Facts & Fiction

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

The Atlantic's January short story

January 14, 1999

shielpic picture

  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, (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, 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.