened" according to the review in the Literary Review.
Shriver has written for The Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times, The New York Times, The Economist, contributed to the Radio Ulster program Talkback and many other publications. In July 2005, Shriver began writing a column for The Guardian, in which she has shared her opinions on maternal disposition within Western society, the pettiness of British government authorities, and the importance of libraries (she plans to will whatever assets remain at her death to the Belfast Library Board, out of whose libraries she checked many books when she lived in Northern Ireland).
In online articles, she discusses in detail her love of books and plans to leave a legacy to the Belfast Education and Library Board.
She expressed criticism of the American health system in an interview in May 2010 while at the Sydney Writers' Festival in Australia, in which she said she was "exasperated with the way that medical matters were run in my country" and considers that she is taking "my life in my hands. Most of all I take my bank account in my hands because if I take a wrong turn on my bike and get run over by a taxi, I could lose everything I have." She is a patron of UK population growth rate concern group Population Matters. She was interviewed on Newsnight on BBC Two (on British television) the night of December 17, 2012, questioned about the issue of whether the United States should change gun control laws after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting.
As the 2016 keynote speaker at the Brisbane Writers' Festival, Shriver gave a controversial speech about cultural appropriation. Shriver had previously been criticized for her depiction of Latino and African-American characters in her book The Mandibles, which was described by one critic as racist and by another as politically misguided. In her Brisbane speech, Shriver contested these criticisms, arguing that accusations of racism and cultural appropriation were tantamount to censorship and that all writers ought to be entitled to write from any perspective, race, gender or background that they choose. The full text of her speech was published in the British newspaper The Guardian.The Female of the Species (1987)
Checker and the Derailleurs (1988)
The Bleeding Heart (1990)
Ordinary Decent Criminals (1992)
Game Control (1994)
A Perfectly Good Family (1996)
Double Fault (1997)
We Need to Talk About Kevin (2003)
The Post-Birthday World (2007)
So Much for That (2010)
The New Republic (2012)
Big Brother: A Novel (2013)
The Mandibles (2016)
The Standing Chandlier (2017)