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Carol Shields

Interview: Carol Shields
Pulitzer Prize for Fiction

May 23, 1998
Jackson Hole, Wyoming

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When did you have an idea that you wanted to write fiction?

Carol Shields: I wrote as a child. I was a schoolgirl writer. Every school has one of these girls, you know, who writes the class play, and writes the class poem, and everyone says, "Oh, you're going to be a writer when you grow up." I didn't, in fact, think I would. It felt like wanting to be a movie star. It didn't feel achievable. And so, for many years, like all of the girls of my generation, I married young and had a family and didn't do any writing at all, until the last child entered school, and then I began to think about, well, maybe I could. I was a poet first. It seems like another life to have been a poet, but I did have two books of poetry published in my 30s, which is pretty late for a poet, actually. They're supposed to be dead at 29.

I wanted to write a novel because I loved to read novels, and I wasn't finding in the '70s the kind of novels that had anything to do with my life or the sort of women that I knew. So I wanted to write the book that I couldn't find, as it were. So I sat down, when the kids were at school -- I was a stay-at-home mother, and I wrote while they were at school -- and put this novel together over a period of nine months. I always thought that was a sort of interesting length of time. Because at the end of nine months I had a novel. It was a short novel, and it seems to me today, when I look at that novel, a little bit on the spare side. But it was published. It was accepted on my 40th birthday, which made that birthday a much happier one than it might have been, and it won a prize in Canada, and I was sort of on my way. After that, I thought, well, this is something I love to do and maybe it's something I can do. So that's how my writing life evolved.

Didn't you say once that you were almost embarrassed by the idea of wanting to be a writer, like wanting to be president, because it seemed that far off a dream?

Carol Shields: Yes. Well, being a writer, when you think about it, is a very presumptuous thing to be. I meet people every day who are better educated, better traveled, wiser, older, whatever. Why would anyone care about anything I had to put on the page? So I did, yes, I felt -- I felt uncomfortable, and that had to do, I suppose, with growing up as a girl in America and thinking that these things could not be allowed; that you couldn't have a voice.

Let's go back to your childhood a little bit. Where did you grow up, and what did your parents do?

Carol Shields: I grew up in Oak Park, Illinois. It's a suburb, the first suburb on the west side of Chicago. We didn't know Chicago. I grew up next to this wonderful city and didn't know it. We stayed in our suburb, a very conservative, very white, completely white suburb in those days -- completely changed now -- tremendously conservative, everybody went to church. I never met anyone who didn't go to church. And of course, it had wonderful schools, small classes, extraordinary teachers. We were a privileged lot in some ways. Where we weren't privileged was in the breadth of our experience. It was a pretty narrow place to grow up, very parochial. So you come out with a set of attitudes, go away to university, and then you're surprised that the world is so big, that there's so much more there.

It seemed, you know, that childhood, when I look back on it, was far more complex than I realized at the time. Not everything fit into the pattern. It's something that I want to go back to one day and look at it again. There were puzzling pieces to that whole childhood that I either refused to look at or didn't quite manage to articulate to myself.

Were you in a big family?

Carol Shields: There were three children. I was the youngest of three. My mother was unusual in that after we were launched in school she had a job. She was a school teacher. She went back to school teaching. They needed teachers after the war. So most of the mothers were stay-at-home mothers. My father worked in an office. That's all I knew. It was an office downtown, and the fathers disappeared, went off to work. It was funny, I grew up with a funny idea about work.

People in those days had -- in the '40s, '50s -- had two weeks vacation a year. That was it. And it seemed to me that work was something to dread. It was an oppressive obligation that weighted all of us when we got through the charmed childhood. People spoke about work as something that was a burden that they had to bear. But I had a teacher in Grade 4 -- and, by the way, all of the schools in my town were named after writers, so this was Ralph Waldo Emerson Public School -- I could tell she loved her job. She loved it. She got there early, started each day with sort of a joyous burst, was devoted to us. I could tell she loved her job, and that was a very important thing for me to understand and to understand it early, that work could be a good thing.

You said you're the youngest of three. Do you think that being the youngest affected your personality?

Carol Shields: It probably did. Looking back, it did probably affect. I was certainly a very cherished child in the family. My parents -- my terrible little poems I wrote as a child, they were very encouraging about these. I remember my mother sitting at the kitchen table and writing down, "Spring is here. Hooray. Hooray. Boys and girls come out to play." All of this terrible drivel, but she would actually commit it to paper.

Were you close to your siblings?

Carol Shields Interview Photo
Carol Shields: I had a brother and sister who were twins, and they were a year and a half older than I was. Very close to them, no. But maybe not, you know, we tend to have friends our own age and in our own grade at that time. It was sort of a contented family without being a particularly happy family, and that's something, you know, I'm still thinking about how all that worked.

What about your brother and sister now?

Carol Shields: My brother is a retired engineer. He was a mechanical engineer. My sister was a school teacher, and she is retired now.

Were they kind of a close duo because of being twins?

Carol Shields: No, not at all, and they are not particularly today even. That twinship thing didn't seem to produce any particular waves of great affection or -- that is curious. Their interests were very different, and their lives have gone in very different ways.

Last year we interviewed Frank Sulloway, who wrote the book Born to Rebel about birth order. It's his contention that the youngest is often the revolutionary, the daredevil. Was that at all true?

Carol Shields: I've read that book, and with enormous interest because I have five children myself and, of course, I was interested in how all of that worked out. One of the things he says, of course, is that the youngest is the creative one. I think, in the case of our family, that may have been so, that I was allowed a kind of, a set of freedoms that maybe my brother and sister were not, though we were, of course, quite close in age. As far as being a revolutionary, it seemed to me that I was in a revolt against nothing that I could name. But of course, just being a writer is a form of rebellion.


Carol Shields: I've led a creative life. It doesn't fit into the standard sets of professions that, perhaps, our parents saw for us. My parents very much wanted my brother to be an engineer. I'm not quite sure how much he had to say about that. They wanted my sister to get her teaching license. It was all right for me to do a degree in English literature, as long as I did my education credits as well. They were, of course, from the Depression, and they wanted us to prepare for something that would be negotiable in terms of employment, should we ever need it. My parents put it this way: "Something to fall back on," and I knew what that meant. It meant if we failed to find a spouse, if we were, God help us, divorced or widowed, that we would have some way to earn a living.

You have painted some portraits of gentle, warm men in your novels, and you once speculated that perhaps it goes back to relationships that you had with your own father, and husband, and brother. Can you talk about that a little bit?

Carol Shields: I have to say I didn't know my father very well. He was a very remote figure. I don't think -- and this is a very sad thing -- I don't think I ever had a real conversation with him in my life, and I'm not quite sure why that happened. Was it I who didn't initiate that or make him feel at ease? I don't know. But certainly he was a gentleman.

Carol Shields Interview Photo
When you read about America as a land of guns, we never had a gun in our house. I never saw a gun at all growing up. My brother is an exceptionally gentle person. I mean, he was a regular brother growing up and used to, you know, liked to give us chops on the arm and wrestle us, but he grew up to be the most wonderful and gentle father of five children himself. I married someone -- we never know, see -- I married so young, that you don't quite realize, perhaps, how you end up with the person you do end up with. It's chance whether it's going to be a fit or not, and again, he is a man of great gentleness.

Were you a good student in school?

Carol Shields: Yes, I was one of those good students. I was not good in certain things; mathematics, for example, and I took the bare minimum that I could, and I would have done very badly if I had gone ahead in physics, I suppose. But I chose those things that I excelled in -- history, English, of course.

Were your parents still around when you published your first poetry?

Carol Shields: No, my mother had died just at the same time, so she didn't see that first publication. My father did, of course, and he also lived long enough to see some of the novels. I'm not sure he ever read them. I know he kept them, with great pride, on the coffee table, but he never said anything about the contents, and I knew enough not to probe. So that was fine with me. A lot of writers tell me this is true, that their own family doesn't really read their books.

Sometimes writers say things that may make people uncomfortable. They say things that are usually left unsaid. It can make the family members uncomfortable. Is that possible?

Carol Shields: Yes, I think so.

I think there's a kind of dialogue outside in that novel that has never taken place within the family. I would imagine that family members would read and say, "Oh, I can't believe this is my sister saying this." I suppose this is why I love novels, because novels are not just about what people do, but they're about what people think, and this is what, of course, we don't get in film either, the thinking mind, and perhaps this does make family members or friends uncomfortable. But on the other hand, I was always careful not to write about family or friends because I wanted them to remain my family and friends. I believe the old myth about people not wanting their photograph taken because it's a form of stealing their soul. I think there's something in that. So I always try to be very careful.

You know, I have frequently taught classes in creative writing, and it is one thing that every student I've ever had has worried about, and I'm talking about people who have no hope of ever publishing anything. They worry about the injury they might cause by writing about, and particularly their mothers, mothers always take a very hard knock in creative writing classes, and so you have to sort of counsel them to set those fears aside and to write without being throttled by them. And you can always go back and change details later. But it is, I am struck with what a common fear that is.

Isn't that probably just a fear of revealing oneself and one's feelings?

Carol Shields: I suppose, revealing one's darker self, the fact that we can have angers, and maybe particularly for women. But I think the fact of violating some of those orthodoxies, such as children must love and respect their parents. When you come down to situations of conflict with those same parents, we don't always like to admit that.

I've heard it said you have to write what you know, and you are saying that you deliberately avoid writing about your mother, father, brother. How can you not write about your family, in a sense?

Carol Shields: Of course we all draw on our own experiences when we write. There's nowhere else to draw from. But I think that for many of us we do not draw directly. This is the thing that's always hard to explain to people who do not write fiction, that it is not simply an account of life as we have seen it. It's an arm and leg of our experience perhaps, but then there is this whole other part of the recipe which is imaginative, the imagination, and that's the piece that's hard to explain. How do you get to that part? And you get to it -- I mean, a simple example, of course, is setting up one's own experience and then saying, "Well, what if..." that important "what if." What if something else intervenes? And that's where somehow you can get to a place which is quite fully imagined, rather than experienced.

How do you get the ideas for a novel? Do you develop a very clear idea of where you are going to go from start to finish before you begin, or are you developing it as you go?

Carol Shields: I develop as I go. I have a structure in mind, though. I always see the structure before I know what's going to be in the structure, and it's a very physical image that I can call up, just the way you would call up an image on your screen. For example, I'll just give you a simple example. It was this first novel I wrote, which is called Small Ceremonies. I couldn't imagine how you wrote a novel, how you kept track of all of these little pieces of it, and I thought, "I need some kind of a structure." So I took the academic year. The novel has nine chapters, and they are called "September, October, November," et cetera, very easy structure. And in my mind, those chapters looked like the cars of a freight train, and I just lined them up, nine of them, and I knew I would have to fill those freight cars, and that was the image, and it helped me keep things together a little bit. It was just for my own ease, I guess. But for each novel I've had rather a different structure, but it's been important for me to have that. But I don't know where it's going. I don't fully know the character of my main character when I start out. So that character opens for me exactly as it opens for the reader, piece by piece, layer by layer.

And you don't know the whole plot when you're starting?

Carol Shields: I don't know the whole plot. Sometimes I know where I want to get to, I just don't know how I'm going to get there, and this can be frightening for a writer. Although, after a point, you develop a certain faith in your process, and you know you'll hit those hard times, but you know somehow you're going to work it out as you go. Most writers do say that while they are in the state of writing a novel, or as Dorothy Parker used to say, "undergoing a novel," your antenna are up somehow. And so you are catching all sorts of things that you might not catch if you were not in the process of writing a novel, and some of these experiences seem to be uniquely offered to you. It's as though your whole world is suddenly available to you to use. So the problem is often too much material, not "not enough."

You've said that you're attracted to the idea of the unknowability of the other, and whether it's really possible to tell the story of someone's life. As you said in The Stone Diaries, in a sense, a story of somebody's life is a cheat, because it's so skewed.

Carol Shields: Yes. Yes. Well, that particular novel plays on this sort of problem of illusion and reality working against each other.

A human life, and this is the only plot I think I'm interested in, is this primordial plot of birth, love, work, decline and death. This is just life working away toward the end of life. What is the story of that life? Can we tell our own life story with any sort of truth at all? And of course, we know we can't. I mean, our life stories, whether we write them or not, are a tissue of evasions, or perhaps, enhancements. So that story that we carry around in our head, the story that we call our life, we can't know our birth and death, but we create them somehow, imaginatively. There are parts of our lives which we're quite happy to erase. There are other parts that we want to touch up just a little bit. So what we end -- it is a fiction. Our autobiography is a form of fiction.

So, in a way, fiction can be just as real, or even more real, than fact.

Carol Shields: I think it is, because, just to go back to what we're talking about earlier, fiction allows us into people's minds, and I suppose nine-tenths of our life is played out inside our heads, and that's the place we can never quite go. If you're writing a standard biography, for example, you can't get into that head. But with fiction, and I think this is why fiction has been such an appealing form since it burst on the scene in the 18th century, it was immediately the primary literary form. And I think it is because we had an entrée into people's most private domains.

It helps us feel less alone, doesn't it?

Carol Shields: Oh yes, it does. And this is what writers always want to get to, I think, to create those moments where the reader connects and says, "Ah ha. I have felt exactly like that, but I've never heard of anyone speaking of this."

What about yourself as a reader? When you were growing up, what books meant a lot to you?

Carol Shields: My life as a reader is very tightly bound up with my life as a writer. Sometimes I just can't pull them apart at all. And unlike some writers, who don't read while they're in the act of writing, I'm always reading. I always have to have print coming in to me. I read all over the place as a child, and I don't think I read a lot of the books I should have read. I don't know why my mother didn't get better books for us. I missed Alice in Wonderland, for example. She read The Bobbsey Twins to us, sort of trash stuff, but I loved them. And I should say I loved Dick and Jane too, especially Jane with her nice, clean white socks. I thought she was such a nice little girl. I didn't quite believe, perhaps, in the perfection of her life, but it wasn't that far from my own life. And Dick, what a wonderful big brother he was. So those books were, you know, I read a lot into them I think. One of the first books, when I was allowed into the adult section of the library -- and I had to be careful because the librarian knew my mother, so it wasn't as easy as you might think -- was a book called A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. I read it at 13. It was a sensational book in those days. Well after that, I never went back to the kids' section. I was reading adult novels. I remember what a surprise it was to come upon Willa Cather, and I think I just came upon her without knowing who she was and what she represented. But I thought, "Good heavens! This is a woman's voice," and it's a strong voice, and I remember being surprised. And I did read Jane Austen as a teenager. I read those books as love stories and not much else. That was all they were to me then. Now I've become a Jane Austen scholar, and it was only in my 50s that I realized how funny those books were. I had no appreciation of that. But I always try to get back to the way I read as a teenager, because it's the most extraordinary thing that you are actually bound to the books that you read, in the same way teenagers I think are bound to the music they listen to. Somehow you never quite get that back again in all of that pure force.

There's a passion in reading at that age.

Carol Shields: I remember one of my daughters finishing Jane Eyre. She must have been 16. And she had just finished it, and she came breathlessly and said to me, "Are there any more books like this?" and I had to say, "No, there's no other book like that."

What about these days? What do you like to read?

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Carol Shields: I read some nonfiction now, oddly enough, but I do read a lot of fiction. Some of the British writers have been very important to me: Iris Murdoch, Muriel Spark, A.S. Byatt, V.S. Naipaul. Even though he's a terrible misogynist, I still think he's a wonderful writer. Martin Amis, for style. I love John Updike, and I always feel I've kind of grown old along with John Updike, not that he knows this. I love his work. There's an American, Jane Hamilton, I think is an interesting writer. By the way, she went to the same high school I did. There's a writer called Laurie Moore that I like very much, and I like her because there aren't a lot of women who write in a -- and she's not a comic writer at all. I don't want to say that, but she has a comic sense. It's rather a dark sense, but I think she's quite an extraordinary writer. I like Anne Tyler. I've just read her latest book and reviewed it, and I think she's often not treated as seriously as I think she should be.

You've mentioned Updike in other interviews, that you're attracted to the fact that he writes about domestic life. He once said that he felt like he was getting away with murder when his first book was published. I guess nobody's perfect

Carol Shields: You know, nobody is. I suppose out of every hour each of us suffers a moment of losing it all, of sort of knowing who we are and what we can do, what we're allowed to do.

What about self-doubts? Did you ever feel frustrated enough to want to just stop?

Carol Shields: No. I think I never did. I mean, some of my books have not been as well received as others. Of course, a creative life doesn't work quite as simply as some people think, where you always are topping yourself with each book and then you, at the end, you write the masterpiece. It doesn't. Often you write the masterpiece somewhere, you know, at the beginning or in the middle or somewhere else, and the books are all over the place because they are coming out of where you are at that time in your life. So I suppose there are times when you are happier with your writing than with other times where you seem to be reaching further, maybe repeating yourself. All writers worry about those kinds of things.

You've said that when you first switched to a computer you began to write too much. Can you talk about that?

Carol Shields: Yes. I switched to a computer rather later than most writers, in the late '80s, and I was in the middle of a book called The Republic of Love, and the first section, the first half is quite economically written. The second half, where I had got my beautiful little Macintosh was suddenly bloated, and anyone who has gone into a word processor knows how easy this is. This happens. You just throw in another clause, and while you're at it, why not another paragraph or another page. So I had a very tactful editor in New York, and she actually took out from the second half of the book 125 pages, which is a lot. And I had never had, I had never been edited in that way before, but it was absolutely necessary.

You weren't offended by that?

Carol Shields: Oh, no. I think writers should never stop demanding rigorous editing, and I was -- and she did it beautifully, with such tact. She just closed off the little sections she took out, so I didn't have to do it. I think it would have been very hard for me to do it, but it was absolutely necessary, major surgery.

Have there been some difficult times that really did make you question yourself along the way?

Carol Shields: Sure, there have been difficult times.

When my first two novels -- even the first four novels -- were published, they were reviewed very much as "women's books," "domestic novels," as though we don't all have a domestic life. I think the secret is out, we all do. I think probably they were marginalized somewhat. Now, did I mind? Probably not a great deal. I always had a sense of where things really -- where important centers were located. I suppose I also realized this is the only kind of novel that I can write. I wrote a novel called Swann in 1987, which is very much a departure from those first four novels in every way, in form, style, in a kind of a -- with a post-modern ornamentation. I was very fearful about the reception of that novel, that some people would say, "Why doesn't she write the way she used to write?" At the same time, I had an exhilarating sense that the novel could be opened up, that it was a much more expansive, elastic form than I had previously thought, and that I could do anything with this novel. I could even have, as my final section of that novel, a film script. Now I have to say my publishers were -- they tried very hard to dissuade me from these more eccentric parts of the novel. But for some reason, and maybe this is because it was a fifth novel, I felt I could insist on doing it the way I wanted to do it. But I was frightened.

When it was published, how did you feel about it? Did you feel you had made the right decisions?

Carol Shields: Absolutely, yes. I made the right decision there.

I felt inordinately brave at that time in my life; I have no idea why. But I guess I felt I could set my own limits. People are always talking about "the novel is dead," and I think what they're really saying is the old novel form, as we once knew it, is dead, and we have to make these new forms or we have to usurp those older forms. And Swann is a kind of usurping of the detective novel, sort of bringing a torque to those old forms that we grew up with, the way we used to diagram it on the blackboard, that line of ascending action and then you would have the climax, and the denouement. There was one day when I was drawing that diagram on the blackboard, and it looked to me like nothing more than a bad coat hanger, and it was no more use to me anymore. And I abandoned that as a structure for the novels that I wanted to write.

It took a lot of guts to do that.

Carol Shields: Well, sort of stupid guts. I wasn't quite sure of where I was going, but I knew that that wasn't going to be the kind of novel that I could write again.

What effect do you think your experience as a poet had on your novels?

Carol Shields: I don't know.

I loved being a poet. It was a very happy writing time in my life, and I think partly because a poem is such a small thing. I always think of it as a kind of toy. You can get it almost right, and you can never get a novel almost right because a novel is just too big. There are just too many little parts to it, too many twigs and leaflets. But a poem you can get just about right. And it was a very happy writing time in my life, so that I never think of it now as apprenticeship for novel writing. It was a whole different way of wanting to express myself. I would like to think I could go back to it one day, but I seem to have forgotten my way into a poem. I can't do it any more.

There's certainly great poetry to the language in your novels. The language is extremely poetic.

Carol Shields: I love language, and I think I come out writing novels from that direction rather than from what Nabokov used to call the "aboutness" of novels. That's interesting to me too. But the language is always first.

Tell us about the success of The Stone Diaries. That was quite a leap. You had already enjoyed some success in Canada and elsewhere, but that novel really made you a well-known name.

Carol Shields: Yes.

I had a small, very small -- growing, you know, very small degrees -- audience. But this novel, its success surprised me, because it's rather a sad novel. I thought, "It will find an audience," but I didn't think it would find an audience as large, in fact, as it did. It's also a rather quiet novel. And so in a day when we applaud the novel of action and so on, I thought it's not going to -- it won't have a huge audience. Why it does, I don't know. I think part of it is that people -- I can't tell you how many letters I've had from people who have said, "This is my mother," or "This is my grandmother," or "This is me." We don't have many novels, you know, about middle-class women, and who reads novels? Middle-class women read novels, a lot of them. But there aren't very many novels that actually track the life of a middle-class woman with all of the problems that women have had in this century: the lack of voice, the lack of choices -- and then on the other side of the ledger, the joy of friendships with other women, which is something I've always been interested in writing about, right from the beginning -- the fact of not making the public record, of not being recognized even in one's family or community as a unique human being. So I think those are some of the things that maybe people found in the novel.

How did you find out that you had won the Pulitzer Prize?

Carol Shields: I was in Minneapolis for the day, having lunch at the Canadian consulate, when my editor phoned from New York. They called me to the phone, and she said, "I think you had better sit down," and I thought she was going to tell me she was going to have another baby, because she was in the midst of this period of her life. So she told me the good news, and it came as a surprise because -- and you may know this -- that the short list isn't published for that prize. I had no idea I was on it. There was a period of disbelief, of course. I kept waking up in the middle of the night thinking, "Oh, they're going to tell me tomorrow that it should have gone to Joyce Carol Oates after all."

How did you feel when you got that?

Carol Shields: Well, that sense of unreality, and also the sense, "I want to go straight home." I didn't like being somewhere else. It's sort of a lot to carry around with you. I wasn't sure what it meant either, in this happy state of ignorance; that it would mean, in fact, a huge new audience. I didn't expect that that would happen, and that came as a surprise.

In some ways, you said that it was a distraction, all of the attention, and the interviews, and so forth.

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Carol Shields: Sure. A prize like that brings certain distractions. But I suppose I am fortunate in that I don't live in a major literary center, and also that I am of an age where most of the patterns of my life have been set. So I have my own life structures. So nothing is going to change that much in my own life. You know, more mail, more phone calls, more invitations, but, basically, I still live in the same house. I have the same friends. I am still married to the same man. My working patterns are pretty much the same.

Was it hard to write another novel after that?

Carol Shields: No, it wasn't. A lot of people have asked me that, if I felt this sense of responsibility to live up to that prize. No, I didn't. I knew it would be a different kind of novel. It was going to be about something very different. Again, I had a different structure for it in my mind. I was interested in men. You might ask why does a feminist want to write about a man, but men are half of life, and I was interested in where men are today, how men feel about being men. In fact, that whole definition of masculinity, what does that mean? So I was on to all of these new areas of interest. I guess I put The Stone Diaries behind me.

That sounds very healthy.

Carol Shields: Yeah. And it didn't come along. It was four years later, actually, it came along. So that's plenty of time to decompress and begin again.

When there are negative reviews or when you're sort of dismissed as a "woman's writer" or something, are you stung by that kind of criticism? Do you take it in, or do you push it away?

Carol Shields: I take it in.

I read my reviews. I'm very strict with myself. I read them twice and then I put them away. I never look at them again. Because if they're bad, they can make you go crazy. If they're good, they'll make you big-headed and give you false ideas of your powers. So I don't pay as much attention, perhaps, as I did when I was a beginning writer. And I review books, so I understand perfectly well that not everyone is going to like my books. I don't like half the books I pick up. So I suppose I'm fairly sanguine about them. There was one with The Stone Diaries that I find difficult to forgive, and it was a Canadian review, typical Canadian response, "This book is too ambitious." Now this is the kind of thing writers should not be subjected to. So I was rather unforgiving about that one. Other than that, I think reviewers have a right and even a responsibility to go off with their own highly subjective points of view.

Are you saying, in a way, that Canadians tend to be self-effacing?

Carol Shields: Oh, yes. We don't want people to be too ambitious. We're a country -- I have a friend who calls us the one country in the world that no one asks out on a second date, which has a bit of truth to it. But along with this national modesty, goes this other self-effacement side. We don't have heroes in the same way, for example, and I think some of those important cultural differences are reflected in our literature and our response to literature.

Where do you live now?

Carol Shields: I live in Winnipeg, in the center of Canada.

It's very interesting your relationship to countries, because you have dual citizenship. Isn't that right?

Carol Shields: Yes, I do.

Didn't you live in France for a while too?

Carol Shields: Yes. I've lived in England, then France at various times in my life.

Do you think that having that very intimate knowledge of both countries has influenced your writing?

Carol Shields Interview Photo
Carol Shields: I think it has to. I had an American childhood, and I had an American education, at least my undergraduate education. I live in a different country now. It's taken me years to understand in which ways it is different. I scarcely noticed at first. It's a very simple immigration. But, nevertheless, there's about a million pieces of information you have to re-cover if you are going to live in another country. So all of those things interest me -- cultural background. I've never had a strong sense of nationalism. I've always been a bit ironic when it comes to flag waving, and so that's allowed me, I think, to move fairly easily from one society to another.

So the self-effacing quality in Canada would seem to be sort of a deterrent to writers. I know there are some great Canadian novelists, but not a lot.

Carol Shields: Yes. Well, for many years in Canada, and this happened in Australia, New Zealand, other parts of the old Commonwealth, writers always felt that they were at a disadvantage in that they would have to -- you know, we had one writer in the '40s and '50s and he always set his -- he lived in Toronto, but he set his novels in Chicago, because we felt we had to. We were truly colonized culturally. But we don't have to do that any more. When I wrote The Republic of Love, which was set in Winnipeg, I was worried about how my New York editor was going to respond to this. I thought she was going to say, "Good heavens! You can't set a novel in Winnipeg," and I was all prepared for that, and I was going to say, "If Anne Tyler can write about Baltimore, then I can write about Winnipeg." But she never asked that question.

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.

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.

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.

So many of us loved being read to as children. Do you remember that?

Carol Shields: Yes. Sure, even when you could read. Yes, my older two children, as soon as they could read themselves, they wanted to read themselves, but the younger ones didn't. With the very youngest, I remember we would read books, she would read a page, and I would read a page, and that was very nice to do, and it took her right up into her teens. So it was very comfortable. I remember reading my daughter, Meg, Anne of Green Gables. You know, if you have read this, you know there are parts of it that are very saccharine. I kept cutting out little lengthy descriptions just as I read. It was sort of an instant editing, although that book has been very meaningful for -- I guess for all of my daughters and for my mother.

Not a big favorite with fathers and sons.

Carol Shields: No. No. I wouldn't think it would be. Not many men can identify with Gilbert Blythe (in Anne of Green Gables) or even Jo March (in Little Women), which I always think is curious. A lot of -- almost all -- women know who Jo March is, but hardly any men.

Carol Shields Interview Photo
That's quite a beautiful book. In The Stone Diaries you say, "It is a wonder really that we keep faith with the simple container of our existence." Could you talk a little bit about that?

Carol Shields: I'm always caught by this question of, did I think Daisy Goodwill was a heroine or not. What was heroic in her life? I've said in another place in this novel that what she did was she got through 10,000 ordinary days. I think there is a kind of heroism in keeping ourselves sane with this life that we have been handed, the life we inherited, putting up with it, getting through it on a day-to-day -- never mind the major crises that come along -- the small boredoms, the small frustrations. And I suppose this is what I mean here by keeping faith with that, that it's all a worthwhile enterprise in the end, though it seldom seems so when we're close up to it.

A famous psychologist wrote that the crazy person in the family is the one who tells the truth. Life is very difficult; it's a wonder that we hold it together.

Carol Shields: Yes, it is a wonder. It's a wonder how few suicides there actually are, I often think, or cases of severe depression, when there is so much in our life that doesn't find response anywhere. Yes.

How would you explain to someone who has never written what makes it so exciting to you, why it compels you?

Carol Shields: I always have trouble with this because I always try to get students to rewrite their work, and they never want to. It's in the rewriting where I find the exhilarating part of the whole enterprise. The writing itself, the first draft, the sort of hacking at the stone wall, seems to me to be such a difficult piece of work that it's hard to see where pleasure comes into this process. But once something is on the page and you start moving it around, changing words, moving sentences -- I love sentences, by the way. This is why I'm a writer. I love to make sentences. I even love punctuation. I once sent a whole class to sleep by talking about the semicolon for three-quarters of an hour. I love all of this stuff that we are given, this little handful of equipment and raw materials. So it is a joyous expression when you see something come together at last, and then the next day you look at it and you realize you haven't done it at all, and then you do it again, and that's even better when you -- so you get closer and closer to what you really want to say, to what you really mean. You never get right at it, and I think you have to accept that as a writer, that, you know, what we call "the golden book in our head" is not going to make it to the page completely. But we can keep getting closer and closer, and I find this exhilarating. And I'm not a very patient person, but with this one aspect of my life, I have enormous patience.

The patience that you will get closer?

Carol Shields: That I'll get closer, if I only keep working on it.

Well, it's good news to your readers that you're going to keep working on it. Thank you very much.

Carol Shields: Thank you.

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