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A Likely Story
A conversation with Carol Shields, the best-selling novelist and the author of The Atlantic's January short story

January 14, 1999

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  Carol Shields

"When we say a thing or an event is real, never mind how suspect it sounds, we honor it," Carol Shields writes in her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Stone Diaries (1995). "But when a thing is made up -- regardless of how true and just it seems -- we turn up our noses." By creating characters that her readers can identify with, however, Shields has managed to make her fictions appealingly true to life. Such verisimilitude has made for a loyal readership -- The Stone Diaries, with more than 700,000 copies in print, spent thirty-nine weeks on The New York Times paperback-bestseller list. Shields's most recent novel, Larry's Party, the winner of the 1998 Orange Prize for Fiction, examines the fictional life of Larry Weller, a professional maze-maker navigating the twists and turns of his own existence; since the novel's publication, Shields says, there are suddenly more men at her readings, claiming to have seen themselves reflected in the book.

To the American public, Shields is perhaps best known as a novelist and writer of short fiction (her story, "The Next Best Kiss," appears in the January Atlantic), but to her fellow Canadians she also has a reputation as a playwright, a poet, a critic, and a teacher. Her plays include Departures and Arrivals (1988) and Thirteen Hands (1993); her poetry collections include Others (1972) and Intersect (1974); and her numerous novels and short-story collections include The Republic of Love (1992), The Orange Fish (1989), The Box Garden (1977), and Small Ceremonies (1976). She has garnered copious literary prizes during her career. A native of Oak Park, Illinois, Shields moved to Canada forty years ago, studying and then teaching at the University of Ottawa, the University of British Columbia, and the University of Manitoba. In 1996 Shields was named Chancellor of the University of Winnipeg. The mother of five grown children, she currently lives with her husband in Manitoba.

Shields spoke recently with Atlantic Unbound's Katie Bolick.

Discuss this interview in the Arts & Literature conference of Post & Riposte.

Previously in Facts & Fiction:

Peter Ho Davies ("Today is Sunday," December, 1998)

Richard Bausch ("Par," August, 1998)

Colum McCann ("Everything in This Country Must," July, 1998)

Elizabeth Stuckey-French ("Electric Wizard," June, 1998)

Chitra Divakaruni ("Mrs. Dutta Writes a Letter," April, 1998)

Francine Prose ("The Lunatic, the Lover, and the Poet," March, 1998)

Lee K. Abbott ("Everything, All at Once," February, 1998)

E. Annie Proulx ("The Half-Skinned Steer," November, 1997)

Garrison Keillor ("Talk Radio," October, 1997)

Tess Gallagher ("The Poetry Baron," July, 1997)

Larry Heinemann ("The Fragging," June, 1997)

Cynthia Ozick ("Puttermesser in Paradise," May, 1997)

More Facts & Fiction interviews in Atlantic Unbound.

Character Sketch
Winnipeg, Manitoba.

M.A. in Literature, University of Ottawa.


First Publication
A book of poetry, Other, 1972.

Last Book Read
Le Divorce,by Diana Johnson.

Writing Habits
"A couple of pages every day. If I had to do three pages, I probably wouldn't get out of bed in the morning."

Advice to Writers
"I learned to write by reading, and by paying attention to the way language works. Also, when you write a book you should write the book that you can't find -- the one that's not on the shelf in the bookstore."

I believe you started out writing poetry. How did you move into writing novels?

There was a very happy period of about five years in my early thirties when I was absolutely consumed by poetry. It seems to have been another incarnation. I published two books of poetry, and then I set it aside. I lost my way somehow, or my judgment -- I forgot how to get into a poem. And every time I had an idea I would think, I could use this in a novel. I wanted to write a novel because I loved to read novels. And because I couldn't seem to find novels about the kind of women that I knew, I decided I wanted to write them myself. But these days I'm back into poetry in a way, because my youngest daughter, Sara Shields Cassidy, has just published her first book of poems.

In a review of The Stone Diaries, Kirkus Reviews described you as "a miniaturist [who] has come full bloom." Do you agree with this observation? How do you account for it?

I don't know what they mean by "miniaturist," exactly, but I think it's a subtle put-down, like calling someone "Jane Austen-esque." It means that whoever is being talked about isn't very good, or hasn't attempted very much. You never hear about men being called miniaturists, but you certainly hear it about women. The Stone Diaries has historical sweep, so I suppose that's why they think I've "come full bloom." But I don't look at novels that way. I look at them in terms of "thickness" or "thinness" -- not in terms of length, but as in thickly layered and detailed. I've written very thick novels.

stonebk picture Was The Stone Diaries the first historical book you wrote?

It was the first time I covered a whole century. I think my age had to do with why I wrote it. At a certain age -- fifty, or so -- you can look both forward and backward. I was interested in discovering, as we come to the end of a century, where these past hundred years have delivered us.

The Stone Diaries is a "fictional autobiography" of the life of Daisy Goodwill, told in many voices: Daisy's own, her family's, and that of an omniscient narrator. Why did you choose this approach?

My plan as I set out to write that book was to filter all of the voices through Daisy's consciousness. Every narrative is either what she hears people saying or what she imagines people are saying, so in a sense it's not a great choir of voices. It's her interpretation of her own life. We're just a bundle of impressions of other people, after all. This made for tricky writing, actually. I had to keep reminding myself that everything came through her.

What do you see as the role of fiction in our understanding of our own lives?

Like most fiction writers, I think the truth is in our fiction. More and more I think that the novels that have some weight in our reading lives are those about individuals who have been misplaced, or misassigned, and are searching for their real home. That's the novel I'm interested in writing: the arc of the human life.

You bring biographical concerns to the lives of your characters. Have you ever written a biography?

Biography is my consuming passion. I have never written a real biography, though, until now -- I'm writing a short biography of Jane Austen, for James Atlas's series of biographies about writers written by writers. The idea is to keep them short and personal, about 40,000 to 50,000 words, like the old New Yorker profiles. When they offered me Jane Austen I couldn't say no.

Many writers don't agree with the practice, employed in interviews such as this one, of putting writers' lives ahead of their work. Judith Gill, on the other hand, the biographer in your novel Small Ceremonies who spent her time "painfully abstracting the personality" of her subject from her writing, was surprised that anyone would "deliberately set out to purify prose by obliterating the personality that had shaped it." Where do you fall?

When I went to university in the 1950s we studied a theory called the New Criticism. It lasted about fifteen years. We were taught to look at only the text, and to not get involved in who the writer was, and how that corresponded to the writing. There was even a period where author photos weren't published on the backs of books. I think the New Criticism failed because there's always a presence behind a novel, and you can never forget that presence. We need to know the connection between the words and the person who makes them up.

Although some of your characters are quite complicated, such as the academics in "The Next Best Kiss" (January, Atlantic), you are known for writing about "ordinary" people. Why do you think this is?

I have never known what "ordinary" people means! I don't think I quite believe in the concept. I don't know what the contrary of ordinary people would be. Heroic people? I'm not interested in writing about heroic people or powerful people or rich people or movie stars, although I believe those people probably have quite ordinary moments in their lives. There's no one who isn't complicated, who doesn't have areas of cowardice or courage, who isn't incapable of some things and capable of great acts. I think everyone has that capability. Either we're all ordinary or else none of us is ordinary.

larrybk picture Your most recent novel, Larry's Party, chronicles the life of Larry Weller from his mid-twenties to middle-age. You have said that one of the difficulties you found writing from a man's point of view was "getting into that male body." How did you go about imagining the male experience? Were there particular writers you read for research?

I'm a woman of a certain age -- and we know everything, or almost everything, about men already! I've lived with men all my life. I didn't go out and do any systematic research. I did talk to a few men, though, about what it's like to be a man at the end of the century.

Writing from a man's point of view was difficult, because I knew I was always going to fail at some level. I couldn't really get into that male body. I could get right up next to it, but I couldn't quite understand the way in which the synapses of the male mind connect. For instance, I think that men, on the whole, tend to compartmentalize their lives more than women. I knew that before I started to write the book, but the more I thought about it the more I believed it.

How have men reacted?

It has been very interesting. I certainly seem to have more male readers suddenly. A lot of men said they recognized themselves. I think that's because I didn't write about a heroic man. I've never believed in that male myth. It's a kind of act I don't quite buy. I wanted to write about a man who wasn't heroic, but who was good. A man who had some sense of wanting to be good.

I'm interested in this idea of goodness. Why do people try to be good? What is that all about? What is it for?

As the title Larry's Party suggests, both the novel and its dramatic tension culminate in a party. What inspired you to use the party as a literary tool?

There are parties in all my novels. I didn't know that until I read a review, and then I realized it was true. It's a very primitive instinct for people to come together and share food and surroundings. The idea of the party goes right back to Greek drama, where there's a banquet in which enemies are reunited and reconciled. That doesn't happen at Larry's party, but he does bring the various pieces of his life together.

You write often about family life and relationships. Has the critical reception of the "domestic" in literature changed over the course of your career?

Yes, I think it has. These days I think we know that everyone has a domestic life. But when we talked about the domestic novel in the 1970s we meant that thing about it being "miniaturist." Women were considered very trivial when they wrote them. It amazes me now that when men write domestic novels today they're considered very sensitive.

What comes next?

A book of short stories, then the Jane Austen biography.

Discuss this interview in the Arts & Literature conference of Post & Riposte.

More Facts & Fiction interviews in Atlantic Unbound.

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Shields photo © Neil Graham.

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