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(Achives 2002) Interview with Carol Sheilds  by Irene D'Souza
(Achives 2002) Interview with Carol Sheilds

Despite the strides made by women during the last century, many female authors continue to face inordinate odds getting their work written and published. They may still be searching for 'a room of one's own.'

Carol Shields managed to defy those odds, with a literary career that has soared from a small university press in Ottawa to Random House Canada/Vintage Canada.

Now 66, it seems remarkable that Shields' first book wasn't published until she was 40. But her love affair with words and sentences began many years earlier in Oak Park, Illinois, the childhood home of Ernest Hemingway.

Her mother was a teacher and her father was a manager in a candy factory. Shields' earliest childhood memories revolve around books and writing; visiting the library was a family ritual. She was 'the literary girl' who always wanted to be a poet and a writer. She recalls thinking that writers were "exotic creatures" and that she felt presumptuous even thinking that she might one day join their exalted circle.

"I was a middle class American girl whose future was rather predictable: get married, have children and never think, beyond the moment, of what else I might do," she recalls.

She received a Bachelor of Arts (major in English) from Hanover College in 1957 and a few months later, at 22, she married Donald Shields. "I was always writing and then suddenly I was married and had children and did not do much in my 20s. Being a writer was as unrealistic as being a movie star. I would never have told anyone I wanted to be a writer."

The next dozen years were focussed on raising the couple's five children-four daughters and a son. Still, Shields spent many of her waking hours reading and writing. Her children recall that their mother was always typing.

"Very gradually, after the children began school, two of my books were published by a local press. It was very encouraging for me. And then I wanted to write a novel about women who were intelligent and loyal. This was the 70s, during the women's movement, women were leaving home and not having children . . .. In a way, I wrote the book I always wanted to read (Small Ceremonies, 1976, followed by The Box Garden) but could not find." Happenstance was published after the family moved to Winnipeg.

"I wrote in moments when I was alone and the first publication gave me permission to be a writer." Giving oneself permission to be a writer is difficult for many women, says Shields. "Getting in print is more important for a woman because women always have to give excuses about why they are writing-in other words, stealing time away from their families."

Once Shields gave herself permission, there was no turning back. She became a prolific writer of poetry, short stories, novels, plays, biography and criticism. (In the mid 1980's, there was a stint as Herizons' fiction editor.) In 1995, almost 20 years after her first book was published, Shields became a part of that exalted rank-a world-renowned author and winner of the Pulitzer Prize and Governor General's Award.

A tenacious and original writer, Shields' novels inspire normally reserved reviewers to wax poetic. "The Stone Diaries reminds us again why literature matters," said the New York Times Review of Books. To which Shields responds, "They are just reaching for phrases."

It's tempting to conclude that the author is protesting too much. But over herbal tea, ensconced in an enclosed balcony with a view of the Assiniboine River from her apartment on Winnipeg's Wellington Crescent, Shields does not put on airs. She is gentle with her fans. (A few months ago, I ran into Shields at the Manitoba Club and greeted her as I would an old friend. She responded by gently picking up the papers and tapes that I had knocked over in my enthusiasm!)

In conversation, Carol Shields is witty, ironic and gracious. Before her recent move to Victoria, she said of her home for the last 20 years, "I will miss [Winnipeg] because I love it. I love going downtown or to the airport because I inevitably meet someone I know. I realize some people do not appreciate this. I do." What she is referring to is the fact that while the rest of the world has six degrees of separation, there are three at the very most in Winnipeg. Fay McLeod, Shields' heroine in The Republic of Love, describes the phenomenon of constantly running into people one knows-much to the chagrin of her boyfriend.

Shields' novels are discoveries of the extraordinary in the ordinary. Her characters' inner lives and psychic unrest are analyzed and revealed, making Shields a keen social observer not unlike one of her favourite authors, Jane Austen.

"Domestic details are natural and second nature. Almost everyone I know loves to set a table. I have never read in a novel about anyone setting a table and the particular pleasure of doing that-a domestic detail, it is an offering and I feel these ceremonies are significant."

Yet when it comes to the detail of her own literary success, Shields appears to downplay its significance. "I don't think of myself as a writer-I always shuffle my feet when I say it-it is almost to invite the gods to come and take it away from me."

Shields' average day consists of responding to letters, followed by writing at least two pages. Her advice to aspiring authors is simple.

"Do not watch television for a year, read good books and write a page every day." Shields says that her own writing has become bolder in recent years. "I was always convinced that women's lives were interesting, never doubted that, even though everything told me that was not true when I began to write. I thought that if women's lives were interesting to me they must be to a lot of other people. I am interested in gender, and the creative life and folklore and stories that women tell. I am interested in the idea of goodness."

Plunging into the preoccupations of her protagonists, Shields provides detailed glimpses into the lives of women through the places and myths that speak to them. She brings forth the idea that women live in a separate caste that is intertwined with the dominant and indestructible world around them. She maintains that people constantly reinvent themselves in their everyday lives.

"We make conscious choices about how we go out into the world every single day. In our modern times we use cell phones as accessories," she observes. When asked if there is a character that epitomizes Carol Shields, she replies, "I could have easily been Daisy Flett (of The Stone Diaries), who, though she did not catch hold of her own life, still has her own story."

What about a favourite among her characters? "I have always had great sympathy for a woman called Rose Hindmarch (Swann), a librarian who is both naïve and knowing, unsubtled about her gender and value in her world. Yet, I see her as a person who has real value-her ability to take hold. I feel very friendly towards her."

The true delight of Shields' novels is the idea that women's lives have value-whether they are setting a dinner table or exploring complex mythologies. Shields also expands the reader's grasp of the complexities of life through her male characters. Larry's Party asked, 'What is it like to be a man in the second half of the twentieth century?'

"It was not a political decision," she says of the choice of a male protagonist. "I was curious about where men were. Suddenly men had subtractions toward their sense of entitlement." Her story "Eros," tells of a man's relationship to his lover's breasts: "Benjamin adored those breasts, 'You'd think they'd squeak when the nipple goes up,' he said with wonder. He toyed with them, sucked them, gnawed gently at the tender breast skin."

After a mastectomy as a result of breast cancer, the character Ann, in turn, worried "that he would not find her beautiful at this moment, with her battleground of her chest, that slicing breast scar and the curious new cords of hard tissue that join her shoulder and arm."

Shields' own diagnosis with breast cancer in 1998 has altered her life in unexpected ways. "It took me about a month to realize that something had invaded my body. I realize [now] that arrangements are tentative and fragile and that I cannot take the next day for granted."

The support of others helped her make the transition into a person who is living with cancer. "It is very important to form a community so you don't feel alone in your sorrow. Living in London and being involved in a group gave me the realization that all the information and experience is valuable. There are up and down periods. My group did not know me as a writer, which made it all the more beneficial. I also think that women should continue to be interested in other pieces of the world."

Reading novels during chemotherapy was a way for her to stay connected. "I wanted to read novels about people I could love and feel a sense of kinship with, and funny novels," she explains. "Life is rich in comedy." Soon she was writing again, "...the familiar and comforting routine of putting words to paper."

Her monograph on Jane Austen was published last summer and her readers look forward to an upcoming novel about writers. She continues to review books for The New York Times Review of Books, The Globe and Mail, The Washington Post and The Telegraph.

"Fiction lets us know what people think. I want to know what people think." Shields describes the difference that cancer has had on her writing as "the rogue factor: the surprise of the unexpected which comes at you and you have to accommodate it. "There might not be happy endings that are an indulgence of the past," says Shields. "I believe in happy middles."