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If you like Carol Shields's story, you might also like:
Joan Didion,
Nora Ephron,
Ernest Gaines,
Louise Glück,
Nadine Gordimer,
John Irving,
W.S. Merwin,
Joyce Carol Oates,
Amy Tan and
John Updike

Related Links:
Carol Shields Trust
Guardian Interview 1
Guardian Interview 2
Canadian Writers

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Carol Shields
Carol Shields
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Carol Shields Interview (page: 5 / 6)

Pulitzer Prize for Fiction

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  Carol Shields

We've seen it written about you, that you believe in the possibility of happiness. That seems apparent from your writing.

Carol Shields Interview Photo
Carol Shields: That always surprises me when I hear it said, because I have days, like everyone, where I wake up and the world, indeed, seems pretty black. But I must have more optimism than I know because people do comment on this so often. I have had a lucky life. I've been lucky in friendship and lucky in love, I suppose, and in having a lot of the big pieces of life; you know, having children, having consuming passions, intellectual passions. That has enormously enriched my life. I mean, there are all kinds of things that I know nothing about, but I've always had something that consumed me. So I think I've been lucky, and that has given me a sense of happiness, yes. I have always, of course, noticed that my students don't write about moments of happiness. They like to write about moments of great darkness and despair. And we once went through an exercise of looking up in the thesaurus and found that the English language is far richer in the language of despair than it is in the language of happiness. And furthermore, the words that attach to happiness have been totally eroded by the pop culture, by greeting cards, by everything that takes those few words we have -- jubilation, joy, euphoria, and so on -- and just made sort of dishrags of them.

Do you think young people, in particular, need to express that angst?

Carol Shields: Yes. And also the sense that you can't be serious unless you write about that. That's a very false sense that we've somehow handed over.

When you were a young poet, or even as a student, were there mentors, were there teachers that encouraged you and were important to you?

Carol Shields: There was a lot of encouragement and very little mentorship. My teachers, the school I went to, and my parents, everyone encouraged my little writing successes, and the writing I did -- I was a great writer of sonnets. When I was in high school, I was carrying around my little notebook and scribbling these sonnets. They weren't very good, and someone probably should have told me, but nobody did. They were all published in this beautiful literary magazine the high school put out. I needed probably someone to say, "This stuff is derivative. Try something in your own voice." It took me a long time to get to that place of trusting my own voice.

When did you suspect that you had your own voice?

Carol Shields: I can't remember that, but...

I can remember a moment of illumination, and it was when I was writing a series of poems. I was 29. I remember exactly because I wanted to enter them into a competition, and the competition was only open to people under 30. So I was right at the deadline of this. I did what I have never done before. At the end of each poem, I asked myself, "Is this what I really mean?" and it was the first time I felt I took myself seriously. I was not thinking of that reader, what that reader would -- what the expectations of that reader -- and I think we can never think about that. That's like thinking about market. We have to say -- and I put that question to myself very sternly, and it often resulted in the rewriting of the poem to make sure I said what I really meant. Now this is a piece of wisdom you would think I would have absorbed at once, but in fact, it seems I'm one of these people who has to learn the same thing over and over again. So there have been many times in my writing life where I've had to remember that.

[ Key to Success ] Preparation

That you need to be true to yourself above all.

Carol Shields: Yes. Yes. That I can't think about the expectations of the audience.

The more you hone that, the more the audience responds, of course.

Carol Shields: Yes, of course. Yes. Anyone can be charming. You have to resist, I think, being charming.

Amy Tan was interviewed after the great popularity of Joy Luck Club, her first novel. She was in her 30s when she published that, and she said it had taken her that long to realize that she had something to say. It's astounding, when you read that novel, that this person doubted that she had something to say.

Carol Shields: Yes. Yes.

Are all writers afflicted with that self-doubt, or is this something about women? Tillie Olson wrote that women's voices tend to be muffled in our society, or were for many years.

Carol Shields: Yes. Yes. I think she's right about that.

Tillie Olson also wrote something that worried me a little bit in the late '60s or early '70s, and that is that women who've had children, families, are not going to be serious writers. I think she's wrong about this. She's thinking about Virginia Woolf, for example, or the Brontës, or George Eliot or Jane Austen. Of course, these women did not have involving marriages, and they did not have children. But being a mother opened life for me. I think too, that it puts you in a privileged position. You are, as a parent, a witness to the development of character. You also, I suppose, have been through a certain fulfillment of your biological life, and more and more I appreciate that my own children -- they're grown children now -- give me another window on life, another generational perspective that I wouldn't have. My daughters always read my manuscripts before they go to the publisher. I value their comments enormously. I think they're honest. I think they're kind, probably too kind, but what they have to say is fresh. It's from that country of youth.

Have any of them followed in your footsteps?

Carol Shields: My youngest daughter is trying very hard to be a poet right now.

The youngest, again.

Carol Shields: The youngest, yes. Yes.

You must have been quite disciplined when you began to write, because you still had young children to look after. Did you have a schedule? Most of us don't have five children these days, and we have trouble finding time to write a postcard.

Carol Shields: Yes. Yes.

I didn't write when the children were very small at all. I hardly had time to read a book, never mind write one. But when they all got into school, I thought maybe I could try, and I used to try and catch that hour just before they came home for lunch, between 11:00 and 12:00. I was not terribly disciplined, but I was disciplined enough to ask myself to write two pages. And in those days, I could write two pages in an hour. I can't do it today. And later in the day I could, perhaps, get back to that for a few minutes. And it was a surprise to me. I mean, if you write two pages a day, you have ten pages at the end of the week. At the end of a year, you have a novel, and I did have a novel. All of this surprised me that these writings, these little segments, added up to something larger.

[ Key to Success ] Perseverance

Didn't Hemingway say the hardest thing about writing is getting the butt in the chair? Do you find that to be true, that you dawdle or you procrastinate?

Carol Shields: Yes.

There are days I don't want to do it. I don't want to pick up that pen, it feels so heavy, or get myself onto the word processor. And like every writer, I have tricks that I do to get me into that flow. My favorite trick, which seems rather eccentric, is I have a huge dictionary in the room where I write, and I open it at random -- you know, the way people used to open the Bible for inspiration, they just open it -- and I read a page of the dictionary. What that reading does is it puts me into that cool, quiet place of language. Because the problem with being a writer and having a busy life is that it's not just finding the time to write, it's finding the time around the time, where you can be calm, and where you can re-enter that fictional part of yourself. That's one of my tricks. Most writers have a handful of them to get to that place. After 10 minutes, 20 minutes, I'm into it, and I can then proceed into the day of writing. And often that day -- five or six hours, I have much more time now in my life -- it'll seem like 30 minutes. Your whole idea of time becomes distorted, and you know when that happens that you're having a good writing day.

[ Key to Success ] Perseverance

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This page last revised on May 05, 2008 08:32 EDT
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